X-Com was a child of its time. It was a brilliant exercise in taking the basic idea of Aliens, which is the basic idea of Space Hulk, and expressing it with Microprose’s gleeful love of numbers, courtesy of 90s era computer game design. The thinking back in those days was that computers compute. They can eat numbers for breakfast. So feed them! Back then, computer gaming was a small enough pursuit to equate complicated with good. That worked for me.
But numbers have fallen out of favor. Latter day X-Coms are mostly SRPGs from Japan, where numbers aren’t reviled. And while 2K figures out how to update X-Com, other games have found their own approaches. One of my recent favorites is Hunters 2 for the iPad, which presents the X-Com experience courtesy of 21st century videogame design.
After the jump, shooting a forever gun
A tactical combat game like X-Com needs different guns. Many developers mistake guns for a set of statistics. This is the sort of thinking that went into weapons in the olden days of D&D. A dagger was 1D4, a short sword was 1D6, a bastard sword was 1D8, a mace was 1D6+1, and so forth. Therefore, in a tactical combat game with guns, a pistol does 1-6 points of damage, a shotgun does 2-12 points of damage, a sniper rifle does 2-20 points of damage. Adjust ranges as necessary to add personality.
But one of the things I love about Hunters 2, a sleek tactical sci-fi combat game in the same vein as Space Hulk, Aliens, and X-Com, is how it doesn’t rely exclusively on numbers. When you first start playing, your characters get the usual options for a shotgun, an assault rifle, or a warhammer. Ranges and attack speeds vary, of course. You might find a precision assault rifle that has a higher percentage chance to hit. You might find a harder hitting hammer. It’s a typical numbers game.
But then you’ll face and eventually find the game’s heavy weapons. These require an investment of skill points to use, but they introduce new rules instead of just bigger numbers. My first heavy weapon was the sniper rifle. It naturally has a longer range, does a lot of damage, and fires very slowly. So far, so good. But the unique rule about the sniper rifle is that if a character fires it without moving that turn, he has a straight-up 100% chance to hit. A sniper who takes the time to aim will not miss. So now my sniper is an entirely different playing piece from my other soldiers.
What really won me over was the minigun. You’ll probably have one fired at you long before your characters get a chance to use one. The first thing you notice is the sound. It’s an almost insect whirr. Churrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. And as one of the bad guys shoots at you, you might notice the word “sustained” floating up with the damage numbers. What? “Sustained”? Is this a courtroom shooter?
When a character fires a minigun, he shoots a set number of rounds. At which point, he has a 50% chance to shoot that many rounds a second time. At which point, he has a 50% chance to shoot that many rounds a third time. At which point, he has a 50% chance to shoot that many rounds a fourth time. Repeat as necessary, ad infinitum. With the virtual dice on your side, a minigun can mow down any creature with a single attack. Like the sniper, my minigun dude is now a unique playing piece unlike any other playing piece, and not by virtue of the size of its numbers.
Hunters 2 also gives each character a skill tree that further develops the idea of game-bending rules variations, but you won’t unlock these until after a fair bit of character development (i.e. grinding or microbuying). Until then, I’m happy to thrill to the word “sustained” as it appears where other games might have just put a larger number.
By the way, I can imagine the internal debate that must have taken place when the developers at Rodeo Games decided what to call this effect. I get that it refers to sustained fire, but I can’t be the only guy to think of Phoenix Wright, Lance Ito, and Matlock at this point. Did they ever consider something slightly more visceral, along the lines of an orcish “waughhh” from Warhammer?