I am (Not) Ironman

With my dead 970 graphics card just now reaching the RMA warehouse, I am having to seriously sort through my gaming library for titles that will boot up on a 560ti. WoW runs fine, for example, but 7 Days to Die maybe pushes 20 fps if there isn’t anything going on.

Enter XCOM 2, which I purchased for $12 whole dollars in a recent Humble Monthly Bundle.

I started my first game on “normal” difficulty with Ironman enabled, as I did with the prior title almost four year ago. A few hours later, I abandoned that game and started anew without Ironman.

On the one hand, the decision was easy. XCOM 2 is filled with such crazy amounts of bullshit that I didn’t even feel bad for opening the door to save scumming. The third enemy type you face in the game, a Sectoid, has the ability to Mind Control your units through walls. And create zombie troops from dead bodies. Which is great when your squad consists of only 4 people and you lose one of them to Mind Control off the bat, and that one ends up killing another (who then turns into a zombie). Killing the Sectoid breaks the Mind Control and (re)kills the zombie troops, but that gets a little difficult when one of your guys is Mind Controlled.

Or how about that mission with the Faceless ones? Rescue six civilians… oh wait, one of them morphs into a putty creature with claws and you just ended your turn in melee range. Hey, six damage to your 6 HP dude, that’s convenient. Then you have the snake creatures that can move, then grab a sniper off the top of a train 30 feet away with their tongue, then instantly coil around them, permastunning them and dealing 2 damage per turn. I mean, I suppose I should be grateful there isn’t a chance I could shoot my own coiled guy when I shoot the snake, but I was absolutely expecting that to be a thing. Because fuck you.

None of these things are insurmountable. They just happen to be inane, “gotcha!” bullshit that artificially increases the difficulty of Ironman games. And not even permanently, as once you (the player) know about the existence of these abilities, you can play around them in the future. Which is the point, of course, but I see no reason to structure a game this way while also punishing you long-term for these same blind pitfalls.

On the other hand, after playing a few more hours in non-Ironman mode, I started to wonder about the philosophical ramifications of Save Anywhere.

Fundamentally, a Save Anywhere feature makes eventual success a forgone conclusion. Even in extremely skill-intensive or luck-intensive sections of gameplay, any incremental progress is permanent progress. Some tactical games have RNG protection, e.g. all dice rolls are determined in advance, to dissuade save scumming a 15% chance attack into a critical hit, but that doesn’t prevent you from simply coming in from a different angle or using a different ability.

The other problems with Save Anywhere are the player behavior ramifications. If you can save the game at any time, there is an advantage to doing so, which means there is an incentive to. Tapping F5 is not onerous, but I consider the mental tax of “needing” to remember to do so… well, taxing. It’s not that saving after every attack ruins the game (it does), it’s that I now have to devote constant attention to an out-of-game mechanic. Is there anything worse than thinking you hit Save before turning the corner, but realizing later on that you didn’t, and now you’re stuck with a poor outcome “unnecessarily?” Feels completely different than if the designers make that decision for you.

I feel like there is a middle way, especially in games like XCOM. Specifically: saving inbetween missions. This lets you avert complete disasters like the mission that eventually scuttled my Ironman attempt – a total squad wipe one square from the extraction point – while still disincentivizing save scumming inside each mission. At least then you can weigh the option of losing an elite soldier to some bullshit versus 30-40 minutes of your time.

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Posted on February 23, 2017, in Impressions, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Now’s a good time to continue your vanilla paladin project. :)

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  2. There is no easy way for a game to demonstrate interesting mechanics without putting the player at a disadvantage. They make the game more interesting but at the cost of being somewhere between unfair and requiring ultra-cautious play whenever encountering something new.
    I got lucky with my first faceless. A civilian was behind a truck on which three aliens were standing. My grenade killed one alien and blew up the van. The secondary explosion took out the other aliens and the civilian. Then the civilian got back up and turned into a heavily damaged faceless.

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  3. I don’t think XCOM is a ‘play ironman first’ type of game. I mean ironman is the best way to experience all the game has to offer, but I don’t think one is meant to jump directly into ironman (unless you expect to lose a few games).

    It’s very different from say Darkest Dungeon or Mordheim, where ironman is the ONLY option and the whole game is designed with that in mind.

    Also no Long War 2 mod?

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    • I actually seriously considered the Long War 2 mod based on your blog posts about it. My hesitation was my general dislike of modding a game before actually experiencing it “as intended” the first time. If I end up sticking around XCOM2 past the first completion, that is absolutely something I’d be interested in. We’ll have to see how the rest of the original game plays out.

      I’m completely fine with general roguelikes, and have enjoyed quite a few. Some of them even feature “gotcha!” moments as well. I think my disconnect with XCOM2’s version is simply that the game doesn’t immediately end when victory is no longer possible. Or maybe victory was still possible after that particular squad wipe, I dunno. It certainly no longer felt worth attempting in any case.

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      • Yea one squad wipe, especially early, isn’t game over in XCOM 2, and especially not in the LW2 mod. I would say beat the normal game, as it isn’t too long and the story is ok. Then take the LW2 mod for a spin.

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