The Dreaded Backlog: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Welcome to THE DREADED BACKLOG! It’s incredibly easy to buy video games, but it takes a lot more time to play through them. All of us have a backlog of good gaming intentions that need to be fulfilled. Together we must overcome the overwhelming threat of THE DREADED BACKLOG!

XCOM: Enemy Unknown has been sat in my Steam wishlist for what seems like an eternity. It has taken a long time for the stars to align and for me to have some free time to play the game as well as have an urge to play it. I only threw it onto my wishlist because it got a lot of praise at the time of it’s release and featured on several end of year lists back in 2012. I think the main reason I have been hesitant to play this game is because strategy games and I have never gotten along. Age of Empires, Civilization, Crusader Kings, Company of Heroes. All have come along and all have kicked my ass. However with the recent release of XCOM’s sequel very recently, I decided to sit down and chuck myself into it to see what happens (it also helps that it was on sale on Steam too).

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To the uninitiated, the game lets you lead a multinational paramilitary organisation (XCOM) who are tasked with defending Earth from invading alien attackers. The squad based (4-6 soldiers) combat is turn based, so you make your squad do certain commands (run here, shoot that, heal him etc) then the aliens make their moves. There’s an element of chance, you get a percentage rating of how likely a shot will connect with an opponent (a bit like the VATS system in Fallout 3 etc) Last team standing wins, rinse and repeat. On top of that, you also have control of what weapons and upgrades you build, what scientific research you undertake and how you set up your satellites and aircraft to help detect and defend against further alien attacks. Because XCOM is funded by a variety of international superpowers, you have to appease them and make sure you’re defending their citizens from the aliens or risk the consequences. For example, if you ignore Mexico and it goes into panic, it will pull it’s funding and therefore you have less money to spend on weapons, armour, supplies etc.

One of the things about XCOM which I noticed straight away is that your soldiers will die…A LOT.  But these soldiers are supposed to be expendable because if some die, you can just recruit more to take their place. No problem right? Well, not exactly. The soldiers in your team are customisable. As they rack up kills, they earn promotions which come with new abilities for the field and better stats. It really sucks when you rank up a soldier to the fourth level and then he is murdered in cold blood by an alien right before your eyes and there’s nothing you can do about it (except reload your save but that’s for pansies). You develop an attachment to your squad and it doesn’t help that there are (limited) customisation options for the soldiers so you can make them look like muscled up versions of your friends and you can even rename them too.

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My first save game on XCOM did not go well as I expected. My squad were doing…alright on the battlefield. But there were some hard day’s nights along the way (RIP John). I did have some success stories. While some soldiers didn’t make it past their first mission (RIP George), some were able to progress to where they were given a specialist class like sniper (Good job, Paul) or heavy (Nice one, Ringo!). But just when things were going well, there was always a major death to bring me back to reality. While Thelma got gutted on her second mission, Louise proved herself to be an adept sniper and led the squad on some successful missions. It was absolute heartbreaking when she succumbed to a Muton attack. Things didn’t fare well behind the scenes either. Funds were running low and it didn’t help that India, Egypt and the USA pulled their funding from the XCOM project.

I started a new game and decided to take things slower and more carefully. I’m currently with a squad named after the cast of Brooklyn Nine Nine and Parks an Recreation (RIP Ron “The Stache” Swanson). Things initially started going great for me. I was killing aliens left, right and centre, I was advancing my soldiers, their weapons and their research. On the whole, I was keeping all the countries I baby-sitted happy. Sure, I lost a few key soldiers (RIP  Charles “The Chef” Boyle), but I had such a deep squad that at one point, I had 9 soldiers of decent quality. But then I seemed to hit a downwards slope and I realised what it was that caused it….

 

Randomness. 

 

Randomness can occur on the battlefield, soldiers can randomly become scared in the heat of combat and go crazy. That’s ok. It’s quite rare that it happens and normally I can deal with it. The randomness that seemed to hinder me was everything behind the scenes. See, there is a loose story to XCOM (Get bigger and better to the point where you can destroy the Alien base or something) but in between them, you’re presented with opportunities to help quell alien attacks or are sent on specific missions in various countries across the world. Successfully complete these missions and you’ll decrease the amount of alien activity in that country. The problem is that the countries these missions took place in often didn’t correlate with what was happening in my game. For example, Mexico was getting a lot of alien activity and panic and I wanted to go there and kick alien butt….but I couldn’t, because each mission I had to choose from was in places like Japan, Germany or India so I didn’t have a chance to help Mexico to the point where they pulled from the XCOM project.

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Another problem I had with this structure to the game was that there may have been times where I had a choice of mission in France, UK and Brazil. France and the UK were both experiencing moderate alien activity so it annoyed me that I had to choose between the two…especially when I had 9 healthy soldiers (enough for two squads) and 3 ships ready to rock. I can understand why the developers would want to do this, to make you face those hard choices, but logically it just seems silly!

It’s a shame because the combat itself is fun. It can be tough but ultimately it can be very rewarding. Especially when make a Hail Mary style shot with a 5% chance of hitting and you nail an alien with a head shot. I have had fun playing XCOM and this is from a guy who can never get on with strategy games. But the behind the scenes action can be frustrating to the point where I haven’t felt the urge to pick the game up for almost a week now.

 

 

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