“Vigilo Confido, Commander!” XCOM 2 Does So Much Right

I just finished my first successful XCOM 2 campaign. Loading times and a couple of glitches aside, I loved it. Lets talk about what it does right, with screenshots. Spoilers for the campaign in some of these. You’ve been warned.

Soldier Customization

They said that customization would be dramatically improved. They were telling the truth. I didn’t even make much use of it yet, but here’s my end game squad.

End Game XCOM 2 Squad
Yes, I really do use all those grenades.

I may tweak the squad composition next time around in terms of classes, and I’ll play more with custom options. But even with the little I did, I love the personality on display here. There’s the general color theme that my core team has, who I carried through the entire game. There’s the firebrand Psi Op who came in late and looks like an outsider, becuase she really was, to this squad. The other five were my core team for the entire game. My poor Ranger in the corner is wounded, but this is for the final mission and you can take wounded soldiers with you. I wouldn’t go without my frontline badass swordswoman.

The really cool thing is that I can put these people I love so much into the character pool, and they may appear again in future games. They all have different voices and accents, and it’s delightful.

Gun And Loadout Customization

Gun customization is also a thing now. Both in looks and name, but also in terms of function. Enemies will sometimes drop loot, and if you collect it, you’ll find things like gun mods and Elerium Cores, used to do research on new items.

My sniper, for example, had a gun with a scope for boosted aim, and a superior auto-loader so that he could get 3 reloads without costing an action. That is very important to a Sharpshooter, as you can’t fire your Sniper Rifle if you take another action. Free actions don’t count.

My Ranger’s gun is instead focused on more critical hit chance with a laser scope, increased ammo for fewer reloads (no time for that in the thick of it!), and a stock so that missed shots still do some damage. They’re very different guns for very different purposes.

Loadout options also feature different kinds of grenades like gas (organic troop poison), EMP (robotic troop disable/damage), Flashbang (disorient), Smoke (defensive), various kinds of ammo modifications, armor vests (more health/HP regen/reflected damage on melee/terrain hazard immunity), and in the case of the heavy armor my Ranger is wearing: mounted weapons like the Plasma Cannon. That’s all on top of the character skill tree, which itself has some highly varied options.

There’s a lot of room to customize to suit your style and the mission requirements, here.

Use More Grenades

Grenades were somewhat underutilized in XCOM:Enemy Unknown. The main reason is that they destroyed corpses, and you needed those to do research and upgrades.

That can still happen in XCOM 2, but it’s much less frequent in my experience. In addition, some missions you can’t recover corpses anyway because you have to Evac out. In that case, grenades carry no real downside.

It’s a good idea to use them liberally, because blowing up enemy cover and shredding off enemy armor makes them much easier targets for everyone else in the squad. This is where Grenadiers really shine as a class: that grenade launcher is worth every resource I spent on upgrading it. Plus they can carry two (or three with a skill) grenades.

Finally, falling damage is a thing. If you blow up the floor something is standing on, it falls and takes damage. You can kill enemies using this trick, and it’s incredibly useful. Even if they don’t die, they’re now on ground level and easier pickings for your troops.

XCOM 2 wanted sign
Hey, I see myself, next to that car ad! Now throw a grenade at it!

Lots Of Things Worth Doing and Buying

The strategy layer also got an update here, and logically it just works better. It was always unclear in previous XCOM games why you had such a tight budget and so few people, given you’re funded by the richest nations on Earth as their most elite defence force.

Now? You’re a resistance force. You scrounge up whatever you can use. The limits all make sense now, and it makes things just work better. There are many options for things to collect on the strategy map, but there isn’t time to do them all and stop the Avatar project. Sometimes, you will have to ignore that battlefield full of alien metals because you just have more important things to do.

The new base building layer is now the inside of your ship (the Avenger), and it also got some tweaks. Gone are the days of building several engineering workshops and getting everything in the game for half off. Workshops now give you more engineers to slot into buildings, which is useful, but not as overpowered. You can choose to build a defensive building to help you when your ship is attacked, or not. You can retrain soldiers. You can upgrade rooms to make them more powerful, if you have the supplies, or not. I never did upgrade my Psi Lab to train more than one person at a time, but that’s an option.

There’s also weapon upgrades to buy (like new gun levels, which everyone gets automatically), and experimental things to do in the Proving Grounds, where you get one of a thing each time you do it. Until the very end of the campaign, I had more stuff I desperately needed than I could afford, and had to make tough choices. Even at the end I didn’t have everything unlocked, but I had everything I needed, finally.


In the last mission, when I blew up some terrain, this happened.

Glitched graphics
Wow that’s glitchy!

Sufficed to say that it made targeting area effect abilities very difficult, and I had to save and reload to clear it. That was the worst glitch I saw, and none of the others were enough to diminish my enjoyment at all.

Load times are slow, and I hope they improve that in a patch. I’m not really sure what it’s even doing during those waits.

Mission Load Screen
I like the screen, music, and character mannerisms… but could stand to see less of it.

Level Ups – Some I like, Some I hate

Captain Codfish on Twitter was lamenting how he’s not getting too far in the fun department in Wildstar, for a few reasons. During that conversation, the issue of levels came up again, with this in particular:

I feel you, brother… I’m getting very sick of games that make you do a drawn out levelling process, especially if it just ends at some point and becomes meaningless. But, not all levelling systems bother me. Let’s look at the ones I like and why, first.

Dungeons & Dragons – Each Level Matters

At a certain level, I can bring a pet Dire Bear to the fight on my side. What have you got, puny fighter?

I love D&D, and I both play and Dungeon Master. The levels in D&D? No problem. The big thing is that each level matters. They take a while to get. There is a very real chance in the campaigns I play of dying while trying to get them (and death is a much bigger deal, especially at low level where it can mean a new character entirely). There isn’t that many of them. They bring often dramatic changes in your character.

Most importantly? They don’t practically stop. Oh sure, they do stop (except in revisions where they don’t, epic levels, and so on). But the vast majority of D&D campaigns don’t get to the level cap, which means for practical purposes you don’t run out of levels. You never reach a point where levels cease being a mechanic that matters to the game, so they work just fine.

Disgaea – Absurdity In Levelling

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Disgaea and it’s sequels.

Read those stats. Be prepared to do a lot of levelling if you intend on challenging the Tyrant Overlord.

In Disgaea, levelling is so common that individual levels don’t matter. It’s not a big deal when you advance from 10 to 11 like it is in D&D. But that doesn’t make levelling itself unimportant. Disgaea is just about excess in levelling. You can level up to 9999. You can then reincarnate back to level 1, but keep some of the stats you had before, so that the next time you get to 9999, you’re stronger.

You can then go into your items, and level those up to (and beyond) 100. Inside the second best in slot item in the game, on floor 100 of that item, is an Item God, who carries the best in slot item in the game for you to try and steal. You better have one very good Thief around to pull that off!

You can also level up your characters in some of them in the Character World, build loyalty between characters, boost affinities, level up the item shops to have better stuff… well, you see where this is going.

The key similarity is that like D&D, levels never stop mattering. You are always leveling something. You never reach a point where the mechanic goes away. Which brings me to…

Your Average Themepark MMO – Stop It!

The Captain was talking about Wildstar, but this applies to a ton of MMORPGs. They follow a pattern that I’ve complained about before:

  1. The leveling part, in which you are doing quests to gain levels, learn skills, get talent points, and so on. Often there’s a story component to those quests. These days, they’re usually done mostly or entirely solo, and in some games they will even enforce that on certain quests.
  2. The endgame part, where you no longer have levels to gain. The game at this point often becomes about raiding or other group content, and since everything is the same level (which never changes), the entire mechanic of leveling now serves absolutely no purpose to the functioning of the game.

This is the worst kind of leveling. It’s main purpose is to act as a gatekeeper between people who want to raid, and the raiding part of the game. What is the point of that? League of Legends doesn’t make you play a solo questing game for 300 hours before you’re allowed to play the real game, right? It’s MMOs alone that do this, and it seems at this point like it’s mostly because people expect it more than because it still makes any kind of sense. You wind up with people like Liore, who want to raid in FFXIV but just don’t have the time to catch up through all the levels (and story in FFXIV) to get to that part.

Diablo 3 has the same problem, where the 1-70 part of the game has absolutely  no meaning anymore for veteran players. Guides exist entirely devoted to how to get it over with as fast as possible in a new season, and people are doing it in a handful of hours. Why? Nobody cares anymore. It’s trivially easy, it’s been done before, and it’s just a barrier between players and the real season game… which is the gear hunt and Greater Rift progression at 70. I hate the start of a new season precisely because I have to waste time getting back to 70 so that I can do the stuff that’s actually relevant.

In both the MMOs and Diablo 3, a serious player will spend the overwhelming majority of their time at the level cap. Like, 75% and up majority. In WoW, I was level capped for approaching 90% of my play time, and it wasn’t 99% only because I had a lot of alts. If you spend almost the entirety of the game where the mechanic does absolutely nothing, it’s not meaningful to the game design anymore.

This system isn’t adding anything, at this point. It’s number progression for the sake of number progression… only Disgaea does that a thousand times better.

Endless Legend Needs More Hype

I’ve been seeing a little bit of hype for Endless Legend since it came out, but not very much. For a game with pretty strong reviews (stronger than the similarly timed and themed Civilization: Beyond Earth) and a previously successful game (Endless Space), it flew somewhat under the radar. That’s largely due to competition from the better known Civ franchise and Amplitude being a small studio.

It’s not based on the game. Endless Legend is awesome. And hey, it’s 50% off right now!

Yay, No Infinite City Spam

Lots of 4x games try to solve the infinite city spam problem in different ways. Endless Legend handles it by having cities control a “region” of the map.

The thick lines are the regional borders.

You can place a city in the region more or less wherever you want, but the region can only have one city. So you can’t just crowd out cities with more cities and make a general mess. I find this a much more elegant solution, especially combined with the other things they did:

  • Cities start off as a hex and it’s surrounding hexes, but you can build upgrades to grow the city and increase it’s size. Cities can become very big, and you get all the tile yield in the area of the city without needing workers to “work” it (workers are strictly additional to tile yields and assigned indepedently).
  • Each region can have a minor faction, who is already there. You can pacify them through conquest or diplomacy and then settle the area for bonuses. If you assimilate them into your empire you can get more bonuses and extra units to build. That sole city in the region becomes very important because you need it to get the minor faction and it’s bonuses.

The end result of all this is that you don’t need 50 cities to really control an area like you do in some other games, and the one city in each region is very important because of the need for regional control. It makes the cities feel really significant, as they should.

Tactical Combat? Yay!

Tactical combat interface
Tactical combat interface

Your armies move around the strategic map like in every other 4x. A big difference between Endless Legend and a game like Civ is that when armies encounter each other, the map expands into a tactical map. From here, you can arrange your troops in deployment, and then give orders for combat. Both sides give all orders for the round simultaneously, and then combat executes. If an order can’t execute (because the unit you wanted to attack is already dead, for example), units have some default orders they fall back on. You can also auto play this if you don’t want to do it yourself.

I like the addition a lot, as it makes combat more in depth while still making some kind of sense. Civ IV’s combat was more or less entirely about army composition as you’d just throw stacks at each other, and Civ V’s combat had a really weird scale with archers able to shoot clear across cities and units not being able to form coherent armies. This isn’t as sophisticated as say Age of Wonders III, but it’s enough to make combat more meaningful without making it the entirety of the game.

One other nice thing is that you can customize your units. There’s an editor in game to choose new equipment for units to make new ones before training them, which makes them more expensive and might require strategic resources. It reminds me of a game like Fallen Enchantress (or Galactic Civilization & Endless Space’s ship builder), and it’s a lot of fun to create your own custom armies.

Factions & Empires, There’s A Lot Going On

There are a wide variety of factions, and they play very differently. One of them can’t even declare war, for example. One can’t build new cities. The uniqueness of them really changes how you approach the game, and it’s a very welcome addition compared to the generally the same factions of Beyond Earth.

Then you’ve got city management, hero management, the ability to form empire plans on what you want to focus on for bonuses, lots of different ways to win, and so on. There is a lot going on in this game, so much that occasionally I find it takes me a while to take in everything the UI is trying to show me. In true Amplitude faction the UI is pretty good and conveys a lot of information relatively well. It’s just that with how many different things are happening at once in your empire, it can take some time to take it all in. There are still a few rough edges to polish off, however. One thing I noticed is that notifications can come up even while you can’t deal with them, such as getting a notification popup for a new minor faction while the tactical combat UI was also opening, so I couldn’t use the popup for anything. But it’s a minor issue.

Multiplayer Is Here, But Co-Op Isn’t

One thing the Civ games do better is coop play. Endless Legend supports multiplayer pretty well, but not for true coop play. The most you can do is play separately until getting alliance tech unlocked, then forming an alliance in game. There’s no allied victory though, so the game will tell one of you that you lost even if you both win.

If you compare that to the recent Civ games, which feature full team play from turn 1 along with allied victory, and it’s a deficiency. Endless Space had the same gap, and I’m not entirely sure why Amplitude doesn’t seem interested in it. Perhaps it’s just a budget issue, they are a much smaller studio after all.

All that said, Rhiss and I played Endless Space in coop and had fun despite missing those things. We’re going to play Endless Legend too, and I expect to have some fun with it.

It’s Awesome

Overall, this is a great game. For the cost during the sale it’s an incredible value, and I’d encourage every 4x fan to give it a try. It’s entirely possible we’re looking at the best 4x of 2014 in this not terribly well known game.

MMOs and Levels – A Poor Combination

Yesterday, Belghast was taking about “Blizzard Bux”, and happened to make a comment about mentoring systems. That prompted a comment from me about how mentoring is just a band-aid over the real problem – level ups. The discussion then got going with Rowan chiming in with a few points, then wondering how much demand there is for a level-free MMO.

I don’t know how much demand there would be for something so different than what people are used to, but I do know why the level system is bad.

Most Games End

Levels as a progression mechanic are extremely frequent in games, and in most games I like them. They work great in tabletop RPGs (Dungeons & Dragons), single player RPGs (Final Fantasy and a million others), and even some multiplayer ones (Diablo 3’s Paragon Levels don’t really interfere with playing with friends but do offer extra progression). They also work in MMOs… for a while.

What most of these games have in common is that they have an end. D&D campaigns typically end, but epic levels exist for people who want to keep playing past the normal level cap. Single Player RPGs sometimes offer open world or side things to do, but they also all end.

That’s the key thing with these games. Level progression keeps going for the duration of the entire game, and then the game is over. The expectation is that you’ll either start a new playthrough, or go play something else at some point. Games have typically been designed without the goal of making you play the same progression cycle forever, and it’s that environment that levels were designed for and where they work.

MMO’s Don’t End

The problem with MMOs is that they don’t end. Once you reach the level cap, you get to the “endgame”. At this point, levels are gone. So long as you’re doing current content, levels might as well not exist. They do nothing. Progression becomes based on something else, which is typically gear. An awful lot of players spend most of their time at the level cap, where levels don’t do anything whatsoever because there aren’t any.

This creates all kinds of problems:

  1. If you’re a player who was playing for the levelling journey, the game just ended. Endgame is a very, very different game in most MMOs (like WoW).
  2. By outlevelling old content, it’s been rendered trivially easy and both not rewarding and mind numbingly boring to do.
  3. You can’t play with friends who are playing more slowly because you’ll outlevel them and the game just doesn’t work well in that circumstance.
  4. Your friends can’t play with you if they join a game late, because they’re miles behind.

The original comment that started this discussion was about mentoring systems, which some games add to let you lower your level to try and correct #3. Wildstar also lets you scale down to dungeon level to correct #2, but it’s far from a perfect fix. Sure I can become level 15 again to do a dungeon, but I don’t go back to level 15 skills only, and I have ones I don’t have. Thus my Engineer tank had a far easier time doing the level 15 content as a scaled down level 30 than as an actual level 15, due to the game not giving me my real tanking skill set until after level 20.

Mentoring systems are a nice band-aid to try and cope with a problem, but wouldn’t it be better to just not have the problem in the first place?

As for #4, Blizzard tried to correct that by introducing an auto-level boost to 90 with Warlords of Draenor, so you can get to the new content faster. That just totally obsoletes all the old content and illustrates my point perfectly – if levels are really a good idea in a MMO, why did they have to resort to letting you skip almost all of them?


I understand that some levels can be useful, as a way introduce people to skills gradually and let people learn how to play without being overwhelmed. They also let you grow in the world, to a point. What I’d like to see is a much flatter leveling curve, and to throw out the idea that an expansion requires more levels. If the point of the game is largely what you’re doing at the end game anyway, don’t waste people’s time by making them get a bunch more levels to reach the new normal, and splitting up friends from playing with each other by putting a level wall in the way.

Keep in mind that endgame is already based around level-less progression. There is no reason why the rest of the game can’t be made the same way. As an added bonus, since gear is all based on stat formulae, it’s much easier to scale down for content than removing levels is.

You can also simply learn skills in another way entirely, such as given by gear as you do things, which Belghast mentioned in today’s follow up post (looks like we were writing at the same time!).

WoW even did something different with Death Knights – starting them at level 50 and handing out talents & skills from quests, rather than making people replay those 50 levels. There are quite a lot of ways to skin this cat, I’d just like to see developers acknowledge that a system designed for campaigns & storylines that have a defined end isn’t suited to a genre that is meant to not end, and work to come up with better things. Band-aid fixes really don’t solve the problem.

Playing With Friends – Coop Games and Difficulty

These days, I play more games with friends than I do alone. Time is a lot more limited, and it’s single player that has suffered most. Most of that time is spent with Rhiss, my best friend. What I’m finding is that the experience changes some games greatly, while others don’t change at all. When it does change, it’s not always for the better.

Playing Together, But Not Really

Most recent example: Civilization: Beyond Earth

I really enjoy Beyond Earth. It took two expansions to make Civ 5 enjoyable (I still prefer 4), and Beyond Earth is starting from that base. Coop play was a natural fit, and it’s well supported either by just working together as two distinct teams, or being on the same team from game creation. Teammates share one pool of techs (at higher research cost to balance it out) and diplomatic state, but most other things are distinct. Due to how many affinity points you get from techs, it works best if you agree on how to progress there.

That said, the game put us far enough apart that we really aren’t interacting. Occasionally I send a trader his way and I sent a carrier to support a war of his, but for most of the game we were so far apart that helping each other wasn’t practical. The net result is that while we’re playing together and talking and such, aside from choosing research most of what I do doesn’t impact him at all. It’s fun, but not ideal.

I think the developers overcompensated from Civ 4, where it was possible to be so close together in coop that you’d step on each others toes while expanding. I had that happen once and it was a pain, but on a more favorable map it meant you could have each other’s back and really help out in war. It makes the game easier in general.

Playing Together and Trivializing The Game

Most recent example: Wildstar

I met Rhiss in World of Warcraft. The game was a good fit for us, as we were both RPers. Eventually I got into the raiding game more than he did and that caused problems, but we spent a ton of time playing together.

Since then, we’ve tried to find another MMO that could give us the same thing. Wildstar worked well for a while, when we were creating the content ourselves. That is, roleplaying. You’d also think that an MMO would be ideal for group play, but…

The main problem is that the open world stuff is designed to be soloed. Most of the quests don’t need another person at all. If you add one, you trivialize it. Especially when one of us is a tank and the other is a healer, we can take on most of the elite stuff without help too. When we do need more help, it’s usually in a dungeon/adventure, which requires a full group. There’s no real middle ground that can challenge two of us but not add extra people.

When it does work, it works really well. The trouble is that a lot of the time, the difficulty is so low for two people playing together that paying attention is not required. I understand why that is, given how hard it’d be to make a group only MMO in this market, but it’s still an issue for group play.

Playing Together and Kinda Interacting

Most Recent Example: Diablo 3

Since Reaper of Souls came out and totally revamped Diablo 3, it’s been a great team game. You can play with however many people you want (up to the maximum of four), and the game scales to handle it. We can change the difficulty for how far along we are, and the game handles it. We can find something to do for 20 minutes, or 2 hours. Interaction between characters in the game isn’t super high (this isn’t a team dance like a WoW raid), but what everybody is doing does matter and builds with control or buffs can really help each other out.

It can get repetitive given all you really do is kill things for loot infinitely, but it’s nice to have a game that feels like we’re actually playing together and that what we both do matters.

Playing Together as a Team

Most recent example: Borderlands The Pre Sequel

There’s a lot of things I didn’t like about Borderlands The Pre Sequel compared to Borderlands 2, but the coop play was not one of them. I was playing as Athena, and once I got levelled high enough I had both a shield to block/reflect attacks, and a taunt. Using that would free Rhiss up (playing as Nisha) to blast things like crazy. In addition to my ranged ability to get him back up, I was playing a tank in a FPS and it really changed the game in terms of how we fought together. I had a lot more fun once I got that.

The really great thing was how much it felt like what either of us was doing mattered. Working together greatly enhanced our results vs just having two of us off doing our own thing, and that’s my idea of what a coop game should be.


It actually surprises me that arguably the MMO is the one that failed the most as a coop game, but that was just due to fixed difficulty. There wasn’t really any way to make things in the levelling part of the game hard enough that we actually had to be a team most of the time, short of being reckless and trying to grab five pulls at once.

MMO Budgets Need A Rethink

The MMO market is a mess right now. Wildstar is the most obvious example, but problems making money abound. It’s to the point that even Blizzard doesn’t seem to be working on a new entry (though knowing Blizzard, Titan could have been cancelled simply because it wasn’t working out).

Fundamentally, this is a budget problem. A game can be very profitable with a small playerbase, if the budget is appropriate. We’re in an indie game golden age right now entirely because digital distribution brought the cost of distribution down so much that it suddenly became viable to sell 50,000 units at $10 and turn a profit, with a small budget for development. It’s great.

MMOs? Forget about it. Wildstar’s budget is rumored to be north of $100 million. ESO’s budget was huge. FFXIV’s budget was huge, then they did it again. With the kind of money being thrown around here, you need a game to have massive numbers to ever break even. The idea was to get a million subs and be good, but the market really doesn’t make that easy these days.

Bottom line – if people are going to keep making MMOs, budgets have to come down.

Continue reading “MMO Budgets Need A Rethink”

Hey, it’s a blog!

Occasionally I like to write stuff that doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. I’ll try putting that stuff here and see how it turns out.

Right now I expect it to be about gaming fairly often, but I have a really wide set of interests and like to write about all kinds of things… so pretty much anything could sneak in here.

If blogging requires you to be focused on one issue, then I’m really bad at it. 😉