Wednesday, 14 July 2010

X-Com: Apocalypse

This is one of my favourite games. It's also quite an old one, being released in the early years of Windows 95 but actually designed for DOS, meaning there are a few standard UI conventions we take for granted on modern systems that aren't present.

The screen shots you see are of the game running though DOSBox 0.72 which itself has been loaded through Steam. As such there are a few graphical artefacts in the game that I cannot contest to being caused by the game it self or the emulation.

By way of a quick gameplay summary, X Com: Apocalypse is a strategy game where you have to save a city from an alien menace. There are two main modes of play in the game, the first is the city scape view, where you manage your agents, research new equipment, buy stuff and fight any invading UFOs. Should the UFOs make it past your defences you'll have to send your agents in to clean up the place - which is where the second game mode occurs. This second game mode is the tactical view, which shows your agents on the ground along with all the bad guys.

First up, it's the loading screen which you can see on the left here. My save game naming scheme aside, you'll notice each save game is automatically given the in-game date and time (which is why it's 74 odd years in the future) so you know which save game was the last. Unfortunately, there is an issue with the game which can cause this to be a bit unclear. When you send agents in to a location and it switches from city to tactical view, the tactical view has the exact same time as when you left the city view. Which makes sense, as that's when the agents got there.
Now, you can spend ages in tactical mode, but due to the nature of the game and the time controls generally only 5-10 minutes (on average) will have elapsed of in game time for any given mission. Unfortunately, when you return to the cityscape, the time has reset back to the time you entered the tactical mode. The mission is still complete, but the agents are returning to base technically before they've even done anything.
My immediate reaction after completing a mission is to save a game. But if you've also saved the game during the tactical mission, you'll be in a position where your most recent save is dated prior to earlier ones.

There are two issues with this. Obviously the game is doing the correct thing in returning to the time at which the mission started, but:

  • The agents should remain in the building and "out of play" until the same amount of time passes in the cityscape as did in the mission. This isn't strictly a UI issue but it's related and I felt it worth mentioning.
  • The save games need to be given the real world date and time, either in-addition to, or instead of the in-game time. I think this should be a standard feature of any game that offers you multiple save slots. In fact, a lot of games nowadays are keeping count of your total play time, which would be a suitable alternative to displaying date and time (see Mass Effect).

Next we have the Cityscape. The lower half of the screen is occupied by what you see in the screenshot here. Time controls on the right, various info screen buttons on the left and a whole bunch of tabs for the different aspects of x-com management that can crop up whilst defending the city from an evil menace.

For the most part the interface is perfectly serviceable, and considering you can take your time whilst the game is paused mean's it's fine. But that doesn't mean it's great.

There's a lot going on when you first look at the controls. The bar in the centre lists all the vehicles, agents, researchers, corporations, ufos et al depending on the highlighted tab and when you have a lot (as seen in the screenshot) it can get a bit unwieldy. If you take training agents - newly hired ones have no training option specified, and to do so, you must select them from the long horizontal bar and then press one of the two training buttons on the bottom right. However, if you can't remember what your new trainee looks like after you've hired him (or her), you have to click on each face in turn until you find one without any training option specified. Later on in the game this isn't too big a problem as agent ranks are displayed and so the rookies are easily separated from the crowd.

There's no reason why you couldn't put the training options in another menu, either with the equip screen or on it's own. Trying to bribe/influence other corporations is also similarly clunky.

Moving on, there is a rather large oversight on the part of the developers. One big thing about the game is how quickly you respond to invasions. Basically, the longer you leave it after the aliens have beamed down into a building, the harder it'll be for you to clean house. When the klaxon's sound you're presented with a screen not dissimilar to this one. Where you're expected to pick which agents you want to go and deal with the infestation.
One of the things you can do to improve matters later in the game is purchase multiple bases throughout the city and spread your agents out throughout them so you can send the closest to deal with the threats as they happen. Problem is, there's no map on display telling you where it's happening. There's just the name of the warehouse it's happening at, which could be anywhere as sometimes there are two or three identical warehouses dotted amongst the city.
You can of course choose to not send anyone, quit out of the menu to see where it is, and then manually send the agents in. But then, what's the point in the menu in the first place?

Other problems with the menu include:
  • You'll notice there are two columns there, one for agents in your numerous bases, and one for those assigned to vehicles. But there's only one scrollbar (and this being the days of DOS, your mouse wheel does nothing). This scrollbar scrolls both columns at the same time, so if you want an agent from the bottom of column A to be assigned to a vehicle at the top of column B it can be a bit of a pain as you have to drag and drop them. Thankfully all highlighted agents move as one, so it's only an issue if you're wanting to move one agent by themselves.
  • Vehicles have a maximum occupancy. If you drag more agents to a vehicle than can physically fit, those left over won't be assigned and stay in the base (but still selected). If you're not careful, you can end up sending people to the target building on foot, which can take a very long time.

There are a bunch of other niggles as well. Scrollbars don't scroll in terms of items, but in pixels, so you can end up with one half of an item showing at the bottom  and top of a menu.
When dragging items in the equip agent screen the items snap to grid, not to locations. If you see the thing being dragged in the screen shot, you can place that anywhere on the empty hand slot and it'll snap in place, but whilst it's being dragged, it treats it like a grid (like the backpack area it's hovering over).
What it should do is snap to the centre of the hand area reaffirming to the player that it will go there when the mouse button is released.

When you are in tactical view, if you wish to change what a character is holding (be it a grenade, or medikit) you have to open the equip agent screen, drag the items around and exit back to tactical view. Then, once you've thrown the grenade or healed your agent's wound, you have to go back into the equip menu to restore whatever it was they were holding before.
Now what you really want is some kind of pre-configured layouts that you can switch between with the click of a button. I'm constantly throwing grenades in this game, and it's a very tedious and clumsy method for doing so.

It does do nice things however - if you look to the left, you can see the agent's skills. The bits at the end of the bar indicate how much they have improved since they were first hired.
Speed is partially empty, turning into an outline at the end, this represents encumbrance, due to the agent's relatively low strength.

I fear I have rambled on far too much. So I shall leave you with this for now. But I shall return tomorrow with more UI annoyances!

No comments:

Post a Comment