Someone once wrote – I can’t find the piece, of course – that the reason Peanuts is better, and also weirder and sadder, than other gag comic strips is that it has four panels rather than three. Most comic strips find that three is enough, and why wouldn’t it be enough? Setup, development, punchline. The fourth panel in Peanuts is where things get weird and sad. A moment after the joke. A human moment, awkward and brilliant and often deeply memorable.
Anyway, I thought of this yesterday when pondering why most XCOM-alike tactics games have two action points, while Hard West 2 has three.
Let’s take it back to the start: Jake Solomon’s XCOM reboot Enemy Unknown hit on something very special when it reduced the complexity of a turn-based tactics game down to a simple idea: each unit can do two things per turn. You can move and shoot, or you can move twice, etc etc. It’s not really a reduction in complexity, actually, but a clever repositioning of complexity. By making the rules of the game clear and non-fiddly, it allowed players to understand that the really engaging decisions lay out there on the actual battlefield. It wasn’t how to move and shoot, it was what you might do through moving and shooting.
Deep breath. Lots of games took that and ran with it. It became clear, in fact, that Solomon and his team at Firaxis had basically created a new sub-genre in tactics games: the XCOM-alike. A lot of XCOM-alikes take the two-action-points-per-turn business and transpose it to a new theme. You get great games like this, of which I believe the original Hard West was one. XCOM but ghostly cowboys. Yes please.
But three action points? This is properly building on the basics of the genre in interesting ways. Move, then shoot, and then…? Answering that question is where a lot of the fun of Hard West 2 lies. (I think Hard West 2 introduces the third action point, but no matter if I’m wrong and it’s in the first game – Hard West 2’s certainly been the game in which I first started to really think about the whole thing.) What kind of fun? Fun like synergies between units! Synergies like, you know, blowing up another of your own units on purpose.
Hold that thought. Right. Hard West 2 is another spooky cowboy game. It’s the old west, but everything’s gothic and frightening. A ghost train is terrorising the plains, controlled by an actual demon who has a proper beef with you. Get a posse together, tool up, and get after the train. That’s all you need to know about the plot, really, other than that it allows for ambushes, bank jobs, mining town shoot-outs, train robberies, and all that great cowboy stuff – with added ghosts, of course.
Taken as an XCOM-alike it’s still an exemplary force for clarity. Instead of building a base between missions you move around a map, uncovering new locations like towns and haunted shacks and evil trees. You play out narrative set-pieces that may strengthen bonds with members of your posse (these grant new traits and abilities) or get you some extra loot or cash. You heal in towns – after each mission here, you do not auto-heal, which is worth knowing from the off – and you talk to sheriffs and take on side quests and hang out in saloons. And then there are the missions themselves.
Let’s take it one thing at a time. You can choose a selection of your posse to go into each mission, and you can equip them with weapons and sub-weapons ranging from pistols to rifles to melee whacking things. You can give them stat-boosting trinkets and equipment like band-aids or grenades or tins of beans. And you can equip them with playing cards – this definitely was in the original Hard West but it’s so good we’re going to go over it again here, because I love it.
Playing cards! You win them from missions and then use them to make hands. Each unit can have a five card hand, and depending on which cards you give them, it opens up new traits and abilities. A pair might allow you to swap XP with an ally, two pair might grant you a status effect after a kill, while a flush might allow you to swap an in-battle resource for a full heal. Here’s the thing, though: five cards. Not much to play with, is it? So if you have a flush, good for you – but you can’t have two pair at the same time. So traits and abilities are this endless choice. The lord giveth and taketh away, with a flourish. It’s the kind of character build choice that I love in a game like this, because it’s exciting – abilities are exciting – but it’s also painful. It hurts to lose out on something, even just for one mission. And it makes you lust over those cards like they’re made of diamond.
All of this stuff matters because missions require the absolute most of you and your units. You can screw up here because you took the wrong units onto the battlefield, but also because they had the wrong equipment on them, and the wrong cards firing the wrong skills and abilities to flickering life. That’s not quite true, because it makes it sound infuriating and binary. What I mean is that I have made the wrong selections for the play style that it turns out I want to play on the map I am faced with at that moment. Maps are huge and rangey here – valleys and chasms and dusty main streets that go on for ages. Plenty of enemies, and different types of enemies. And let’s stop here for a second to talk about the one thing in Hard West 2 that I love most of all.
It’s called Bravado, and it’s so good that I could see the genre-shifting potential in it when I first read about it in an excited email from a friend. Those three action points: use them to kill an enemy, and WHAM. You get them all back again. So you kill someone, and you get a unit completely refreshed. Maybe you then kill someone else: WHAM. Bravado kicks in and you’re good to go once more. You can chain kills, refreshing yourself with each dead baddy.
The end result of all this stuff is that I have finished a mission and then immediately replayed it, rather than moving onto the next. The next will be great, sure, but I want to experiment with what I just played again.
So much to talk about here. Firstly, yes, it means that a screen filled with baddies might actually be a turn’s work rather than an entire evening, which is very nice if you have a dinner reservation. Secondly, it adds a chugging propulsiveness to the game that rivals the pounding energy of the most thundering wild west locomotive. Thematic resonance, mates. Also! It encourages you to take risks – to over-extend yourself because you’re betting big. It encourages you to use your units together – you whittle these guys down and then I will sweep in and kill them one two three just like that, to butcher a beloved cummings poem. And also: you can trigger bravado even if you kill one of your own guys, by blowing them up. Repeat: blowing up your own guys is a synergy strategy here, and far from the only one.
I will leave you to unravel the synergies themselves, because there’s three acts-worth of fun in that alone. Suffice to say enemy designs only make things more tricksy and compelling. Grenade guys – I forget the actual names, demolishers? – are the worst. The moment they appear and start to charge I drop what I’m doing and try to take them out. Not because grenades are a pain, although they are, but because grenades cause bleeding, and bleeding leeches HP with every action a character takes, until they’re appropriately healed. So drop everything and get the grenade guys. Ditto the evil spooky guys who can swap HP with you. Ditto the guys who can regain HP between turns: meat grinder territory. Hard West 2 isn’t against throwing in some soft targets to turn Bravado into a little set-piece puzzle when you’re in a spot, but the deeper you go, the more you find yourself thinking about target prioritisation above all else. Who to kill first.
And who to do it with. This is finally where the character skills come in. You may have to heal your characters after each battle, but on the plus side, you can’t lose them for good – if they die in a mission, they resuscitate afterwards. This means you’ll be taking the same handful of heroes through the entire game, and learning how to get the most out of their skills over a long period of time. And what skills! One guy can barrage everything in a path in front of him. Another can swap places with another unit, hurting them as they go, effectively pulling a sniper, say, down from a distant tower and into the midst of your posse. Even standard weapons feel a bit like skills when you learn to use ricochet, targeting certain pieces of the scenery to shoot around corners and pull off impossible shots. Every game that has cover should also have ricochet. It’s a treat.
The end result of all this stuff – and I’m leaving some things out, I’m sure, like horses! You can ride horses here! – is that I have finished a mission and then immediately replayed it, rather than moving onto the next. The next will be great, sure, but I want to experiment with what I just played again. I want to try a different approach – staying high for a power boost, or using luck more, a system that sees you gain a greater chance to hit enemies with every shot you miss, and every shot that misses you. I want to see what happens if I don’t prioritise the enemies I think I should, or if I move quicker, or take different paths.
I love tactics games, I think, because of all genres, these are the games you really live in. You move so fast through a platformer or an FPS, but with a tactics game I can spend a half hour spinning the screen, clicking on enemies, trying to get a bit more out of a move I haven’t even made yet. I lean back and I lean forward, taking in the whole vista one moment, and then pondering the potential of a single unit, a single skill, the next. All of that and ghostly cowboys? All of that and Bravado? All of that and that third action point to make sense of? Yes please. Absolutely.