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XCOM add-on Slingshot is worth precisely as much as you pay for it

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Slingshot_1

Well, this is embarrassing. I was intending to burst forth onto the reviewing scene with a blazing and righteous condemnation of Slingshot, the downloadable content for Firaxis’s XCOM. Nevermind I was playing it two months late — I penned a first draft, and it was glorious. How dare they call this adequate, I thundered; how dare they trick me — bald-facedly trick me — into spending £7.99 on what amounts to maybe an hour of the most blatant half-arsery I have ever witnessed when for the same price I could (and indeed did) buy a full, proper 15-plus-hours-of-content game like Fly’n a game with artwork that rivals Picasso, music that rivals Beethoven, and gameplay that rivals heroin. HOW DARE THEY.

Yeah, this probably won't get past the editors.

Above: This probably isn’t getting past the editors.

Then it turned out I was looking at the wrong part of the receipt, and they only charged me £5.49. Well, so much for that.

Not that there’s a great deal of difference between £5.49 and £7.99, but my rage kind of hinged on being able to get better content for the same price, and £5.49 really can’t get you anything. Except maybe a pint and a portion of crap chips. So I can’t be angry, but now I’m just left puzzled because … well, because Slingshot is worth precisely as much as a pint and a portion of crap chips. Which makes all its marketing — blog posts, adverts, and even a trailer — the equivalent of using gold-leaf RSVPs to ask your mates down the pub.

So: XCOM. Or XCOM: Enemy Unknown, to title it fully. If you’re unaware, it’s a turn-based strategy about alien invasion and a remake of a 1994 classic. It came out in October, and the bulk of gameplay revolves around controlling a squad of a half-dozen troops to negotiate peace settlements with the invaders via generous donations of weapons technology.

Let me teach you the language of our people.

Above: Let me teach you the language of my people.

You play maybe 40 or 50 missions over the course of the game, each lasting from 10 minutes to over an hour. There’s occasional secondary objectives like defusing bombs, rescuing besieged VIPs, or protecting civilians, but they’re mostly decoration compared to the main event — the final sprig of mint atop a vast pie baked with your bullets and an alien’s face.

Reviews were about as favorable as they could get unless you were a fanboy of said 1994 classic, in which case you aren’t actually reading this due to having chewed your computer in half. Even discounting the foaming loyalists, however, many felt there was still a fair level of room for improvement: more map varieties, more special missions, new technologies, and more soldier accents, among others.

It seems the developers were of the same mind because Slingshot’s content (new upgrades, new operative, and new missions, so the trailer says) appears to address every one of these issues. It’s just that, in terms of how effectively it addresses them, it’s right up there with threatening a serial killer that if he doesn’t stop knifing grandmother’s face off, he’s getting half an hour in the naughty corner.

New missions? You get three. You’ll spend longer downloading Slingshot than you will completing it. And not only that, but they’re nothing but copy-pastes of objectives you already got in XCOM, dressed up in just enough disguise to prove Firaxis knew it was spooning out rehash but not enough to actually change anything. The “bomb disposal” missions from the main game, for example, involve you working against the clock to deactivate a series of nodes scattered throughout the map. Slingshot’s second mission requires you to scramble an incoming battleship’s sensors, which you achieve by … working against the clock to activate a series of nodes scattered throughout the map. Its third mission has you deactivating a similarly located series of nodes, but without the time limit, and Firaxis didn’t even bother to disguise the first mission. It’s a straight-up escort job, ferrying a hapless VIP from one end of the map to the other just like you’ve done at least a half-dozen times already in the main game.

And “two thin disguises, one outright clone” doesn’t just apply to the objectives. Maps in the main game were pretty enough but extraordinarily “samey” — the monotony of “generic urban” and “generic woodland” broken only by occasional visits to graveyards or train stations. Slingshot promises new maps, and what you get is … a Chinese graveyard and train station.

Some of the billboards are foreign! Weird!

Above: Some of the billboards are foreign! Weird!

Those are the thin disguises. The clone is the last map, an ordinary alien battleship from the main game but with invisible walls stopping you from going anywhere that would spoil the plot. As for the other content, there’s so little that it’s not even worth its own paragraph. The “new upgrades” come down to a few cosmetic armor changes, and the “new operative” is just an ordinary soldier with a different model and accent, neither of which you can actually give to your other troops. Woo.

That isn’t the main issue, however. Skeletal content is one thing, but when a game hints that it’s got more than it’s letting on and then just fails to deliver, it stops being disappointing and moves into the realm of outright frustration. And Slingshot does this. Constantly. You’re sent to retrieve a highly sought-after and apparently dangerous alien artifact, and just as you think you’re getting new technology to play with, it turns out to be a throwaway plot device. You’re told you’re going to have to fight Triad gang members as well as the invaders; they never appear. Your sensors pick up a new alien species, “something different from the others. It’s just a standard alien showing up a bit earlier than usual. Enemies enter battle through never-before-seen teleportation beams. Guess who gets to research teleportation technology at the end of the DLC? That’s right, not you.

I could understand a mere lack of content, but it’s like Firaxis was actually trying to disappoint. And this isn’t even mentioning the biggest bait-and-switch of all, which is Slingshot’s entire storyline. You’re sent to rescue Zhang, the rogue Triad member with the alien device, and it seems like he’s going to be important to some kind of plot. He gets dialogue and backstory, there are hints that his old employers will seek revenge on him, you fail the mission if he dies even though you only want his briefcase, and after his rescue, there’s a cutscene where he laments the loss of his old life and wonders where his fate is taking him.

Zhang

Aaand that’s it. He joins your squad as a standard soldier at the end of the first mission, and everyone just forgets about him. Sack him, leave him in the base for the rest of the game … hell, feed him to a Chryssalid or block alien fire with his face. No one cares a whit.

And then an alien battleship shows up, and if you don’t stop it, then the city of Chongqing will be destroyed! … And that’s bad, right? Except China doesn’t seem to think so because even if you fail and the battleship opens fire, it doesn’t alter its panic level at all. Getting a single frigging train station blown up makes them cut your funding in the main game, but one of the five central cities? Pfft.

Panic levels post-flattening of a Chinese city. They blew up a butcher's shop in Argentinia.

Above: Panic levels post-flattening of a Chinese city. They blew up a butcher’s shop in Argentinia. I’m not even kidding.

Or maybe they just perfected the technology of instantly-rebuilding cities because any failed mission just gets reoffered to you again the following month as if your prior cock-up never happened. Oh, you can make the argument that people shouldn’t have to miss out on the content just because they failed early on, and that would be a valid point if it were any other game than this one. Because having to live with your bad tactical decisions is one of the core features of XCOM’s play style. In fact, it’s practically half the point of the game. There’s even an Ironman mode where your save file gets overwritten after every action you take, so you can’t ever go back on anything you do. And then Slingshot comes along with magically resurrecting criminals and a battleship crew who’ll sit there, repelling your men for the rest of the century if that’s how long you need to take them down.

And once you beat the final mission, it just ends. No victory cutscene, no acknowledgement you finished the DLC, and not even a “well, thank God we stopped that disaster” from your crew. You never get to play the maps again, you never get to use Zhang’s voice pack with your other troops, there’s no new reward or Achievement beyond “you finished the third mission,” and all you get is access to some of the late-game technology a little earlier, which you probably won’t be able to afford anyway because it’s still got the end-game price tag.

Why did Firaxis release this? Slingshot couldn’t scream “unfinished” any louder with a megaphone and a kick in the smalls. It’s brim-full of plot points that don’t go anywhere, content that doesn’t actually appear, and rushed fixes that don’t fix anything. Worse, it’s like half the irritation is deliberate. If your game doesn’t feature gang members hunting the player, for example, all you have to do is not include dialogue saying gang members are hunting the player. And if you were planning on having that and it got cut, surely it’s an easy matter to just snip the offending lines out along with it. Otherwise, you’re just making it look like you’re trying to piss people off.

Of course, I was already of the opinion that Firaxis was trying to piss people off because I played XCOM. But that’s probably just the fanboy in me talking.