Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked…Seb Patrick’s World – #35: XCOM Enemy Unknown

In iOS, Mac, PC, PS3, Xbox 360 on May 17, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Today’s post is by Seb Patrick.

——–

Title: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Format: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, IOS

Released: 12th October, 2012

XCOM Box Art

We could have been something, Col. Jessica “Dark Angel” Baker and I. Sure, we had obstacles to overcome, but what relationship doesn’t? Okay, she’s a soldier and I’m her boss; and admittedly, I’m a married man, while she is – let’s be brutally honest here – fictional.

Nevertheless, there was little I could do to stop myself falling in love with this statuesque redhead sniper with sexy black body armour and impressive psychic abilities. And hey, budding relationships have overcome worse.

She hadn’t been my first-choice sniper to begin with. She served as a substitute for the frankly scarily good Col. Navneet “Shadow” Dutta whenever he was injured; and, frankly, missed a few too many easy headshots in her early missions to justify a permanent place in the team. But I saw something in her anyway, and she came into her own when given the flying “archangel” armour, earning her the game-given nickname “Angel” in the process.

By the time she developed psi abilities – and with her new darker outfit, a new nickname (of my choosing this time) – she’d become an integral part of my best-strength squad, albeit one that I was wary of letting go too far into the front line.

xcom1

Jessica very nearly survived my entire game – thanks largely to some careful overprotection, it has to be said – making it until the very last turn of the very last mission. They say you always hurt the ones you love, but I didn’t know that was true until the moment I uncharacteristically threw her into just too much of a risky situation: down to only three remaining squad members, I pushed her forwards to try and take out the remaining Ethereal, only for her old shaky instincts to kick in and cause her to miss the all-important shot.

Turn-based gaming being what it is, I could only watch on in horror as my beloved felt the full force of the Ethereal’s attack, mere moments before my lead psi-assault soldier Rachid “X” Amin was able to step in and end the game. In the joyous celebrations of XCOM’s final defeat of the aliens, not to mention the sacrifice that Amin himself made as the mysterious “Volunteer”, Jessica’s own death was largely overlooked. But I remembered her. I remembered.

xcom2

I first played XCOM in a session lasting two or three hours, as my old flatmate brought the game around for me to try out. As such, as well as having him there to offer advice and assistance in the game’s early stages, I was able to share with him my commentary on just how it compared with the original UFO: Enemy Unknown – which I’ve loved for years, even decades, despite the small detail of finding it too difficult to have ever actually completed it.

One of the earliest negative comparisons I made involved the relatively small squad size (four, expandable to five or ultimately six with hard-earned upgrades) the newer game allowed on field missions. “Four soldiers?” I spluttered. “How am I going to take down the alien menace with FOUR bloody soldiers?”

Of course, what it took me a little while to grasp was that the smaller squad size is in truth one of the ways in which XCOM actually improves upon its illustrious predecessor. Sure, it doesn’t allow for as much in the way of chess-like gameplay, carefully spreading out your team across a random and unfamiliar map – but by the same token, the structure and pacing of the game is such that if you had fourteen soldiers in your Skyranger, it’d take an hour just to do the first couple of turns. Slow, chess-like gameplay just isn’t the province of XCOM.

XCOM Action

And besides, when you rattle through squad members the way you do in UFO, they quickly become faceless fodder. Sure, losing a soldier in a difficult terror mission is annoying – particularly if it causes you to lose a vital tactical position – but it’s also to be expected. In XCOM, however, losing a one of your Precious and Proud Few hurts. Really, properly hurts. The first time it happens – particularly if you’ve managed to get a fair lick of the way into the missions without it doing so – you might just have to step away from the game for a little while to take in the enormity of it.

And it’s this, undoubtedly, that allows people to make such personal connections with the game. Okay, so not everybody’s connections are as… extreme as mine was, but they’re still pretty commonplace. It’s the first game I’ve encountered in quite some time that manages to do that with a bunch of randomly-generated, otherwise personality-free player characters.

The possibilities for projection are vast – and that’s even before you get to the game’s use of specific city names for the assorted missions (I almost held back from carrying out a terror site mission in Manchester because… well, it was only Manchester, who’d miss it?).

Manchester

Since playing the game, I’ve learned of another way of dealing with the squad, one which from a distance looks even more masochistic than mine: that is, there are players who take advantage of the option to rename their soldiers by populating their barracks with friends, family members and colleagues. I like to imagine that it’s something they’d choose to do at the start of the game – thinking “Hey, it’ll be fun to take gang of my mates out into battle!” – only realising the enormity of what they’ve done in growing horror as they watch their best friend get mercilessly filleted by a Chryssalid. It’s all a far cry from dropping a concrete donkey on your sister’s head in Worms, that’s for sure.

I can recall feeling similar emotional attachments to games, and their characters, throughout the 1990s, but in the modern era it feels much rarer – perhaps because the growing influence of film on the medium has meant that the majority of games feel like they have to define and voice every character for you. This might benefit the narrative, but it also slightly removes the ownership you feel over your characters. You’re playing someone else’s story, not your own.

XCOM Zoomed Out

XCOM, then, feels like something of a throwback to those halcyon days: indeed, there’s a very specific ‘90s classic – Cannon Fodder – that comes to mind when I load up my save and look at the game’s honour roll of lost soldiers. There they all are: “Mama Bear” Kwan, the impulsive firecracker of a Chinese heavy (ultimately proving one step too impulsive when being blasted to heck by a Cyberdisc, sob); Arthur Carroll, whom I gave a long black ponytail and couldn’t help but accidentally refer to as “Andy”; Matthew “Mack” Walker, a flame-haired Scotsman in whom I placed a lot of faith but whose utter ballsing up of a bomb defusal mission can surely be put down to excessive whisky consumption. The list goes on.

And added to that list, as of the final mission, is Jessica “Dark Angel” Bak… hang on. She’s not on there, is she? Of course! Final mission? This save game dates from before the final mission, doesn’t it? I can wind back time! I can rescue her! Hang on, my love, I’m on my way…!

xcom3

Seb Patrick is editor of the official Red Dwarf website and co-creator of internet radio sitcom A Brief History of Time Travel. He would like to stress (in case she’s reading) that he loves his wife more than any fictional videogame character, with the possible exception of Rinoa from Final Fantasy VIII. Follow him on twitter!

seb

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