Saturday, 9 February 2013

X-COM: Interface Investigations

I've decided to take a little break at this point, since I haven't got very much new to discuss about my playthrough. So I thought I'd spend a bit of time discussing the X-COM interface. It's often criticised, but perhaps it would be helpful to go through what it does well, and what it does badly. It's also important to remember that the game was released in 1994, and interface design has come a long way since then. In a future post, I'll be comparing and contrasting to the modern XCOM reboot.

The first part of a new game: Selecting your first base location
 So here's the first point, and it's a crucial one. This game has almost nothing in the way of in-game help, no tool-tips to tell you what a button does, no in-game tutorial, no in-game manual or wiki. These sorts of things are more commonplace now, but they just weren't a priority back in the 90s. Disk space was expensive, and it was far more common to put together all this information in a single helpful place: The manual.

The first base, already well equipped, but with room to expand
 At that time, the printed paper manual was the best way for a game designer to cram all that information into one place, that wouldn't take up an extra floppy disk. The X-COM manual is also a very well written one, with an extraordinarily helpful tutorial for the early sections of the game, with plenty of information about the various systems and statistics you'll find. In those days, you were expected to read the manual, and that's something which a modern gaming mindset can find difficult.

The funding screen. If you're doing well, these numbers should increase.

However, how intuitive is the interface without a manual? I'd say it's pretty good actually. Generally, the menus are well labelled, and with a bit of trial and error you can figure out everything you need to succeed.
Launching interceptors

Right from the start you'll notice that the entire game is based on a mouse-interface. The first screen of the game that you see is the Geoscape, and the game asks you to place a new base. Point at the location you want, and click. Viewing the globe is just a matter of clicking on the buttons in the bottom right corner, and for other functions there is a menu list on the right hand side. When there are UFOs and missions on the globe, they are represented by different-coloured icons which can be clicked for more information.

The ever-helpful UFOpaedia

The various other strategic menus and sub-menus are all fairly self-explanatory, so I won't go into too much detail. The UFOpaedia is very helpful, with information about the various weapons, armour, craft and buildings. As you research things they get added to the database, which is something that will be familiar to fans of Civilization, and it's a very welcome part of the game.

Also helpful, the various graphs

The place where the most criticism of the interface comes is in the Battlescape. If you haven't read the manual beforehand, the UI might seem a bit obscure. Certainly there's no indication that clicking on the soldier's name will take you to a screen full of information about that soldier, or what each of those stats mean (although some are self-explanatory).

The Battlescape, with it's chunky interface.

Controlling your soldiers is generally easy, but there are some graphical limitations which can make things occasionally difficult. One of the most tricky parts of a 2D system is line-of-sight, and for a game like X-COM it's quite important. With multi-level maps and many obstacles, it can be difficult to tell why you're not able to take a shot, especially if the soldier can see the enemy alien.

Mostly self-explanatory, but reading the manual helps

Manoeuvring your soldiers can also be unnecessarily difficult, with terrain complicating pathfinding. Small objects can be impassable, and without the ability to rotate the map, things can get hidden behind walls. Viewing distances (especially in the dark) seem to vary depending on your soldiers, and there's no visualisation for their viewing area.

The multi-layer option, which I almost never use, as it obscures too much

There's also a lack of options for your soldiers. While having buttons to reserve time-units is nice, this only applies to the main weapon and not any special equipment or grenades. More feedback for carry weight, movement and accuracy would be useful, since it can be hard to know how much carrying extra equipment is a hindrance. An option for a confirmation click when moving would sometimes be useful too, to avoid accidental movement of soldiers.

Difficult line-of-sight for these Snakemen, on a high roof
 My biggest concern is the lack of keyboard shortcuts. Such options can assist more experienced players, and provide a way to access game commands without multiple mouse clicks. This can speed up and streamline the game for those who want it, while not interfering with the primary interface.

The Battlescape options menu

It's the relatively simple nature of the game which saves it though, with the issues I've outlined generally minor complaints over the course of the game. While someone like me might appreciate more depth and tactical options, for the time it's still impressive. Such games that combine strategic and tactical elements are rare, even on the PC, and the X-COM series has been an important part of the genre.
The inventory screen, with items taking up 1-to-6 tiles

Looking to the future, I hope to cover Jagged Alliance 2 (with 1.13 patch). I consider it the gold standard for turn-based tactical combat, with what you might consider too much depth! I certainly appreciate the extra complication of that system, but it does mean each encounter can take longer to deal with, and of course there are far more keyboard shortcuts to remember.

The Battlescape tactical map

Do let me know in the comments about your experiences with odd interfaces, and how you find the X-COM one in particular (especially if I've missed, or misrepresented something!).

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