The Good and Bad of XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I’m of two minds about XCOM: Enemy Unknown right now.

Firstly: It’s a game that’s really up my street. I can take as much time with it as I want. It’s what some call a “Turn based strategy” game, which means the action is frozen until I make a move.

In fact, that’s a bonus. To play this game well, you need to take your time with it. Each and every time I’ve rushed or panicked, the game has kicked my arse. The worst bit is, I’ve immediately gone, “Oh, what the FUCK did I do that for?!” as the arse kicking commences.

Why? The nature of my error is always apparent. I never feel as though I’m being punished because of some designer’s twisted whimsy; my failures are always the result of my actions.

Okay, boys, be gentle...
Okay, boys, be gentle…

So there are a lof of things I can learn about experimentation, recovering from failure. I’ve rage-quit once or twice, I’ve been naughty and re-loaded from an earlier save just to avoid some particularly nasty consequences (like wiping a highly experienced, extremely well-equipped team out in one mission), but by and large I’ve been learning how to adapt and survive failure.

One thing I’m trying is a tip I read somewhere about a firefighter who set an alarm on his watch to sound every ten minutes. It kicked him out of the sensory overwhelm from the fire he was fighting. He stopped and took stock of where he was, then thought clearly about what he needed to do next.

I use a stopwatch app on my phone, but it does the job pretty well (when I remember to use it).

On top of that, it’s cool SF action out of the wazoo. Alien invasions, lasers, plasma weapons, sleek armour – even the baseline olive / beige kit my troopers get looks cool! (I sometimes find myself preferring the thump and crack of the original projectile weapons to the zap noises of yhe laser anf plasma kit that comes later).

I love the music that plays as you prep your squad for deployment, the images of them running out of the Skyranger dropship when they arrive at the mission site, the storm when three troopers on overwatch open up on a single target moving out of cover, the whoosh as an interceptor takes to the sky to bring an inbound UFO down. Then there’s the 3D-rendered underground base of the XCOM Project, which is always great to just zoom in on and take a look around.

Speaking of that base, another plus of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is its several layers. Aside from the main game of ordering and managing your squad of hard-bitten troopers, there’s the broader level of running the XCOM Project – the secret, UN-sponsored organisation that keeps Earth safe from alien invasion (think Men In Black Hawk Down). I have to ensure my monthly stipend from the countries for which I provide satellite monitoring stretches to all the things I want to do – whether it’s equipping my troops, building new sections of my base or expanding satellite coverage.

So, yeah: I've honked off home, a major superpower and the nicest country on the planet. Nice work.
So, yeah: I’ve honked off home, a major superpower and the nicest country on the planet. Nice work.

Oh, and have I mentioned unisex troopers? One of my fondest memories of playing was, after beginning with a male-dominated squad and then restarting with only one female, having the two woman troopers in my third tilt at the game advance into the Sniper and Heavy roles. After having seen so may games where women are absent or wind up in support or 2IC positions, it was a particular thrill to see two women packing the big guns!

A squad of three female troopers and one male trooper from the game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Screenshot from Steam.
How do you say that these women know how to handle a cannon without risking it sounding seedy? Ah well: Bring the firepower, ladies!

So that’s the good about XCOM. What’s the bad bit about it?

Well, it’s a bit to far up my alley. So much so that, for the past week-and-a-bit, I’ve let it dominate a heap of my time. I’ve foregone meditation, journaling, even working on my drawing project and this blog in order to cram just one more mission in. There’s always something else to save for, and that balance of seeing whether I have enough time to build another base expansion or research another advance before another country goes bye-bye or those pesky aliens launch another terror attack on a major city.

The frustrating thing is, when I’ve been foregoing other things instead of playing XCOM, I’ve never felt really good playing it. Not out of guilt, but just – like I’m choosing to rub my skin with sandpaper instead of doing something fun. I’ve felt urged to play, like giving into the need to scratch an itch. And much as the game positively reinforces that with music and armoured badasses laying down awesome amounts of firepower on monstrous aliens, it also means i keep trying to cram One More Turn In Before Bed / Work. So sleep has suffered as a result, not to mention my goal of getting twenty comic strips done by the end of February.

And yes, I know that was setting myself an impossible challenge, but the point was more to see how close I could get to it.

You know, one of the reasons I’m glad I’m less of a gamer was moving away from bad habits like those, playing for its own sake, because a game Has Me In Its Clutches. I feel disappointed in myself that I’m not as out of it as I’d hoped.

Still, much like the play experience of XCOM itself, I find it’s better to look at the whole thing as a learning experience. Last night, for example, I found myself actually not wanting to fire Steam up and play XCOM or anything else. for that matter – I got a few games of Bejewelled blitz on Facebook in before I decided the best thing to do was listen to my body and hit the sack at eleven PM. This morning, I don’t think I even started playing until sometime around ten AM, after I’d hoed out some nasty weeds in one of our garden beds and done a few other things around the house. Sadly, a couple of instances of a glitch and then a ragequit after panicking and wiping out two valuable squad members robbed me of the progress I’d made, but in the latter I learned (once again) that it can be better to fall back from a tough situation than try and rush other squad members up.

What about you?

How has a game helped you get better in general?

When did a game get the better of your willpower?


XCOM: The Official Website

XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC on Steam

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