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Let’s talk about Hard West (2015). Think of it as an XCOM period piece with gun-slinging cowboys and cultists instead of psychics and aliens.

Content of the article: "Let’s talk about Hard West (2015). Think of it as an XCOM period piece with gun-slinging cowboys and cultists instead of psychics and aliens."

You already have a pretty good idea of what's going on here, but I think I may have played the XCOM card a little too early. Oh, sure, it's another grid-based, bullet-flinging strategy game. But it's so much more than that, too.

Hard West trades in the world-defending, sci-fi aesthetic of XCOM for smaller, more intimate stories about the outlaws and do-gooders on the rugged frontier of the Wild West before something supernatural stumbles into their lives. The game is split into eight scenarios (nine if you buy the extra DLC campaign or get the complete console edition, like I did), starting with the story of a father-son duo eking out a meager existence on a struggling farm before they find gold in the region. Enough gold, perhaps, to escape their dead end lives and the bloodthirsty gang of bandits returning to the region after years of peace when word gets out that there's gold in the hills. Other scenarios follow a Thomas Edison sort who comes to the frontier to investigate a curiously contagious kind of insanity that spreads like a virus, a corrupt man of the church who passes himself off as a man of God while secretly doing the Devil's work, an adventurous young gunslinger who sets to find an ancient city of gold in the vein of El Dorado, and so on. At first glance, these stories have nothing in common, but one of Hard West's great treats is watching these seemingly unrelated plot threads come together for a final, climactic gunfight. There are no coincidences here. And of course it's always fun to see a supporting character from one scenario reappear in another, either acting as an origin story or just fleshing out the world a bit.

But maybe you don't care. Maybe you don't play these kinds of games for the characters or the DEEPEST LORE. How does the gameplay hold up?

Think of it as XCOM with a twist. Three of the newer (better) additions to the formula are each character's Luck stat, the Cards of Destiny, and the wounding/scarring system.

Luck serves two functions, acting as a sort of mana bar for your special abilities and a secondary life bar. Hard West encourages a more aggressive play style than XCOM thanks to no overwatch feature and the way even missed shots chip away at the target's Luck bar. After all, you've got to be pretty lucky for that bullet not to hit you, right? It encourages more shooting — even with those characters who only have something like a 30% chance to hit. If nothing else, you're softening that target up for a more accurate character's shot by wearing down the target's Luck. On the other hand, you also have to weigh your options. Relying on a character's high Luck stat might keep them out of danger for a little while, but it also means he or she won't have enough Luck to use their really powerful abilities when you need them later. It's a delicate balancing act.

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The Cards of Destiny, on the other hand, are earned over the course of each campaign and can be equipped like accessories in an RPG. Each card has its own suit and its own quirks, generally offering both flat stat bonuses like extra HP or Aim, but they also tend to double up with some special ability like Scavenger, allowing you collect new guns from fallen enemies, or Shadow Salve, slowly regenerating HP on that character as long as he/she stands in the shadows. Certain combinations can stack for even more stat bonuses on your characters, which creates an interesting give-and-take. Do you go for Royal Flushes, which give the most raw stat bonuses, or do you mix and match to create specific mission roles based on the active and passive abilities they offer? You could, for instance, create a sort of "vampire build" with Cards that grant regeneration in darkness, increased Aim in darkness, the ability to cause heavy damage to an enemy in sight who is standing in the dark, and the ability to devour the dead as yet another source of healing. But doing that will screw up the potential Royal Flush hands for your other characters because it cuts across so many suits. What do you do?

Then we have the wounding and scarring system, which also ties into the theme of choice all throughout the game. I didn't mention it up above, but the scenarios of the game outside of XCOM-flavored combat play like a choose-your-own-adventure game with their own twists. In the first scenario, the father and son are trying to raise money to make money. After all, all of those mining tools are expensive. You can come across a blind gunman sitting under a tree on the overworld map, and you are presented with a choice: Leave him be, or grab the satchel of money sitting in his lap. He's blind, right? What's the worst that could happen? He can shoot and wound the son during their getaway, saddling him with stat debuffs in the next battle encounter. But if he survives the fight, that wound will eventually heal into a scar, which instead grants some awesome stat bonuses. Hard West rolls with the idea that what does not kill you makes you stronger, further amping up the aggressive, high-risk, high-reward play style. Getting shot with a high-powered weapon like a rifle or a shotgun during combat can also inflict wounds and the associated debuffs for a double-whammy that puts the wounded character in tremendous danger, but if you can save that guy's bacon, he will come out of the experience scarred and stronger.

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These are all great ways to serve up a familiar formula with new garnishes and side dishes that change the experience in a wonderful way.

Now is every XCOM vet gong to love it?

That depends on you.

The multiple scenarios mean you'll spend a lot of time building up one collection of gunslingers, only to lose them all when you start over with a new story full of characters who will feel weak by comparison. The game does try to mitigate this a bit with the Fate Trader, a merchant NPC who charges high prices for some of the gear you collected in previous stories. I didn't find this to be a dealbreaker. In fact, getting to know the new posse and their new quirks was half the fun for me, but I can understand how it would grate on some players who want to build an A Team and power through the game all at once.

By the same token, each scenario has its own gimmick like managing gold or food or madness or even a POV character's powers of precognition. It can be a little jarring to keep the same overall framework — CYOA-styled overworld adventures and XCOM-flavored combat — while also adding or removing certain ingredients. This one is a double-edged sword. If you don't like the gold-mining mechanic of the very first scenario, then you don't have to stick with it for too long. On the other hand, if you really dig the inventor's madness/inspiration gimmick, then you might feel disappointed when you move on to a new protagonist with a new gameplay feature. (I get the sense that the devs had a lot of ideas and wanted to implement them all but knew it would be too much for players to manage all at once, so they divided the bells and whistles among multiple sub-games.)

Finally, and perhaps the most damningly, late-game combat feels pretty repetitive. You'll reach a point where a lot of enemies have huge HP totals and long-range, high-powered rifles, turning most combat encounters into sniper duels. You won't have much reason to bring pistols and shotguns to sniper fights. Once you've unlocked enough gear at the Fate Trader, you have very little reason to experiment with new equipment loadouts. Just buy all of your old favorites and go back to your regular style. It's a weird bit of game design that pulls itself in two different directions. Do the devs really want you to do something new for each scenario or are they holding your hand and allowing you to treat each posse of gunmen as if they're the same? I suppose it's all up to the player. There's nothing in the game forcing you to visit the Fate Trader, but it still feels like a bit of an oversight. The Fate Trader is the only source of items like the Doomsday Watch or the Holy Musket in those scenarios where you will really need them. I can only imagine how suicidal it would be to advance on a boss enemy's position while he's free to take shots from halfway across the map with a rifle boasting enough firepower to OHK most of your party.

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The Short Version: Pick up Hard West if you are itching for more XCOM in your life, but don't go in expecting a clone either. It brings enough new tools to the table to keep things feeling familiar and fresh all at once, but it does suffer from a case of multiple personalities. How much this variety hurts or helps the game depends on the individual player, but most players will probably agree that the variety falls away and becomes pretty samey by the time you hit seventh and eight scenarios.

(If you do pick up the game, I would encourage you to complete at least two full scenarios. The first scenario is the most straightforward, acting as more of a tutorial sometimes, so you won't really get to see how weird and wild it can be until you start hitting the second or third campaign.)


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