by Kristin Bezio
As I continue playing, not much seems to be changing in terms of gameplay other than the expected “more aliens” per mission, “different aliens” on missions, and the constant harping of my German scientist who is quite frankly getting a bit annoying.
Managing resources at my base of operations has proven to be more challenging than I initially expected, as I keep running out of whatever currency § happens to be. It’s added a little bit of strategy to this part of the game that would otherwise, I think, but a bit boring. I actually have to think about whether an other fighter jet would be a better investment than a power plant or satellite.
I’m also starting to have trouble managing the panic levels in some countries. The first nation to lose its proverbial shit was the US, which is probably what would actually happen if there were an alien invasion in real life, but it’s mostly because of that first mission where I didn’t go to Dallas (oops). I’ve also allowed Africa to get a little bit more out of control than I’d like, if only because putting a satellite in Russia earns me more money than putting it in South Africa, and I need the money (see previous point).
I’ve also now started losing squad members – I’ve gotten three killed so far, the man from the UK, the woman from China, and another dude from the Czech Republic (I think – my flag identification skills aren’t that great). I’ve also actually been surprised by the squad members who have proven to be invaluable. The woman from the US is my go-to sniper, the dude from Argentina is my anchor Heavy, my Support is a nice man from Germany (named Axel), but my best squad member, hands down, is an Iranian woman whose nickname is “Septic” who, as it turns out, gets really lucky with her grenade throws and low percentage shots a lot of the time.
I’ve been going out of my way to try to rotate rookies into my squad (which I’ve upgraded to be six rather than four) so that if I get them killed I don’t have to take an entire rookie squad with me the next time. But it’s really tempting to just keep with my Argentina/Germany/Iran/US/France/Nigeria power-team. The problem with rookies is that they’re the most likely to get killed (looking at you, Czech) or panic (China) and freak out on me, rendering themselves useless and more likely to get shot for a turn or two.
But aside from having some squad members whose abilities are nice to have in combat, I don’t really care whether they live or die. Yes, their abilities are nice to have (as they get promoted, they gain additional skills), but I don’t actually care about THEM. They don’t talk much (other than to say things like “I’m pinned down!” when being shot at), and they don’t have personalities to speak of, so I don’t get attached to them as characters, only as mechanical tools. I think that’s probably why I think of them as their countries (since they all have names and once they have combat experience, nicknames, too) – they’re tools, not people.
I’m not sure whether I’d want them to be, either. The point of the combat in XCOM, as far as I can tell, is to manage your tactical abilities and combat maneuvers against enemies that aren’t always predictable (new aliens move in different ways, like the annoying half-robot ones that more-or-less teleport). Thus far, it seems like the point is to make the player feel the stress of having to make impossible decisions. For instance, do I let this fighter be destroyed in order to try to destroy a UFO or do I abort? Which abduction do I attend to, since there are three but I can only go to one? Does loyalty or practicality take precedence as I choose my team or choose which nation to help? Do I save money or resources in case a disaster happens, or do I spend it to try to deal with the disaster better, knowing that I’m taking a risk while my team is working on the problems? Do I upgrade my weapons and armor in hopes of protecting my squad, or do I do the mission sooner?
The purpose isn’t to make us – as the disembodied Commander – feel for each member of our team, as it is in BioWare games. The purpose is to make us do the math, calculate advantages and disadvantages to using this team, giving that squad member experience, or allowing a UFO to attack a nation rather than send out a fighter that’s certain to be destroyed. It’s about making the hard choices without involving emotions.
Could XCOM have included emotions? Sure. They could have made us care about our squad, given them personalities and narratives, which would make the fact that some of them have to die all the more horrible. But I don’t think people would play a game whose purpose is to make us feel horrible about ourselves throughout the whole process. I think the apathy with which we treat the squad members is perhaps a more “realistic” depiction of how distant commanders make tactical decisions. It’s more about strategy and less about the “human” element, although some of that can’t help but creep in.
It teaches us that distance can sometimes be a good thing, because distance enables us to be more efficient, more successful. To take risks that can pay off in a big way that we might not take if we felt for the people involved. But it’s also a really good argument to play XCOM Iron Man style. There aren’t any do-overs in life. If you make a bad choice, if you get unlucky (because the success or failure of shots in combat are based on probabilities, not on certainty), things go south. Equipment gets damaged or destroyed. People get hurt, or die. Consequences, even though digital, are more real when you can’t go back.