Saturday, November 16, 2019

You know, I was saying this weekend needed to be more relaxing and that the whole Impeachment business needed to give a poor boy a rest, but damnation, did I mustard that one up. It’s my own fault, though. Like my friend and spiritual advisor, the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, said, “what I used to do all night now takes me all night to do”.

I am, of course, talking about video games and the playing thereof. After knocking out last night’s gibberish, I decided to play a little XCOM. And XCOM 2, more of that actually. When I was a younger man, I’d play Ultima until dawn, put in a full day’s work at the salt mine, write all evening, and then go out to raise hell until the bars closed. Nowadays if I spend the night fighting off aliens until the dog wants outside, I’m barely coherent and feel like someone beat me with a hammer and a grudge.

For whatever reasons, the games from my Steam doo-lolly got corrupted, necessitating their deletion and re-installation, and since I live out in the boonies, downloading them back in takes forever. I usually let them go over night, and that’s what I did Thursday evening with these two. I’ve played ’em before, but here we are. Got to have something to fill up the space.

Maybe I should explain XCOM. Back in the early ’90s, the now-defunct computer game publisher MicroPose put out a game alternately called UFO: Enemy Unknown or X-COM: UFO Defense. A little knowledge about the difference between PC games and console games like one might find on the Nintendo Entertainment System or the Sega Genesis, a PC’s greater flexibility allowed for more variety in one’s gaming experience. System ShockSyndicate, the Ultima series, just about anything with Sid Meier’s name slapped on it, they were a long way away from the platforms and maze games on consoles. Even FPS’s, such as Doom or Quake, were mostly PC centered.

The PC also allowed for much more complexity than was possible with a six- or eight-button handheld controller. In many flight or space simulator, from the Wing Commander series to the  X-Wing games, that plus a joystick control gave players the ability to almost experience what flying a space fighter might be like. Or, for simulators like the ones Meier made or adventure/point-and-click games, the keyboard gave players enough choices and opportunities, they could simulate everything from designing railroads to a bunch of kids sneaking into a creepy mansion.

The X-Com games fell into that last category. The player was less an active participant in the action and more the overall big boss or controller. Specifically, the player was the commander of a world-wide organization to fight off an alien invasion in the then-near future of 1998, one that had a serious leg up on the people of Earth.

Not only players have to manage the soldiers out in the field and look to the upkeep of their base, they also had to keep the various countries of the world happy, safe and, most importantly, funding the titular X-Com. Players assumed the role of the Commander, doing everything from ordering research and reverse engineering alien artifacts to monitoring the morale of the soldiers who can be one-shot killed by alien attackers.

It was very difficult, a bit insane, and extremely popular. It spawned a number of squeals, including Terror From The Deep, a 1995 reworking of the original game taking place beneath the seas that might have been harder and wackier than the original, as well as 1997’s Apocalypse, where a war-torn Earth tries to bring the war to the aliens’ home planet. Finally, 1996 brought Interceptor, which threw in space battles, station management and took some getting used to, and 2001’s Enforcer, a third-person shooter that really didn’t work that well at all.

Now, between 1999 and 2014, two notable occurrences in video games came up. The first was the explosion of complexity, visual acuity plus aesthetic beauty, and popularity, while the other was me not playing any games at all in that time. The whys of why I stopped as well as the whys of me starting up again are basically irrelevant. Both could be summed up as a combination of free time and ready cash. I played the original X-Com – or as I knew it, UFO Defense – but I never really got too far. As I said, it was really hard and my time had more demands on it.

In any event, around 2014 I started playing games again, which coincided (roughly) with 2013 release of 2K Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, developed by Firaxis Games. Being purposefully so far out of the loop it looked like a dot – this was the “gamergate” years, when whiny buttholes who didn’t want to shower cried about not getting laid roamed the scene – I really didn’t have a grasp of what was going on and, frankly, wasn’t too interested in plugging into that tedious scene. So I’ve missed most of the YouTube “celebrities” that grew like zits in the gamer world.

But I did like Zero Punctuation. Like H.L. Mencken or Friedrich Nietzsche, the little videos Benjamin “Yahtzee” Croshaw are witty, well-crafted and don’t waste too much of your time. However, as a reviewer, well… I say this as a former music reviewer, but I don’t know if I’d use Yahtzee’s videos as good or even useful signposts for spending your money. He is very entertaining – and apart from Jim Sterling, one of the few video game “commentators” worth paying attention to – but he has his likes and prejudices, and will lump the entire concept of critically reviewing something in favor of a good joke. Or even a lame pun that makes him laugh, as the case may be. I can respect that.

That all being said, his review of XCOM: Enemy Unknown did it’s job for me. Like I said, I was familiar and even fond of the original game, and he fact that he dug it big-time even though it’s way out of his wheelhouse. Actually, by the time I got around to getting a PC that was actually worth a damn for gaming, he’d reviewed the sequel, the imaginatively titled XCOM 2 in 2016. He wasn’t quite as fond of that one, however.

But that’s (probably) because it was reviewed before the 2017 expansion War of the Chosen made the game something more than a redux/repaint of the first game, turning it into a much fuller, richer existence. Like the 1994 originals, both XCOM games put you in roll of the commander of the titular group, either trying to fight off an alien invasion in the first or trying to run the conquering bastards off as a guerrilla group in the second. I won’t say it’s easier to play, but it’s much easier to enjoy as the control scheme has been brought up to modern speed and streamlined to cut off the chaff. More intuitive, by the end of the tutorial, a player needs all they need to know. You could use the original X-Com’s instruction book to beat someone to death if necessary.

There is just loads of atmosphere in these games. I started playing last night around 8:30 p.m., planning to knock off around midnight, and the next I looked at the clock it was five in the morning. Incredibly absorbing, the games are tense and exciting which is doubled in the sequel. Not only are you basically playing terrorists according to the rest of the world, under-staffed and rolling pennies for funding, but the clock’s always against you. And the base management system is probably a bit more fun in the second game as you have a bit finer control over things.

Again, in Yahtzee’s defense, his review came before the DLC basically made the second game, which represents what I think is the worst problem in modern gaming. That is, you pay sixty bucks for a game and nine months later you have to pay thirty more dollars to get the whole thing. Sometimes it makes the base game a whole new experience, but I don’t understand why they just don’t wait until the damn thing is finished. Pillars Of Eternity does DLCs right. Nice little add-ons that flesh out the game and give you a couple more hours of fun, but aren’t required to grok the whole thing.

Well, that is that. I said I was going to write about XCOM and, by golly, I did. I’ll probably put in another six or so hours once I get this all properly cobbled together. I don’t know anything from me carries any wait, but picking up either of these two games is a good investment. If you held a gun to my head, I’d say go with XCOM 2 with the War of the Chosen DLC if money’s tight. Good luck, commanders.

Oh, I forgot. There was another iteration released in 2013 by 2K, The Bureau: XCOM. It’s set in the ’50s and has more of a Mass Effect-derived third-person-shooter-with-sidekicks type thing. It isn’t bad, but frankly, Mass Effect 2 is all the Mass Effect I’ll ever need.

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