I have never failed so hard at any game before. I have also had the most fun I've had gaming in a very long time.
X-COM is an amazing game. Defending the earth from merciless alien invaders with the slickest production values I've ever seen in a turn-based strategy game, has never looked better. It is entirely serious without being ridiculous in its sobriety, it respects the fiction of the universe it has created, and it has some damn fine sound design.
But all that is secondary to the barebones mechanical design of its game systems, and how they impact the player.
Here's a quick rundown of its general combat design. First, your dudes!:
- Soldiers can generally move, then do something. Any action other than moving or opening a door ends your turn, unless you have an ability that overrides this rule.
- Actions include shooting, reloading, entering overwatch(ready an action to shoot the first alien critter that pops up), using a medkit, hunkering down, firing a rocket, etc.
- Soldiers automatically take cover if placed next to anything. A soldier in partial cover, hiding behind a car or something, gains a small defensive bonus to dodge shots. Full cover, as granted by hiding behind a corner or behind a larger truck, increases that bonus further. Getting caught out of cover generally means you are dead, and hit percentage jumps from base ~50% to base 100%.
- Getting to a position that flanks a creature removes their cover bonus.
- Weapons have ranges. A sniper rifle loses almost no accuracy over long distances, while a shotgun drops very quickly.
- The more missions and kills a soldier gets, the more he or she is promoted. The more promotions you get, the more abilities you unlock for the four classes of soldier, and the stronger that soldier becomes.
- Your soldiers can and will panic if they got shot, poisoned, or see a friend die. When they panic, you lose control of them, and they will either fire wildly or run to cover farther from the aliens they can see.
- Rookie soldiers die in 1.1 shots from the weakest of enemy aliens. Throw them up against anything stronger then a floater, and watch them get vapourized.
Aliens generally have the same options available to them as you do, with a few extras thrown in.
- Aliens are either stationary or on patrols when an X-COM team arrives. if you move up, they get a free move to to scramble into cover once they see you. This essentially means that it is impossible to get the drop on any alien in the first turn you see them with a single soldier.
- Sectoids can buff another sectoid by linking minds, increasing the parameters of the second sectoid while the first channels. If you kill the channeler, both aliens die.
- Thin Men are extremely mobile infiltrators that explose in a poisonous cloud when they die, and can spit poison at your troops. Poison ticks for one damage a turn, very lethal when you have 4-7 hp.
- Floaters can float around, rendering your cover useless. They are also a lot tougher compared to sectoids and thin men.
- Mutons are beefy tanks that can intimidate soldiers, making them more likely to panic, and can buff other mutons.
- Chryssalids are insectoid aliens that move like the wind and can eviscerate humans in melee. Anything they kill raises up again as a slow-moving zombie, which will quickly transform into another Chryssalid after a few turns.
There are plenty of more aliens out there, but I've died before having a chance to see them.
As a disclaimer, the only experience I've had playing X-COM is on Classic Ironman difficulty. No loading past saves, every action is permanent, yadda yadda.
I've lost the game about 6 times now, after playing around 14ish hours. My best run had me fighting off Mutons and Chryssalids with Captains and Lieutenants. My worst run had be calling it quits after the third mission ended up with everyone KIA and Mexico pulling out of the X-COM project.
What I love about this game is that it absolutely does not pull any punches. The AI will ruthless cut down your soliders if they are left exposed, and those dead soliders never come back. (Unless they are lucky enough to be critically wounded, and you get a medkit over to them before they bleed out. Even then, they'll be in recovery for a month.) It perfectly captures the tense fear of the original, especially when you're halfway through a 'very difficult' mission and everyone is already wounded.
Rushing things is begging to get killed. If you double move up to a seemingly safe piece of cover, only to have three or four aliens scramble away from you, that solider is dead, as he or she is likely too far away from allies to get any support. The aliens will easily flank your solider, kill him, and laugh at your pitiful tactics. X-COM is a game of patience. Moving soldiers painfully slowly, from cover to cover, having each trooper being covered by two others, is they way to go. Once you've found a nest of the buggers, that's when you try to flank and hope to hell you don't stumble into another group while trying to do so.
I recall one defeat where I found two sectoids hiding in a liqour store. I decided to have one soldier stay out front and keep the aliens hunkered down in cover, while the rest of my squad would head to the backdoor. Such a plan had worked fine in the past, allowing my operatives to bust in the door and shoot the aliens at point blank range. This time, however, rounding the corner and entering the alleyway behind the store revealed three(3!) groups of Thin Men that slaughtered my unprepared flankers.
That's been a common theme amongst my failures: getting greedy. Whether its thinking, "My grenade will take these out just fine, so its safe to move up," and walking into a second group of aliens, or feeling confident enough to try and stun an alien for capture instead of of going for the long-range kill, there is almost always a clearly-identifiable error I made that got my soldiers killed.
And there lies the genius of this game. Aside from the occasional questionable call on the game's part of determining flanking, your failures are your own. I've certainly been frustrated at a 86% accurate shot missing, but if I need that 86% chance of hitting shot to connect to avoid a soldier dying, I should of made it 100% or not of taken the chance at all. The game is almost sadistic in its glee of exposing the flaws in your positioning, or exploiting a careless mistake. I recall one mission that went flawlessly until there was only one sectoid left. All my dudes were out of ammo, so I kept everyone in their cover and reloaded. The lone sectoid brazenly walked up to one of my guys and put a bullet in his head at point blank range. He had seen my whole squad reload, and knew it was safe to approach. If I had switched one or two to pistols and staggered my reloaded, Sargent Lyra "Harpflank" Heartstrings would still be with us.
The customizability of your fragile soldiers makes every death all the more heart-wrenching. Heroic sacrifices, like Pandora Box running ahead of a VIP to take the overwatch shots of four Thin Men so the VIP could made it to the extraction point, are tearfully remembered. Horrific mistakes, like Fancy "Esquire" Pants' rocket misfiring and blowing up two comrades, are burned into your memory.
I wish more games allowed the player to fail so spectacularly. Watching panic levels rise ever higher after a single botched mission is crushing, piling on the punishment. You've already lost 4-6 soldiers, here's some more bad news. These soul-devouring disappointments are the requisite counterweight to the soaring highs you experience when you ace a mission with no deaths and no injuries. Seeing the depth of the fuck-ups that are possible makes victory ever sweeter.
In an age of guided experiences and padded rooms, a kick in the balls from an updated 94' classic is a refreshing breath of clean air.
A word of advice to anyone playing X-COM: research alien materials first, and give your rookies those vests. Otherwise, they will get one shot.