How XCOM: Enemy Unknown Is Like Bowling

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Firaxis / 2K Games

Since the XCOM: Enemy Unknown demo arrived, I’ve noticed an interesting line of criticism develop (or as a longtime PC strategy gaming wonk, I should say reappear) in response to the way Firaxis’s turn-based tactics puzzler handles shoot results, i.e. the relationship between the pre-shot percentile displayed to help you estimate whether to take a shot, toss a grenade, etc. and the actual result after you pull the trigger.

While it’s valid and even important to ask questions like this, there seems to be some misunderstanding about the way games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown are supposed to work. No, XCOM isn’t chess, but then X-COM never was.

(MORE: XCOM: Enemy Unknown — Definitely Not Halo Reach 2)

As it stands in 2K’s XCOM reboot, when a squad member has line of sight on an enemy, you’re shown a percent chance to hit. It might be 10%, it might be 45%, it might be 90%. Things that matter include distance, cover, height, the number of potentially intervening objects and of course any skill-related perks as well as buffs/debuffs.

So if my Heavy Corporal whips out her assault rifle and draws a 10% chance on an alien, there’s a one in 10 chance she’ll hit. Or if she’s drawing 90% — say she’s standing on the other side of a tree, where she can step around and fire almost point blank — a one in 10 chance she’ll miss. In instances where percent-to-hit is that skewed, the results follow projections, high percentiles yielding hits, low ones resulting in misses, exactly as it should be.

But occasionally I’ll nail an enemy when all I had was a faint 5% chance to hit, or completely fumble a 95% “sure thing.” It’s these nigh miraculous hits and “oh come on!” misses that seem to drive some folks nuts. As they say — not with admiration — “That’s XCOM, baby!”

And yet that’s also how reality works, isn’t it? Qualifying game metrics by what transpires beyond our windows gets tricky — there’s XCOM‘s nonsense “defeating wildly superior aliens with their own technology” premise, after all — but in this case, I think it’s instructive.

Take bowling. I’ve never been a very good bowler, certainly not someone who takes the sport seriously. But sometimes, after not playing for years, I’ll show up at a family tenpin outing and inexplicably hit strike after strike or bowl an over 200 game. A half-hour later? I’m lucky to bowl above 100, or nail so much as a spare.

A rookie bowling over 200? “That’s XCOM, baby!”

Those who put in the time and effort — studying, testing, fine-tuning — are much more likely to pull stuff like that off consistently, e.g. bowl that perfect 300.

But every now and then, a rookie’s going to play the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, under par. Once in awhile, an amateur’s going to kick a field goal from beyond the 50 yard line. I was at a high school basketball game in the late 1980s where, as the timer struck zero in the final period, one of the guys on our team alley-ooped the ball clear across the court, swished it through the basket, and scored the winning point. Even in games of skill, anomalies (or, as we used to say, “slop”) happen.

And of course the inverse applies. Look at all the pro football or baseball players who’ve had inexplicably poor seasons (where the issue isn’t physical injury-related, that is). Look at Tiger Woods’ 2010 and 2011 PGA Tours. Even pros like Earl Anthony, considered by some to be the greatest bowler of all time, had off games.

Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it can make you a more accurate or deadly shot. The zillions of other factors that go into playing this sort of game well (say, flanking effectively) notwithstanding, in XCOM, as you’d expect, your experience is reflected in stat boosts and special abilities as you gradually promote and augment your soldiers.

Improvements like: the Sniper skill “Damn Good Ground,” which bolsters aim and defense by 10 points each at lower elevations, or the Assault skill “Close and Personal,” which adds a 30%-to-critical chance if you’re standing next to your target, or the Heavy skill “Holo-Targeting,” which boosts fellow soldiers’ aim by 10 points when they fire on a target the Heavy’s shot at or suppressed.

Your percent-to-hit odds can get better over time.

Even so, they’re never guaranteed. A 95% chance to hit is still a 5% chance to miss. Take solace from the fact that with a 95% chance to hit, 95 times out of 100 you’re going to (hit). And the five times out of 100 you don’t? Well…

“That’s LIFE, baby!”

MORE: 5 New XCOM: Enemy Unknown Screens Explained