A man far more eloquent and intelligent than myself famously once said, “War: war never changes.” Had I beaten the aforementioned gentleman to the quotable punch, I probably would have espoused a similar sentiment in far more clumsy prose, “War: it never stops kicking you in the peas.”
I’m Lee MacPherson from The Monster Closet gaming podcast and this is a very public record of my love-hate relationship (I love it, it hates me) with Firaxis’ turn-based strategy game, X-Com 2. For the next however many weeks, I’m inviting you to join me on a journey of tears and joy, of highs and lows, of getting one over the system and then being mercilessly sucker punched when you least expect it.
“I’VE SEEN THINGS YOU PEOPLE WOULDN’T BELIEVE.”
In the interests of full disclosure, this isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve attempted to beat the game twice since its console release last year and failed. Worse still, I’m no wet-behind-the-ears X-Com newbie. No, I’m a slightly-damp-around-the-lobes veteran who’s been playing X-Com since the first game launched way back in 1994. The shame.
While I must confess that I have never once completed X-Com: UFO Defence or the direct sequel X-Com: Apocalypse, I have bested both the reboot, X-Com: Enemy Unknown, and it’s expansion, Enemy Within (even managing a successful Iron Man run on classic difficulty of the former). You can imagine then, the crushing disappointment of the sequel I was so excited for smugly handing me my ass. Twice. On normal difficulty.
I could’ve kicked puppies.
THE PAIN THAT NEVER ENDS
For those of you not familiar with the X-Com series (I’m referring to the core games, not the misjudged spin-offs or re-skins that have born the name over the years), the games are primarily turn-based strategy games centred around squad combat but they also encompass base management, resource management, unit upgrades/customisation, weapons/technology research and development, as well as a few other plates to be spun during the gameplay loop.
The story pits the player, as the commander of a top secret military organisation, against the threat of a global alien invasion. Your troops – and decisions – are the last line of defence against these vicious intergalactic upstarts.
Of course, being X-Com, the goal of defeating the alien invaders is not nearly so simple. As an internationally sanctioned organisation, the player/commander must also answer to an oversight committee composed of representatives of the major nations of the world. This committee finances your black ops operations and they are a bit judgey, all told. Let too many UFOs slip through your air defences, choose the wrong cities to help fight the aliens or simply fail too many missions and they will shut X-Com down, regardless of the larger implications to humanity. No pressure then.
Oh, also, the games are famously unforgiving. None of your latter-day AAA game handholding here.
Make no mistake, when you play X-Com, there will be tough decisions ahead. The game challenges you at almost every turn, every opportunity couched in a tantalising risk/reward scenario that the game will tempt you with before using it against you in some form at the next available opportunity. ‘Look at the shiny thing while I queue up some gut-churning tragedy off-stage out of sight.’
But while I’ve just painted a pretty bleak portrayal of a video game experience, the road to X-Com victory IS peppered with victories. Just not in the way that modern games traditionally dispense them. Most mainstream games offer straightforward story or level/area progression as a means of progress. X-Com campaigns are traditionally a conveyor belt of tough situations – successfully navigating through one will only buy you some time before the next one rears its head. The victories here are smaller, more localised.
Obviously, clearing a mission and bringing your team back is always a win but that might be a bittersweet triumph if most of your squad has been injured and cannot be used again until they’ve convalesced for two weeks. The victories become ranking up and customising your soldiers (did I mention the permadeath?), building your base to your play style while not jeopardising the campaign, researching that new weapon or class or armour. Normally these are disposable achievements in games but here they are smaller currency that eventually add up to a greater whole: a successful campaign.
Of course, I’ve not managed that in X-Com 2 yet but that’s why we’re here, right? 😉
“AND… HERE… WE… GO!”
Sound like your idea of Hell in video game form? Excellent! Let’s buckle in and get ready to endure some long, overdrawn sadism. (Spare handkerchiefs and back rubs can be mailed to the postal address below.) Seriously though, if you’re reading this and want to be part of the story (because that is one of the great high points of X-Com, creating your own story), drop me a line on Twitter (@podcastrage) with your name and preferred call sign, and I’ll add you to the recruit pool.
Lastly, a timely spoiler alert: if you don’t want to know what happens in X-Com 2, avert your eyes!
NEXT WEEK: ‘Cry havoc and let slip the gerbils of war!’