I am on roughly my fifth game of XCOM: Enemy Within. I say roughly because a few were just false-starts and tweaking with options. One was even three fourths through the tutorial before I realized that I did not need their guiding hand limiting my decisions. It is more accurate to say that I am on my second game, having abandoned game one after many hours due to losing way too many troops and way too many poor decisions on my part. This is the scene for my second game – I had lost too many people and I decided that I was going to kick the asses of every alien as efficiently as possible. Having seriously considered never picking up the game again, I decided to start one more Ironman session on normal mode with only a few Second Wave DLC options activated. Things were going great, until my best soldier died an awkward and embarrassing death.
I am not a crazy person, so I knew that I needed time to learn XCOM again before I attempted a harder difficulty. Just like in Dungeons and Dragons, missing your attacks is no fun in XCOM and that was not how I wanted to spend 5 straight hours on a Saturday morning. I like to be able to learn a game and then conquer it. Efficient build orders, squad set ups and tactical deployments were buzzing through my head during what I like to refer to as my “revenge session.” I lost so many troops in my first game that I had a vendetta against both the aliens and, let’s face it, the game itself. Game One (actually game four if you are keeping track) was bad, but I was playing on Ironman so I thought I had to accept it. When my best troops were killed by a series of chrysalids, I faced the ongoing invasion like a hardened, calloused warrior. When my second-best troops got killed by Exalt forces in a large and unfortunate rocket blast I wanted to cry. I really don’t need to mention the mission where my current strongest soldiers died by 1) an exploding gas station 2) A lucky muton hit 3) that same muton got lucky again. It was time for revenge.
I don’t know exactly what I did differently in Game Two, but I didn’t lose my first soldier until I assaulted the first alien ship, the big one where you have to manufacture the fancy key. My soldiers were both hardened and grizzled as they launched into mission after mission. I made a few mistakes that cost me hundreds of dollars but I made up for it with smart/ safe decisions while in the field. I was afraid to mention this run through on social media for fear of jinxing my good fortune. I had to cycle more and more recruits into my team just to make myself feel safe, but I never lost a soldier so training replacements felt strange. Then it happened. My strongest, most important character died and it wasn’t my fault.
An interesting new addition to XCOM is the enemy faction known as Exalt. They are a sort of anti-XCOM that are working either with the aliens or just for their own personal gain. They sabotage your base and stir unrest throughout the globe. So naturally it is up to you to stop them while trying to repel a worldwide alien invasion. I hate the traitorous Exalt forces with every bit of my heart. When you find out that a cell of Exalt is working in a country you send one of your soldiers into the country to disrupt their plans. They are only armed with a pistol, whatever item you choose to give them and a bad ass leather jacket. They leave for six days then you rush in to save them with your normal complement of soldiers. It is very important to note that you cannot let these soldiers die in the mission or else you fail.
For this particular mission, I was tasked with hacking some relay stations then getting the hell out of dodge. At this point I had only lost a low level assault trooper due to carelessly moving him too far from the main group. He got eaten by three chrysalids. So maybe I was not acting as cautiously as I could have been. I had a few max level soldiers and plenty of money. I also had a slew of new genetic enhancements that made my soldiers much stronger than the average human. When I moved a group of three soldiers forward to kill one member of Exalt I wasn’t too worried about the consequences. I had contingency plans just in case. When a heavy soldier hit my covert op and my heavy and assault soldiers I was concerned but not overly concerned. When a sniper took aim on the now coverless covert op I was more than a little worried. When she got hit and went down, I was disappointed but still not freaking out. I had planned for this too.
There are many different genetic enhancements that are available to your soldiers. You could enhance their brains to avoid becoming mind controlled or enhance their legs for extreme jumping. More importantly, you can give your soldiers a second heart which protects them from getting instantly killed.
Colonel Ferro “Hex” Maljinn, named after the wonderful character from the First Law trilogy, was an amazing soldier. She was by far my strongest with the most missions and kills, not to mention my only sniper. She was outfitted with enhanced eyes that gave her higher aim and crit chance whenever she went into higher ground, the ability to jump higher than the average human and, most important to our story, a second heart. This second heart gave me the courage to move Ferro closer to the action to help take out the remaining Exalt forces. I knew I had another chance to stabilize her if she went down and she was an extra soldier in this mission so her pistol wasn’t incredible necessary. I had already hacked the relay stations so I was just cleaning up the final Exalt forces. This was a poor choice.
Game design seems incredibly difficult. I cannot imagine how developers keep everything balanced and fair, much less working and not on fire. That being said, let me describe Ferro’s death. Having been shot by a sniper, she had five turns to be stabilized before she was killed since she had two hearts in her genetically modified body. I took a turn or two cleaning up the bulk of the Exalt forces while I moved my support soldier, Col. Arya Stark, up to stabilize Ferro. I didn’t have a character that could revive since the XCOM Ability Bingo hadn’t blessed me with both three uses of med packs and revive. Aludra Wyrmsbane, who had the revive ability, was undergoing genetic enhancement to make her eyeballs better. I couldn’t even bring a soldier with that skill. Anyway, I am rambling because I am sad. Arya stabilized Ferro and everything seemed fine. I killed all of the Exalt in the area and was waiting for the Mission Success screen. It never showed up so I figured there must have been some Exalt soldiers hiding somewhere. I took roughly seven turns searching with six soldiers all over the map with no success. I then pressed the skip turn button what felt like 200 times. No luck. Then it dawned on me, the developers either didn’t plan for this breakdown in logic or chose to force you to move your covert operative to blue box regardless of the number of enemies in the AO.
Once again I was ready to quit XCOM. This time I really didn’t feel like it was my fault since the whole thing was so silly when you really spelled out what had just happened. A multi-nation super organization who fields genetically, psychically and mechanically modified soldiers sends these soldiers out to stop a terrorist cell. They fight the terrorist, disable their communication relays and then stand around staring at their fallen leader. I can imagine the confusion on the face of Number 6, the two ton MEC trooper, as she stares down on the unconscious Ferro. Apparently no one is able to pick her up and move her to the extraction zone forty feet away. Also, this multi-nation super organization put together as Earth’s last and best hope cannot enter the area to extract your soldiers until you move into the blue glowing box. Sure, once you stun a giant muton or two they somehow develop the technology to transport unconscious bodies. My only choice was to move all of my soldiers into the magical blue box of extraction and abort the mission.
Stage one: Shock and Denial. “No way would the game allow such a silly way to lose a mission and a soldier. No, they would say ‘Mission lost, now return all seven of your soldiers home to think about what they did.’ No, maybe if I stand on top of Ferro I could shoot her with like, four more med packs?” This stage obviously involved me running around the map like a crazy person.
Stage two: Pain and Guilt. “WHY DID I MOVE HER FORWARD I KNEW THE GD EXALT USED ROCKETS WHENEVER YOU CLUMPED YOUR PEOPLE TOGETHER.”
Stage three: Anger and Bargaining. “They just wanted more content in their DLC and most likely said through their cigar and brandy clogged mouth ‘WHO CARES, SHIP IT!’” I thought Firaxis were a bunch of lazy money-grubbing jerks that didn’t playtest this mission type enough. Then I started thinking that maybe I could download a mod or a hack program that allowed you to crack the Ironman game mode’s code and reload a previous save.
Stage Four: “Depression”, Reflection, and Loneliness. “My best soldier, my only sniper, my one rock and most likely candidate to become savior of the world with her psychic powers is gone.” I tried to talk to people about it but they thought I was crazy. “It’s not real…” they would say. I couldn’t play for the rest of the weekend and I didn’t even want to play other video games.
Stage Five: The Upward Turn. “Heck, the game was going great, so I doubt that it was going to ruin my entire play through. Maybe I should take stock of the rest of my soldiers and switch my tactics around. Maybe it could work!?” I started thinking that maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal since I could always train up a new sniper eventually.
Stage Six: Reconstruction and Working Through. “Yeah, adding another assault character or another heavy with Ferro’s scope gives me tons of damage at close range.” I started recruiting new soldiers to see if any of them were snipers. I went slower through missions. I learned to let other characters die since it wasn’t a huge deal.
Stage Seven: Acceptance and Hope. “Yes, no other sniper will be as good as Ferro, not even this fancy new one I got for saving China, but I know I can kick alien ass with this team.” I wanted to destroy the aliens more now since I actually had something to lock onto. I wanted revenge for Ferro. Losing her made my play through much more interesting. The next several missions were incredibly tense. But I saw that there were positives to be found. You should never rely on one character too much. I wasn’t promoting teamwork. Most likely Ferro was a huge asshole around the barracks. Maybe she didn’t have friends, you know, what with the lonely sniper trope that I am pretty sure exists in more than just Final Fantasy VIII.
So, I hope you learned something from my pain. Cherish every pixelated character around you because they could be taken in a heartbeat by the fickle nature of fate.