You Should Play XCOM 2!

Vigilo Confido, Commander!

It’s not news that you can go out and buy XCOM 2, but you might see some buzz around a recent Humble Bundle subscription deal, allowing you to literally steal the game for $12!

XCOM is definitely an unusual game, but if you can put the time in, it one of the most engaging and challenging games…well…ever! I think know you should play it.

I have a strong emotional connection to XCOM that very few games are able to match. I’ve never felt so clever bringing a campaign on the brink failure back to victory.  I’ve never felt such conflict between completing a mission or placing my soldiers in peril.  I’ve never cried out a  character’s name as they fall in battle.  I’ve never felt actual fear and anxiety in a turn-based game.  I’ve never straight up lost a game and been happy about it…haha.  XCOM is so good, it’s even fun to lose!

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What is XCOM?

X-COM was originally a game of the mid-90s but was rebooted in 2012 (dropping the hyphen from the title).  At it’s core, XCOM is about building a fighting force to combat an invading alien menace.  Gameplay is both strategic and tactical; it’s up to you to make big-picture decisions like base construction, what missions to accept, what to research, but you also micro-manage combat, commanding soldiers each step of the way. Basically, XCOM plays like a pair of virtual board games: the Strategic view is like a more complicated (and more satisfying) version of Risk, while the tactical combat involves moving around a “board” and taking turns against the computer controlled enemies. There are lots of choices to be made, but each choice has consequence; too many blunders, and the aliens will be victorious!

I know the word “micro-manage” has a negative connotation to it, but it’s actually very exciting, despite being turn-based.  It can be difficult to describe, so if you want to see an example of a combat mission, check out the video below:

It’s been edited for time and I make a few tactical blunders, but it should give you a general idea of how the game plays.

Original X-COM (UFO Defense/Enemy Unknown):

There’s a bit of confusion with the nomenclature, as the game had a different subtitle depending on the region it was released.  The original grandaddy, this game is HARD!  Personally, I’ve never completed a successful campaign due to the difficulty level.

X-COM from the 90s
X-COM, image via Steam

In this version each character had a number of “Time Units” they spent to do different actions.  You also controlled their stance, how much ammo they carried, etc.  Strategically, you also had to manage a budget that gets into the multimillion range.  As someone who doesn’t have much free time, I have a hard time recommending this version or any of it’s sequels/expansions.  The new versions did such a great job of streamlining the game, that it’s difficult to go back.

However, don’t take that as criticism.  The original is truly the ultimate X-COM experience, but I feel it demands more effort than most gamers are willing to give. Jagged Alliance 2 is a great inbetween if you want the old-school style in a package that is a bit easier to manage.

Reboot XCOM (Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within)

I’ll never not play this game.  While the presentation of Original X-COM is outdated, the core of its gameplay is timeless.  Customizing your base, troops, and tactics…knowing it’s up to you, not the game, when to retreat or keep fighting…the consequences of failure; these concepts do not get stale.xcom1

The reboot got a graphical facelift, dropped “Time Units” (you get 2 “Actions” instead), a very intuitive cover system, and several other optimizations to streamline things.  With a beast of a DLC called “Enemy Within”, they added a whole new enemy faction called EXALT, a “pro-alien overlord” group of humans working to undermine your efforts.

While the original X-COM is definitely a thinking man’s game, this game put a priority on upgrading the visuals and unburdening players with some of the super-dry details of the original.  It’s still a cerebral challenge and it’s still unforgiving as hell, but at times it can convince you you’re watching an action sequence from a movie instead of a combat simulation.  I guess a better way to describe it is that the reboot can “show” you what’s happening (by changing camera angles, slow motion, audio cues) instead of the jarring experience of the screen bouncing around rapidly in the original.

XCOM 2

The change from XCOM: EW (how I refer to it) to XCOM 2 was not quite as drastic, but it didn’t need to be.  XCOM has such a reputation for being difficult, the narrative premise of XCOM 2 is that you failed halfway through the first game’s campaign and are part of a resistance force on an alien-controlled Earth.

XCOM 2 World Map
XCOM 2 World Map

There are some really cool tweaks to the game, both to your team as well as the aliens. Of course, the game did get some graphical upgrades and a slightly more true-to-life art style, but  veterans of the previous entry should feel pretty comfortable.  Importantly, I also don’t feel like XCOM 2 negates XCOM: EW.  While the gameplay is similar, there are enough distinct features in both that one is not redundant of the other.  For instance, XCOM 2 has more timed missions and the Avatar project missing from XCOM: EW.  Conversely, I enjoy fighting the Chryssalids of EW more than XCOM 2, and I also like EXALT infiltration/extraction missions.  EW also allows for a much more customized experience, allowing you to enable/disable several difficulty features.  Lastly, EW has the best music =P.

A group of EXALT operatives
As if aliens weren’t bad enough…EXALT will show up in Enemy Within to empty your bank accounts and sabotage your research.

Why I Love the Game

We’ve sort of established this already, but I think it warrants more discussion.  By all descriptions, XCOM is an unforgiving, difficult, stressful, consequence-heavy game that often puts players in unfair or straight-up unwinnable situations.  This doesn’t sound, you know, fun…like, at all.

Building a Heavy soldier in XCOM:EW
Matching your abilities to your equipment and mission is critical to success.

But it is! The game demands so much of you and I think that’s why people find it engaging.  It gives you the tools and materials for success, but hides the blueprints. Your successes are very much earned and very much your own. Despite being turn-based, especially when the stakes are high, the game gets your heart pumping. There are a bunch of enemy types in XCOM that require different weapons and tactics to subdue.  No one enemy is overpowered, but if you run into the wrong combination…pffftt….good luck. For instance, pictured below are Chryssalids; by themselves, a well-prepared team can dispatch a group of them, as they have no ranged attacks and will simply rush your position.  When supported by enemies with ranged attacks, or worse, ones that get free Overwatch actions, you basically just pick if you want to get shot to death or get ripped apart from the inside by little Chryssalid babies.  That’s, of course, after you’ve been turned into a mindless zombie (to do even more damage to your team!) from the beast injecting you with venom and shoving embryos down your throat.

My favorite/most hated enemy in XCOM, the Chryssalid. Known for it’s nasty ability to propagate via your own dead or wounded troops. X-COM version, XCOM version, and XCOM concept art shown.

The stakes become higher when you get invested in your team and have something to lose.  Initially, XCOM soldiers are basically randomly generated character models with randomly assigned names.  Aside from their combat chatter and randomly generated appearance, there is zero characterization. Despite this, these bastards still manage to weasel their way into your heart. Because of the game’s difficulty, when your soldiers achieve the impossible, you can’t help but develop a fondness.  For instance, I have a sniper I who got a killshot on an enemy MEC through a cactus (I nicknamed her “Pokey”, she’s the sniper from the video).  Another is Mad Dog, my top Grenadier who gave his life during an Avenger defense mission.

The XCOM memorial wall.
“No problem, Boss!” Good Ol’ Mad Dog, but without him, I surely would have failed the mission.

Essentially, your campaign develops into your own personal “against all odds” story.  Your veterans will die, your rookies will become heroes, and the wrong missions will come up at the wrong time, making for some really tense situations.  Lose a terror mission? Well, there goes the resources you needed from that country.  Oh, what’s that?  Now you don’t have enough money to buy that new armor for your team?  Bummer…I hope your A-Team can survive until next month!  It doesn’t take much for your well-planned campaign to become a desperate scramble just to stay alive. In real life, if you’re meeting someone for the first time and you don’t have anything to talk about, find out if they’re an XCOM player…if they are, BOOM!  Guaranteed, you will both have a wealth of stories that you’ll not only want to tell, but also want to hear!

A gif of an XCOM soldier dying. Repeatedly.
Another trooper not only getting shot to death, but also melting from an acid grenade.

Long time GeekA.D.D. readers/viewers will know there are three of us running the show; myself, Gio, and J Cody.  After getting the game for Christmas/buying the Humble Bundle (seriously, go get it!) we’re playing XCOM 2 campaigns concurrently.  Of course, with all the customization options from the Character Pool, we had to put ourselves in each other’s games.

GeekADD in Real Life vs GeekADD in XCOM
GeekADD in Real Life vs GeekADD in XCOM 2

The past week, our group chat has been filled with:

“aw dude in my game you just got 3 kills!”

 “In my game you got wounded and are out for 12 days!”

“I’m sorry…in my game…you died…”

Haha, in my game Gio and J Cody have been on the brink of death on several occasions (you can see Gio in the video getting by with a single health point).  I think I’m doing OK in my counterparts’ games, but I believe Gio has fallen in J Cody’s game. We’ve probably spent dozens of hours screwing around in the character pool, which could have been a game in itself.  During a low-key get-together at my house, I actually left the character builder open for people to play with and they came up with some real wacky combinations.

A ridiculous looking yellow and pink XCOM soldier
My buddy Juan made this as a joke, and he actually showed up in my game as a Captain Sharpshooter.

Getting the Most of your XCOM

All XCOMs have a healthy spattering of DLC/expansions/sequels and I’d say that most of them are worthwhile.  XCOM: Enemy Within, as mentioned before, adds significant value to the normal game.  XCOM 2 DLC’s are 50/50 cosmetic upgrades and actual content, adding missions, weapons, soldiers, etc.  I love the Character Pool so the cosmetic stuff is worthwhile to me, but most players might want to just stick to the DLC that adds content.  Unless you’re really serious about this game, I probably wouldn’t get any of the old school stuff, either. From a casual perspective, the newer content simply outclasses it.

My pre-reboot X-COM game list on Steam.

Speaking of the Character Pool, there is a cool website called XCOM Barracks, which allows you to upload your troops for people to see and even download into their Pools if so inclined.  Most of the content on there has been user-modded in some way, which is also a hefty source of content.  Not only are there a ton of cosmetic mods, but there are some like the Long War, which are total conversions. Originally designed from XCOM: EW, Long War for XCOM 2 just got its own version a couple days ago.  Long War offers an experience a bit closer to Old School X-COM, while still maintaining the visuals and interfaces of the newer games.  Unfortunately, if you want to use Long War or anything else outside of the official DLC’s you’ll need to invest in the PC/Mac version (which is cheaply available at the moment…haha).

A sectoid from XCOM reanimates a dead ADVENT Trooper
Grrraaaaggghhh!!!!!

You can play XCOM in a variety of ways, as well.  You can remove the temptation to “save scum” (quitting and reloading if things don’t go your way) by running a campaign in Ironman mode.  Ironman allows you to “record” your progress, but not revert to a previous save, meaning you’re stuck with whatever happens.  However, I don’t recommend it; the game occasionally bugs out or I can accidentally hit the wrong button, sprinting when I should be overwatching or something like that.  Some people can’t resist the temptation, but I personally don’t like being locked into such an inflexible model when the game is already so unforgiving.  Campaigns can be rough, especially in the beginning, so feel free to get to a comfortable spot, then up the difficulty in the options menu.  I’m fairly certain the majority of failed campaigns die within the first two “game months” so feel free to make it easier on yourself.  There’s also an XCOM board game, but I would focus on the video game first before venturing out.

Janelle "The Beast" Pelzel gunnin' it up!
Yeah, get ’em!

So there you have it.  For me, XCOM is always going to be a gaming staple. As I mentioned before, I’ll never not play it and I’ll never stop recommending it.  As of now, I own the old school Steam bundle, gave away my copy of XCOM:EU to a friend, own XCOM:EW on PS3, and XCOM 2 on both PS4 and PC/MAC.  Overkill?  Nah, no way.

If you’ve never played it before, please give it a shot.  You’ll be saying “Vigilo Confido” and having nightmares about Chryssalids in no time ;).  Until next time!