Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Open letter to Stubborn about XCOM

Dear Stubborn,

I don't usually do blog posts in letter form, but given the format of your blog it somehow seemed appropriate for this post. I enjoyed your Early Yearly Rundown post, and as the part about XCOM is strongly linked to a recent post of mine, I would like to comment on that. You wrote:
X-Com: Enemy Unknown 3/5 (but probably it deserves 4/5)
I really liked this game up until the point that I didn’t. I acknowledge perhaps I shouldn’t have played Ironman the first time through (meaning permadeath, essentially), but I rarely play games through more than once. Then I hit a wall where the aliens got super-strong without warning, and my team got wiped out. It irritated me enough that I quit and haven’t gone back.
I very much understand how this can happen with this particular game. XCOM is very much designed in a way that if you don't play on the easiest difficulty level, it is likely that you will lose your first game. And probably more than that. The idea is that you at least get an idea what went wrong, e.g. your weapon research didn't keep up with the aliens getting stronger, and you try to correct that in your next game. Where you then are likely to put all your research into making your soldiers stronger and then lose because you neglected another area. Depending on the chosen difficulty level it takes a few games or more until you learn how to defend Earth against the aliens and finally win the game. So for somebody who says "I rarely play games through more than once", XCOM isn't ideal.

But then XCOM has a rather good tactical combat, and it is somewhat sad to see the game abandoned because the managing part outside combat can be frustrating. I would very much recommend playing through XCOM once on easy mode, where you are likely to notice your mistakes but without that directly leading to you losing the game. In a way XCOM is like Civilization, a game that isn't supposed to be played through just once. You get better by playing, and then you can crank up the difficulty, or buy the expansion for additional content, and still have a lot of fun many games later. The fun is in trying different things, in experimenting with a multitude of options. The story, and whether you win or lose, are kind of secondary in the end.


Tobold (currently on game 17 of XCOM: Enemy Within, and with the marathon option)

I think a letter is a perfect way to engage. For one, it always feels a bit more formal, but that's not really an issue with you or I. It's a good trick for students, though, to get them into "formal academic tone" mode - have them write to a politician.

Anyway, more to the point, I think you're absolutely right. I first played X-Com a long, long time ago and didn't fully grasp the concepts involved within, including the idea of a "meta-game" or that games that went on that long should be repeated. I think I approached the modern incarnation with too much assumptions based on the old one.
It would likely have been better to start completely afresh without any preconceived notions. Alas, it's too late for that now.

I may go back in the future and give it another chance. It's still installed (I think), but I just have had so many other options (as that list showed) that it hasn't come up in the rotation. Who knows what the future holds.

Thanks for the letter! I'm still in for working on that adventure if you're up to it; just let me know.

I agree with you, and I think that is why games with the Roguelike/roguelikelike/roguelite focus are taking up so much more of my time lately.

The journey, rather than the destination.

This is also why I have been shying away from achievement based gaming, as that takes away from the journey.
I think part of the trouble of XCom is that it's somewhat rare for a game to have that level of "No turning back" in it, so I think there is some justification for players feeling surprised by it.

That said, it's a fantastic game, even for one I did not replay a great deal.

Maybe they added it with enemy within, or I missed it in my first playthrough, but a "quick play" mode might have been a good idea for players who just wanted to do the tactical combat. Just have the game let you pick and equip a team, then randomly generate a level and send you against aliens.
For someone starting this game is it worth starting with XCOM: Enemy Unknown or just go for the expansions?

Does it make a difference to the game play and learning if you just buy the later ones?

I'm familiar with the style of these games, but never played directly.


For someone starting this game is it worth starting with XCOM: Enemy Unknown or just go for the expansions?

Play the basic version first. The expansion is very likely to overwhelm you if you are just starting this game.
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