Beaglerush: The Impossible Ironman / 27th of February 2015
For those that aren’t familiar with the series, X-COM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy game built upon the classic nineties series UFO: Enemy Unknown (or X-COM: UFO Defence). Re-imagined in 2012 by 2K and Firaxis Games Enemy Unknown was - and still is - one of the finest strategy games we’ve ever seen. A game that managed the seemingly impossible task of satisfying fans of the original games whilst evolving the series into a modern strategy game, Enemy Unknown combined battlefield tactics and base management with a stellar single-player experience full of emergent storytelling. It was so successful that two and a half years later it’s still being played consistently as a popular title on both Twitch and YouTube, somewhat surprising considering it’s a wholly single-player game.
In part it’s down to Enemy Unknown just being a damn good game straight from launch, but also the active Twitch and YouTube community who have been keeping the game fresh in the minds of fans, and enticing new players to this day. I’d personally never heard of X-COM until Matt Lees previewed the game for Official Xbox Magazine with the series X-COM: Enemy Unknown - The OXM Squad (something which later became X-COM: Sponge Squad).
Not only that, ongoing support for the game has been pretty impressive over the past two and a bit years, with the release of the game changing X-COM: Enemy Within expansion in November 2013 and its port to Android and iOS devices a year later. Unofficially there has also been a rather extensive community mod entitled X-COM: Long War developed by sci-fi author John Lumpkin and a group of talented community modders - including one Matt Lees - over at nexusmods.com. It’s proven so popular it’s currently in its fourteenth beta and has been praised, not only from various sections of the gaming press, but also from Firaxis Games and lead designer of the Enemy Unknown reboot Jake Solomon.
It’s Long War that’s served as the basis for popular Twitch and YouTube user John Teasdale’s popular X-Com series X-COM: Live and Impossible - War Within. If you’re at all familiar with the X-COM online community then you may already know him as Beaglerush, a veteran X-COM player, Beagle’s been releasing YouTube videos and livestreaming on Twitch for a couple of years now. Recently however he hosted a Twitch collaboration with 2K and Firaxis using the Long War mod, and so I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions regarding all things X-COM.
Firstly if you’ve already seen some of his videos you might know Beagle to be one of the best X-COM players around. Seriously, Impossible means just that, it’s bloody impossible. And with the Ironman setting on you can’t quit and reload should things go from bad to “oh, I’m fucked” over the course of a mission, as X-COM is known to do. So it felt fitting to first ask how he’s become such a skilled player of a game that can, on occasion, appear crueller Mary Bale left alone in a cat shelter. Thanking his “awesome older brother” for introducing him to the likes of Command and Conquer from a young age, Beagle tells me he “was blowing up SAM sites at five years old and had to wear a neck brace for a week when he was six from too much time on Phobos”. Yet despite having an affinity for such games he’s quick to point out how he still had a lot to learn when Enemy Unknown returned, saying “the thing I tend to forget is how bad I was when it first came out”, and then pointing me in the direction of a video he made playing the game’s demo a month before launch.
The latter half where the demo stops being on-rails features some great clips of me totally failing to even know what flanking is.
A fan of the 1994 original Beagle first went into Enemy Unknown with the same general strategy in mind “keep firing, there is no such thing as too many explosives, and lots of rookies will die no matter what I do”. It didn’t pay off initially but it may have proved to be the catalyst for his swift improvement, “I think it's the mind-set of that last part that let me become good in fairly short order, losses and mistakes didn't frustrate me because I was coming from a game where you stepped out of the Skyranger, two guys died from reaction fire on the ramp, and then your rocket trooper panics and kills everyone else. As the much loved Jake Solomon quote goes, that's X-COM”. It seems although the necessary tactics for success have changed over the years, that ability not to get too frustrated and give up has ensured Beagle’s learned fast. In fact he’s never strayed from the Ironman Impossible difficulty; “even though I lost so many campaigns, I was having absolute tons of fun with the game. Playing non-stop on the hardest difficulty made me improve very rapidly, trial and error is a fast way to learn what not to do and as I started doing things right more often than not, my love of the game only grew”.
Patience and a willingness to learn from your mistakes rather than beating your head against a brick wall, sounds similar to another game I personally hold in high regard (of course it’s Dark Souls, shut up). However I can’t honestly say I’d considered any version of X-COM in the same berth, perhaps because I’ve never really spent enough time on Ironman Impossible to realise it. Either way Beagle still employs a few counter-intuitive practices that seem to improve his chances of keeping his troops alive; “I think it's just stuff that becomes apparent the longer you spend with the game. As you learn the mechanics of not taking fire until the alien's turn, it's the logical next step”, before realising “well, I don't need to be in cover until I make contact". It was a novel idea to me, and many others going by the YouTube comments below his videos. My own opinion had been that being forced to relocate your troops behind cover meant you missed opportunities to fire certain power weapons. But the unexpected benefits of getting that bit closer, and the difference one tile makes when going for a flank attack are there to see. Even still Beagle admits “I'm always improving and learning… there's always so many new surprises, even after years of play”.
That’s a sentiment that rings true when it comes to Long War certainly, many players switching over have practically had to re-learn huge chunks of the game and adjust accordingly. When I asked Beagle about the changes he believes “Long War gives you more options - it's certainly more challenging - but in a balanced way” elaborating that in Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within “you'll more often find yourself with a lack of good moves to make - unluckily shot out of good cover - which can leave you wondering what more could I have done”?
One of the many changes in Long War sees the troop roster greatly expanded, partly in an attempt to allow players to cope with the increased number of missions, but also to ensure players properly manage the new fatigue system. “You can't just power level six guys, so you don't have max rank troops after three months anymore. But to balance this out, you've got more troops, more classes, more abilities, more weapon types, more items, more choices across the board” Beagle explains. Gone are the days of depending on a single squad of elite soldiers, instead the key to success in each of Long War’s battles comes down to a well-balanced variety of soldiers, capable of handling anything those dreaded terror missions can throw at you. Worse still though are UFO landings that can now come with entire squads of Outsiders to deal with, often led by supercharged squad leaders with regenerating health. As Beagle notes; “the game is much harder and more challenging, but at the same time when you find yourself in trouble you can generally say; it's my fault for not bringing X class, or Y ability, or not considering Z could happen”. Is that reassuring, perhaps. But after he elaborates on previous campaigns telling me; “I've fought Sectopods with health numbers so big they had to patch the mod just to display it all on screen” you could be forgiven for not jumping at the chance to experience this first-hand. But for Beagle “the difficulty and intensity of Long War is exhilarating, and the bigger the challenge, the more satisfying it is to defeat”.
The spike in difficulty is certainly challenging, but thankfully there are some features that help to even the playing field. And impressed with the lengths the guys behind Long War have gone to in order to ensure the game is as refined as possible Beagle notes that “they've actually squashed many of the bugs and glitches the original had, so the experience is very polished. There's lots of convenient improvements like an overwatch indicator to remind you which aliens are keeping you covered, or all your soldiers remembering their loadouts as you cycle them in for new missions. There's been many huge and game-changing features added over Long War's various iterations”. I ask about an example of one of these changes and Beagle goes on to explain how that expanded set of options at a players disposal is something that’s really altered how he approaches X-COM’s combat; “I was a pure turtle in vanilla who relied on the safest play possible to account for how unreliable half cover was or the aliens having buffed stats. But in Long War I feel like I can use that weaker cover much more often, or use the new classes and items to enact much more aggressive strategies”.
Aside from the game itself I also wanted to ask Beagle about his work as a content producer. His initial YouTube series X-COM: Ironman Impossible consisted of condensed missions, heavily edited to ensure focus on action within missions and only quickly referencing the many turns getting set up before things inevitably kicked off. Those episodes ran between fifteen to twenty minutes in length, a stark contrast to the more recent Long War videos that are almost turn for turn recordings of each mission and can often run for over an hour. “The pros and cons of each style are super interesting to me as a video creator, and I've come to love both equally for their own reasons. When it comes to YouTube in particular, I believe respecting your audience's time is the most important thing; people will more easily set aside nine minutes to watch a quick Ironman Impossible episode than spend an hour to view the mission in its entirety” he says.
But if that was the case I was curious as to why Beagle opted for the change in approach to his content; “I used to be a very elitist snob about uncut video because of that belief. So when I first started the original Live and Impossible videos which are longer and with live commentary, I actually wasn't sure if people would enjoy it, or if I should feel like I wasn't making good enough content for them”. Continuing on he explains how he and his partner Jamball, spent a week hampered by illness watching X-COM livestreams and seeing players make mistakes or complain about the difficulty, something which Beagle found irritating. Her response to was to suggest he try it himself rather than getting annoyed. You get better and more comfortable in what you do the more you do it, and that time spent streaming whilst unwell - as well as well as all the work since - then has served to ensure Beagle is “so much more confident” in handling live and largely unedited content. So much so that when I ask which style he now prefers he replies; “If you'd asked me a year ago which style I'd prefer with editing time not being a concern, I'd have immediately said Ironman Impossible's concise editing and scripted format was superior, it just took an unfortunately long time to achieve. But a couple months ago - and I hope nobody flips out over me saying this - I went back and watched over my old Ironman Impossible videos and I was astounded to discover I actually prefer my live episodes now”.
Beagle’s still fond of the shorter format he previously employed, explaining how; “that side of me that values a really short and concise experience is always present, and the kind of in-depth skits and jokes I can deliver with a highly edited format are something I really enjoy”. It’s clear however that there’s something intangible about the live recordings that he’s become accustomed to, as he himself says; “I've spent so much time playing, enjoying, laughing and off-the-cuffing. Live is where I can just hit record, have the time of my life and my audience can share it with me. Laugh with me, cheer with me, scream in terror with me when things start going horribly wrong”. Indeed without episodes uploaded in their entirety and including live audio commentary viewers would have missed out on plenty of priceless moments. Moments like the death of one of the finest soldiers X-COM’s ever fielded, Frag85, or the surprise and terror in Beagle’s voice after inadvertently activating a Floater pod hidden behind the mission start point.
These chaotic events, and all the times that he’s managed to recover from seemingly unrecoverable situation, or cheered when successfully pulling of an essential shot are what helps to make Beagle’s video’s so entertaining, the key factor in his recent collaboration with 2K and Firaxis. When I asked exactly how this came about he’s happy to elaborate; “It all became possible when David Hinkle, the Firaxis and 2K community manager, asked the X-COM community who their favourite streamer/video maker was. I'm lucky and indebted to have such kind fans who suggested me to him, and I'm equally indebted to Dave for giving me the opportunity after we got in touch. He's a really cool guy, and he's doing a great job engaging with the fans and bringing them together and showing them cool stuff, it's awesome to see. Everyone at 2K and Firaxis has been great, it's been such a pleasure to talk to them, so a huge thanks to them and to Dave for making all this happen”.
Obviously however Beagle’s still a fan at heart admitting; “Everything about the 2K and Firaxis collaboration makes me happy, I get to work together with the people who made my favourite game in the world, so that's exciting just from a fanboy level”. But beyond that it’s also allowing him to engage with a wider audience, although it’s perhaps a little gruelling for him with it going live at 5am; “the timeslot seems much more convenient for my European fans, the America-centric timeslot for my other weekly stream is a point of suffering for most of them”. But it’s all worth it in the end it seems, not only does it allow for 2K and Firaxis to show his stream on such a visible platform, but perhaps more significantly Beagle acknowledges that “being the person who gets to introduce it to a whole crowd of new people makes me incredibly happy”.
Initially the collaboration with 2K and Firaxis was promoted as a standalone event, however since then Beagle has announced it’s to become a weekly feature and part of his various X-COM activities. Not only that, last week it was revealed that this latest livestream has another interesting new addition; “I've got Long War beta fourteen on Twitch every Thursday as well as the daily live episodes, and now I've got beta fifteen running every week on Tuesday for the Firaxis O’Clock stream. Johnny Lump, who's the head honcho on the Long War team, was kind enough to give me access to that beta fifteen build which has been in development since last year”. Coming equipped with an extensive list of new changes, beta fifteen is certainly something fans of Long War are keen to get their hands on. Until then however, having one of their favourite YouTubers livestreaming an early build and showing off its changes doesn’t seem too bad at all.
You might have noticed that it’s a hefty chunk of gaming and weekly commitments for Beagle to adhere to, but he doesn’t seem fazed by the challenge and is even talking about the possibility of increasing the number of videos he produces; “Between the two X-COM streams, the streams Jamball and I do of other games throughout the week, the live YouTube X-COM episodes, and even more future stuff I'm hoping to start/restart on my channel, I'm really grateful to everyone for making my life both very busy and very exciting”.
The final question I wanted to put to Beagle regarded the possibility of Long War becoming available to as many people as possible and what he hoped we might see in the near future. Obviously being a community created mod Long War is only accessible to those with PC copies of the game, something that’s totally understandable but nonetheless can hopefully change in time. The expanded depth of Long War may not be as widely appealing, but even so console availability “would be fantastic simply because everyone should have the chance to try it” he says. Whether or not this comes to pass, we just can’t say at this point, but he does mention that should Long War ever make the jump on to Android or iOS devices then “I don't think I'd ever be able to put it down. X-COM would control my life. More than it currently does, anyway”.
As for the possibility of using Long War as a basis for a direct sequel Beagle is, perhaps wisely, a little more cautious; “I don't think the developers need to feel pressured to make X-COM 2 into exactly what Long War is… many elements could be overwhelming; all the new choices, the expanded tech tree, the longer campaigns, all the tougher aliens and the perks they get, the fatigue system, so on and so on… Firaxis blended the old game with new elements in this really innovative way that kept the same spirit and theme in its gameplay and its polish, but also streamlined it in a way that made it flow slick, quick and cinematically. It saved time on base management, and perhaps most importantly made the game much more accessible to a new player”.
In any case the possibility of a sequel still manages to excite, whether that’s using Long War in some way, or simply borrowing some of its best ideas and mixing them in with anything else Firaxis thinks could be a fitting addition to the series. Beagle’s tells me “Enemy Unknown innovated and laid the foundation, and Enemy Within refined on an already fantastic game, and now Long War continues to take it further than anyone ever could've expected. A sequel that refined and polished that experience even further with engine improvements, new maps, soldier animations and abilities, alien types, customisation - you name it - that's a really exciting prospect”. It’s a really tantalising prospect indeed, and considering how well X-COM’s reboot was received, it’s hard to imagine 2K and Firaxis have no plans for the future of the series. I for one am hoping for it and as Beagle reminds me “if we got a sequel it means I might get to watch Jake Solomon go undercover to sell his game again. That in itself is reason enough”.