Warning: a small amount foul language is used in this article.
I’m going through a phase that I’m sure almost all gamers go through at one time or another. I keep looking at my shelves of games, my eyes rolling over the numerous fantastic titles I have, my mind reeling off what I love about each one, how much fun I had with them and the reasons why I should go back and play them again. Skyrim, my mind tells me, is a place I still haven’t spent enough time in. Pure, it says, still has those last few races you keep meaning to mop up. And Enslaved, it chatters, is a game you really need to play again to soak up those excellent characters and story that you loved so much the first time around. And you’ve got a crush on Trip, so there’s that reason as well. Finally, there’s Far Cry 3, a game I love that I’ve barely even gotten half-way through. Despite all these great titles, though, I just can’t muster up the enthusiasm for playing games.
Oh, that’s not to say that when a game drops through the letterbox from some publisher to review I don’t get excited: quite the contrary, a grin splits my face and I devote my life to playing it until it’s completed. But then, once it’s finished I don’t touch the console again until the next review title comes in. I’m not using my free time to play games any more, and as a gamer that shocks me to my core! It sickens me! I’m an insult to gamers, damn it! Of course this is hardly the first time this has happened to me: as a gamer that’s been playing for my entire life I go through this phase every now and then. While numerous other hobbies have come and gone in my life, gaming is one of those few that has always been with me, and that I always find my way back to no matter what.
One game is starting to win me back. Just one game - XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game that I never actually got a chance to review when it came out. I only just recently got around to picking up a copy when I wandered into my local ASDA store with some old games to trade in, determined that I was going to come away with FirAxis strategy game. It’s luring me over to my console right now with its turn-based strategy charms, tense battles and base management. It’s taunting me, whispering to me, telling me that without me the world won’t stand a chance against the alien hordes, and that the deaths of my beloved squad members shouldn’t have been in vain. So since I never got a chance to review it, I’m going to take a minute and chat about it to anyone that will listen, like you, Jason! Alright, who ever may be reading this, I know your name probably isn’t Jason, but it was totally worth it just to screw with all the Jasons out there.
You see, what I really like about XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that you can actually lose. You can lose the war for Earth. You can lose the war by poor management of your resources, by not researching new technology fast enough and by being a bloody lousy battlefield general, grouping all your super-soldiers in one squad when you should have spread them out, by not getting them to retreat when they should have or by simply making a single bad call, like telling your sniper to take the shot with a low chance to hit when you should have told him to run for the hills. You can actually lose, because the game is actively trying to beat you. And I miss that in games today, I miss the sensation that the game is trying to beat me and that I’m trying to beat the game. Now, death in games is a minor setback. “Oh,” it says politely, “You died. Well, no problem, pal, I’ll just set you back a few feet and you can try it again! Come on now, let’s get to that ending, buddy! We can do this.” But XCOM is different. “Oh, did you just lose your best squad of soldiers?” It says quietly, ” Well, TOO FUCKING BAD! Now get your arse and gear and get shit sorted out” And sure enough in the next battle I enter the game is pulling no punches, introducing a new type of alien enemy that I’m not ready to deal with yet. “Not prepared for this, huh?” It croons to me, “Well, you should have been more careful earlier, shouldn’t you?” before it pulverizes my squad of relative rookies so hard that it goes back through time and makes their ancestors wince. “So, that’s Earth more royally screwed than Tigger in a minefield, then.” I think to myself. I lost, Earth is doomed, and for some reason that brings a smile to my face. It’s not because Earth is going to be decimated, although that though does amuse the cynic in me, but because the game beat me fair and square. I mucked up, and the enemy took full advantage of that.
It’s not just that you can lose the game in the sense of Earth being enslaved, either, it’s that you sometimes have to accept defeat and retreat to fight another day. There are moments when you must decide whether continuing to fight this small skirmish is really worth the risk in the grand scheme of things. This came to a head for me in a pitched battle – I had sent in my squad, my best squad, to Mexico, a country that was already threatening to pull out support from the XCOM operation, thus reducing my funding, to rescue civilians from the invading aliens. At first things were fine and I was confident, after all, I’d sent in my best squad who had been trouncing everything they met with relative ease. I rescued the first few civilians without a hitch before encountering my first foe, a Chryssalid, a spider-like alien that attacks with huge clawed limbs. This had me a tad worried: those bastards can move fast and their attack is often able of dealing insane amounts of depth. They also tended to attack in groups, and when they did they were hard to stop as my soldiers just couldn’t deal enough damage fast enough to drop them before they got within striking distance. Still, for the moment it was just two of them, so I was still confident. They scuttled toward me, stopping to kill two civilians who would come back as zombies on the next turn. On my turn I unleashed hell on them, dropping both the creatures. No problem. I advanced forward, pressing into the abandoned building where I found another two creatures. Another brief battle, and both of them were dropped. Close, but still no problem. And then the aliens turn came, and suddenly there were loads of them. The game showed me civilians dying, being turned into zombies. In a single turn they killed numerous people: I never had a chance to reach any of them, and I was outnumbered. Realisation hit me in the face: if there was that many, I was screwed. These bastards had caused me a lot of problems in previous missions, and if there were large enough numbers of them they could wipe me out without a problem. Still, I had to hold: clever strategy would win. I backed out of the building and took up position, figuring that I’d kill whatever came out of the building, and then move forward after that, because dealing with small each group of enemies in turn before moving on to discover the next had always worked in the past. This time, though, the game had other plans and when it came to the aliens turn all hell broke loose as far more scuttering beasts that I had though came charging out of the building, followed by a new threat, a UFO type thing that transformed in mid-air into something else. I had to decide whether to try to fight, or to retreat. Looking at the alien forces, I thought that I could get through them, but probably at the cost of almost my entire squad, and for what? The majority of civilians were dead, and by time I killed off the aliens the rest of them would have gotten sliced up as well, creating even more problems for me to deal with. The only reason I had to continue the mission was to ensure the support of Mexico and the funding it provided for my mission. A choice had to be made: the lives of either most or all of my squad vs Mexico pulling out and withdrawing funding. It might seem simple to you: surely the support of a country outweighs the life of a squad. However, there were two factors to consider: that single squad contained numerous high-ranking soldiers with loads of experience and valuable skills. They alone had won countless battles, and if allowed to live would win countless more for me. The second thing to consider was that I loved every member of that squad: I had named them all, chosen their skills and been present as each of them forged their own stories and war tales. It ended up being the toughest choice I’ve made in a game in a very long time. Those pesky “morality” choices in other games couldn’t hold a candle to this simple decision, because the outcome of it would have a real impact on my game, the wrong choice could spell the end. I needed the funds, but I needed those soldiers. Unlike other games, the wrong decision could mean me actually losing. In the end I chose my squad, and I’m still feeling the repercussions because while my squad have won several more battles, the missing funding has left me with even harder choices to make back at base in where to invest my resources.
Of course losing in XCOM: Enemy Unknown isn’t always fair as the game has quite a few glitches and problems to contend with, the biggest being the line of sight and how units are often able to see through walls or hit impossible shots. Because of this I actually ended up doing something in XCOM that I’ve rarely ever done in my entire gaming life: ragequit. It was during a pitched battle with a few aliens when one of the enemy units somehow managed to spot my sniper, Col. Sean ‘o’ Carrol through a fucking wall. The alien proceeded to take the shot, and to my utter dismay killed him in a single blast. Had Sean been some low-level rookie, perhaps I could have forgiven the game for its stupid glitch that should never have made it through testing, but as it was ‘O’ Carrol had been with me since the very beginning. Not only was he massively experienced with a wealth of skills but he’d saved my ass on numerous occasions by making amazing last-second shots from across the battlefield. I had become attached to Sean, and as a sniper I naturally kept him far back in the battles, well out of harms way, which made his death even more insulting because he wasn’t even near the battle. So, I swore loudly, hit the power button on my Xbox and stormed off downstairs to go drown my sorrows in alcoholic goodness. Hours later I returned and loaded up a save from a while back . Normally I accept the death of a soldier because it’s either my mistake or because an enemy just got lucky on a shot, striking a critical hit, but this death I couldn’t accept. I suppose if nothing else it’s a testimony to the game how attached you become to your loyal troops over the course of the game, to the point where their death feels like losing a member of the family. This ability to see through and fire through walls is something I encountered a few times, with even my own troops I’ve also got an issue with the way the game calculates the chance you’ve got of hitting something. sometimes I found myself with a full view of the enemy barely 20ft away with only a 50% of hitting them, while next time I’ll be a 100ft away with only the elbow of my foe visible and have an 80% to hit. It can become frustrating when you flank an enemy, spending a valuable movement to get in what is clearly a better position only for the game to declare that your chances are now worse for it, leaving you standing in a precarious spot for no reason.
All of these problems are easy to forgive, though, because the turn-based strategy is just so satisfying. Coming from a background of epic PC RTS games where thousands of units collide it’s easy to feel like any game that uses just a few units at a time won’t feel all that cool, but battles for all the more tense for it. The maps are perhaps a bit too small, but the small squad count and tight design of every level mean that ever decision on the battlefield counts and has a serious impact – move wrongly and it’ll cost you the life of a squad member. There’s a level of tension in the battles that even in-your-face shooters can’t match, and every time an alien soldier missed a shot on one of my boys or girls I’d breath a heavy sigh of relief.
Back at base things are just as much fun, and almost as tense. There’s research to be undertaken, new facilities that require building, weapons and armor to be purchase and a ton of countries breathing down my neck, occasionally making demands of me. Money in XCOM is kept deliberately thin on the ground, so once again ever single little choice counts, and you can’t just reflex build things to react to problems, either, because things actually take time to build. A long time, in fact. Just getting a satellite constructed takes 20-days of game time, which is ages. The combination of scarce resources, time to build things and limited space to build it all make for nail-biting tension. I’m always second-guessing my decisions: should I have researched plasma weapons rather than interrogating the live alien I risked life and limb to capture? Maybe building that foundry was stupid, because now I’ve only got enough cash to outfit a single soldier with new armor and it’s going to be nearly an entire month until more resources come in. But wait, I really need more satellites and I also need more aircraft to intercept UFOs and shit, now another country is threatening to pull out, reducing my resources further. I’ve got no choice, I need to take the next mission that pops up for that country, and sure enough when it does the game is pulling no punches with a mission that boasts the highest difficulty warning. Again, there’s a choice to make: if I don’t go the country pulls out, but right now half of my best squad are out of action with injuries, leaving some rookies and just a few experienced guys to try to take on the mission.
And I’m literally sitting in front of the screen with my disheveled hair, wide eyes and manic look, clutching a cup of coffee like it’s the holiest object in the world trying to make this decision. The tiny part of my brain that’s telling me this stuff isn’t real, that I’m not really in command of an elite force tasked with saving the world, has been beaten into submission with a baseball bat by the rest of my conscious which is emphatically telling me that the fate of the world rests on this very decision. Choose wrong, and I lose. Maybe just the battle, or maybe the entire war. This is how games should be: I’m trying to beat it and it’s trying to beat me. It’s 3am, I need to get some sleep. But XCOM: Enemy Unknown has dragged me back into the gaming world with its unique brand of turn-based, high tension strategy. And I’m loving every minute of it.