In this new feature, MS&T’s Michael Peck reviews games, with a focus on those that approach an intersection with military training.
Why, you ask, would anyone suggest a video game of humans vs. aliens for military training? Why a game of UFOs and fantastic aliens when there are so many first-person-shooters, such as the Battlefield and Call of Duty series or the Virtual Battlespace simulations, that feature old-fashioned combat on Earth?
The answer is that XCOM: Enemy Unknown, from 2K Games, makes an extraordinary demand upon its players, namely that they use their brains. Most FPS games are intensely kinetic real-time simulations that place a premium upon quick action rather than deep analysis. And this is as it should be, because real life proceeds in real-time. Yet the downside of this kind of simulation is a lack of analysis, a chance to weigh alternatives, even if that’s just pondering whether there’s better cover behind the wall to the left or the parked car to the right. The analysis can be during the after-action review, but how much better it would be if players had time to consider their moves during the game.
XCOM is turn-based, meaning that one sides moves and shoots, followed by the other side. The premise is that aliens are raiding Earth, burning cities and kidnapping citizens, as a prelude to invasion. So the nations of Earth form XCOM, an international army armed with high-tech weapons. All of the classic science-fiction elements are here: aliens with sharp claws, mind control powers and energy rifles. Human warriors operating from underground bases where scientists feverishly race to develop weapons and equipment that can defeat the superior technology of the invaders. The background is vastly entertaining, and XCOM’s designers have thought hard about xenobiology and futuristic technology, but this is not the biggest reason to play the game.
The core of XCOM is tactical infantry combat, and more specifically the classic choices of fire and movement. During the human turn (the aliens are AI-controlled), each XCOM trooper can perform two actions, such as moving, shooting, throwing grenades or reloading their rifles.
The key to fire and movement rests upon how the game tracks cover. The player can move the mouse to any point his troopers can move on the 3-D map, and colored icons will appear indicating whether there is full, partial or no cover.
For someone like this writer, who was blessed with the tactical sense of a donkey, much is illuminated. Street corners, trees and crest lines that look like they would provide cover suddenly don’t, while dead zones safe from alien fire become apparent. Perhaps a DARPA scientist would find fault with the line-of-sight modeling. This is irrelevant. Rather than guessing whether a wall provides cover, the player can know for sure. After a while, assessing cover becomes second nature, as does the realization that what looks like a safe position from one angle is vulnerable to fire from another. Of course such certainty over LOS is not realistic, but then the whole idea of a training simulation is to learn on the computer rather than the battlefield.
XCOM also overcomes the biggest problem with turn-based games, which is that one side can execute fancy maneuvers while the other watches helplessly until their turn rolls around. XCOM troopers can be ordered to assume overwatch, in which they will shoot at any enemy that moves or fires. Unfortunately, the aliens have the same capability, and they use it. The overwatch mechanic makes charging the enemy a suicidal proposition.
By themselves, these game mechanics would be appealing but not amazing. XCOM works because it marries two genres. Turn-based strategy games, which are more analytical but which often have dowdier graphics, and shooter games. The graphics of XCOM are notch below a top-grade FPS game, but they are quite good enough to create a sense of tactical immersion and terrain appreciation.
In a perfect world, XCOM would be ported into a modern simulation with Taliban instead of aliens. Perhaps it’s too much to expect the military to use a science fiction game for training. But the concepts behind the game are sound and necessary. Let’s hope the military training community takes advantage of them.