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One Last Try: How X-Com Translates Frustration to Fun

So XCOM 2 was announced not too long ago. Firaxis’ reimagining of the classic squad-based extraterrestrial strategy wargame was already a critical and financial smash hit, even if fans were split down the middle with many of its changes, both aesthetic and mechanical. However, while I always had an interest in XCOM: Enemy Unknown—I happen to own the game, but I don’t have a machine able to play it—I never quite knew the hype around the original game. Not to mention, with my recent conversion to the Linux crowd, I wasn’t certain if I’d be able to play the original X-Com: UFO Defence (AKA UFO: Enemy Unknown for the European gamers out there). But, after finding a copy of the original and an excellent source port called OpenXcom (essentially a ZDoom-style update of the original game for modern systems), I quickly set out to try my hand at it.

Let me tell you, this game kicked my ass. It kicked my ass several times over, and it didn’t stop kicking my ass. No matter what my strategy was, either at base or on the field, I almost always ended up losing an entire squad by the first Terror Mission I had to accept. I’d lose recruits and sergeants alike to plasma rifle fire several yards away, I’d get rushed by Lobstermen and Chrysalids, and in two separate ways, my entire team was blown to smithereens, causing a horrible failure. Every time something like this happened, I’d quit the game out of frustration. Yet, not but at least an hour or so later, I boot it up and start a new game, hoping to figure out where I went wrong.

And therein lies the magic of the original X-Com, I believe.  Even on the easiest difficulty, the original X-Com is hard. It is brutal, it is cruel, and it is unfair. Most of your recruits literally couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn and your most accurate starting weapon is most often your grenades, which explode in a fairly wide radius. While there are lulls in the action, I think the best advice I’ve ever heard regarding this game is, “Never get complacent”. Just when you think you’ve got your groove back, you get a Terror Mission in Melbourne and promptly lose most if not all of your squad to the ensuing mission. This is game that, much like Dark Souls, requires a careful approach and a willingness to begin again and again, because one false move or one UFO lost can potentially screw your entire run up. While Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within still capture the spirit of chance in these games, I think Firaxis was onto something when they made the difficulty curve far less steep.

Does that mean either version is better? I don’t think so; The original X-Com is a classic, and the remake feels like a needed update to a storied strategy game. You can argue that along the way, the franchise lost its magic, but if there’s one thing that both versions capture especially well? That feeling of intense catharsis when you finally manage to pick off that one snivelling Sectoid that was giving you so much grief and manage to pull your guys out of the fire. To me, that’s X-Com in microcosm: A game where the odds are so stacked against you, the fun comes when you win in a seemingly suicidal scenario. It’s a game about overcoming insurmountable challenges and showing that Humanity isn’t one to go down easily.

Adam Nelon

Hobbyist Writer, Southern-Fried chicken fanatic, and unabashed lover of adorable girls and pastel horses, Adam was born in the saddle when it comes to games. Ever since his infant days with the Genesis, he’s had a fascination with gaming, and loves finding obscure and unsung games for any system he can run them on.

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