XCOM: No Medkits For You
Several days ago, a kind soul who goes by the name of Duneyrr gifted me XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s half turn-based strategy, half management sim, and all-around a really good game. I’m impressed by how absorbing and challenging it is while also being very accommodating to newcomers. Maybe someday I’ll sing its praises, but right now I want to talk about a serious problem I have with it, a problem that’s made me rage-quit more than once.
In XCOM you get a lot of soldiers. There are four classes (Support, Heavy, Sniper, Assault) and each soldier’s class is determined at random. Each soldier can equip one item for each battle. (Well, except for high-level Support troops who can carry two, but I digress.) “Items” include things like scopes that improve critical hit chance, grenades, protective vests, and importantly, medkits.
When a soldier is shot down in the field, he has a chance to become critically wounded instead of immediately dead. A critically wounded soldier is disabled and in three turns, he will die. In that time you can save him by either eliminating all hostiles and completing the mission, or having another soldier reach him and use a medkit to stabilize him.
So what happens if a character holding a medkit is critically wounded? “Surely,” I hear you wondering, “it would be logical for another soldier to reach her, take her medkit from her disabled body and use it to stabilize her?”
“Well,” I bitterly reply, “I guess Firaxis thought that would be too easy, because instead the answer is that you can’t do anything about it. If you don’t have someone else with a medkit, you’re pretty much fucked.”
“But there’s a logical explanation for this, right?” you inquire.
The metagame reason for this is because items cannot be exchanged in the middle of battle. A soldier’s item(s) is/are glued to her. From a design standpoint, this makes things a lot simpler to program, and for the most part it’s never a big deal since you always give each soldier the item that best suits her role. (Scope for the sniper, medkit for the support, etc.) But in this particular situation, there’s obviously a very valid reason for why you would want one soldier to take a medkit from another.
You can argue that this is the designers’ way of providing an added challenge for the player. You can say that this forces you to be more careful about who you give the medkits to and how you use your medkit-carrier on the field. (I’d say that there’s already so much challenge for you if you play on the higher difficulties that it doesn’t really need this layered on top, but whatever.) But this is sidestepping the real problem, which is that there’s no explanation for why you can’t do it in the logic of the game world.
If they weren’t being lazy and actually intended for this to be a deliberate feature, they could have acknowledged it somewhere. They could have had an NPC explain that the medkits aren’t handheld objects and are actually attached to the armor of the user. Or something. It’s not that far-fetched, since some of the items clearly are things you can’t easily pick up and give or take, like the protective vests. As it stands, there’s just a black void where the answer should be.
See, this isn’t necessarily a problem with regard to game balance; this is a problem with immersion and cohesion.
Allow me to get off-track for a moment. There’s this show called Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage, where a guy talks about in-depth concepts in video game storytelling and world-building. Here’s my favorite episode:
In the episode he talks about how a multimedia experience like a video game can become something much greater than the sum of its parts when all those parts work together to create a cohesive, effective whole. You see, XCOM isn’t just a turn-based combat sim. The combat is part of something much greater. XCOM creates a big, organic, adaptable story about you trying to save the world from an alien invasion. For the most part, all the different parts of the game (the research, the engineering, the recruiting, the fleet commanding, etc.) all fit effectively as part of this.
The combat is probably the most important piece of the puzzle, since it’s what you spend a huge amount of time interacting in and how you handle the combat greatly affects how well you succeed or how horribly you fail in your overarching mission. And while turn-based combat is obviously not meant to accurately portray how a real combat scenario would look, it symbolizes real combat, and it’s important that the metaphor is consistent with itself.
And in this case, that metaphor falls apart. I can see what the medkit item looks like. It looks like a handheld object. And every soldier knows how to handle medkits; this is a fact established by the game. But for no apparent reason, one soldier can’t take a medkit from another incapacitated soldier. This breaks the illusion of the combat, which breaks the illusion of the game. You might call this a nitpick, but it comes to slap you in the face whenever one or more of your support troops goes down. (And if you play XCOM, you’ll know that this sort of thing happens a lot, whether you want it to or not.)
So, there’s my gripe. An unfortunate flaw in an otherwise (mostly) great game.