Call it beginner's luck: my first round of XCOM: Enemy Unknown's multiplayer was my strongest showing. It came down to a tense showdown at the end. I lost, but could feel proud of how close I had come. Alas, that was my best performance. From there, I got my rear end most thoroughly handed to me.
I got to try out the game at Firaxis last week, with a handful of other writers. There is only one multiplayer mode, and it is a brutal deathmatch. Two players each build their own custom squad of six and then hack away at each other — and at the destructible environments — until only one remains.
The room started out quiet, but our collective professional politeness began to wear off as we ruthlessly slaughtered each other. Half an hour in, we were a sea of muttered curses and displeased shouts. For something that caused so much swearing and agony, it was quite a bit of fun.
It all begins at squad selection. Players have a set number of points (10,000 by default, though custom games can bring it up to 20,000) that they can spend on creating and outfitting their units. The point system becomes the mechanism by which squads are forced into balance. If a cyberdisc or an elite, fully-kitted-out sniper cost you 5000 credits, stacking six of them together is a non-starter. Though if you felt confident enough to approach the battle with one of each, you could.
That's the real surprise of XCOM's multiplayer: it's an endless mix and match of skill and strategy, allowing players to try out any combination of classes and skills from both the alien and human side. It's not a straight us-vs-them scenario, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the narrative framework of the story. The entire thing is a killfest just for fun.
"From the get-go, we wanted multiplayer," Jake Solomon, XCOM's lead designer, told me. "As an original X-Com fan, for me, that fantasy had always been to play multiplayer, had always been to play as the aliens. And so the idea was, we wanted to keep it pretty straightforward. We don't have a ton of modes or anything, because we wanted to make sure that when we did this, we did it right."
Board games have a way of popping up all over, at Firaxis. A massive shelf lining the centre of the studio's main corridor holds more games than I could count, spanning form the mainstream to the obscure. Solomon referred many times to prototyping XCOM strategies in improvised board games with Sid Meier, and other employees assured me that tabletop competition regularly broke out among employees at the strategy-minded developer. (As if to prove the point, one match bubbled up in the hall outside the office I was conducting an interview in.) The inspiration for the point system as the ultimate arbiter of fairness and limit on power in multiplayer came from those board games.
"We kicked around a couple of ideas, but eventually what we came down to was: if the player plays the single-player game then they will have an understanding of our multiplayer game," Solomon explained. "Then the twist over the top of it was the whole point system. Which, you know, tabletop games have been doing forever, but which we're really excited for because it sort of gives XCOM its own unique spin. It just creates this great, almost endless game of mixing and matching. You never know, based on what map you're playing on, based on what your enemy's squad is, you can't ever really be assured of victory."
I certainly couldn't. I adapted my tactics and improved on every round, but with the type and mix of opponents constantly changing, it was clear my strategies, no matter how clever, had their limitations. Every unit, no matter how powerful or how weak, has units that can counter it. Psionic-specced soldiers can counter mind-controlling aliens. Snipers with stealth suits can sneak past tank-like robots floating above the field like the eye of God. Soldiers wearing jetpacks can make their own useful elevation. Cyberdiscs are vulnerable to, er, other cyberdiscs.
The trick with strategy is to plan your squad to counter the enemy's strengths. But in XCOM's multiplayer, you have no idea what your enemy has until he has landed upon you, sneaking out from in the fog of war.
Just when you've gotten the hang of not getting flanked in two-dimensional space, the third dimension comes into play. Members of the development team circled while we played, watching how we approached each other and learned tactics. One helpfully pointed out to my opponent that one of his units could fly. "I really wish you hadn't told him that," I remarked sourly, as my flanking advantage dissipated before my eyes and I prepared to lose. Badly.
We began, as one, to curse the gods of probability. With an 85 per cent chance to make that shot and my sniper standing right there, with the gun in the alien's face, I missed. For once, though, luck was on my side: his 90 per cent chance to hit shot also missed, and I lived to take another turn. One that connected.
Sadly, that sniper was my last surviving unit, and he had three more. I went down in flames, literally. The bar was on fire by then.
Luckily, multiplayer matches don't affect anything outside of themselves. Yes, there will be leaderboards, but in general, the competitive mode doesn't connect to the campaign at all. "It's true," Solomon admitted, "a lot of games, when they have multiplayer, they do at least put a narrative sheen over some of it. We don't. Ours is complete mechanics, which we're fine with. But it's true that a lot of others, whatever you're playing, you don't mix and match squads from the other sides. In ours, it was more like, we have all of these toys..."
Solomon trailed off for a moment, but producer Garth DeAngelis finished the thought. "It was like the toybox," he explained. "Just take out your action figures, and just do whatever you want with them."
What I want from them is a rematch. Going 0 and 3 just hurts. Next time, though, my snipers are getting a Heavy to back them up. Flight is overrated, but rocket launchers rarely are.