This week, proving that tactical science-fiction games can do it as well as fantasy adventure games, we take a look at the rebooted XCOM franchise, which seems to have caught on to Link’s cunning plan and has recently reinvented/rebooted/re-realized its mythos for the nth time in the last seven years.
Now, I am very fond of XCOM and, although I think that The Death of the Author is over-embraced, I am not at all against the idea of re-imagining stories. The problem with the world-building in the XCOM universe is that, in the “current timeline” (XCOM:EU/EW, XCOM 2) we have not yet got to the end of the first story. The problem with the world-building in XCOM: Chimera Squad (XC:CS) is that it wants to have its reconstituted protein cake and eat it.
Tedium from the Shallows
The first XCOM game series included Terror from the Deep, a twist in terms of both plot and game-play, in that the aliens were now coming from inside the house!
During the reboot, this is just one of the developments at which the games have hinted, alongside the mysterious ailments and agendas of the different groups of ethereals. As of yet, however, there has been little in the way of resolution. The first game, and its expansion pack, even chickened out of continuity with the old ‘it was all a dream!’ chestnut deployed in the sequel. Looks like I spoke too soon about games being art after all.
XC:CS takes us in the other direction: it does at least admit that XCOM 2 happened. However, it generally does so in the laziest ways possible. The story and game-play are not so much integrated with one another as announced loudly over the Tannoy in hopes that someone notices the former and generously assumes it applies to the latter.
We begin the game with veterans from both sides. As is tradition, these veterans do not know how to shoot, do not possess basic knowledge of their own biological capabilities, and prefer to get around by clipping rather than walking.
Verge and Torque, for example, both have stories which emphasize how dangerous they are and how difficult it is to trust a mind-controlling puppet-master and a psychotic mass-murderer respectively. Yet, this is not really reflected in the mechanics at their disposal, even in the very late game: Verge learns to control an enemy’s mind for about five seconds, once per mission, and
Samus Torque finally gets permission from Adam to bite things.
Games which use story to emphasize the élite skills of a person and then do not reflect that in the game-play are doing their narrative a disservice. The running gags about missing with easy shots are an XCOM staple, but the mental gymnastics required to forgive that (this is just a slow simulation of a hectic, running battle) are rather less contrived than those required to work out why the aliens have lost all their powers between the writing of their biographies and the game itself.
Speaking of biography, XC:CS wants us to think about the ramifications of a human victory at the end of XCOM 2. What happens to the Advent forces and the stranded aliens? Where will they live? Is co-existence possible? What shift in human sentiment caused them to number, rather than name, City 31? These are thought-provoking, interesting questions which work as effective foils when put alongside the exciting, kick-in-the-door squad tactics.
Unfortunately, the story is not able to bear the weight of the world-building required. In XCOM and XCOM 2, the aliens and Advent forces never spoke in an intelligible, terrestrial language. Even the Advent hybrids’ voices seemed to have been altered to make them seem more, well, alien. In XC:CS, however, there is little alien about any of them, save their appearances. Each gets only token tropes to work with, rather than a different mentality: mutons’ spirituality is brought up as part of the story, but never reflected in Axiom’s behaviour (or even in the behaviour of the muton enemies, really); Verge’s psychic empathy caused him to take pity on the humans and switch sides, but he expresses little, if any, remorse or pain as he guns down dissidents and criminals by the dozens.
Contrast these aliens with, say, the vardrags or gorgs in Nexus: The Jupiter Incident whose culture and technology inform their modes of speech, communication, diplomacy, warfare, and more, all running through the plot smoothly, rather than being given as chunks of exposition. Or the liir in Sword of the Stars, whose empathic psychic powers mean that combat is so incredibly traumatic for them that liir soldiers can only cope by undergoing a form of psycho-social conditioning in which they ritually die.
The alien protagonists and antagonists of XC:CS are effectively just humans. Their abilities and personalities are barely even cosmetically different from the humans with whom they work and/or live. This could have been a way to say, ‘We’re not so different after all!’, especially in today’s political climate of increasing international tension, but the story does not even support that reading very well, either.
Slightly trite messages of mutual co-operation, and aliens which are just humans in rubber masks, are not even the only things they stole from Star Trek. Verge is just Spock without the curious affection for Kirk which allowed the franchise’s fans to branch out into some truly weird directions. Torque is suspiciously like Seven-of-Nine, in her own way, but even then the writers missed the mark somewhat.
The fact that almost all of the characters deliver one-liners in the same, comic-book tone is the thing which I found most grating after a while. I like comics, and I like snarky one-liners, but I also like my characters to be distinct. If the same quip can leap from the mouth of the cyborg, the flesh golem, the snake-lady or the lady-lady and make equally as much sense, then the characters involved are too flat to be reflective of world-building.
In-universe terminology is clumsy, too. A clear verbal distinction is drawn between aliens, hybrids, and humans, but the “aliens” were all altered with human genetic material in the back-story anyway, so surely they should be be classified as “hybrids” nowadays?
All in all, XC:CS is a fun game, if too short and a bit on the cash-grab side of things. It almost feels like a concept for a bigger, better game than itself. There are even some good ideas, whether stashed away in character biographies or in the in-universe advertisements done in faux-retro style. But, for all that, it has the cartoonish air of a short-lived spin-off of the real thing, rather than an entity in its own right because the world-building of XCOM hinges upon the one thing which Chimera Squad refuses to incorporate: the terrifying mystery of the Other.