The XCOM Files

XCOM, the pure evil of RTS games and the addiction of many gamers around the world, including me. When XCOM 2 dropped in February I let out a shuddering sigh and a single tear glided down my cheek. I knew it was happening again, that burning desire to play just one more turn that inexplicably ends in playing for another six hours as the sun begins to rise. I was honestly terrified of the impact it would have on my life knowing I would be largely unable to resist its charms.

To completely understand my story of pain and sorrow we must travel back to Enemy Unknown, my introduction into the series. I was your typical gamer, I played many types of games spanning many genres, but I always stayed away from RTS and strategy games in general. This was until our friends at Firaxis Games released this intriguing, alien invasion-type RTS in the form of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. At this stage I wasn’t aware of the older XCOM games, I was probably told about them but showed no interest and shut them out (I highly regret that now but thank god for Steam, amirite?). The year was 2012, I was still on the high of playing the masterpiece we call Borderlands 2 and still balls deep in Mass Effect 3. But October came around and turned my whole life upside down. I remember playing Borderlands 2 one afternoon and getting a call from one of my mates from school, he mentioned playing some game called XCOM. At this stage I had no bloody idea what he was talking about so I took his gibberish with a grain of salt. I continued playing Borderlands 2 and continued being my very stubborn self, I was happy playing Borderlands 2 that I didn’t care about any other game that was released or was being released. That was until one weekend I hiked over to my mate’s house to have a gaming session with him. I had my PS Vita stuffed in my backpack with a variety of games to play so I didn’t get bored when he played his Xbox 360. I was sitting back, playing my Vita version of FIFA 13 and that’s when he asked me: “Jack, want to have a go of Enemy Unknown?”. I refreshed his memory as to my lack of interest towards RTS, but he insisted. I grabbed the controller off him and sat on the forty year old couch, he had already dropped me in a mission.

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I saw in front of me, four soldiers and an above head view. Everything seemed way out of my league, I wasn’t accustomed to the weird perspective or RTS mechanics in general. They were easy enough to get a hold of I suppose but they still threw me around. I was more a head-on type of guy, playing games such as Battlefield , Counter-Strike and Borderlands I simply wanted to charge in guns blazing. XCOM of course is basically the antithesis of this. You could really make two moves a turn depending on how far you want to move forward. I looked at my mate with shock and despair in my eyes. He told me it was part of the game, it helps you think and plan out your moves accordingly, I agreed and kept playing. I moved more and more up the battlefield and came across a fairly big spacecraft, it seemed to be on fire and pieces of metal were laying everywhere. My friend told me had recently shot down that aircraft with something called a “interceptor”, the humans excuse for defence against the alien hordes of death. I played more, moving inside the spaceship to explore, I ended my turn and all of a sudden I got a total of two words in weird font strewn across my screen, it read “ALIEN ACTIVITY”. I knew something was up, and within a couple of moves around the spaceship I saw them. Little alien type creatures with glowing eyes and small bodies. They spotted me and moved behind cover, they were accompanied by tall, slim humanoid looking figures with sweet shades on. What happened next was a heated battle (well heated for me as I had no idea what the hell was happening), I lost two of my men, but I was victorious in the end. I waited for my dead comrades to re-spawn but they never did. This is when I was told that this game featured “perma-death”, as in if you lose a soldier they’re dead for the rest of the game.

I had to say, after twenty minutes of playing this game I was fairly interested and wanted to play more, so the next day I bought myself a copy. Playing for easily twenty-five hours I began to go insane. I played many missions and lost many soldiers, but it never got any easier. Most of you reading this are probably thinking, “Wow, Jack is getting emotional over fictional characters in a video game? What a douche”. Well when you play a game with soldiers with the threat of permanent death looming over you you’re a little prone to going crazy and being super careful. I was playing another one of those interceptor missions a little later on in the game, I had one soldier levelled all the way up and I wasn’t planning on losing him anytime soon. The game went on and I got into battle, I was very quickly overwhelmed and I started shaking and getting really nervous. That is when it happened, that is when my whole world fell down around me. My main man, my Colonel,  my hero was one shotted by an alien grunt. I paused the game and sat there for what felt like forever, XCOM had broken me. I stood up and turned the Xbox off and walked away. This was the last time I played XCOM until The Bureau, but I would rather not go there as I saw that game as a disaster.

Fast forward to February 2016, when XCOM 2 came my way. I sat there in horror, it was about to happen all over again. I opened up Steam and put in the code, I had the opportunity to ponder my painful time with XCOM over the next twenty-five hours while it downloaded (my internet speed is 250kb/s, please take me off this planet..). I was re-watching The Walking Dead again as I haven’t been keeping up and needed a refresh, and during a break I walked into my room and saw my download was complete, my heart stopped in its track. I paused TWD and sat down in front of my monitor, did I really want to put myself through this again. I grew some balls and opened up the game, I was greeted with a rather nice looking menu screen, a definite upgrade from the boring Enemy Unknown menu. I hovered my mouse over the “New Game” option. Even knowing that I would likely be put through significant pain and suffering again, I was keen to get back into it. I played the introduction/tutorial easy-peasy and thought perhaps it had dialed back the difficulty somewhat, how very wrong I was, how very wrong. I played through the game and lost many good men and women, I couldn’t manage to keep a soldier alive for longer than three missions. I didn’t even have the luxury of getting attached to them because they were dying so frequently. Each mission seemed to stack on the difficulty until I was pulling my hair out. I came across a mission where your craft gets caught with some strange object, which stops you from being able to fly anywhere. In other words, you’re trapped out in the open and basically a sitting duck for alien attacks. You, as the commander, lead your soldiers out against an onslaught of aliens and their reinforcements with your goal being to destroy the transmitter object to free your ship from these “shackles”. This mission to me was brutal, I was forced to leave so many of my people behind in order to get out alive and complete the mission. I went in with five soldiers and emerged with only one, one soldier survived the battle. I was sweating from the nerves and the frustration of the slaughter, my mouse and keyboard were drenched in sweat, blood and tears. This feeling is all too familiar with me when it comes to the XCOM universe. Another thing I’m numb to is the lack of accuracy with the soldiers. You can stand two inches in front of the enemy with your gun directly in their face and only get a chance of 60% to hit, I hate to say it but these soldiers are worse than Storm-Troopers when it comes to how horrifying their accuracy is. I haven’t gotten around to finishing the game yet but I feel as I am very close to the ending, I haven’t had it spoilt for me yet so I hope it’s as good as I hope as I don’t think I can handle a mediocre ending after all that hard work.

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I’m sure you guys have some stressful stories like this from playing XCOM but these are just some of mine, I have many more that I am too proud to share. Some of them are simply pride-straining. XCOM is one of those series that will kick you in the arse constantly and keep kicking you when you’re on the ground unconscious. There’s a saying that is said to me quite a lot from the people wonderful people at DYEGB and that is: “That’s XCOM baby.”. I can’t believe I’m saying this but, XCOM, never change. You may beat me to the brink of insanity but I enjoy it.

Jack enjoys killing creatures in the wastelands of Boston and slaughtering riffs on Guitar Hero. He's currently doing his Advanced Diploma of Game Art and Animation in the wonderful city of Sydney. Get around him on Twitter @TheActualJack