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XCOM: No Medkits For You

Several days ago, a kind soul who goes by the name of Duneyrr gifted me XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s half turn-based strategy, half management sim, and all-around a really good game. I’m impressed by how absorbing and challenging it is while also being very accommodating to newcomers. Maybe someday I’ll sing its praises, but right now I want to talk about a serious problem I have with it, a problem that’s made me rage-quit more than once.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, I did name her Felicia Day. And she ended up being my first Colonel, and my first Psychic. I think the game is trying to tell me something.

In XCOM you get a lot of soldiers. There are four classes (Support, Heavy, Sniper, Assault) and each soldier’s class is determined at random. Each soldier can equip one item for each battle. (Well, except for high-level Support troops who can carry two, but I digress.) “Items” include things like scopes that improve critical hit chance, grenades, protective vests, and importantly, medkits.

When a soldier is shot down in the field, he has a chance to become critically wounded instead of immediately dead. A critically wounded soldier is disabled and in three turns, he will die. In that time you can save him by either eliminating all hostiles and completing the mission, or having another soldier reach him and use a medkit to stabilize him.

So what happens if a character holding a medkit is critically wounded? “Surely,” I hear you wondering, “it would be logical for another soldier to reach her, take her medkit from her disabled body and use it to stabilize her?”

“Well,” I bitterly reply, “I guess Firaxis thought that would be too easy, because instead the answer is that you can’t do anything about it. If you don’t have someone else with a medkit, you’re pretty much fucked.”

“But there’s a logical explanation for this, right?” you inquire.

“Nope.”

The metagame reason for this is because items cannot be exchanged in the middle of battle. A soldier’s item(s) is/are glued to her. From a design standpoint, this makes things a lot simpler to program, and for the most part it’s never a big deal since you always give each soldier the item that best suits her role. (Scope for the sniper, medkit for the support, etc.) But in this particular situation, there’s obviously a very valid reason for why you would want one soldier to take a medkit from another.

You can argue that this is the designers’ way of providing an added challenge for the player. You can say that this forces you to be more careful about who you give the medkits to and how you use your medkit-carrier on the field. (I’d say that there’s already so much challenge for you if you play on the higher difficulties that it doesn’t really need this layered on top, but whatever.) But this is sidestepping the real problem, which is that there’s no explanation for why you can’t do it in the logic of the game world.

If they weren’t being lazy and actually intended for this to be a deliberate feature, they could have acknowledged it somewhere. They could have had an NPC explain that the medkits aren’t handheld objects and are actually attached to the armor of the user. Or something. It’s not that far-fetched, since some of the items clearly are things you can’t easily pick up and give or take, like the protective vests. As it stands, there’s just a black void where the answer should be.

See, this isn’t necessarily a problem with regard to game balance; this is a problem with immersion and cohesion.

Allow me to get off-track for a moment. There’s this show called Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage, where a guy talks about in-depth concepts in video game storytelling and world-building. Here’s my favorite episode:

In the episode he talks about how a multimedia experience like a video game can become something much greater than the sum of its parts when all those parts work together to create a cohesive, effective whole. You see, XCOM isn’t just a turn-based combat sim. The combat is part of something much greater. XCOM creates a big, organic, adaptable story about you trying to save the world from an alien invasion. For the most part, all the different parts of the game (the research, the engineering, the recruiting, the fleet commanding, etc.) all fit effectively as part of this.

The combat is probably the most important piece of the puzzle, since it’s what you spend a huge amount of time interacting in and how you handle the combat greatly affects how well you succeed or how horribly you fail in your overarching mission. And while turn-based combat is obviously not meant to accurately portray how a real combat scenario would look, it symbolizes real combat, and it’s important that the metaphor is consistent with itself.

And in this case, that metaphor falls apart. I can see what the medkit item looks like. It looks like a handheld object. And every soldier knows¬†how to handle medkits; this is a fact established by the game. But for no apparent reason, one soldier can’t take a medkit from another incapacitated soldier. This breaks the illusion of the combat, which breaks the illusion of the game. You might call this a nitpick, but it comes to slap you in the face whenever one or more of your support troops goes down. (And if you play XCOM, you’ll know that this sort of thing happens a lot, whether you want it to or not.)

So, there’s my gripe. An unfortunate flaw in an otherwise (mostly) great game.

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7 responses

  1. aldowyn

    Hmm. I never thought of that. Another note is that even if they just got killed instead of critically injured you should be able to grab the medkit.

    That said… Seems like a really minor issue TBH.

    November 1, 2012 at 3:12 PM

  2. Deadpool

    I agree. It’s actually one of the top suggestions from fans on their official forums, and Firaxis totally swears they are totally listening to fans (not doubting them per se, just not holding me breath here).

    Still, I must say, the level when my team had to essentially watch as a fellow squad mate bled to death because no one had any medkits was particularly brutal… As was having to put a rocket to kill four aliens and wound two more KNOWING it would kill the critically wounded person in the blast area (I had the Heavy retire shortly afterwards. Felt right).

    I’m sorry your Psi ended up being a Sniper. Worst class for it. At least her Will isn’t worthy of note. My Psi Sniper also turned out to have the highest Will I HAVE EVER SEEN (105).

    Btw, hint, Mind Shield increases Will for offensive purposes too, despite the description. Quite useful on Psi characters.

    November 2, 2012 at 5:40 PM

  3. My response/take on the topic is thus: http://triplehype.blogspot.com/2012/11/on-medkits-and-suspension.html

    Apologies for the many assumptions I make in the article, no harm meant in any of it.

    November 3, 2012 at 4:56 PM

  4. Even

    It’s especially annoying when in the original X-Com: Ufo Defense/UFO: Enemy Unkown every single piece of gear could be picked up, dropped or thrown around in addition to their normal function. You could pick up even corpses off the ground.

    There were also no hardlocked classes and the only limit to your carried items was the amount of physical space given and the weight of the items vs. the soldier’s strength stat. Which all worked a lot better.

    It’s still far from my main gripe, which is the bullshit free movement that enemy units get when they’re first spotted. Bye bye planning and welcome trying to game the system and hope it leads to desired results. It’s just absolutely counter-intuitive to all planning of tactics and strategy because it’s about a bullshit mechanic giving it an advantage because apparently they couldn’t just program the A.I behave more intelligently then just standing around with their collective and proverbial thumbs up their goddamn proverbial asses 99% of the time. It’s like they never had any plan of action until they made eye contact with your soldiers. The 1% of when they actually come out of the fog of war of their own volition is just way too rare to make up for it. The terror missions are about the only real exception to this, but even then I figure it’s only because they see civilians to shoot from where they spawn.
    It’s not a game ruining mechanic, but it does make the tactical gameplay a lot less enjoyable than it could be.

    November 13, 2012 at 2:39 PM

  5. FullCottonJacket

    I totally agree on this, and I assume it is a symptom of consolitis. Realism and game logic is overlooked to simplify the game-play on an X-box.

    I also suspect the developers thought they were adding tactical choices by forcing the player to decide which item to bring along. Should I bring a grenade or a medikit? But when they added a pre-mission choice, they also removed many in-mission choices. Should I fire or throw a grenade? Well, I don’t have a grenade, so… (How on earth would I be able to carry a medikit AND a grenade!?)

    Luckily there are mods that add an extra item slot, but they do not fix the problem of not being able to pick up stuff.

    This and the AI problems mentioned in this thread are just some of the things that a nearly 20-year-old game did much better.

    November 19, 2012 at 7:12 AM

  6. Xcom sucks hard

    The most poorly designed game ever. This is not top notch strategy, like Valkyria Chronicles. This has to be among one of the dumbest games released. So many aspects do not make any logical sense. You can’t run after you shoot (90% of the time). Stupid. Enemies pop up right in front of you. I can have a soldier behind a box, an enemy pops up on the other side and kills him. Stupid. There are many even dumber things you can’t do in this pathetic game.

    If you want to play a real strategy game, get Valkyria Chronicles and pass on this POS.

    March 29, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    • What should I do if I’m one of those unfortunate sods who doesn’t actually own a PS3? Is, in your opinion, playing XCOM better or worse than not playing any strategy games at all?

      March 29, 2013 at 8:14 PM

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