I love sci-fi. I was always the guy that, if asked to choose between Star Wars or Star Trek, I would reply, “Both?”
Video games are no exception. While the adaptations of the popular Star Wars/Trek franchises can range from excellent to atrocious, there’s no shortage of sci-fi originals in the video game industry. There’s a wide array of them too, from strategy games like Starcraft, Stellaris, Galactic Civilizations, to more powerful narratives like Bioshock, Half-Life, and Mass Effect, to indie-titles like Into The Breach, Casino Download, and Rimworld.
However, by far, my personal favorite is Xcom, a science fiction strategy game about defending the Earth from an Alien Invasion. Having finished Xcom 1, Xcom 2, and Xcom: Chimera Squad, I want to break down what I liked, what I didn’t, and what I hope will appear in Xcom 3.
Thar be spoilers ahead. Beware, all ye who dare continue…
The premise is pretty simple. Aliens turn up one day and start doing Alien things to the human population. They abduct random civilians, release monsters into the streets of major cities, and shoot laser beams at important pieces of infrastructure. To combat the invasion, all the major nation-states work together to fund the Xcom Project: An internationally funded military organization that acts semi-autonomously to defend the Earth.
I do like this optimistic approach to the story. Earth successfully unites against an alien foe and works together to save humanity. In contrast to the nihilistic and miserable sci-fi we’ve been getting on TV (Star Trek: Picard, The Expanse, most Netflix originals), Xcom presents a more hopeful near-future story, despite it being about humanity getting screwed over by aliens.
Oh, and I still stand by that fact despite Xcom’s canon ending being the Game Over Screen.
In Xcom 2, we see the aftermath of the invasion. People are getting murdered by monsters, are oppressed by a dystopic regime, and abductees are squashed into DNA smoothies, all for the nefarious purposes of the enigmatic “Elders.” We’re hinted at the fact that these “Elders” are attempting to create the perfect psionic being, and human DNA is just the thing they needed to accomplish this.
Of course, humans don’t like being turned into smoothies, so viva la revolution! Working together with characters from the previous game, we lead a resistance organization against our Alien overlords, keeping our massive, flying, Aircraft-Carrier somehow hidden from the Aliens as we fly back and forth across the globe…
Xcom: Chimera Squad, on the other hand, is a very upbeat adventure, with a strong buddy-cops vibe. Five years after the Elders went to the Guillotine, Chimera Squad, a power-rangers SWAT team with aliens, is brought in to stop a terrorist organization that murders a mayor.
Still, underneath the quips and quirky characters is a story about a world still recovering from an invasion, fragmented as Aliens and Humans mix and clash along their own agendas and interests. While the tonal lurch makes Chimera Squad stand apart from its predecessors, it still adds a lot to the world that wasn’t really explored in the previous titles.
Of course, the story wouldn’t matter if the gameplay didn’t kick ass. As part of the story, you play as “The Commander,” who acts like an omniscient tactical adviser that directs and manages squads of soldiers in the fight against the aliens. You guide soldiers on missions, then return to base where you have to manage cash, facilities, soldiers, research, and equipment. Both of these aspects feed directly into each other, creating a very satisfying gameplay-loop.
You kill aliens and haul their spaceships back to base, build new gear and equipment, and then go back into the field with the new gear to kill more aliens and haul more junk. Each game iterates on this loop, adding and streamlining features create a more rounded experience.
If I were to critique it (and I will), I would say that Firaxis has been slowly unbalancing the game in the player’s favor. By the end of each of the games, my soldiers are so powerful there’s little the game could throw at me without resorting to absurdly unfair amounts of enemies.
In Chimera Squad, the permadeath feature is removed, so you simply can’t lose anything significant, because failure just forces you to reload the last save. I think Xcom 2 struck a delicate balance, especially once the expansion came out, but Chimera Squad felt very easy.
My biggest complaint about the gameplay is how it clashes with the story being told. For instance, in Xcom 2, we’re introduced to an enemy called “The Purifiers.” These enemies carry flamethrowers. Their job is to purify certain cities of zombies (one of the many horrific things the aliens did to the human populace). That’s all well and good, but why are they found in the middle of entirely safe, urban areas? They make for an exciting enemy, but it makes no sense why they’re seen out and about like that.
For a more significant example, I’ll again return to Xcom 2. We play as a resistance organization, doing it’s best to undermine the alien regime. That’s all well and good, but the gameplay doesn’t give the feeling that we’re a resistance group- not when we’re dressed in neon green armor and flying around in an Avengers Helicarrier. Don’t take me wrong, I think Xcom 2 is my favorite out of the three, but I wish it leaned more into the fact that Xcom has to operate underground.
The same goes for Chimera Squad but in the opposite direction. We play as the official police force, but there are loads of missions where enemies will infinitely spawn until you escape. If there are THAT many criminals and terrorists in the city, how has the city not fallen into anarchy and mayhem already?
It’s these inconsistencies between gameplay and story that is probably my biggest pet peeve of the franchise.
As of right now, Firaxis and Jake Solomon are keeping their mouths shut on any potential Xcom news. All we have are rumors and speculations, but I can list the things I hope to see in it.
Personally, I hope Xcom returns to the tone established in Xcom 1 and 2. Xcom 3 will (theoretically) be the finale to the trilogy, and concluding a grim war, revolution, then whatever comes next should be taken seriously.
Along that vein, I think Chimera Squad was a bit over-streamlined. The permadeath removed a lot of the stakes and challenges. The smaller, compact maps made individual missions blur together and become a bit repetitive.
With the established lore of Chimera Squad, I’d love to see the Xcom 2 classes return, and ALSO gain Alien allies to join the party. The wide variety of unit types would make an unfathomably massive roster of combinations and strategies, which I think would be really fun.
On a more abstract note, I hope Xcom 3 brings a tighter cohesion of story and gameplay so that it’ll really FEEL like we’re saving the world from… whatever we’ll be saving the world from in Xcom 3.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got. While I’m daydreaming of stuff I want, I guess I’d like a pony too, please.