Preview: XCOM: Enemy Unknown Multiplayer
By Mike Sharkey | Aug 10, 2012
AI aliens won't be your only opponents in Firaxis' XCOM remake.
Multiplayer in XCOM? A dream for many fans of the original who have always wanted to take a Sectoid Commander out for a spin, it's also a worry for others who feel Firaxis should maintain a laser-weapon focus on the single-player campaign in its remake of the beloved PC classic. Well, as Firaxis revealed at a hands-on event at its Baltimore studio last week, multiplayer is in. Is it any good? Does it deliver that XCOM experience? Does it somehow detract from the single-player?
Multiplayer not only delivers the XCOM experience, in many ways it actually makes it more intense. Let's address that last question first, because it's the first I asked Lead Designer Jake Solomon and Producer Garth DeAngelis. Would the resources spent on the multiplayer have been put to better use on the campaign? DeAngelis says that's not an issue, pointing out that publisher 2K specifically wanted to include multiplayer to add replay value, and provided additional funding for multiplayer that paid for a dedicated team to develop it. Solomon insists it's not a tacked-on feature to add an extra bullet point on the back of the box. In fact, one of the additions he wanted in his modern XCOM from the outset was a 1v1, squad-versus-squad multiplayer mode. And guess what? It not only delivers the XCOM experience, in many ways it actually makes it more intense.
Choose your Weapons
You start a multiplayer match with a 10,000-point budget and six soldier slots to fill. All units in the campaign are available, human and alien, each with its own price tag. For example, standard human soldiers are 800 points, but you must outfit them with weapons, armor, and perks, all of which cost additional points (I spent roughly 2,500 points fully equipping a human sniper). Alien units, however, come pre-made with set gear and abilities. XCOM's little gray men, Sectoids, are the lowest-cost units at 400 points, and at the very top of the menu are the 4,000 point Cyberdiscs, powerful aliens that can fly, are immune to poison and psionic attacks, and do tons of damage.
Here's a look at the unit selection scree-Marvin the Martian? He's a Sectoid?!
Solomon noted that Firaxis has the ability to instantly make balance tweaks by adjusting unit point costs on the server side (without the need for patches), and after seeing the Cyberdisc perform its devastating, Last Star Fighter-like AoE attack, Death Blossom, I'd say it'll be among the first to get a healthy cost bump.
You'll have to create your strategy on the fly and adapt to the environment, as well as your opponent's strengths and weaknesses. In other words, you'll have to play XCOM. XCOM's subtitle is Enemy Unknown, and multiplayer embodies that to a tee: you don't see which units your opponent selected until you spot them on the battlefield (which is randomly selected from five maps planned for launch). You'll have to create your strategy on the fly and adapt to the environment, as well as your opponent's strengths and weaknesses. In other words, you'll have to play XCOM.
The first map I was dropped into was a town square at night, with a stone statue and fountain in its center. My squad: a fast moving, zombie-making alien Chrysalid, a human soldier with heavy armor and a big laser gun, a human sniper with Ghost armor for stealth and a nice aim perk, a tough Muton Berzerker tank, a Sectoid for mind-merge buffing, and a flying alien Floater capable of rocketing to any spot on the map in one turn. Off we go!
Not knowing where my opponent would come from, I sent my Chrysalid out as a scout. His long-distance move ability enabled me to get out far on the left flank and take a defensive position behind a truck. Everyone else I kept fairly close together, thinking I'd have a better idea of how to deploy my attack once the Chrysalid spotted the enemy. I put my sniper into stealth, turned on Overwatch for everyone (ordering them to fire at enemies on sight), and hunkered down.
Pro tip: proceed with caution.
As my opponent played out his 90-second turn, I heard occasional scampering of alien feet or the stomp of boots -- definitely a mixed squad like mine. Still, my foe's forces remained hidden by the fog of war. For my second turn, I felt confident I could move my Chrysalid up to the next cover position and hopefully spot some bad guys. Over confident, as it turned out -- my bold movement order sent the spider-like creature directly into the firing line of two human soldiers in Overwatch. Goodbye Chrysalid. Bad Guy: 1 Me: 0.
I told Solomon about my first crash-and-burn experience in detail and he laughed, not because of my foolish rookie mistake, but because he knows the feeling well. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson there, but I continued to push forward and paid dearly for it. An enemy sniper equipped with jetpack Archangel armor floated above, giving him a huge 20% chance-to-hit boost and earning a more fitting nickname: Angel of Death. My weakened squad was fully revealed, and I was decimated in no time flat. I traced my failure back to my Chrysalid move, a death that put me on tilt and led to overly aggressive play. I told Solomon about my first crash-and-burn experience in detail and he laughed, not because of my foolish rookie mistake, but because he knows the feeling well.
"If you lose, you'll immediately go back and say, 'This is how I could have won it. This is where it all went south.' We find ourselves working backwards from the outcome, replaying it and all of our decisions. Many matches turn on, 'Should I take the shot? It's a 30% chance, and if I make it, I'll win the match. Should I take it or should I wait?'"
My advice on those 30% shots? Wait.
Never Tell Me The Odds
Like a classic tactical strategy game, your characters can only attack an enemy when they have line of sight, and the chance of landing a shot is displayed with a percentage. If you're up close and personal with nothing in the way, your chance to hit will be in the 90% range with most weapons. Put some distance and boxes, cars, and other environmental elements into the picture, and your chance to hit percentage ticks down accordingly.
An 81% chance to hit is far from a sure thing.
Here's the thing, though: when you've lined up that perfect 91% chance to hit shot and you miss, it's crushing. And those misses do happen -- quite often, actually. For example, at a turning point in my second match, I positioned my sniper to take an 80% shot. In my mind, 80% was fish-in-a-barrel. In reality, there was a one-in-five chance I would miss, and that's just what happened. I shouted in shock, letting my opponent know he'd just escaped certain death thanks to Lady Luck. Similar shouts of frustration and hoots of joy were heard from journalists throughout the event, with players missing high-percentage shots and, conversely, making low-percentage ones.
"If you miss a shot, you have to tell your opponent," Solomon said with a laugh. "You woulda been dead! There was a 94% chance to hit and it missed, so I hope you enjoy your cheap victory!" Solomon said that one Firaxis dev had such a string of bad luck with missed shots that he became convinced there was a bug in the code. Solomon encouraged him to take a look, and after a thorough inspection he came back the next day with a sigh, saying, "Code's good."
"It's funny," Solomon said, "in our minds, anything over a 75% chance is a 100% guarantee."
But there are no guarantees in the XCOM multiplayer. Every unit has a weakness, every squad an Achilles heel, and even if you play out your strategy perfectly, the match can still be decided by the digital dice roll that takes place beneath layers of code. It's like speed chess with the addition of mystery and chance, and as I discovered, that's a combination that's pretty damn fun. And it's still XCOM.
It makes sense, given the source. "[The original] X-COM is my favorite game, and this is the moment I've been working toward the last 10 years of my career," says Solomon. "I've been wanting to make it even longer -- ever since I played it in high school. It's why I got a computer science degree, and why I came to Firaxis. This is the game I've always wanted to make."
In short, Solomon gets it. He's an old-school X-COMer, and he's determined to deliver that core, nail-biting "oh god, I hope I didn't just send my favorite soldier to his permadeath at the hands of a Muton hidden by the fog of war" experience. That determination paid off in this brief hands-on -- a great sign, considering we're now just a couple of months away from XCOM: Enemy Unknown's October 9th release date.