I’ve been playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the last two days, and it has led me to question why on earth I spent my early teens playing almost nothing but football management sims. This game is amazing.

There’s a simple trick to it: as a strategy game, your success is highly dependent on the characters available to you, soldiers with randomly generated nationalities and names the latter of which you can customize. Characters upgrade independently, going up the ranks of your military unit. When they die, they die and they take all of their extremely useful bonuses with them. More than that, though… the missions in this game require a lot of patience and can be very challenging. You genuinely start to care about these characters you spend so much time looking at and willing to win. When they die… well, it can really suck.

This is the big appeal of the game for me. I’m not even playing in Classic Mode, where the death of characters is permanent and save games give you second chances. I just don’t want to reload and try and save my guys. That would ruin all the fun. The awful, awful fun.

I’m playing on normal and having a blast. For the first time in weeks (in the game) I had my A-Team good to go, all my best guys including my two longest-serving soldiers and all of my highly ranked specialists. It was a tough mission, but Montreal needed me, damn it. We were going in. I got the gang together.

Major Bartholomew Rollington – This guy is so cool I named him after a joke nickname for the family dog. He’s a heavy, which basically means he fires rockets at dudes and is generally a badass.

Major Emily Blunt – Along with Rollington, she’s been around from the start. She’s a run ‘n’ gun leader of men and women. Probably my best soldier in the game.

Captain Richard Nixon – I love this guy. He’s an enormous African-American with a silver handlebar moustache and he’s magnificent. He’s a great medic, he throws down smoke grenades. He’s all about the team. You can’t spell team without Richard Nixon, in my game.

Sergeant Alexis de Tocqueville – Funnily enough, I don’t really care for this guy all that much, but he’s becoming a really useful sniper. He’s a couple of missions away from being one of my go-to guys.

Sergeant Sheila McGurk –My first Australian, named Sheila because I thought it would be a goof, and McGurk because McGurk is one of my favourite sounding surnames. It just sounds aggressive.

Squaddie Jet Li – This guy is already a favourite despite his lack of experience. I basically started throwing him into ridiculously dangerous situations his first couple of missions and he held up really well. I like this guy.

They’re all given nicknames once they’ve had a bit of experience but I don’t bother editing those because they’re normally silly enough to be good or funny enough to keep in there. Emily Blunt is “Blitz” for example. I’m cool with Major Blunt, thank you very much.

So, we arrive in Montreal and there are spider aliens everywhere. I hate these things. They hit really hard, they’re difficult to kill, and they make zombies out of civilians. Which is a pain as this mission is about saving civilians. A few turns in, and I’ve given up on the idea of saving any more than half the civilians at risk. What a fool I was.

A couple of turns later I realized I was realistically only going to save two or three (out of sixteen or so).

Too late I realized the whole mission was a wash and I needed to get out of dodge.

First, they took out Rollington. My guy. My rock. I threw him out into the firing line to get a better line of sight on an enemy, not realizing that he’d be outflanked by a whole gang of aliens who had been hiding up to that point. To make it worse, they zombified him. My guy, Rollington, with his extremely powerful and expensive armour, started to make things very very bad for the rest of them.

Jet Li went down, sacrificing himself for a civilian that it would turn out couldn’t be saved anyway. It becomes apparent that I need to bail, and that I should have bailed about two turns previous.

The funny thing is, I had delayed because I really thought I could save two or three civilians and then hole up into a tight circle and just kill the remaining aliens. Apart from the fact that sacrificing the civilians gave the aliens a large number of zombies (who hit very, very hard as well), I completely underestimated how difficult the spider units are to take on when they’re in numbers.  I was doomed but I didn’t realize it, not least because cover just isn’t that important in this particular match-up.

Too late, I ordered the retreat. Alexis de Tocqueville shimmied down from his vantage point atop an abandoned truck and ran for the evac zone. Nixon followed, ready to establish cover fire for the last two troopers. Blunt and McGurk were just that little bit too far away. They ran to the edge of the evac zone. The message popped up offering the chance to abort the mission, saving Nixon and de Tocqueville but leaving McGurk and Blunt to their doom. They were mere steps away. They could hold on. They’d be bruised and battered, sure. But they would make it.

Uh-huh.

So, the alien and zombie hordes advanced and went ahead and murdered Major Blunt in front of me. She never stood a chance. McGurk freaked out and ran for cover, in the opposite direction from the evac zone. Then, Nixon, my beloved Nixon, my enormous silver-haired handlebar-mustachioed, inexplicably nicknamed “Pox”, leader of men, panicked and ran away OUT of the evac zone.

That was it. I’m left with a mentally scarred French sniper and all my favourite soldiers are dead. I could restore the game but what would be the point?

This is fantastic.

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