Being a well-practised, pedantic prick I wanted to take a granular look at certain games and their specific mechanics. My approach is purely based on my own (most likely ill-informed) opinion but I find it quite intriguing to magnify certain game aspects and wonder if they hinder or improve the game. Firaxis’ ‘Will’ system in the XCOM series is today’s unfortunate victim.
The turn-based, alien-battling series is known and loved by its community because it embraces a balls-hard nature wrapped together with a simple(ish) tactical experience. Well, those who play on the classic/impossible, iron man mode that is. I fully condone you calling me a twat for being “that guy” and saying the harder, perma-death mode which cements every action you make is how the game should be played and reflects the best XCOM experience (with the second game’s story continuing on from a lost campaign, the developers certainly reinforce that temperament.)
One of the exciting aspects of playing either XCOM: Enemy Unknown, its expansion Enemy Within or XCOM 2 is seeing how the game is going to repeatedly dick you over. In spite of the two games, expansions and two Long War mods (oh God, there is just so, so much) spicing things up to change players’ tactical and strategical approach, there is one mechanic which has mostly stayed the same.
Each individual squad member in XCOM has an array of statistics which are influenced by gear, abilities and class type which all help to define how you handle them. Do you want Charles Dance the ranger flanking with that beautiful shotgun? You betcha. What about Alan Davies, he should sneak around the enemy and remain unnoticed, waiting for the perfect opportunity to slice through some sectoid meat. Will is one of these stats and is affected by the same components and more important than you think.
New players will see will as an arbitrary number, something to worry about later, but trust me, it plays a big part.
The core premise of a soldier’s will is simple; it determines the stability of their mind and how likely they are to keep their cool under pressure. Whenever a soldier is damage directly or indirectly (environmental damage can be a factor) a behind the scenes dice is rolled with the more will the soldier has, the higher the likelihood nothing negative happens. If the roll does not go in your favour, however, fighting aliens just became a lot more difficult now the soldier is panicked.
When the aspiring alien-killer enters a panicked state negative effects start taking place with control being ripped from the player immediately as the soldier acts on its own accord, retreating hunkering down or taking a pot-shot at some alien scum. This counts as the soldier using its action for the turn so when it comes to using them the well-placed, flanking soldier might as well be a lemon with a target on its head. All of a sudden you are faced with new decisions to either back the soldier up or let them fend for themselves for a turn and see if it works out. The plan you had to kill the aliens was going to be difficult in the first place, but now you have to adapt and make it just as good.
Sometimes the soldier might be far away from the main squad and although a piece of you wants to say, ‘screw em, I’ll just lose a soldier and be one down for this mission’ there are several factors encouraging you to help your fellow member in their panicked state.
For one, you’ll be a gun down for the mission which can be the difference between success and failure. You need every gun available in XCOM as the odds are stacked against you as soon as the battle begins. Because its XCOM, a dead soldier does not just mean being one person down, the lovely will mechanic kicks again. Oh yes. When a soldier takes a laser to the face the will die is cast again, this time for the still conscious soldiers who have witnessed their comrades’ death. The nature which saw the original soldiers’ demise is now spreading throughout the squad like a horrible domino effect.
Not that’s pretty shit, right. In one turn your goal has been reduced from trying to complete the mission, to hoping you can leave with at least a few of your soldiers intact. It’s brutal.
There is another way Will affects the battle and it is fairly similar to the first one but with psionics, so it’s much cooler. A few of the aliens in XCOM use psionic abilities which are specific attacks aimed to mess with the soldier’s mental state. The will stat plays an important part in these encounters as it acts as the primary resistance in these instances. Psi attacks are used to debilitate the soldier by reducing their aim, how far they can move as well as mind controlling soldier until the alien is stunned or killed.
So what appears to be an arbitrary number when you first launch XCOM, a low will stat can be reason you lost the mission and you just have to accept it will happen.
As little as will has changed between the iterations there is a fantastic element put in XCOM 2 and that is a soldier becoming shaken. If a soldier has become panicked or severely wounded in a mission (and manages to survive) they might become shaken and have a reduced will. Although it may seem like kicking a person when they’re down, if the soldier succeeds in their next mission they recover from their wounded state and end up with an increased will stat. Granted, it’s not the best way to increase will on a soldier, but it adds another badge of honour for the soldier and gives them an additional layer of personality.
I am rather fascinated by this mechanic as I’m still not sure if I love it or hate it. It encapsulates the essence of XCOM well – if you think it’s hard now, give the game a couple of minutes to get really show you.
The reason I hate this mechanic is I wonder whether it needs to have such a huge impact. I have no problem with it coming into play when a certain alien is specifically targeting the soldiers’ mind, but when you get punished on top of the usual attack it feels unfair, which is a ridiculous thing to complain about in XCOM. It’s like complaining about cutting your finger after playing Five Finger Jack. What do you expect to happen?
Then there’s the part of me which loves it and understands why it is in the game. The reason why the games are so good, successful and still have people coming back for more is because its not afraid to stack the deck against the player and say ‘deal with this challenge’. That’s what XCOM is. The Will adding to that is all part of the experiences and forces the player to improvise if the battle up to that point was going well or badly.
It’s a brutal, but intrinsic part of XCOM and although part of me wants its impact reduced, I think I would miss it and be bereft of one of the cogs which make XCOM, well, XCOM.