Thoughts on XCOM: Enemy Within and XCOM: Long War

Written by J. David Smith
Published on 05 January 2016

At this point, I consider XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within to be one of my favorite games of the past few years, if not an all-time favorite. I'm not going to talk much about why XCOM is a good game; that has been covered more than adequately. I am rather disappointed that it took til 2015 for me to discover it, but I am immensely glad that I did. I have over 100 hours on Steam at this point, far surpassing any other recent single-player game. Prior to XCOM the most recent game I'd put this much time into was Dragon Age: Origins. I beat the game on Classic Ironman recently, and after a few several many attempts at Impossible Ironman, I was in the mood for something new. Still XCOM, mind you, but new. After looking a bit at the Second Wave options, XCOM has a variety of options that tweak the gameplay, such as reducing the accuracy of injured soldiers ("Red Fog") or gradually increasing accuracy as you approach a complete flanking ("Aiming Angles"). I am looking forward to unlocking item-loss on death ("Total Loss"; an omission that surprised me until I learned about the Second Wave options) when I get around to beating Impossible I decided to take a look at that mod I kept hearing about: Long War.

Ho. Lee. Shit.

More Like Long Changelog

To say that the number of changes made by Long War is many does a great disservice to the word. The changes in Long War are legion. They are multitudes. This isn't merely a set of tweaks and additions. Rather, it is very nearly a total conversion.

Once I recovered from my shock and the number of changes, my first fleeting thought was one of concern. Was this just a kitchen sink mod? A realization of some long-time fan's laundry-list of changes to make XCOM more like its predecessor? An in-my-opinion misguided attempt to make a game about saving Earth from space aliens more realistic? Further inspection only increased these concerns. Why have Assault Rifles and Battle Rifles and Carbines? What did adding 4 more classes bring to the table? Why require 10 corpses for an autopsy instead of 1? Not that it matters, I have so fucking many corpses and wrecks that they could ask for 50 and I could still do most of the autopsies. These thoughts made me hold off on diving into it. I started (and failed) another Impossible Ironman campaign first, then I downloaded and installed Long War.

They strongly recommend that you start back on Normal, because as I mentioned above: the changes are significant. So I did. I learned about the new systems, and steamrolled mission after mission with the new classes. That isn't to say they're imbalanced, just that if you play enough Impossible then Normal becomes pretty straightforward, even if it is a bit harder than Enemy Within Normal. One thing that struck me very early on is the quality of several of the UI/UX changes made by the Long War team. Scanning for contacts now stops right before a mission expires, giving you the chance to wait for a new tech to finish or a soldier to get their ass out of bed. When a unit (alien or human) enters Overwatch, it is now shown next to their healthbar, which means that the player is no longer out of luck if they happen to look away during the alien turn. They also added a "Bronzeman" mode that strikes a good medium between savescum and Ironman modes. It that behaves very much like the default in Fire Emblem: you are able to restart the mission, but not re-load in-mission saves. I would love to have these changes by themselves in the base game, and I do believe that some (like the Overwatch change) made it into XCOM 2. The changes made to the actual gameplay don't fundamentally alter the way it plays at a tactical level, although they do change the squad compositions that are effective. However, there are long-term ramifications to some of the changes that notably impacted my enjoyment of the game.

To Know Your Face

Far and away the most damaging change to the game is Fatigue. Not the only bad change, though. I could probably write an entire post on why Steady Weapon is awful design. In XCOM, when a soldier is injured in a mission they must take some time off after to heal up. As a result, it is prudent to have at least a B-list of soldiers that you can sub in for that Major Sniper that you barely saved from bleeding out. In Long War, when a soldier is not injured they still must take 3-5 days off (more for psionic soldiers actually wanting to use their psychic powers). This means that not only do you need a well-prepared B-list, but also a C-list. On the surface, this seems kind of cool. I would phrase that more subtly, but I already gave my thesis away. It means that you have to try more strategies, with more combinations of units as they rotate through various states of wounded, gravely wounded, and fatigued. However, it also means that you need a lot more soldiers. I never had more than 20 at a time in Enemy Unknown or Enemy Within. In Long War, you start with something like 40.

This Other changes, like increased squad size and muddy class identities, also play into this. However, fatigue is far and away the biggest cause, so I'm focusing on that. unintentionally changes something that I very much liked about XCOM: the impractical, unsustainable, and outright damaging attachment I had to my soldiers. I don't always know their names (I'm really very bad with names), but I know their faces. I remember The Volunteer from my first successful (Ironman) campaign. I remember the struggles, the near misses. She was the sole survivor of the tutorial mission, which I'd forgotten to disable and one of the only women I recruited in the entire campaign. Yet she turned out be psychic and despite numerous barely-stopped bleed-out timers When an XCOM solder is reduced to 0 HP, they have a chance to instead bleed out. They become effectively dead (as far as your tactics are concerned), but unless you get to them with a Medkit and stabilize them within 3 turns, they become actually dead. she managed to survive the entire campaign.

After ten hours with Long War, I didn't know any of my soldiers. I lost a Corporal (rank 3 in LW) and two Lance Corporals (rank 2) in a single mission (two in a single turn) due to lucky shots from Thin Men, and didn't feel the urge to restart it. It wasn't even that I had replacements for them all, as I didn't have any medics at all once my Medic Corporal died. I was utterly detached from them. I didn't know any of them, not like before. This ultimately seemed to neuter the tension of each and every mission, turning a game whose bog-standard abduction missions I could play for hours into one where ten hours over two sessions felt like a slog. The moment-to-moment tension of one missed shot dooming a soldier is lost when you no longer care particularly about any of your soldiers. I uninstalled the mod after the second session – and then immediately spent several hours longer than I'd intended playing a new Classic Second Wave Ironman campaign.

This, of course, does not make Long War bad. As I mentioned above, it nears the level of being a total conversion. In fact, I think it is most aptly called exactly that. The Polygon quote on the project page is quite telling:

"Turns XCOM: Enemy Within into nothing short of a serviceable turn-based military alien invasion strategy wargaming simulator." - Polygon

I did not enjoy Long War because I was looking for more of what I liked about XCOM: Enemy Within. I wanted more of the XCOM that was almost Fire Emblem with guns and aliens, not a "military alien invasion strategy wargaming simulator". All told, I think Long War is one of the best mods I've ever seen. However, this is not the mod I was looking for.

The Actual Point

But that's not what I wanted to write about. All of this is just the backdrop. You see, XCOM 2 is coming out soon, and internet comment sections – being the cesspits that they are – are full of a specific breed of comment that gets under my skin. Not the comments recommending that fans try Long War. No, those are fine, at least on principal if not in practice. Good, even, as the mod they are pushing is in fact rather good.

My problem is the legion of comments that follow one of a few varieties: Paraphrased because this scrublord didn't bother screenshotting or bookmarking the comments when they were first seen, and digging through internet comments for another couple of hours doesn't seem particularly appetizing. Nobody needs screenshots of commenters being shitlords anyway.

All have the same underlying assumption: that people have the same tastes as the commenter. This self-projection is unfortunately endemic online, especially within the gaming community (where I've seen more "you're wrong because you like a thing that I don't" fights than anywhere else by a large margin).

Empathize, for a moment, with a mythical person that is considering picking up XCOM. Saving the Earth from aliens sounds cool, and they like strategy and tactical games, so it seems like a natural fit. Maybe this person that would agree with these comments; they would find Long War to be generally superior to the base and might skip the sequel in favor of the Long War team's game. Although from the sounds of it, the new kid on the block is just getting started. I would honestly be surprised if most Long War fans didn't pick up both XCOM 2 and the Long War team's product. But maybe – maybe – they wouldn't. This isn't merely hypothetical: if I had installed Long War immediately, I never would have gotten the hundred-plus hours of gameplay out of XCOM that I did. I barely lasted ten hours in Long War. The moment I knew it was over for me is when I began spending more time wondering when LW was going to get interesting than thinking about optimal strategies for filling aliens with holes. Again, I'm not saying that Long War is bad, merely that it isn't what I'm looking for.

The moral here is that internet commenters need to stop being shitlords and consider the fact that not all players – even only considering those that like a particular game – like games for the same reasons. So don't say "Just install Long War. You'll thank me later." Instead, consider "If you like XCOM, try the Long War mod. It's bloody fantastic." Don't imply that the intersection of people who like XCOM and people who like Long War is total. It isn't – I am proof of that – and it could drive people away from experiencing a pretty fantastic game.