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An Ode to XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM

Loss. We’ve all got to face it. The horrid realisation that what used to be is no longer with you anymore. The first is always one of the hardest. Be it your dog, grandparent, friend or long-lost relative, the first hits hard, and hits well. XCOM: Enemy Unknown teaches you about loss, among a chalky blackboard of other lessons: tactics, patience, camaraderie, honour, victory, management, sacrifice, pain and frustration. But mostly loss, because you never know what you had until it’s gone.

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Her name was Fumi Nakano. She was a bright spark – confident, assured, and not afraid to get her hands dirty. As a squaddie in a team of corporals and captains, she had a lot to prove. Her first mission involved inspecting a UFO crash site, the result of a do-or-die battle between interceptor and alien craft. Remarkably, she didn’t seemed fazed by the enormity of the mission she was about to embark upon, and this showed in her willingness to enter the fog of war.

The mission was long and hard, filled with high flying floaters and an army of mutons. Her assault rifle was all she had, but not one to blame her tools, she got stuck in, and reaped the rewards. Her kills were exquisite carpentry. She had the reflexes of a mantis, the eyes of a hawk. Huddled in cover, her overwatch abilities seemed to defy all odds. A 20% hit chance would become 80. She would dodge even the closest floater shots. She was unstoppable.

The battle was quickly won, and the outsider was toast. Hundreds of UFO goodies were shipped back to base in great condition, for all the eager scientists and engineers to utilise. Fumi was promoted, and it was no surprise to what class: Sniper. And in the following few missions, she never missed a beat. She shot sectoids in such a steady rhythm it almost sounded symphonic. The rap of gunfire and the climax of blown off alien brains was music to all ears. Civilians, screaming in terror at the nearest chryssalid, would have nothing to fear. She had each and every one of their cards marked, and she soon earned the nickname ‘zero’. It’s just a shame she never got to learn double tap.

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It happened because of the council. They made a request. It seemed possible, it seemed easy. Bring back the scientist alive. Captain Nakano was ready, and so were the five others on-board waiting to rescue and extract. Get in and get out. We need that scientist, because he’s worth at least five of ours. We found him quickly, on the floor, on a burning bridge of burning cars. Thin men stood on every corner, but by this point they barely scratched the armor of each squadmate. Just two pieces of a health a hit. Fumi was laughing, popping thin heads like grapes under teeth. Established assault gunny Emma Jones rushed in to grab the scientist, and bring him to safety. She had his back, even if he didn’t believe it himself. Meanwhile, Fumi was getting cocky. Poisoned on almost every turn and still taking shots by thin men at all angles, she almost seemed arrogant. With just a few aliens left, nobody could have predicted what would happen next.

A squaddie, Erin Kelly from Ireland, just couldn’t take it anymore. She panicked. It was never what she expected from XCOM. It was just too real. She shot at Fumi. And with her laser rifle this made quite a dent. In fact it critically wounded her. It was time to head back to the ship. No one had any medicine so the best idea was to get help from base. She’d be all right then, but they all forgot about the smell; the pungent smell of petrol. Flames licked at her feet, but she was too far gone to notice. The explosion enveloped Fumi Nakano, and the squad looked at each other with tragic eyes and lost hearts. Erin kept on panicking, this time hunkering down. It was time to go back. The scientist had been found, but Fumi had been lost.

Fumi Nakano’s name was etched at the top of the memorial, a permanent mark of her time as an XCOM soldier. She is often talked about when training new recruits – 20 kills from 16 missions, with barely a wound to her body. Bagpipes forever roar at her legacy, and she is yet to be eclipsed as one of the fallen heroes of the campaign.

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And that is just one facet of XCOM’s beauty – the stories to tell, the battles to discuss. It is a game that excels in so many areas. It’s tactical – it requires patience, forward thinking, cautious gunplay, careful planning, and knowing when to retreat and when to just go for it, balls to the wall. Sometimes, in the worst situations, it requires sacrifice. It’s about time management, and planning for every scenario. It’s about quelling panic, and choosing countries over others. Do you help a country that’s in dire need of arms, but is bound to overrun by aliens, meaning soldier losses are likely? Or do you help out a country in a relatively safe position, for an easier time and less chance of grabbing a wound or fatality?

Little things become big parts of the game – soldier customisation, for one. It’s easy to spend hours changing armour colours, naming soldiers, carving out identities for each of them. When you’re far into the game you’ll often find yourself neglecting the lesser members of your team for the more accomplished and decorated individuals. Who else deserves the ghost armour but assault specialist and hard bastard Brit Emma Jones? Invisibility? Now she truly is a force to be reckoned with. Minor research projects might seem inconsequential upon first glance, but in the field, a newly researched plasma pistol can save the skin of a particularly keen sniper.

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And then you have the tactics, and all the things that make a great strategy title. Cover, field of view, classes, blind spots, elevation, destruction, and a diverse range of enemies that will have you on your toes throughout rounds. Put in the time, and you’ll reap the rewards. The difficulty soon ramps up, but after a few deaths you’ll learn the reasons why, and plan to avoid them. And if you decide to abandon save spamming in favour of a more realistic play style, the random missions and maps mean it never feels like you have to play the same missions over and over. In fact it’s the opposite: you’re given a fresh start; a blank canvas on which to paint a new campaign filled with better tactics and a more prepared team.

The greatest compliment XCOM earns is that it’s a strategy title great enough to change the minds of non-strategy minded gamers. It is so accomplished it could hook even the most casual of Call of Duty players. What is even more impressive is that it never neglects the hardcore strategy fan, or the original XCOM advocate, or the impossible difficulty sadist. It makes every single party happy, and gives gamers reason to get excited and talking about games again.

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Now back to that original word: loss. Developers Firaxis need knighting, for they have been able to make gamers across the world get genuinely upset at the death of a character they’ve never seen utter a word of dialogue, or act in a cutscene, or pose for the cover box. They’ve done it through the power of their gameplay: what it feels to win, and what if feels to lose. They know exactly how important squad dynamics are in the game, from hiring new rookies, to the random nicknames they inherit, to the perk customisation when you get promoted. The inclusion of psy abilities near the end of the game is a masterstroke: if you didn’t already love certain members of your squad, giving them mind-control will be the clincher. Firaxis even added in an achievement which asked you to ‘have a soldier survive every mission in a full game’, to show the importance of soldier development.

If you love strategy games, you will love XCOM. If you hate strategy games, you will love XCOM. If you have any sort of feeling towards any sort of activity, you will love XCOM. It’s a simple as that.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @_Frey.

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