Let There Be Victory!
Despite having tried them here and there, over the years I’ve learned that strategy games and I do not mix. I don’t tend to have the required patience for them, and, although I’m a very analytical person, I’m missing whatever gene it is that provides one with a “knack” for this type of game.
This was reaffirmed for me a few years back, when fellow BNBGAMING writers Armand Kossayan and Chad Morelock suggested we all play the PC strategy classic X-COM, then record our post-game thoughts in an episode of the then-running Well Played podcast series. As my responses during the recorded discussion show, I did not get very far with the game, repeatedly failing to be of any use in directing my troops, managing my resources, and generally fending off planet-wide doom and destruction. The game was simply too fast-paced for me, especially considering the wealth of things that had to be micro-managed. To add insult to injury, apparently there was an option to slow the passage of time, specifically to assist players with my, er…”challenged” set of skills. And why didn’t I know about it? Because I didn’t even have the wherewithal to read through some of the in-game documentation that would have explained this.
So the cat was out of the bag: These games were not for me, and I was not for them. And yet…a seed had been planted, somewhere in the back of my mind, that came to fruition every time I passed by the game’s remake for home consoles. Over a long period of time, it slowly chipped away at my mental block, until I finally conceded to purchase the game, you know, just to give it that “one more try”. Subsequently, it spent another year or so on my shelf, collecting dust, until recently I got a hair up my ass to finally give this game the fair chance it probably so desperately deserved, if I was going to award any credence whatsoever to the opinion of people who clearly knew a great game when they played it better than I did.
And thus we get to the chapter in which I played – nay, obsessed over – a game that is effortlessly my likely pick for best game I’ve played all year.
I’ve struggled with exactly what it is that made XCOM so unbelievably engrossing. Ultimately, I suppose, it comes back to that simple catch-all of good game design. But many games are good – this one was feverishly great. First and foremost, I think it has to be the uncanny bond I, as the battle commander, forged with the grunts I sent out into harm’s way over and over again. Though the player is never actually identified as being one of the soldiers; instead, he’s the omniscient facilitator of the entire war effort. But during battles, you do issue individual commands for each member of the squad, meaning that the soldiers directly live or die based on your whims. While behind-the-scenes die rolls take place to determine the precise amount of damage received or inflicted, decisions as to where to place soldiers, which commands to have them follow turn-by-turn, how tight to keep your groups clustered or to spread them all over the battlefield as much as possible all come into play.
I suppose it wouldn’t be quite so intense if any situation ever resulted in a win-win. But virtually each decision you make that plays in your favor – issuing advanced weaponry to a soldier, equipping a nano-fiber vest for more armor, stacking your squad with additional Heavy or Assault units – comes at the expense of one weakness or other somewhere else – equipping some soldiers with subpar gear due to limited funds, not being able to heal or pack the extra punch of a grenade because the inventory slot was already filled, or missing out on the long-range benefits a Sniper class brings with it, just to name a few. XCOM features insanely great balancing like this, making EVERY. SINGLE. DECISION. one to agonize over. Everything you accomplish also means another opportunity for something different was lost. This really ratchets up the internal guilt when members of my squad bit the dust because of MY poor decision-making.
Speaking of guilt: I wouldn’t feel nearly such a sense of loss if I didn’t like my squad so damn much. And the biggest reason they’re so damn likable? At some point (I believe it’s around level 3 or 4?) each soldier earns the right to have a unique nickname assigned to them. I mean, talk about feeling like you’re in the trenches: there is something just so inherently badass about a squad full of mean sons-of-bitches with names like ‘Spitfire’, ‘Rhino’, ‘Voodoo’, and ‘Nuke’ (and yes, these were all part of my squad for a majority of the game). It really makes you feel like you’re there with them, and I found myself yelling or cheering with that same sense of camaraderie. In fact, this brings so many water-cooler moments to the game, and I found myself, a week later, telling my son about the mission when ‘Lights Out’ saved the day, or the mission where ‘Ranger’ was tragically assassinated at a gas station somewhere in South America. It’s weeks later as I write this, and I can still remember, in detail, specific moments of triumph or loss, and some legendary battles my squad went through – I honestly can’t think of many other games, except maybe some Final Fantasys that forge this type of lasting relationship between the player and the characters.
Also, I would be amiss if I didn’t point out the additional guilt trip I got every time I visited the war memorial, seeing the (growing) list of those killed in action and remembering them fondly, while a traditional Scottish dirge played on bagpipes in the background. Visiting the memorial once a month or so became a sobering reminder to keep my feet on the ground and my squad alive.
In other news, playing the game in Ironman mode makes every victory that much sweeter, every single casualty nigh unbearable. As it turns out, I should’ve spent a few more minutes sifting through the pre-game menu options, as I didn’t enable these settings, though I ended up playing the game this way anyway, accepting squad member deaths and moving on instead of reloading a previous save. And I couldn’t have written a better thread to the story than in my permadeath playthrough: Raul ‘Lights Out’ Medina, sole survivor of the game’s introductory tutorial mission, naturally became my highest-ranking officer, and took point in my squad through 20+ missions; basically, if he wasn’t out on sick leave, he was in the field. Every time. He was the perfect choice for becoming my first (and only) Psi-enabled soldier, which then led to him being the deciding factor in the game’s final mission aboard the Mothership. Honestly, he was kind of like a Mini-Shepard! While I had several veterans with long tours of duty under their belts, it was great to have one single solitary character literally bookend the game in this way.
I’ve already gone back and tried my hand at a new campaign, ramping the difficulty back up considerably, enabling Ironman, and playing with randomized damage outputs. Though I have yet to have much success at this setting, it’s a punishment I look forward to coming back to again and again!
I’ve since passed the bug on to two of my brothers, who are playing their own individual campaigns as we speak, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if my son launches a game of his own in the near future – he was sitting next to me during large sections of my playthrough, intent on the action, then high-fiving me when I was victorious. Despite my initial misgivings about the genre, and my confused early attempts at this game in specific, XCOM turned out to the most addictive time I’ve spent with a game (frequently postponing meals and throwing sleep to the wind) since traversing Fallout 3‘s post-apocalyptic wasteland and underground vaults a few years ago!