I don’t usually write game reviews, but I’m going to make an exception for XCOM (Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within), because it strikes a weird (and brilliant) combination of chords with me that are usually not struck at the same time.
I’m a very story-driven player. I tend to continue playing a game mainly because:
- I want to see what happens next.
- I want to feel like I’m part of the process in getting there.
In a sense, I see games as interactive stories, and so I often prefer games that follow an interesting and elaborate story. A few of the better examples of games I absolutely adore for this include the Ace Attorney games and Ghost Trick. They have strictly linear, but brilliant stories, and your interaction with them is essentially through a series of puzzles deeply integrated into those stories. The downside to such games is of course that they’re not very replayable. When you’ve been through the story once, that’s it. If you go through it again, the story, the puzzles and the solutions will be exactly the same. Maybe you can replay it after a few years, but the second playthrough is still not nearly as interesting, at least not for me.
Ace Attorney and Ghost Trick can be said to occupy one extreme of a storytelling spectrum, at the other end of which you will find sandbox games, like for example Minecraft. If you haven’t played it before, go check it out! Just don’t blame me when you check your calendar and discover that you just lost a week of your life to it.
In a sense, Minecraft expects you to make up your own story: You build awesome stuff, kill monsters, share your creations with friends, etc. That floating Escher style sky-castle you’ve always wanted to make? Totally possible! Just don’t do like me and accidentally burn your wooden roof to cinders because you wanted to use running lava for lighting.
In the end though, what good did your sky-castle accomplish, apart from looking awesome? Did it save the world from alien invasion? Did it find the culprit in a murder mystery? To what end was it made? Is there even an end?
This is probably fine for many people. A sandbox game just provides a world for you, it’s not supposed to give you and end to work toward, and Minecraft is as excellent as they come. That’s just where I personally tend to lose the thread. And so I stopped playing Minecraft long ago, even though it really is very enjoyable.
I like there to be an endgame in the stories I play through. A satisfying conclusion of some sort.
But back to XCOM! XCOM actually has a story, it just isn’t the most important part of the game. And yet it is! And yet it isn’t! The interesting thing to note with XCOM is that its story feels more like a framework for the story that is acted out when you play the game. There are a number of key events that happen on each playthrough, but XCOM has so many randomised elements, and so many things you could potentially choose to do at any one time that it feels like you’re building your own story in-between the key events.
This is especially true when you play in Ironman mode. On Ironman, you have one savegame which is updated continuously, so you don’t get to go back and make different choices. If someone dies, that’s it. They’re dead. You can’t reload.
But I wouldn’t recommend playing on Ironman on the first playthrough. On your first playthrough, use savegames. Get a feel for the framework of the story, and get a feel for the various things you can research and build, which tactics work on the battlefield, how the various types of alien behave, etc. Then, on subsequent playthroughs, enable Ironman mode. You know how everything works, you know how the story is generally going to play out, but now, suddenly, your choices are important, and from the very beginning, you have quite limited resources to work with, and many choices for how to spend them all.
Maybe you chose to research some new weapons and armor for your soldiers, and neglected to upgrade the ones on your interceptors, causing one of them to get shot down, and a UFO to escape. That UFO reports back on the location of one of your satellites, and then, a bit later, a bigger one comes along to shoot it down. If you engage this one you will probably just lose another interceptor, so you lose the satellite, and the funding from whatever country that satellite covered.
If you neglect your soldiers, on the other hand, they will start dying when the aliens step up their game. It takes a while to train up new ones, and you had kind of grown attached to the ones you had.
If you neglect the process of covering more countries with satellites, you wont have enough funding to step up your game later, to match the alien escalation. But this is expensive too, and will drain resources in the short term.
Inbetween all this, you take your soldiers on missions, and hope that they’re well enough equipped to deal with whatever you encounter. And these missions rarely play out the same, even on the same map in a second playthrough. At the very least, you will probably have some close scrapes. The difficulty levels are not so much about difficulty in winning the game, as it’s about how the story will generally play out for you:
- Easy – A few close scrapes, but everything turns out all right in the end.
- Normal – A number of close scrapes, a few dead soldiers along the way, perhaps even a lost council member.
- Classic – You will probably win the game, but you will probably also lose a team or two on missions, along with an interceptor and a few council members.
- Impossible – It is actually possible to win, but you will probably lose the game. The question is mostly how long you will last before the last council member quits XCOM, defunds you completely and leaves the Earth in the hands of our new alien overlords.
Running an Impossible game on Ironman mode is a somewhat depressing, but legitimate way of playing the game if you like the kind of story where everything inevitably goes to shit and everyone dies.
Now, some reviewers have complained that toward the end, the game becomes easier because you have probably researched and built enough equipment, and trained enough soldiers to be on par with even the best the aliens have to offer. But they may be missing the point. The point I think is this: You have now built your sky-castle and it’s time to save the world and get some payback! What you have built and trained, you now get to use to defeat the alien invaders.
XCOM has nowhere near the freedom of expression that a game like Minecraft offers, but it manages to pack a decent part of the sandboxy feel into the framework of a story that has a beginning and an end (the old XCOM games actually had greater emphasis on the sandboxy feel, and offer more freedom of choice. So if you like that, they may be worth trying). The framework of the story is there, how exactly it acts out is up to you (and the many randomised bits in the game).
And this is why I keep coming back to it, even after having completed it several times already.