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In Anticipation For Enemies Unknown

It will still be a little over a week until XCOM: Enemy Unknown (essentially a remake of the Microprose smash hit) comes out.  I'm looking forward to the game enough that I've already spent all my entertainment dollar on a pre-order.
Unfortunately, now there's the little issue of how I'm going to burn my time from now until then.  I could try doing something productive, but unless the prospect of actual employment manifests, that's probably not going to happen.

I'd certainly like employment to happen, but these are trying times in which employers are remarkably finicky, and simple inactivity on one's work record is enough to make them apprehensive.  While I can sympathize with a desire to keep one's livelihood secure with the best help one can find, I would levy the small criticism that if few want to inconvenience themselves with the effort of bringing displaced workers back into the fold, it's little wonder the economy has been so slow to recover.

Self-employment is ever an option, but unfortunately my programming efforts have been thoroughly derailed by a bothersome number of familial crises (not the least of which being the very computer in which I was programming on breaking) that left me frustrated and emotionally drained.  Life has a way of denying the independent creator the isolation they need to realize their masterpieces, and I fear a significant number of the people in my life just won't leave me alone.  I suppose it's good to be needed.  It's just as well: I was never particularly sure what is that I was making, and setting a goal of quickly having a playable game to show for it was perhaps a recipe for inevitable failure.

People with more internalized loci of control than I would say a person makes their own luck.  If this is true, then it would seem I enjoy a challenge.

I suppose it's little wonder computer games have not been so very satisfying as of late: I've larger worries.  But, as they're never far from my mind, I suppose I could reflect on some of the things I've been up to lately.

X-COM:Apocalypse and X-COM:UFO Defense

I think I've been playing these games entirely out of anticipation for XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  In doing so, I can say one thing for certain: Firaxis noticed and fixed a lot of what was wrong with them.

If you can forgive its not-entirely-turn-based nature, Apocolypse is solid in game play execution but weak in premise: it's just not quite as interesting to have a single, futuristic city as the focus of the action.  I mentioned before that I prefer it over UFO Defense.  That's unfortunately true: I find myself torn between Apocolypse for its gameplay and UFO Defense for its setting.

1996's UFO Defense is notorious for being difficult, your squaddies dying to alien fire is just the cold reality of the repelling a hostile alien invasion, and this has become part of the mythos of the series.  However, having since played other squad-based strategy games, I'm able to come back to it now and realize UFO Defense is more than hard, it's genuinely unfair:
  • If there's any kind of obstruction nearby, the only safe way to move is one turf at a time, because troop pathing is very rudimentary and it's not always clear when their pathing is obstructed.   When your troop's faulty pathing sends them on a wild goose chase that blunders into enemy fire, this is often the end of them.
  • Line of sight is not very clearly conveyed, thanks in part to the awkward fixed isometric perspective, so many of the shots you needed to take to save your squaddies are obstructed by things you did not anticipate, such as lamp or fence posts you believed would be a few feet out of the way.  Conversely, your attempts to take cover behind things often don't work because line of sight is so ambiguous.
  • The alien AI seems brilliant, but it's actually just a cheat.  Aliens are deadly because they have a greater sight distance than your units, extremely high accuracy, and nearly-always-fatal weaponry.  The one clever trick they have is to know where to toss their grenades so as to take out half your squad, should they be bunched up.  Aside from that, they're fairly stupid, possessing a short memory that causes them to do silly things like run back and forth, in and out of the same door, for many turns.  Sometimes, they'll just stand in one place the whole battle, requiring you hunt through every closet to find them.
  • There's a great deal of randomness in the damage model.  The flimsiest of Sectoids normally go down in a single shot, but may take a half-dozen or more to take down in rare instances.  Simultaneously, if you're unlucky enough, you'll see their heavy plasma rifles kill your heaviest armored tank or power armor user in a single shot.  Consequently, even when everything goes right, there's a chance it can go wrong.
  • At times, you'll lose units to alien reaction shots just trying to walk them down the gankplank from the Skyranger transport.  There's not a lot you can do about this, as you will have no way of knowing the enemy is there until the first shots ring out.  Tossing smoke grenades may help, but I've noticed that the game has line-of-sight issues that make it difficult for the smoke grenade to land in such a way as to visually obstruct the gankplank.
None of these reasons are "you're a bad player and your squaddies deserve to die because of that."  You're just forced to see your squaddies die because of the way the game is designed.  Despite this, you'll be able to shoulder on because troops are cheap: when you recover a single Heavy Plasma Rifle, you can sell it for about $170k, but troops only cost $20k, and you can buy as many as your living quarters can hold.  Realizing there's nothing I could do to reliably prevent it from happening, I just stopped caring if my troops lived or died, and a significant amount of the appeal of X-COM: UFO Defense went with that.

I should have more reason to care about my troops in the XCOM: Enemy Unknown remake.  Despite embracing the idea your troops have a dreadful mortality, in an interview with some Firaxis developers I was watching, they mentioned that they have a motto that the game would be fair.  In various game design aspects of this game, I can see this as being the case:
  • Damage is consistent - while critical hits are a factor, you'll usually know when your troop is one hit away from death.  Your troops have clearly defined health points that get rather large (at least below the "classic" hard difficulty).
  • Cover is a major factor, you will have the peace of mind of reliable damage mitigation.
  • There's lots of special moves that should give the players considerably better control over whether their squaddies live or die.  For example, hunkering down, setting up a reaction fire "overwatch" mode, or pinning down enemies with suppression fire.
  • Aliens do not seem to become active until you find them, which seems terrible from a procedural generation standpoint, but is great from a fairness standpoint as they're no longer just sniping you from out of your visual range as you explore the map.
I look forward feeling that, when my troops die in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, more often than not I will feel there's something I could have done to prevent that.  Once again, it seems that the main advantages the games of yesteryear have is that they're being regarded with rose-colored nostalgia glasses firmly in place.

Carrier Command: Gaea Mission

Yet another remake of nostalgia's past, Carrier Command: Gaea Mission, definitely has attracted lascivious thoughts along those lines.  The game has incredible potential, the formula of the original Carrier Command puts the player in a unique role of controlling a carrier and eight deployable units, and this introduces a lot of cool opportunities for 3D vehicular combat. 

To set the expectation in the right place, you should know that Gaea Mission is made by Bohemia Interactive, and this studio seems to have a track record that suggests they've a policy of deliberately putting out buggy, but epic, games and patching them over time.  It's a functional enough model so long as the players are willing to humor them long enough to let them do this, but it can potentially backfire if for some reason the company decides its time is better spent elsewhere.

So what went wrong at the release of Carrier Command: Gaea Mission?   Actually, relatively speaking, not a whole lot: the game is technically sound (e.g. does not crash constantly) the voice acting is capably performed, and the graphics are quite good even if they're not Crysis 2 level (which is a fairly ridiculous standard).  But, as I browse what passes for a Steam forum these days, I do see very mixed responses.  The overwhelming negative responses seem to gravitate on a few key points:
  • The artificial intelligence is game-cripplingly bad.  This is problematic in that you have several units under your control and you can't trust them to follow orders without getting lost or killed.  This does not always happen, but it's bad enough to be an issue.
  • The single player campaign (as opposed to the strategy mode that emulates the original) is boring and repetitive.
  • There is no multiplayer.  Even the original had multiplayer.
To address each individual point:

I could see the AI as being a serious problem, but not quite as serious as many posters suggest.  What many players are unaware of, due to the GUI not making a big point of it, is that there's a "waypoint" system that enables you to break down your orders into smaller parts.  Smaller distances are much easier for the AI to understand, I know this because I've programmed AIs in the past, but I imagine the average player does not.  When I see Carrier Command Lets Plays videos, it seems to me that the AI on the "Walrus" hovertanks does a better job than many players describe when they complain about it.

Nonetheless, the AI is a problem that needs to be addressed in the long run, as it does not take many Lets Play videos for me to see an example of when your vehicles are under-performing.  Pathing difficulties are frequent (especially without waypoints) but perhaps just as problematic is their tendency to try to confront the enemies without feeling satisfied the line of sight will permit them to fire their weapons.  For example, in one video I saw, the AI-driven Walrus tank was given an order to attack a turret on a wall, and responded by moving right up to the wall to where the battlements where now obstructing the Walrus's view of the turret.  Thus stymied, the Walrus AI flounced about helplessly, unable to fire its weapon, but also unable to get any closer to it's target than it already was.

Until the AI issues are worked out, players intent on enjoying the game should probably tell themselves that this is essentially a single-vehicle game, where you are intended to switch between the vehicles you control to manually make them perform at their best, and the remaining vehicles on AI control are just very unreliable support.  It's unintentionally traditional: in the original Carrier Command, your units had no combat AI, and their pathing would be thwarted by the very first obstruction laying directly between them and the destination waypoint.

As for the boredom of the single player campaign, I'm not positive I'll bother playing it.  It might be fun for a lark, as a sort of protracted tutorial with a lot of work put into the videos and voice acting.  However, the overwhelming bulk of the original Carrier Command experience was in the Strategy mode, outside of the Campaign mode, and I will regard this remake in the same way.

As for lack of multiplayer, I've seen one developer interview that where they said they were focusing on getting a coherent single player game out first, and then worrying about adding multiplayer post-release.  Hopefully, they'll live up to that promise, as I can see a great potential for two players controlling dueling carriers, possibly with additional players piloting vehicles.  That said, I'm not too concerned abut the lack of multiplayer: a game with a big world and lots of freedom to tool around with your carrier and your vehicle is probably enough for me.

There's few guiltier pleasures than a game I know I should not spend my money on, and yet I really wish I could afford it right now.   Considering the game obviously has problems and much to live up for in future patches, I'm inclined to think I should wait until it comes down to $20-$30 instead of buying it outright. Yet, if I had the money, I'd likely support this game's release anyway.

How else to burn my time?

I don't know, maybe I'll start up a Sims 3 household, but the game still seems rather limited to me.  Somehow, they managed to release not one but two full-priced expansions for it between when I last played it, in March, and now there's a third one due out in two months.  Contrary to being overwhelmed with pleasure at the content expansion, I've found that, at $40 an expansion, Sims 3 seems a very expensive habit indeed, and my problems are in the core balance mechanic of the game.  Sims 3 just seems to lack adequate adversity to be interesting; it's a game about wish fulfillment that will see you win no matter how terrible you are at it.

Guild Wars 2 and FTL both go neglected for no particular reason.  I guess I'm not much in the mood for anything other than XCOM Enemy Unknown at the moment. 
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