There's a lot to like about the new XCOM game, but perhaps the coolest thing about it has little to do with tactics, or balance, or visuals. It's the game's ability to take what could have been a glorified tabletop wargame and turn it into something that creates stories. And not just those that you'll remember for years, but ones you instantly want to share with other players. Which is exactly what we've been doing for the past week, so we figured that three of Kotaku's biggest XCOM fans — Kirk Hamilton, Luke Plunkett and Nathan Grayson — should pull up some chairs and swap some old (and new) war stories.
Luke Plunkett: Hello, Commanders.
I know we've written a bit about XCOM 2 on the site already, but one of the coolest things about the game (and the series as a whole) are the kind of stories that come out after days and weeks of play. Your war stories.
Kirk Hamilton: I have a lot of war stories to share with you, fellow Commanders.
Nathan Grayson: Well then, you go first.
Kirk: XCOM 2 has a lot going for it but above all else, I'm starting to think of it as an awesome moments generator. The slow-mo, the zoom, all of it. That cinematic camera is ridiculous and looks bad as often as it looks good, but when it looks good, it looks great. My favourite missions, in terms of great war stories, are probably the smash and grab enemy VIP abduction missions. They feel like… have you guys seen Zero Dark Thirty?
Luke: Very Zero Dark Thirty. Very Sicario as well.
Nathan: Oh man, they're fantastic. Though they also generate the most tear-my-hair-out "ARE YOU KIDDING ME" moments for me. So many extra factors to consider. So many perfect grenade setups I can't take advantage of.
Kirk: So yeah, the game does this thing where when you're in stealth, your troops all whisper these terse acknowledgements over comms. And you're creeping on the enemies like, "Moving." "Setting up." And then you STRIKE and clear out all the bad guys, and conk the VIP over the head and exfil the hell outta there. Last night I pulled one of those off flawlessly, without taking even a single injury, and it was the most elite I've ever felt.
Something about the fact that this hapless traitor bad guy was suddenly being captured by my super badass team? It was represented by this turn-based game, sure, but I could also imagine the more seamless, action-movie version in my head. One minute this enemy sap was riding in his VIP transport, the next minute everything's on fire and he's realising how completely owned he is. It was just so, so swell. "You don't know who you've messed with, do you?"
Nathan: It's interesting that you bring up that sort of story, because for me the best XCOM 2 stories have been the ones where we barely make it out alive. I had one mission where I reached the evac point with my two remaining soldiers carrying their two unconscious comrades as alien reinforcements closed in. It was nerve-wracking and, in the moment, kinda miserable, but it defined all of those characters for me. That's their origin story as characters. When I see them interacting on the base, I can't help but flash back to that moment. It's a video game story I'll never forget. Heck, I even made a video about it.
Luke: I think that's one of the things this game does so well. In terms of how its designed, it's still very much a turn-based strategy game. Take all the time you need, move on a grid and so on. But the way it's presented is just... ungh. It's like the game isn't just using turns as an excuse to recreate tabletop gaming, it's using them as a means of setting you up for these epic, badass moments that, while planned at your leisure, execute in real-time like the best of action games.
Like an ambush.
Nathan: Now that I'm at a point where I'm able to pull off pretty flawless attacks/escapes, the game has gotten a bit less exciting for me.
Kirk: See, I don't find it any less exciting. It's gratifying for me now that I'm winning more easily; still exciting, but it's a different type of excitement. I've rounded a bend and worked and worked until my team (and my strategies) are able to win more consistently. It's all of a piece for me. The feeling that we're finally giving the Advent a bloody nose? Priceless.
Luke: That's because you're at the point where you've now got a reliable team of veteran soldiers, no? Tell me about them. Tell me about your killing machines.
Kirk: My team is almost all ladies. (I hear I'm not alone in that.) I didn't even plan it that way, I swear! There's Connie "Rocket" Clark, my point-lady and bombardier. There's Lana "Deadbolt" Logan, gunslinger and sharpshooter. And there's Eddie "Dukes" Kenway, fearless Scottish minigun master. I love them all so much, and have loved giving them scars, eye patches and smoking habits as we've progressed through this brutal campaign.
Luke: No, you're not alone. My first game, I somehow rolled an all-female roster. Every single soldier. I thought it was a bug, but whatever, I went with it. The Sisters Of No Mercy, I called them. A team of absolute badarses. I loved each and every one of them. I was especially fond of my sniper team, Yue Ying Chen and Susanna Sidorova, the former mixing it up with a pistol, the latter deadly at the longest of ranges, who racked up like 60 per cent of my kills between them.
Sadly, that game ran down a dead-end of Avatar Project advancement and insufficient resources, so I had to scrap it. RIP, ladies. But I did recreate my favourite of them all, Lucy Ryan (the Irish Assassin) in my current game.
Kirk: Was it hard to let go in your second game? I couldn't imagine starting over and not getting to have my current team.
Luke: It was brutal. Took 10-12 missions for me to really settle in with the new cast. It was like... when a sitcom changes a character mid-run. But now that I'm 30-40 missions deep with the new crew, I couldn't be happier. It's funny, I've found myself spending as much time customising their armour, patterns and weapon loadouts as I do running actual missions.
There's definitely something to be said for the "action figure" appeal of XCOM's team management playing a big part in the series' success.
Kirk: Yeah. Once I start with the appearance-altering mods, I may never escape the rabbit hole.
Nathan: My girlfriend walked over while I was customising my people today. I was intently looking at the screen and tweaking armour patterns. She was like, "Having fun?" And I was like, "ABSOLUTELY."
Kirk: Hah. So what's your team like?
Nathan: My A-team is only mostly ladies. There's Kylo "Cowboy" Gusev, my grenadier who looks and sounds suspiciously similar to a Star Wars villain. There's Jane "Ice" Kelly, who I recently modified to look, er, icier, but now I worry that her armour looks like Sonic The Hedgehog cosplay. She cuts up aliens real good. There's also Jammer, whose other names I forget, but she's my healer/shockingly effective tank. And then there's a rotating procession of sharpshooters headed up by Val "Scratch" Killer.
Kirk: Jane Kelly! I kept her around, too. I wonder if everyone does.
Nathan: I think a lot of people do. I saw someone tweeting that she ended up their best soldier at the end of their campaign.
Kirk: She totally wrecks for me, anyway. Just a cold-blooded murderer. She's gone through a lot of shit, too. Got wounded really bad, shaken up. Came out of it and started painting her face and armour all bloody. She's in a good place now, though.
Nathan: Mine wears a hat.
Kirk: Mine started with a hat, but these days she goes hatless.
Nathan: I also enjoy that one of my most merciless killers is, like, this middle-aged guy with hippie sunglasses and a pink heart pattern on his armour. I feel like it's his way of coping. He's fighting for peace, love, and '70s aesthetic choices. I do sometimes wonder how he rationalizes it all, though.
Luke: So, this is funny. You mention hats, and hippie sunglasses. I see a lot of XCOM 2 screenshots where people are wearing pink armour, and weird hats and so on, and folks are having a lot of fun with it. Me, though, I started out like that, but as the game has gone on... well, as you can see, it's taken a turn for the serious. I feel like... I'm in DEEP with these characters, and as they have got more experienced, they have learned not to mess around with joke armour. They're wearing all-black, and camo, and I've given them massive tattoos as they have gotten more experienced...
Nathan: Yeah, I totally get that. I have kind of a mix at this point. Some characters are outlandish, but a lot of them have armour that's pretty dialled back and scars that make actual sense given the battles they have been in. With my best sharpshooter, Scratch, I started trying to give her more exciting armour, but then I realised the muted green look suited her. So I just kept it.
Kirk: Yeah! I'm the same. Luke, you and I were talking off-chat about our bases - do you guys ever just zoom around your base and make up stories for what everyone's doing? I love that they have made it so you can see that Sara is playing against Dukes in poker, or a couple other characters are at the bar. I picture Starbuck playing Saul Tigh in the Galactica rec room. XCOM 2 makes it much easier to write fanfic about your soldiers than the first one did.
Luke: Oh yeah! My Belgian girl, who I have a massive crush on, works the bar. She's sometimes just in there, alone, cleaning glasses, and I once saw her steal a glance at the memorial wall. She walks around missions like she is death on legs, but in that moment, it felt like it was all just an act, and that she needed some alone time every now and again to get sad over fallen friends and take a rest from the Rita Vritaski act.
Nathan: I swear, the day our XCOM soldiers can get married like in Fire Emblem will be the day I quit everything and get all my emotional validation from staring at a PC monitor... though it's arguable that I do that already.
Kirk: I think our attachment to our soldiers is vital to how effective the game is, and why we'd even want to get together to swap stories in the first place. Like, I love my stories specifically because of the various badarse stuff they pull off in the field, right? Firaxis has done a great job of, basically, procedurally generating war movie character archetypes that we can then put into our own little war movie and generate stories. When I watch Band of Brothers and I see Winters, I think of all the terrifying, courageous stuff Winters did in the field. It's no different when I see Rocket or Cypher. I think of that amazing time that Rocket took out that whole crew of enemies, or the time Cypher narrowly dodged enemy fire on the way to an exfiltration. It all works together really well.
Luke: The stories don't exist without the characters. It's that simple. Without your attachment to their faces, their animation quirks and their names, what they do on the field is just glorifed dice-rolling. It's something Firaxis are SO GOOD AT, because they do it with Civilization as well; make a game's characters feel human and your relation to them affects everything else about the game.
Nathan: Yeah, and I think it's interesting how we've all kinda adapted the appearances of our squads based on those accomplishments. Like, when the game first came out I saw people posting pictures of real people or characters from games/movies that they'd recreated in the game, but I'm not seeing as much of that now that people are, you know, playing. The characters are built through their actions.
Kirk: And how I continually customise my characters as I go, adding scars and eyepatches and other things that make them look more and more like the flinty bastards they are. When a squaddie joins them to replace an injured comrade, I have to think of that Band of Brothers episode "Replacements". The rest of the team is standoffish with them, since they see them as dead meat and don't want to get attached.
Luke: Yes! I have ONE replacement (a Canadian sniper), because one of my seasoned Grenadiers (RIP Klaus) bought it bringing down a Sectopod a few missions back. Every other soldier on my team have tattoos, scars, camo prints on their weapons, etc... but this new guy, I left him squeaky clean. He has to EARN that stuff. He didn't land on D-Day. He didn't go through basic in England. He's a replacement.
Nathan: I like how we all reached this conclusion of how to play the game independently. Like, it's so baked into the mechanics. It just makes sense.
Kirk: So one of my soldiers, my high-ground sniper, is this eyepatched lady named Sara "Long Shot" Starling. She's my top killer, like, the Chris Kyle of my squad. She just crushes everything in sight. But she's constantly uncertain, and her voiceover lines are always questioning and hesitant. She'll use that ridiculous Serial ability to kill three enemies in a single turn, then be like, "I guess it's dead?" It's hilarious. I've projected so much personality onto her. I'm constantly reassuring her. Buck up, girl! You are so awesome! Believe in yourself!
Luke: My favourite soldiers are Lucy Ryan (my Irish Specialist) and Adam Harris (my British Ranger). Lucy got the first kill on the first mission and hasn't looked back; she's been gravely wounded like five times, her face is a scarred mess, but every time you issue a command there's just this gruff, confident "on my way" from her and she's off. Never missing a beat, rarely failing to hit the mark, always stable, always confident. She's clearly the leader of the troops, the rock that everyone else can rest on.
Harris was given the nickname "Solo", and I swear it's because the game was tracking my playstyle, because while all my other characters take cautious cover and engage overwatch, I tended to make the most of Harris' Ranger abilities to run out ahead, scout an area then stab anything that moved. He's got this real disillusioned voice, too, like he doesn't give a damn... it's like XCOM is almost a burden to him, and if it didn't exist, he'd just be out there on his own, stabbing things in the face for fun.
Nathan: Not to be too on-the-nose, but for a while it was a game of revenge for me, too. In the early goings, I lost a lot of people and I was just like, screw these aliens. I will take ten for every one they have taken from me.
Kirk: Right. Which also ties in with the feeling of righteous arse-kicking in this game. I feel much more motivated to wipe these guys out than I did in the first game, because I'm much more personally affronted by what they have done.
Which is kind of funny… in some ways it speaks to a more modern fear? In the first XCOM, and in the older games, it was that same fantasy from Independence Day: That all of humanity would unite to fight off a grave threat from outside. This time, we're fighting the aliens that have assimilated and taken over our civilisation, and they have done so with the very technology and advancements we designed the first time around. They have conquered us by exploiting the unity we found in fighting them.
There're definitely some parallels with how we willingly subjugate ourselves to the surveillance state and keep being asked to incrementally give up more and more of our personhood in the name of technological, medical and social advancement. And now we gotta break free, man! Maybe it's that I'm older and more jaded now. Or I'm just reading too much into it.
Nathan: No, I think that's pretty on the money. The bit at the beginning where Bradford is going through a cyberspacefuturepunk metal detector (and the ensuing bomb) draw pretty overt parallels to modern terrorism — albeit casting your resistance crew as the terrorists. Not the most subtle dissection of the topic — PERHAPS TERRORISTS ARE PEOPLE TOO — but food for thought nonetheless.
Luke: Maybe they just realised everyone failed the first game and thought running with that setting would let them develop a sequel that wasn't set underwater.
Kirk: Ha, that too.
Nathan: Speaking of, what do you guys think of the world map stuff? Too much time and micromanagement, or just the right amount to create a feeling of desperation and battling against overwhelming odds?
Kirk: I think it works, mostly. The UI doesn't explain itself well enough, but I've got a pretty solid handle on what's going on where, and feel like I generally understand what to prioritise. I'd like to see more of a schedule laid out for me, since I still don't quite understand how supply payments work. But at least on veteran difficulty, it's more than manageable, and if I make a bad call, it doesn't set me back all that much.
Nathan: Yeah, I feel like it gives me a pretty decent general knowledge of what's going on in the world, though it took me a bit to figure out. I actually like it best when something I wasn't warned about happens, though. New Avatar advancements always get me panicking, and the first time I got shot out of the sky by a UFO was intense-as-hell.
It all dovetailed super nicely with where I was at in the game, too. The Avatar project had made a ton of progress, and I didn't know if I was gonna be able to push it back. Then, suddenly, we were on the ground without power, scrambling like a dying cockroach.
And I had to hold off near-infinite alien troops with all of my own forces, all while pushing forward to disable their jamming device. I was creeping forward into increasingly perilous darkness, uncertain if anyone would come back. It felt like such classic XCOM. Finally, after nearly every soldier from my reserves was in the field, I felt secure enough in my defences to send a small crew all the way to the jamming device. I didn't even have to think about who to send: it had to be my original A-team. Kylo, Ice, Jammer, Scratch. They pulled it off, but just barely. Ice hobble-sprinted back to the ship after being surrounded (she is, thankfully, damn near unhittable) and we took off just before alien reinforcements had a chance to close in and crunch up our glorified mobile home in their glorified trash compactor. It was nuts. I finally went to bed after that. It was 6am.
It was the culmination of just, like, everything. I was physically shaking for that whole mission.
Kirk: Dang! Man. The way this game's various systems can come together… hell yes. I haven't had that exact experience but I feel like I have. I'm actually still in the dark on what some of the alien machinations are, and it's stressful, but I don't mind. I've played like 27 hours and I still don't know what "The Avatar Project" is! (Something to do with James Cameron? Don't spoil me.) Once I've played a complete game or two I'd imagine I'll have a more big-picture, board-game awareness of the mechanics. For now, I actually like the tension of not quite knowing what's going to happen next, or what the aliens are plotting, specifically because it makes situations like the one you just described possible.
Nathan: Yeah, I've been avoiding strategy guides for that reason. EXCEPT FOR THE TIPS POST ON KOTAKU DOT COM. WHICH IS GREAT.
Kirk: I guess there are kinda two levels of tips for this game: Big-picture strategies, and number-crunching min/max strats to really milk the most advantage out of a playthrough. I've been embracing the former with gusto, avoiding the latter in general. I'd imagine those tips will be more help on higher difficulties, and on Ironman playthroughs.
Luke: Yeah, I also think that *KLAXON SOUNDS*.....*BRADFORD STARTS YAMMERING* - oh. OK, well, that might have to cut us short. It's been fun talking war stories, but I've got a feeling there'll be a lot more of them to come before Lucy Ryan gets a day off.
Nathan: Do we have any closing thoughts?
Kirk: It's all about character. Many of the best XCOM 2 war stories aren't actually all that remarkable, if you view them from a remove. "So-and-so shot the guy before the guy shot her!" "So-and-so ran in under fire and blew up the enemy tank!" But because these are characters we've gotten to know and, crucially, used our imaginations to flesh out and make our own, they become so much more potent and exciting. I'm a big fan of specificity in games — too many games have generic heroes and generic villains and as a result none of the on-screen action feels all that meaningful. I'm really impressed with how well this game generates meaning. These procedurally generated war stories still feel exciting and unique.
Nathan: You know, between all the dress up and imaginary storylines of comraderie and romance, XCOM 2 is really just playing dolls. I don't mean that jokingly, either. The things that make playing with dolls so compelling for kids are essentially XCOM's core. XCOM 2 is dolls meets a grim-as-hell alien invasion.
Luke: Ahem. As I mentioned earlier, they're "action figures", not "dolls"...