A Working Man’s Guide to XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Monday had been one of those tortuous, monotonous kind of days which dragged on like a long goodbye to an unwelcome guest. By the time I’d got home from work and cleared my evening workload, I was too wound-up to retire straight to bed. It’s a common problem: the weight of the day burdens one down, and a man needs a little tonic to take the edge off. So, as I had done many times before, I poured myself a single-malt whiskey and powered up Steam; seeking the allure of escapism for a single unburdened hour.
I’d just recently started playing classic-difficulty XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If you’re not in the know, it’s a slick turn-based strategy split into two parts. One sees you oversee the operation of your underground base, preparing against the sudden invasion of an alien host; while the other has you getting your hands dirty, playing out tense battles in the abandoned streets of Earth. The franchise is almost as old as PC gaming, famous for its high difficulty, high strategy and high-fidelity multiplex management. It’s at its best on the battlefield, where you give commands to your units one at a time and wait, often with baited breath, to see if your strategies come off successfully.
I’d finally finished the normal-difficulty campaign a few months ago, and was (mostly) enjoying the increased challenge of classic gameplay. Enemies are tougher, more accurate, come in greater numbers and are more aggressive both on and off the battlefield. Could this my my ticket to a late night cooldown?
Unlikely. On a good day, I love XCOM – but it can be a punishing game. Luck isn’t so much a lady, but a hungry wolf-pack which stalks you mercilessly; waiting for the worst moment to land a flurry of bad results and undo even the most meticulous planning. It can frustrate with its non-intuitive line-of-sight rules and uncannily accurate foes. Think your day in the office was frustrating? Try watching one of your units miss three 50/50 shots in a row, before receiving a critical hit from your still-standing opponent who, at best, should have had a 1/10 chance of hitting you. The amount of times I’ve quit in a fit of rage – oh, XCOM, how you’ve wounded me.
Worse, being a closet masochist, I play the game in ironman mode – which means the game autosaves my progress and doesn’t let me re-load at will. There’s no replaying of bad missions, no second chances. Any mistakes I make are permanent, haunting me through the entire campaign. This is how real men play XCOM – bare-chested, chugging neat spirits, and with ironman enabled.
Complicating my decision was the fact that alcohol and XCOM tend to mix badly. The mystical one-unit superpowers bestowed upon players of darts, pool and first-person shooters don’t apply here. In a game where you have to weigh risk and reward, patiently plan attacks and constantly assume the worst: a large glass of whiskey is enough to imperceptibly inflate your confidence, add an imaginary +10% to all probabilities (46% chance to hit? No problem!), and stoke your recklessness. That might encourage confident and aggressive play in many sports and games – but, in my experience, XCOM is often won by playing the percentages.
But my stock of options that night was running low, and I decided to trust to XCOM to be gentle with my fragile psyche. And to my utter amazement, I sailed through two tough early-game missions without taking so much as a single hit. OK, so I got a couple of lucky breaks, but I also planned well and was in control more than I wasn’t. This Classic-difficulty campaign had slipped into gear and was running smoothly.
The experience left me with a warm, satisfied glow – it was probably the highlight of my entire XCOM career. And it sparked in me a really, really stupid idea. One that was to ruin that night’s sleep and many more since. I wanted to grab XCOM by the horns and try to achieve 100% of its achievements – every single ruddy one of them – and share my successes and failures with the world.
Now, that’s no mean task. At the time of writing (and according to Steam), just 0.7% of players have finished the game on its hardest difficulty level. I’ve never got 100% achievements on ANY game before. I work full time and most of my spare time is taken up with various side-projects – no to mention my girlfriend, with whom I have a sort of unspoken contractual obligation to see every now and again (ideally without intermittent twitches and bags under my eyes).
So is it possible for a (mostly) grown-up, part time gamer to completely max out the achievements of one of the most famously difficult game franchises out there?
I guess we’ll find out. Stay tuned to these journals for commentary, tips, opinions and abject failures as I try to 100% complete XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
For the sake of posterity, here’s a roll-call for my pretty meagre achievements so far:
Campaigns Played: 11* (currently on my 12th)
Campaigns Completed: 1 (Normal difficulty)
Hours Played: 71
Achievements Completed: 60% (33 of 55)
Aliens Killed: 500+*
* All with ironman enabled.
** As I’ve not counted stats so far, I have no idea. But I have an achievement which says that I’ve killed 500 aliens – so let’s take that as a starting point
Proceed to Part 2 of A Working Man’s Guide to XCOM: Enemy Unknown