What the next XCOM really needs is more imaginary dragons or their extraterrestrial equivalent. Why? Because as great as the XCOM series is, I miss the ridiculous, wonderful mechanic that original co-creator Julian Gollop injected into Chaos.
No, I’m not talking about Frinky’s online FPS, as much fun as it looks. Chaos, or Chaos: The Battle of Wizards, to give it its full title, was the turn-based strategy game that Gollop created 10 years or so before XCOM. Its existence led to Rebelstar, which led to XCOM, which, eventually, led to Firaxis’ 2012 XCOM reboot.
Like the rebooted XCOM, Chaos featured turn-based combat against both human and AI-controlled foes. And like in that title, chance was a significant factor. It’s become a running joke that in XCOM you can be standing right in front of an opponent and still miss, but the magic-based Chaos had a wonderful way of handling such potential irritations.
You had a bank of single-use spells that would let you summon flesh-hungry zombies, bow-wielding centaurs, giants, and much more. But the tougher a creature was, the less chance you had of successfully summoning it. So a zombie summoning spell had a good chance of succeeding, but if you wanted a dragon, there was only a 10% chance of summoning it.
That’s where the game got sneaky. Each time you chose to create a creature, Chaos would ask the all important question: “Illusion? (Press Y or N).” If you chose no, the game would roll the (virtual) dice and either spawn the creature or present you with a terse “SPELL FAILS.”
But if you said yes, the spell would succeed every time. And even better, your illusory creature was capable of dealing as much damage as the real one. Your imaginary dragon could quite easily turn an enemy wizard or any of their creatures to ash.
The snag was that an enemy wizard could cast “Disbelieve,” the only spell that didn’t disappear after a single use, and if they targeted an imaginary / illusory creature, it vanished. And if it didn’t? They’d just wasted a turn and, if an enemy was close enough, their life.
It might sound like a relatively simple mechanic, but it was a beautiful stroke of genius that added an extra dimension to Chaos’s strategic combat. It left other players with a gamble — sure, that manticore was probably an illusion, but what if it wasn’t? Were you prepared to take that risk to get in spell-casting range?
The caster, too, was left to decide whether it was worth creating a creature that could be wished away. Playing Chaos, I found myself second-guessing my opponents, human and AI alike. Should I use an illusion to create a lower-level creature, assuming that my enemies would be less likely to suspect it of being fake? Or did I whisk up a dragon and do as much damage as I could before someone disbelieved it? Unlike Chaos Reborn, its 2015 reimagining, turns weren’t timed, which is why I sometimes spent minutes agonizing over whether to press Y or N.
What was especially entertaining were the strange little scenarios illusion magic threw up. I once created an imaginary dragon and ordered it to lay waste to an opponent. They, in turn, used “Subversion” to turn it to their side, no doubt feeling pretty smug about it. I watched as they used it to lay waste to an opponent, then, just when they thought they had me, I disbelieved it away.
That small victory didn’t last — a couple of matches later I’d run out of spells and was just spamming Disbelieve at anything that came near me, with decidedly mixed results. But there were other things to love about Chaos, too — the simple single-screen battlefield, for a start. If you wanted cover, you’d have to create it yourself.
Then there were the handful of truly chaotic spells, the ones that, once cast, you had no control over. Gooey Blob wouldn’t only provide cover, but it’d grow to choke the battlefield unless your opponents decided to try to band together to stop it. And since there could be only one victor, that kind of cooperation was rare.
But how would illusions figure into XCOM? The series isn’t exactly known for its use of magic. Holograms, on the other hand, are based in science, and the series has already dabbled with them. Why not give us a multiplayer mode where aliens and humans alike have figured out how to give holograms substance?
Just imagine how satisfying it’d be to have that minigun-toting extraterrestrial disappear into nothing without your having to fire a shot. Or alternatively, to watch an enemy squad get gunned down because they were banking on your heavy-hitter being entirely holographic.
As for the original Chaos, Chaos Reborn hasn’t grabbed me in quite the same way. However, Chaos Funk is a nearly identical version of the original, and if you can get a few friends involved, it’s a real time sink. Just don’t blame me when a pretend dragon turns you to a cinder.