Introducing the mode that transforms XCOM from just a game to an experience analogous to life.
Pores of sweat cover my forehead. I can barely move the mouse with my shaking hands. My heart is racing a thousand miles an hour. The vile Ethereal and its alien minions have taken the lives of all but two of my most decorated soldiers, who are battered and bruised, near death. I sneak my sniper within range using her ghost armour’s cloaking feature and take aim on the Ethereal. It’s got 10 health left, 72% chance to hit, 65% to crit. If the shot finds its mark, the tall, slender alien should surely die and the mission would be a success. Otherwise it will take revenge and slaughter the rest of my squad the following turn. I press the ‘fire’ button and close my eyes, praying to all known and unknown gods. The sniper bullet pierces the Ethereal’s withered body, taking the monstrosity down. A wave of relief engulfs me. The mission is a success.
This is only one example of countless thrilling moments provided by Firaxis games’ 2012 game XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its 2016 sequel, XCOM 2. The games are turn-based strategy games, where the player controls a squad of soldiers, defending Earth from an alien invasion in randomly occurring missions. The time between missions is spent at the XCOM headquarters, upgrading your facilities and soldiers, hiring new recruits and managing the panic spreading in the continents under attack.
Playing the XCOM games is truly an exhilarating experience. If you are like me and not a fan of horror games, but still want to experience similar tension and heat, then these games are made for you. There is a particular mode that one may activate before starting a new game, called the Ironman mode. It is a separate parameter from the difficulty setting, so it can be enabled even when playing on ‘Easy’ difficulty. I would make an argument that everyone playing these games should at least make an attempt to complete them with this mode enabled. Here’s why. The Ironman mode makes creating multiple game saves impossible. There is only an autosave, which overwrites itself after every move the player makes. This makes the player unable to reach an earlier game state, should things go wrong.
First and foremost, the Ironman mode makes the player truly live with the consequences of their actions. There is no reversing a decision once it is made, and so every move must be weighed carefully, much like the big decisions in life. Of course, lady Fortuna has a big part to play in the game as well, most notably in the form of hit percentages: A 95% likelihood to hit a target is not a guaranteed hit, not by a mile when it comes to my personal experiences. So, no matter how cautious you are, simple bad luck can sabotage even the most carefully laid plan. Again, it sounds a lot like life.
The soldiers that you control over the course of these games write their own stories over the course of the campaigns. They begin their career as raw recruits, with randomly generated appearances, names and nationalities, seemingly expendable. As they gain experience and skills and their kill count rises, the player becomes attached to them. Some perform heroic feats, others fail at the crucial moment. It is heartbreaking when these soldiers that you have seen develop into your most trusted killing machines meet their demise on the battlefield. The temptation to reload to a previous game state and save your Colonel that has been with you since the beginning would be too high, were it possible.
The benefit of the Ironman mode is, I believe, that it truly helps grow one’s character. It teaches one to act with care, and adapt when luck is not going your way. Setbacks and loss are inevitable, as in life and one must deal with both in order to succeed. Finally, playing with Ironman mode can lead to restarting the entire game multiple times, at least this was the case with me, as I had never previously played any XCOM game and had to learn to play the game ‘on the fly’ with Ironman enabled. This taught me perseverance. Each new attempt taught me something new about the game and made reaching the endgame easier. And when you finally beat the game, all of the hardships suffered before make the victory feel that much sweeter.