XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The makers of popular XCOM mod The Long War (you can read Chris' take on that here) have formed a development studio. It's named, pretty cannily, Long War Studios, and its first game is a strategy title where you have to defend Earth during an alien invasion.

It's not called YCOM, ZCOM, or even XCO.UK; Long War's game is titled Terra Invicta, and it'll be more of a "grand strategy" than Firaxis' smaller-scale operation. Here is everything we know about it so far (there are no images yet), before Terra Invicta heads to Kickstarter sometime in the future:

"Terra Invicta is a grand strategy game in which the player leads the defense of Earth during an alien invasion.

"An alien force has arrived in the far reaches of Solar System and begun probing Earth's defenses and building an invasion fleet. The player must assemble a council of scientists, politicians, military leaders and operatives who can unite Earth's squabbling nations with the ultimate goal of taking the fight to the aliens in the high ground of outer space."

It sounds like a more strategic, less fighty XCOM, and if it's even slightly like Europa Universalis but with space aliens, I think we would all be happy with that, right? (Thanks, NeoGAF.)

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

When a Redditor by the name of Crruzi decided that he wanted to take his newly-acquired Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) skills out for a spin, he did what any of us would do: He created EXLCOM, a follow-up to XCOM: Enemy Unknown that runs in Microsoft Excel.

Yes, that's Excel as in the famous spreadsheet software created by Microsoft, and no, it's not at all actually something most people would do. But Crruzi is a big fan of XCOM, and this struck him as a natural way to indulge that fandom while simultaneously increasing his familiarity with VBA.

"Two months ago I couldn't write a single line of code either—just keep at it," he encouraged another Redditor who's in the midst of learning VBA. "I feel like excel is a great (but also often times infuriating) environment to learn to create simple programs in, because you can use it quite easily for a wide range of real-world issues, and it is often more powerful than one might expect."

EXLCOM is set between the events of Enemy Within and the upcoming XCOM 2, which you might say is a bit narratively iffy (if you want to be that way about it) since Firaxis has previously explained that the two games don't share the same timeline. However you want to describe it, EXLCOM is neither a remake of the previous game nor a representation of the upcoming one—or, more accurately, will be neither, since at this point only the tactical portion of the game is actually operational.

Recreating the combat element of XCOM in a spreadsheet would be enough of an accomplishment to keep me satisfied for a month, but Crruzi is continuing to work on the project in order to incorporate the strategic layer as well. (For now, character stats and weapons are randomly assigned.) It's obviously not as pretty as the more recent XCOMs, or even the originals, but according to PCGamesN, "it functions pretty much identically" to the Firaxis games. 

And it runs in a spreadsheet! That alone is worth the price of admission, which by the way is free: Crruzi warned that "it will definitely not be a polished experience" right now, but if you don't mind dealing with some bugs and balance issues, you can snag a copy of EXLCOM to try for yourself here.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

This article was originally published on October 23, 2015.

The best moments in XCOM: Enemy Unknown happen on the ground, at the squad level. It s where you hope all your base building, troop training, and bizarre government research will pay off. With soldiers hunkered down behind a broken piece of debris or scanning for alien activity from a rooftop, you have to hope the team you ve assembled is made of the right stuff. Or they ll soon be the dead stuff.

But being prepared in XCOM will only get you halfway. As Evan noted in his 2012 review, the turn-based strategy game has a way of vaporizing your best-laid plans and best-trained soldiers. And this core appeal—the constantly-evolving tension between planning and execution—is what has always drawn me back.

With XCOM 2 having just arrived, I m focusing this edition of If you like… on the serious and satirical side of close-quarter, squad-based combat and the government agencies that try to help win the war from a different kind of battlefield. Among the two films and an underappreciated TV series you ll find there s a lot of XCOM s underdog spirit to go around. I m also including, unusually

Three Kings, directed by David O. Russell 

A rare movie that deals with the first Gulf War, Three Kings is memorable for its gritty, in-the-sand depiction of a relatively short conflict that most people remember from cable television. While the film deals with the very last days of the 1991 war, it weaves its strange story through the lives of multiple stakeholders—ordinary soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and ambitious news media personalities.

Three Kings is on one level a humorous heist movie about a group of American military men who want to take a little something back for themselves. But it also makes an argument for the way the unpredictable nature of war can change those who see it up close. As well-trained (or not so well-trained) as the movie s soldiers are, the randomness of the conflict they re caught in can t help but change them. It s up to them to decide who ll they will be if they make it home.

Area 51: The Graphic History of America's Most Secret Military Installation

Area 51

Written by Dwight Zimmerman, illustrated by Greg Scott

From the development of the SR-71 Blackbird to killer satellites shooting tungsten bolts from outer space, this story of the notorious Area 51 research base is filled with fascinating insights. While it s long, Cold War narrative saw it often associated with alien visitors and conspiracy theorists, Zimmerman and Scott s presentation makes a strong case for Area 51 as the unsung hero of late 20th-century defense research. Just because no one wanted to acknowledge its existence doesn t mean its labs weren t turning out some brilliant, game-changing designs.

The spectre at play in this graphic-novel treatment of Cold War history is, of course, the Soviet Union and the USA s post-Cold War enemies. The book doesn t attempt to take an authentic political stance on these events, which is refreshing. Instead it offers a clear look into the development of the technologies that scientists, and the politicians who funded them, felt might turn the tide of war in favor of the United States. It s a history told from a particular point of view, but one that s both informative and entertaining in its style and attitude. In its own way Area 51 tells the story of an XCOM many of us lived through but didn t even know it. 

Manhattan

Now two episodes into its second season, Manhattan s take on the development of the world s first atomic weapons at Los Alamos is a compelling watch. Although it s clear throughout that we re not watching a purely historical look at the top-secret Manhattan Project, the show s commitment to recreating the claustrophobic atmosphere of the period is well-executed and thrilling. Like the bases you dig into the ground in XCOM, we see how scientists, soldiers, and bureaucrats converge to try and win a war using untested technology against a seemingly unbeatable enemy.

The show s first season deals mostly with the struggles of physicist Frank Winter as he tries to perfect his bomb design with an understaffed and undervalued team considered second-rate on the classified Los Alamos base. A rival scientist leads the much larger and better-funded team developing what the US military hopes will be an atomic bomb it can drop on Germany to end the war. The tension between these scientists, and the way politics often interferes with scientific reality, creates a fascinating story arc demonstrating the effect of total war on the homefront.

Restrepo, directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

Directed by the late, great photojournalist Tim Hetherington and Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger, Restrepo documents a year in the life of 2nd Platoon, Battle Company during its deployment in the Korengal Valley of northeast Afghanistan. While there are moments of levity and humor to be found in the soldiers daily lives, the documentary film s release in 2010 was notable for its transparent look at the successes and failure of the American mission in Afghanistan.

Hetherington and Junger embedded themselves in the military unit for 15 months as they filmed and gathered footage that is often breathtaking and sometimes disturbing in its honesty. If war is hell, then we also have to say it s also a place where ordinary people—civilian and military grunt alike—still find ways to live and survive. This film is worthy testament to that reality. 

Patrick currently works as web editor for Hinterland Studios, which is making The Long Dark. For more installments of If you like... , check out the other games he's covered in this series below: 

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM 2 is now available for pre-purchase, if it's something you're planning to throw your money at up-front. To mark the big moment (and also the real reason we're here), 2K Games has made XCOM: Enemy Unknown free for the weekend on Steam—and the weekend, at least on the 2K bizarro calendar, has already begun.

Pre-purchases of XCOM 2 will include the Resistance Warrior Pack, which enables customization of your resistance fighters with new outfits, headgear, and war paint. It will also unlock a "survivor of the old war" as a recruitable character, "instantly," according to the Steam description, implying that you'll be able to unlock him or her through other, more laborious means (or maybe just pay for it) as well.

As for the "original" XCOM: Enemy Unknown ("original" in quotes because, as you'll recall, Enemy Unknown is a remake of the brilliant 1994 release X-COM: UFO Defense), it will remain free until 10 am Pacific on September 13, and will be on sale for 75 percent off its regular $30 price during that period as well. Progress earned during the free weekend will carry over if it's purchased—although if you're anything like me, three days of play will be just enough time to figure out what an absolute mess you've made of things, and that starting over is the only option left.

PC Gamer

If you've ever been curious about Borderlands but haven't gotten around to giving it a go due to the eternal cash flow struggle, now would be a good time to turn your attention to the Humble Bundle. The collection revealed today includes the original Borderlands, plus The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, Mad Moxxi's Underground Riot, and The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, all for whatever price you want to pay.

Those who beat the average purchase price will also get Borderlands 2, along with the Psycho Pack add-on, the Mechromancer add-on, the Creature Slaughterdome add-on, and a coupon for 75 percent off Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel in the Humble Store. And for 15 bucks or more, you can tack on the Borderlands 2 season pass, which includes the Captain Scarlett and her Pirate s Booty, Mr. Torgue s Campaign of Carnage, Sir Hammerlock s Big Game Hunt, and Tiny Tina s Assault on Dragon Keep add-ons, the Headhunter 5: Son of Crawmerax add-on, the Ultimate Vault Hunter Upgrade Pack 2, and a coupon for 25 percent off off stuff in the 2K Store.

"But wait!" he cried, waving his Ginsu knives at the assembled onlookers with mad abandon. "There's more!" As in more games that will be added to the bundle on June 30, the mid-point of the sale. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is the most obvious candidate, but it would be kind of strange to make it free in a bundle that also includes a coupon for the same game. Dare we hope for Tales From the Borderlands?

Money spent on the Humble Borderlands Bundle can be directed toward 2K Games, the Humble Bundlers, or the National Videogame Museum, at your discretion. The bundle is live now and runs until July 7.

PC Gamer

Borderlands creator Matthew Armstrong has left Gearbox, he confirmed on Twitter over the weekend. As both creator and writer of the first game in the series, Armstrong was also involved in Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel in various capacities. 

News of Armstrong's departure follows the closure of 2K Australia last week, the studio responsible for last year's The Pre-Sequel. With work complete on both The Pre-Sequel and the recent Handsome Collection for consoles, Armstrong told Game Informer that he'd taken the opportunity to leave at a time when he was "non-vital".

"I could leave without damaging Borderland or Gearbox too much if I did it at this moment, so now was the time," he said. "I think Gearbox will do great in the future, and I think Borderlands will stay strong and awesome. I've been thinking about it for a while. I'm not quitting out of anger or getting fired. It's just time for new adventures. I'm an inventor. I'm ready to make something new. Not just new to me, but new to everyone."

We're likely to see a Borderlands 3 at some point but probably not for a while: Gearbox only started recruiting for it in January

Borderlands 2
PC Gamer

That happy looking fellow above is Paul Hellquist, who you may know as the Borderlands 2 creative director. He's standing in front of the Robot Entertainment logo because he's left Gearbox to join the Orcs Must Die! studio as a lead designer, it was announced today. That means Hellquist won't be working on any forthcoming Borderlands games, but he will be working on Orcs Must Die! Unchained.

Hellquist has quite the resume: before his senior role on Borderlands 2 he spent nine years at Irrational Games, during which time he worked as lead designer on BioShock. Now he'll work on the MOBA-esque Orcs Must Die! Unchained, which our Emanuel Maiberg went hands-on with last year. Robot Entertainment CEO Patrick Hudson says the next phase of that game's beta will be detailed soon.

As for a potential Borderlands 3, as of February last year Gearbox hadn't started development. "We know we want it and we know it should exist, but we don't know what it is yet," Randy Pitchford said at the time. If it's Borderlands you want though, 2K Australia's Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel arrived late last year, as did Telltale's Tales From The Borderlands.  

Spec Ops: The Line
NOW PLAYING

In Now Playing PC Gamer writers talk about the game currently dominating their spare time. Today, Sam confronts Spec Ops' most controversial moment.

This article contains story spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.

Spec Ops: The Line is clearly a smart game written by smart people. While as an adaptation of Heart of Darkness it s never as successfully weird or iconic as Apocalypse Now (despite making similar creative decisions), it s daring and ambitious in the way it portrays US military intervention in the midst of escalating chaos. I ve thought about the story a lot since I completed it recently. But what I interpret as its central conceit—that the player is the one making the decision to push forward and cause every conflict, and is thus the villain of the story—isn t really supported by the game itself. This is especially highlighted by the notorious white phosphorus scene halfway through, where protagonist Captain Walker and his two squadmates accidentally wipe out civilians with a real life weapon that burns flesh to the bone.

Spec Ops wants to make a BioShocklike message about human behaviour and choice, but in this key moment, there is no choice to be made. I m at the top of a building looking down into an enclosed bowl where an army of enemies is about to be ambushed by one of the worst weapons on this planet. I man the artillery, which triggers a bird s-eye targeting camera, and bring fire down upon scores of enemy troops. I figure out where the civilians are cowering, in a trench near the back of the field of conflict, and aim around them—but it doesn t matter. The radius of the white phosphorus impact automatically extends to scorch the group of innocents, and while this is a story beat that s technically interactive, it needs to happen no matter what. I tried not to hit them, but I was always going to.

The cutscene that follows shows the full extent of the carnage: charred corpses everywhere and the distressing image of a dead mother hugging her child, both burnt alive. If Call of Duty did this, there d be uproar. It s to the credit of Yager, the developer, that the context justifies the horror in this case.

But the fact remains that I didn t kill those civilians—Yager forced that outcome. While the aftermath still makes me uncomfortable, the fact that I was aiming around the civilians absolves me of guilt as a player—and I m not sure that was the intent. There s a strong narrative emphasis on the escalating madness in Dubai being of Walker s making, but lacking choice, I start to grow apart from that character.

The only choice I get to make comes in the aftermath, as I slowly tread through the blackened corpses and stick a bullet in anyone unfortunate enough to have survived. That s power put back into my hands as a player—I choose to kill those civilians to make up for Walker s poor choice with the white phosphorus. But again: that was his decision, not mine. It was Spec Ops most important narrative moment and they took it out of my hands. The impact is extraordinary, but had they genuinely hoodwinked me into killing civilians, it could ve lived with me forever.

And unlike BioShock, where the entire game is built to support a killer twist for the ages, in Spec Ops it becomes increasingly obvious that these are not my choices. Consequently, inspiring an equal reaction is impossible—Captain Walker is not me. I am grateful that Yager tried to do something so different with a military shooter, exploring an angle that makes every modern FPS seem gaudy to me in the way they present war, even with that clash between player and character in mind. I only hold this story to a higher standard than I usually would because I feel the developers have earned it.

Spec Ops: The Line
...

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