by Gav James-Weir
***contains some small spoilers for XCOM – Enemy Unknown***
Being able to name and customise your soldiers in XCOM is an incredibly powerful tool. Not only does it allow you to create your own custom squad of Ultimate Baddasses (with really stupid names), it makes you care for them. Death in XCOM is as effective and brilliantly used to create your story as it is in Dark Souls, when one of your carefully crafted troops gets gunned down in the field, it hits hard. Not only have you now lost your go-to Assault class, veteran of 15 missions, but it always boils down to this: It was entirely your fault.
My first gut-wrenching moment came pretty far into my current playthrough, ‘Operation Dark Smoke’ (or Alien Base Assault), one of XCOM’s story advancing missions. Through capturing a few Aliens and researching some technology, you find the aliens have had a base of operations on Earth the whole time…those bastards…so you take the fight to them. I was pretty confident in the run up to this, my squad was strong, all outfitted with Laser weapons and my tactics nailed down to a well rehearsed ‘Overwatch the shit out of EVERYTHING’ routine. The mission began fine, splitting my squad up down the two paths, I took out the attacks by Floaters without a hitch, Thin Men tried but failed to dent me. A well oiled machine.
Here’s how it ended:
They all died within the same move. I pushed a little too far forward with my Assault Class ‘Major Gordans Alive’ and activated not only 3 Floaters but also 4 Chryssalids…and those guys are horrifying to witness. Within seconds they had swarmed 3 of my troops and killed them, but not dead…oh no. The Chryssalid has a lovely party trick up it’s spiky appendage: It not only kills, but resurrects the victim as a shambling zombie with a FUCK TONNE of health. So I was now two troops down, utterly devastated, looking at losing the rest and now I had to kill my former squad members.
I don’t really remember how the rest happened, there was a lot of panicking, a lot of saying ‘oh shit…fuck…crap…shit…shit..NO NO NO NO…’ I know my Sniper, Major Steve McDave kicked some serious ass, every shot connected and every shot was a critical hit. She literally saved the life of Major Alive at one point as Cpt Courtney Love’s reanimated corpse bared down on him. But somehow, against all the odds I completed the mission. A hollow victory.
But it wasn’t just my mistakes on the field that cost me, I’ve come to learn that my concentration on just Laser weapons was a mistake. Neglecting to research any armour upgrades or Plasma weaponry has probably led to more fails than rushing around the levels. I’ve now outfitted my squad with Skeleton Suit Armour but I can’t help feeling it’s all for nothing when you’re up against 6+ Mutons every mission and my squad is mostly Rookies who at this stage of the game, are as useful as throwing stacks of pancakes at the Aliens. I think I’ll have to cut my loses and start a new game and treat this as a learning exercise. The base management side of XCOM is easily as complex as the tactical side and something that I’ve not really got my head around. Too eager to please all the Nations and throw endless satellites up, but that’s no good when my troops are underpowered.
The death of my troops was a really horrible moment in this game, I felt totally helpless as I watched them be swarmed and killed. It’s telling that now when a Rookie comes into my squad, I don’t name them. They stay with their default name until the gain a speciality class, only then can I feel comfortable to define them, give them armour colour and of course, ridiculous facial hair. This does mean that I treat these default soldiers with little regard, they’re disposable, in my squad to take the risky push forward that will probably result in their death. Yeah, that does kinda make me a horrid person, I’ve become the faceless Commander using my troops as nothing but tools to get a job done. But the thought of losing anyone who’s been with me for a while is too hard to take.
I can’t allow another Operation Dark Smoke. Not on my watch.