I beat a game! XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Phew…  A sigh of relief. That was my first reaction upon seeing the game end with a double-tapped plasma rifle crit. It was quite a ride, but I’m not totally sure how I feel about it.

Backlogs are a hell of a thing with me and gaming. I’ve had XCOM since I preordered Bioshock Infinite at the beginning of the year. I knew I’d play it eventually given the stellar reviews it received, but it never bubbled to the top of my huge list of “games I should really play.” After finishing up a couple of Assassin’s Creed games (I’m late to the party on that one), Saints Row IV and playing through all the DLC for Borderlands 2, I saw it again in my Steam library. The upcoming expansion had been announced by then, and that’s usually enough to prod me into a game. XCOM was no different.

I played the original XCOM way back when I was in college. It took four or five restarts for me to finally “get it.” Once I did though, it was a great experience. I still remember (fondly) playing it in my dorm room with several floor-mates watching. It was an incredible game at the time, but man was it hard.

I’d heard the guys on Giant Bomb talk about XCOM quite a bit, and I can summarize their discussion with two points:

  • It’s an incredible game
  • It’s balls hard

I went into the game expecting a challenge. Ultimately, I think I overestimated how hard it would be, though in no way am I implying that it was easy. I finished the game in 216 game days on normal difficulty vs. a worldwide average of 351.44 (assuming I’m reading the ending stats correctly). The whole time I played the game, I felt like I was slowly losing an uphill battle. At no point did I think “you know what, I’m just going to roll through a few cycles, build up some money, buy some great gear and THEN assault the base.” Instead, my gut feel through the whole game was “OMG ALL THE COUNTRIES ARE GOING TO LEAVE THE COUNCIL MUST ASSAULT THE BASE TO GET CONFIDENCE BACK RIGHT NOW.”

In the end, I think that ended up making the game harder than it should have been. I never had anywhere near enough money to outfit my guys with the best stuff. I was always getting outrun by invading UFOs (which caused my grades per monthly report to go down, which resulted in less money). I lost two countries because I didn’t have enough satellite coverage (or enough of the upgraded interceptors). I WAS losing ground on an uphill battle, but only because I didn’t ever pause to get my footing.

This resulted in a pretty stressful game end to end. Had I waited just a bit longer to assault the first base, I could have gone into the second third better prepared. This would have lowered the overall pressure, meaning I could take a bit more time there when preparing to enter the last third. Instead it was “well, I’m going to lose every country if I don’t go now, may as well see if I can do it.”

I didn’t do too much save scumming (reloading when something bad happens). At the most, I would start a mission from the very beginning if something went horribly wrong, and it wasn’t until the very last mission that I was saving mid-mission whenever things seemed “stable.” That feels a little dirty, but the game is hard enough that I didn’t want to risk having to start over.

Ultimately, that ended up being what made not like XCOM as much as I could have. It’s not that it isn’t a phenomenal game – by all rights Firaxis did a near perfect job of bringing the franchise back (which many considered an impossible task). As games have evolved, I’ve found that I like games that have an optional grind to them. Games that say “hey – if that’s too hard right now, go do some of these side missions, power/level up and come back – you’ll dominate it then.” I like to feel like I’m becoming *more* powerful as the game goes on, but with XCOM I felt like I was slowly losing grip the whole time. I felt like I was the most powerful at the beginning and was barely scraping by at the end.

I suspect that feeling was the intention of the designers, and if so they pulled it off masterfully. I can respect that. It’s not necessarily for me any more, but I get it. Even if I didn’t enjoy XCOM as much as I was hoping to, I still think all the game of the years were well deserved. It wouldn’t have been my choice, but I wouldn’t have put up much of a fight against it.

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