The McMaster Files – What’s Old is New Again

A repository for games and ennui.

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This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #95. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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When PC gaming hit its first real golden age, at some point in the 90s, I was there.

I had been fortunate enough as a kid to have a dad that worked in electronics and was in on the early days of personal computing. While our early computers weren’t that exciting outside of the occasional knock-off game – for instance I had Digger instead of DigDug – after a time, the videogame market picked up. Wasteland, Fallout and XCOM, to name just a few, ruled my teenage years.

Then, for a long time, they were gone. The world of flashy 3D and high-fidelity graphics was at hand! We couldn’t get enough of Glide or Voodoo! This still goes on today, occasionally ushering in a new spurt of “beautiful if uninspired” games to wow with visuals, but some things have come back around.

While Fallout has gone the way of the FPS, the other two previously mentioned have fantastic sequels that fit the theme and design of their forebears. Wasteland 2, after a successful Kickstarter, has gone on to work on another entry into the universe. XCOM has had its own revival, culminating in two full game releases with DLC and mods. The latest DLC, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, was recently released.

With the release of War of the Chosen, I’m reminded of why we shouldn’t forget the past. The design for XCOM, initial and current, is some of the tightest in existence. For those who might not be familiar, let me explain the way the game works.

In XCOM 2, the game we’re currently discussing, the aliens have won the fight for the world. You, the commander of the resistance, had been captured. The game begins by saving you from an alien facility. The aliens had been running simulations through your brain to mine you for tactics to defeat the resistance.

With the release of War of the Chosen, I’m reminded of why we shouldn’t forget the past.

Once back in command of the XCOM crew, the game takes off. You manage the buildings, troops and research for the resistance in order to attempt to free mankind from its unwelcome – and often unnoticed – servitude and destruction. You do most of this from an overview world map or a side-view cut out of your ship/base. This is the framing; the real action happens on the missions you undertake to save mankind.

You start being able to drop four troopers into any mission, but you can eventually upgrade that to six. Each troop has a number of actions, combat usually ending your turn no matter if you shoot first or second, and once all troops have gone, the aliens take their turn. You continue to take turns until either one side completes its objectives or retreats. Victory and defeat have an overall effect on the game world, usually in a bonus for you or the enemy.

That’s the basic XCOM experience and it works very well. The use of newer technology allows for better graphics, more systems and much more complex level design, but base game remains the same. The core, while forgotten for quite some time, is still just as strong as it was in the 90s. You still control the resistance, recruit soldiers and attempt to free yourself from the nebulous alien threat.

War of the Chosen builds on that foundation and the additions of XCOM 2, and has managed to create a wonderfully complex, intriguing game that holds on to its roots while presenting a new challenge. This is where the march of time and technology comes in. There are a lot of new systems and changes, but mostly they feel like things the developers wanted to do and simply couldn’t.

The campaign re-writes the basic XCOM 2 campaign. The Chosen, the new bad guys for the expansion, are three powerful characters that show up on your missions and fight you alongside the standard aliens. These characters are very powerful and all have unique personalities. They enjoy talking smack to you during the missions. Also new is the ability for soldiers to form bonds that provide bonuses when they’re on a mission together. For instance, at the initial level, a character can give an action to their partner. This can be amazingly handy for getting characters out of the way of previously unforeseen harm. As the bondmates go on further missions, the bond strengthens and they can train together to unlock more bonuses.

Add those features to the quality of life updates, some game balancing and a buttload of content and you get War of the Chosen. I’ve long loved the XCOM franchise, not just for nostalgia but from a design standpoint. The resurgence of older franchises is one thing, but their continued success proves a point I believe most people in videogames often forget – new and flashy doesn’t mean “better.” It means new and flashy.

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Jason McMaster is a writer and editor with a lifelong passion for games. When he isn’t working on Unwinnable, he’s either on his PC or playing a board game. Follow him on Twitter @mcmaster

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