My brother was gunned down, shot in the back by some kind of floating jet-zombie while running for his life. Three days later I watched my neighbour bleed out on the pavement. Pinned down by heavy fire, her brother-in-law could only watch the life drain out of her as he clutched his useless medkit across the street. My girlfriend was hospitalized in the same battle, the docs say she won't move for nearly a month. Egypt pulled their funding – I hear they're arming citizens in an effort to hold back the invaders, its basically anarchy over there. The Shadow Council, the power base of political high-rollers and corporate mega-billionaires behind the XCOM project are issuing vague threats at me. The message – "Take care of the aliens or we'll take care of you."
Things could be going better.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
is game comprised of devious gameplay loops and crushing pressure. Everything about the turn-based tactical strategy game has been weighted and measured perfectly by the sadistic minds at Firaxis to ensure that you never have enough. Never enough money, never enough time, never enough bodies, never any of the other crucial elements of planetary defence the Project is sorely in need of.
The game is broken into two modes. The first is a surprisingly engaging Global theatre where you will be building your base of operations, deciding what sort of desperately needed tech to research in favour over another, and keeping track of the training, health, and psionic conditioning of your troops, all while fending off the demands of the increasingly twitchy nations funding the XCOM Project. I would have never have guessed that some of the most tense moments in this game would occur while back at HQ.
- This isn't a base, its a pressure cooker.
Trying to maintain the high-wire balancing act of keeping all of the XCOM nations happy while simultaneously diverting enough of your budget to advanced weapon R&D to outfit your troops, without neglecting the story driven necessary upgrades, could be a game all in itself. I would not be opposed to a pocket version of the game that kept the entirety of the action in the ready room. Move too much in one direction or the other and the Project may be seriously compromised. A vast network of satellites and next-generation fighters might keep the political power-brokers holding the reins happy, but you'll soon be filling up a cemetery worth of poorly armed squads mostly comprised of high-turn-over rookies. Focus on nothing but the latest and greatest laser cannons, refractive armour, and kit-upgrades for your men and you'll enjoy watching your squad live long and heavily rank promoted lives, all while political support and funding erodes into an untenable situation back home. Stating the trade-offs in such blunt terms does a disservice to the wonderfully over-lapping systems Firaxis has created with XCOM
, but I'm paraphrasing. The reality of the Project is a dense network of educated compromises, tactical skill, and a little bit of luck mixing together in a way that makes it impossible to be 100% confident in any action.
While the stress back at HQ can become overwhelming, it is nothing compared to the drama that can occur on the field.
When it comes to actually taking down the alien scum invading Earth, the meat of the game takes place in its turn-based tactical mode where you control the every move of 4-6 crack squad-mates as they engage the aliens on the ground. Battles play out with a tense and methodical pace, and early failures hammer in the importance of taking things slow, always providing cover for your troops, and the infinite value of the Overwatch function which may just give your troops a second chance when unexpectedly flanked.
Just like back home, there is never enough to go around in the field. Even a full six man squad feels pathetically inadequate against the massed invaders, often outnumbering your men 3-1, and each Xeno an equal to one of your own. Character specializations are doled out at random and it is entirely possible, even likely, that you will be short on one of the much needed cogs of your military machine. It can be crushing to lose the only medic in your barracks to an unforeseen ambush, or leaving your MVP sniper at home nursing a months worth of wounds. The XCOM Project has a variety of high-tech baubles and accessories to supply your men, but only precious few of them can be carried into battle, forcing hard compromises in the prep stages before a mission. Even the perks gained on rank promotions can feel stressful. There are very few times that the selection between one perk or another is clear, leaving you torn trying to decide which super-appealing, potentially life-saving skill you can do without.
If all that wasn't stressful enough, there is an easy way to make squad management even more tense.
Every squaddie can be individually customized with their own name, appearance, and nickname. While you can treat your roster like a list of expendable red-shirts and leave them with their default names and appearances (or if you want to be even more dehumanizing, you can brand them with numbers and give them nicknames based on their class) it is far more rewarding to name them after the people you love.
My barracks are full of familiar faces. Family and close friends made up my initial cadre. As the inevitable tragedies of a green commander occurred, the social net of my recruitment drive expanded. Work buddies, people from my Nanowrimo group, even a few Dtoiders entered the mix. Each new face an entertaining prospect, but a bittersweet reminder of all the mistakes I've made up to that point.
- Shawn "The Inspector" went out the way I know he'd want to. With a laser beam to the crotch.
The effect is something of a mixed blessing. On one hand it is a lot of fun. Naming characters while in the pre-class Rookie period then seeing if what they end up specializing in actually reflects their personalities is a blast. Fate seems to understand that my brother has a deep love affair with shotguns and has made him an assault dude in every game I've played, while my hot-dogging buddy Kyle would probably enjoy knowing that as my team sniper he was basically the squad's rockstar (I'm not going to tell him that). To step up to my game-determined role as a heavy weapons guy, I had to slap a badass respect moustache on my avatar I don't actually have – I was flattered, but I don't think I really have the muscle for the job.
Naturally I get attached to these characters. Beyond the practical value of the persistent stats and rank-perks a long-term vet brings to the table, I want
these soldiers to survive. It seems a small thing, but attaching a real name and a vaguely familiar - head as distorted by a glass jar - likeness to my squadies changed my perception of the game. Despite what the Shadow Council may believe, there is no such thing as acceptable casualties in my program.
I'm not about to gamble with the lives of my friends and family. Every move I make in the field is carefully considered and every option is explored. I do everything I can to tackle an operation with a minimum of risk. After my first play-through of the game, a realization dawned on me. Looking at the end-game statistics and comparing my lower than average casualties and tendency towards a much higher number of turns per mission to the global standard, I think naming my squaddies after real people who are important to me actually made me a better commander overall. It certainly wasn't due to any kind of natural tactical savvy, I typically have all the planning power and foresight of a goldfish. But the emotional attachment I made to my squad definitely effected the way I played. I was more cautious, focused, and engaged than I've ever
been playing a turn-based tactics game.
But that attachment has a sharp edge as well. War is hell after-all. Even playing at my best with every good intention, bad things still happen. I've been in situations where I've had to choose between two of my squad-mates/friends and it isn't a comfortable position. Who gets that solitary bit of decent cover? Which of the wounded is worth the last med-pack? Someone has to take the risk and push-out towards the laser beam spewing Sectapod tank, who's it gonna be? There is a certain amount of guilt that accompanies a button-press that dooms one friend in favour of another. I won't lose sleep over it, but I might be a little extra nice next time I see him or her.
- Is this the last mission for one of my friends?
I don't cry or throw a temper tantrum when some alien douchebag disintegrates one of my virtual buddies. The officer training school always has more Rookies on the line to join and I still have a list of old high-school friends and crushes left in the name hat, so life goes on at the XCOM Project. But with every dead friend that decorates the memorial wall of my barracks, I feel a little pang of guilt. A deep seated knowledge that I fucked up, let a friend down, or worse yet played favorites in a game that plays for keeps.
is a game about saving the world from little grey alien men and spindly M.I.Bs, from a level of abstraction twice removed from the rigours of combat. You wouldn't think it was a game that could tap into your heart and hit you on an emotional level, but it can, and it will, and it might be the most devious system Firaxis devised so far.