Know your enemy in XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s multiplayer

Your enemy in XCOM: Enemy Unknown may not be as unknown as you think. In fact you could know them very well indeed and knowing is half the battle, so the more you know the better. Y'know?

With two months of tweaks and polishing until its release I figured there was little left to surprise us about XCOM: Enemy Unknown. From what we’ve seen it’s shaping up to be a real treat that is very much its own beast yet remains faithful to the classic XCOM games of yore. You shoot down UFOs, secure the crash sites by murdering or capturing any survivors of the crash, then scavenge all their stuff for the eggheads back at the lab to poke at with sticks. What else would you want from an XCOM game? How about a little 1-on-1 against real, devious human opponents.

According to Firaxis’ Jake Solomon, speaking to Eurogamer, multiplayer for XCOM had been planned since the very beginning of the game’s development around 4 years ago. “I don’t know that from the very beginning we knew exactly what multiplayer was going to be,” he said, but it was something I absolutely wanted.” Supposedly the biggest inspiration behind this idea was a fan-made mod for the original UFO/XCOM called UFO2000, which allows XCOM fans to control an army of aliens without all the hassle of training a bunch of psychic XCOM soldiers beforehand.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s multiplayer will reportedly be turn-based with a customiseable time limit for each player’s turn. So whereas in the single player game you can spend ages pondering your next act of strategy so brilliant it’d put Sun Tzu’s ghost to shame, such slowness will only get your forces killed in multiplayer. Thankfully this also means your opponent can’t faff around making a cup of tea, doing the dishes or generally wasting your time, in the hopes you’ll get bored and concede them a cheap victory. As well as private grudge matches between friends and casual games against strangers online you’ll also be able to play in ranked matches with leaderboards and other such competitive tomfoolery.

So how does it all work when the aliens are inherently more advanced than XCOM in the main game? Pretty simply actually. For a start you have access to all the units in the game with which to build an army before each match. You do this using a points-buy system familiar to anyone that’s spent any time drybrushing small metal figurines to purchase and upgrade individual units. The more dangerous and deadly a unit is the more points you have to fork out from your dwindling pool, which can also be tweaked before battle for smaller or larger armies on each side. You can choose to invest in a tiny band of super-duper elite units that cost a quarter of your points each, a horde (if a maximum of six constitutes a horde) of cheap disposable cannon fodder, or a more balanced composition better able to adapt to changing circumstances on the battlefield.

Basing unit selection on a points value system also supposedly makes it easy for Firaxis to tweak multiplayer balance, something that’s always been a thorny problem to deal with in multiplayer strategy games. In other games something as trivial as a 0.0025% change to a single unit’s stats can have a ripple effect, suddenly rendering well-used strategies useless or unintentionally nerfing other units. Firaxis’ rather elegant and simple solution to unit balance in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is to tweak the points value of individual units. Mutons performing a little too-well? Up their individual points value a bit and boom, instant balance. At least that’s the theory. It works well enough in tabletop war games but even Warhammer units get stat and ability changes.

Prick up your ears and listen for a minute and you may just hear a dull, irritating whine at the edge of your perception. That’s a bunch of so-called XCOM fans complaining, to the mute indifference of the uncaring stars above, that multiplayer in XCOM:Enemy Unknown is “unnecessary” or some such rot. Completely oblivious of course to the fact multiplayer has been in XCOM’s DNA ever since its ancient ancestor Rebelstar first crawled out of the primordial gaming ooze.

“What’s Rebelstar?” I hear you ask. Tsk tsk, and you call yourself an XCOM fan? It was only the first turn-based strategy game made by the Gollop brothers – creators of the original UFO/XCOM – to feature Time Units (called “Action Points” back then), individual unit stats, troop morale and many other gameplay elements XCOM fans know and love to this day. Both Rebelstar and its sequel Rebelstar II let two players to go head to head with one controlling the titular Rebelstar Raiders, the other playing as rogue androids (Rebelstar) or xenomorph-inspired aliens (Rebelstar 2). The Gollops also made the classic Laser Squad that also – shock horror – allowed two players to duke it out. Basically the original UFO/XCOM was actually something of an anomaly.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown may have done away with strict time units in favour of a move/action system, added some fancy kill animations and other bells and whistles, but by adding multiplayer it actually hearkens back to classic Gollop Brothers strategy games like the aforementioned Laser Squad and Rebelstar, Chaos and Lords of Chaos. As for whether its necessary, worth it or even wanted just look at the popularity of UFO2000 or watch a Let’s Play of XCOM/UFO with multiplayer, made possible thanks to XcomUtil.

Personally I’m rather excited to be able to play an online strategy game that doesn’t require frantic mouse clicking to maintain your APM. My only gripe is there doesn’t appear to be any restrictions on what units, XCOM or Alien, a player can choose. Perhaps I’m just set in my ways but Sectoids, Mutons and other alien filth fighting shoulder to shoulder with clean, wholesome XCOM soldiers just seems wrong somehow. God made Captain Krenon and Joe Capricorn, damnit, not Captain Krenon and Sectoid Clone #2-4601! Hey Firaxis, is it too late for you to put in an option for “pure” armies for some classic straight-up XCOM versus Aliens strategic fun? I want to field an army comprised entirely of Chrysalids on a night map and give my XCOM opponent a year’s worth nightmares.

Rebelstar: the XCOM of its day.

Source: Eurogamer


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