As a thought exercise, imagine playing through any mission in XCOM – Enemy Unknown or Enemy Within – but instead of XCOM tech, you have the equipment and personnel of the modern US military.  Don’t worry too much about how the XCOM rifle would match up against an M-16, or even about the squad sizes, but think of the options available to the modern commander that are completely lacking in XCOM.

There’s the high tech stuff that, apparently, is not high-tech enough for XCOM.  Recon and Offensive UAV’s, peek-around cameras, and thermal imaging spring to mind.

Then there’s pretty ordinary stuff that the XCOM organization apparently doesn’t have a proper license for.  Mines.  Grenade launchers.  Close fire support from mortars, howitzers, artillery, and the air.  Sure, all of that stuff would be pretty destructive, and probably shouldn’t be used on urban maps – but still.

Then there’s the stuff that’s just plain ridiculous.  Grenades that barely hurt anything.  LMG’s that lack any sort of reasonable area fire abilities.  Shotguns stuck in the 1910’s, when the pump-action was high tech.   The complete and total lack of recon optics.

From another perspective, just imagine how bad-ass the alien tech would have to be to make them as menacing in ARMA 3 as they are in XCOM.

All that said, how much does it matter?  Not at all, in my opinion.

Last night, I played through the Council mission where you have to investigate a Chrysalid infestation on a small island in Newfoundland.  That’s a great mission, especially since it shows up fairly early in the game and Chrysalids are nasty.  You make your way slowly through the docks, until reaching a great big ship that had been involved in an illegal whaling operation.  I assume it’s illegal, at any rate, unless in the near-future of XCOM Canada has rather dramatically changed some of its environmental laws.  Seeing that, XCOM Command wants to bring in an airstrike, but needs you to activate a transponder, for aiming.  Then you have to walk your team back to the LZ.

From any sort of simulation perspective, this is completely absurd.  Why one Earth would you need the ship’s transponder for targeting?  A P-52 could have dropped napalm on that ship by sight alone!  Furthermore, why couldn’t the Skyranger pop up and pick your guys up from the deck of the ship – just hover for a bit, and drop those same jump ropes you deploy from, like any contemporary helicopter would do.  For all its future crap, XCOM can’t even access the technology of the early and mid twentieth century!

Yet it doesn’t matter, as this is a really great scenario.  From a gameplay perspective, there are far too few reasons to put your guys in danger, encouraging players to move their units with a painful slowness.  This time, you are forced to advance and then retreat quickly, so as to evade a truly infinite enemy and escape before the time limit expires.  Advancing across the ship’s deck, knowing that a Chrysalid or two is going to jump out and attack your vulnerable units, was an incredibly stressful moment, making my successful escape and victory an incredibly awesome achievement.

Time and time again,  XCOM’s abstracted and simplified game design creates fun and interesting scenarios that, when evaluated carefully against the theme, are totally absurd.  It helps that everything looks pretty cool – it’s easy to forget that the hulking dude with a massive assault rifle is missing shots that would be a gimme for a Navy SEAL armed with anything better than a flintlock.

In the boardgame world, it’s commonly recognized just how little theme has to do with game design.  It’s interesting to see such a clear example in the video game world – especially since the original XCOM UFO Defense tried so much harder to be a simulation.

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