Someone once wrote – and of course, I couldn’t find that article – that the reason Peanuts is better, weirder and sadder than other hilarious comics is that it has four panels instead of three. Most comic strips find three to be enough, so why not? Setup, development, punchline. The fourth panel in Peanuts is where things get weird and sad. Moments after the joke. A human moment, awkward and wonderful, often unforgettable.
Anyway, I figured this out yesterday while thinking about why most XCOM-like tactical games have two action points, while Hard West 2 has three.
Let’s go back to the beginning: Jake Solomon’s XCOM reboot Enemy Unknown found something very special in reducing the complexity of a turn-based tactical game to a simple idea: each unit can do two things per turn. You can move and shoot, or you can move twice, etc. In fact, it’s not about reducing complexity, it’s about subtly repositioning it. By making the rules of the game clear and unobtrusive, it lets players understand that the truly engaging decisions are on the actual battlefield. It’s not how to move and shoot, it’s what you can do by moving and shooting.
Take a deep breath. A lot of games take it and run it. In fact, it’s clear that Solomon and his team at Firaxis have essentially created a new subgenre in tactical games: the XCOM genre. Many XCOM-likes take the business of two action points per turn and turn it into a new theme. You get great games like this, and I believe the original Hard West was one of them. XCOM but spooky cowboy. Yes, please.
But what about three action points? This is rightly built on the genre in interesting ways. Move, then shoot, and…? Answering that question is where a lot of the fun in Hard West 2 lies. (I think Hard West 2 introduces a third action point, but whether I’m wrong or not, it’s in the first game – Hard West 2 is definitely the first game I’ve ever really started to think about the whole thing. ) what’s the fun? Interesting synergy between units! Synergy, you know, deliberately blowing up another unit of your own.
keep this idea. correct. Hard West 2 is another creepy cowboy game. It’s the old west, but everything is gothic and scary. A ghost train is threatening the plains, controlled by a real demon who has proper beef with you. Gather, gear up, and chase the train. That’s all you need to know about the plot, really, except that it allows for ambushes, bank jobs, mining town shootouts, train robberies, and all that great cowboy thing — and ghosts of course.
Seen as XCOM-alike it remains an exemplary force for clarity. Instead of building a base between missions, you move around the map to discover new locations such as towns, haunted shacks and evil trees. You play out narrative sets that might strengthen bonds with your team members (these grant you new traits and abilities), or give you some extra loot or cash. You heal in town – you don’t auto heal after every quest here, it’s worth knowing at the start – you talk to the sheriff and take side quests and hang out in the salon. Then there is the task itself.
Let’s do one thing at a time. You can choose your team for each mission, and you can equip them with weapons and sub-weapons, from pistols to rifles to melee strikers. You can give them trinkets and equipment that increase their stats, like Band-Aids, grenades, or cans of beans. You can equip them with playing cards – it’s definitely in the original Hard West, but it’s so good we’re going to review it again here because I love it.
play cards! You earn them from missions and then use them as hands. Each unit can have five cards, and depending on the cards you give them, it opens up new traits and abilities. One pair might allow you to trade XP with an ally, two pairs might give you status effects after a kill, and a flush might allow you to trade resources in battle for full healing. Here’s the thing, though: five cards. Not much to play, eh? So if you have a flush, it’s good for you – but you can’t have two pair at the same time. So traits and abilities are this endless choice. The Lord gives and takes, and blooms. In a game like this, I love this character-building choice because it’s exciting — the abilities are exciting — but it’s also painful. It’s painful to lose something, even if it’s just for a mission. It will make you crave these cards as if they were made of diamonds.
All of these things are important because the mission requires you and most of the people in your unit. You can screw up here because you brought the wrong units to the battlefield, but also because they had the wrong gear, the wrong cards fired the wrong skills and abilities to flash lives. This is not entirely true as it sounds infuriating and binary. I mean I chose the wrong style of play and it turned out I wanted to play on the map I was facing at the time. The map here is large and extensive – valleys, canyons, and long dusty main streets. Tons of enemies, and different types of enemies. Let’s stop here and talk about one of my favorite things about Hard West 2.
It’s called Bravado, and it’s so good that when I first saw it in an emotional email from a friend, I could see its genre-shifting potential. These three action points: use them to kill enemies, then WHAM. You got them all back again. So you kill a person and you get a fully refreshed unit. Maybe you then kill someone else: WHAM. The bluff begins and you can go again. You can kill serially and make yourself a new one for every bad guy who dies.
The end result of all this stuff is that I finish one task and then immediately replay it instead of moving on to the next one. The next one will be great, of course, but I want to try again what I just played.
There is too much to talk about here. First off, yes, it means that a screen full of bad guys could actually be a bout rather than an entire night’s work, which is great if you have dinner reservations. Second, it adds a sudden propulsion to the game that rivals the pounding energy of the most thunderous Wild West locomotives. Theme vibes, folks. return! It encourages you to take risks – to overextend yourself because you bet big. It encourages you to use your units together – you weaken these guys and then I’ll sweep and kill them one two three like that, slaughtering a beloved cummings poem. And: even if you kill one of your own, you can trigger a bluff by blowing them up. To repeat: people blowing themselves up are a collaborative strategy here, and far from the only one.
I’ll let you unravel the synergy yourself, because that alone has three interesting behaviors. Suffice it to say that the enemy design only makes things more cunning and compelling. Grenade Guy – I forgot the real name, Bomb Defender? – is the worst. The moment they showed up and started charging, I gave up on what I was doing and tried to get them out. Not because grenades are painful, though they are, but because grenades cause bleeding, and bleeding drains health with every movement of the character until they are properly healed. So the guy who dropped everything and got the grenade. Ditto with the evil horror guy who can trade HP with you. Same with guys who can restore HP between rounds: Meat Grinder Field. Hard West 2 isn’t against throwing in a few soft targets to turn Bravado into a little positioning puzzle when you’re in a position, but the deeper you go, the more you’ll find yourself prioritizing your goals. Who to kill first.
with whom to do it. This is finally where character skills come in. You may have to heal your characters after each battle, but on the plus side, you can’t lose them forever – if they die during the mission, they’ll come back to life afterwards. This means you’ll use the same few heroes throughout the game and learn how to get the most out of their skills over a long period of time. What other skills! A man can barrage everything on the road in front of him. The other can swap places with another unit, damaging them as they move, effectively pulling snipers off distant towers and into the middle of your team. Even standard weapons feel a bit like a skill when you learn to use bounce, aiming for certain scenes to shoot in corners and complete impossible shots. Every game that has a cover should also have a bounce. It’s a treat.
The end result of all this stuff – I’m definitely missing something like a horse! You can ride a horse here! – It’s me finishing one mission and then replaying it immediately instead of moving on to the next one. The next one will be great, of course, but I want to try again what I just played. I’d like to try a different approach – stay high for strength, or use luck more, a system that gives you a better chance of hitting the enemy with every missed shot and every missed shot . I want to see what happens if I don’t prioritize the enemies I think I should, or if I move faster, or take a different path.
I love tactical games, I think, because of all genres, these are the games you really live with. You move so fast in a platformer or FPS, but for a tactical game, I can spend half an hour spinning the screen, clicking on enemies, trying to get more out of the action I haven’t taken. I lean back, I lean forward, see the whole scene one second, then think about the potential of a unit, a single skill, the next. All this and spooky cowboys? All this and bluff? All this and a third action point to understand? Yes, please. Absolutely.