Friday, October 12, 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I played XCOM back when it came out in the 90s. I think it was one of those games that quaintly came out on CDROM just to avoid having to include multiple floppies -- the entire installation was maybe 10 megabytes.
I have fond memories of XCOM, but I can't remember ever actually getting more than a few missions in before the world collapsed and the game ended.
I also have a clear memory of some gaming magazine at the time, releasing a video on their included CDROM (Play videos on the world wide web? Are you nuts? That'll be the day...) which went through a heavy economic analysis of the game, pointing out that if you constantly built and sold a certain piece of equipment, you would make money yada yada.
This sort of "solving" of the game turned me off, and I think it was one of the reasons, apart from the (at least perceived at the time) insane difficulty, that stopped me from playing.

I still had fond memories of it. I like turn-based games because my reflexes suck. I liked the combination of resource management, research and tactics.

I never played any of the so-called sequels.

But then, after a long hiatus from modern computer gaming, when I picked up my new laptop a few months ago, I was looking for a new game to draw me in.  And lo and behold, I hear about XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which coincidentally is co-designed by a college friend, the guy who introduced me to this strange European boardgame called Die Siedler Von Catan (before it was printed in English), killed off my Call of Cthulhu character with a madman NPC's axe to the chest, and who also co-designed the top boardgame on boardgamegeek.
The game is also racking up all sorts of awards before it's released, and nobody can find a bad thing to say about it.

So I put my money up, preordered it on Steam, and figured maybe I'll find a little bit of time to play it over the next few months.

And then.. my 4-year-old gets sick, sick enough to stay home from school the day after the game is digitally released.  And he's home for the rest of the week.
I had to stay home with him.
This was a boon for some spare gaming time (while, yes, also doing actual Work From Home), but even then, I have a history of getting easily bored of games and walking away from them.
This game is phenomenal. It has absolutely drawn me in.

Sure there are a few little flaws in it -- like I wish there was an "undo" button for a move in combat -- and sure it's really hard.  But with all the decisions you have to balance, I am really enjoying it.

In my first attempt at playing, I made a gross underestimation.  I started in Europe (the only continent that doesn't get a monthly input of engineers), and I launched my first free Satellite in Europe (because you get bonuses for having multiple satellites in the same continent).  And, on top of that, I skipped (or failed, I forget which) the first mission which grants extra Engineers.
Now, the thing is.. You start the game with 5 Engineers.  And you can't build a Workshop (the building that gives you 5 more of them) until you've acquired some more in some other way.
So... with all of this combined, my game went several game-months without being able to build new tech.  As a result, my soldiers kept dying (I am a big fan of permadeath).. but the missions also kept getting more difficult.
I got to the point where I was sending 5 rookies to their deaths over and over, while my ever-growing supply of Scientists were devoting their lives to unimplementable theoretical research.  This did not make the world happy.  I put that game aside, despite my original insistence on playing to the bitter end.  When it stops being fun, you want to try something else.

So I started a new game.. this time shunning the tutorial, but still starting in Europe (despite the option for 5 continents in non-Tutorial mode, rather than the with-Tutorial 2), but this time I launched my first satellite in China, Asia being Engineer-heavy.
This.. seemed to start out better...
But in this scenario, I was running out of money.  Surprise surprise, when your Engineers have the ability to build stuff, you have to pay for it!
I couldn't afford to recruit new soldiers to replace the still-always-dying ones, and had to skip a few missions.
My first month's report card was a D! Much worse than in the "old" game.
But I did manage to crawl out of that pit.  I finally advanced one of my soldiers to Captain level (he's British, so I dubbed him Arnold "Ace" Rimmer), with a few other Officers beneath him.. and now that I can use alien technology properly, they don't just asplode in combat.
Even though the entire continent of Africa has abandoned me, I think I am in much better shape.

I'm still not sure what the "end game" is in XCOM -- other than, of course "you are doomed, everybody dies". But it should be a lot of fun finding out!

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