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XCOM 2: Yes, it's harder, but you also care more

I'm not stuck, I'm just staying put.

XCOM 2 has just landed on consoles with a decent port of the PC version - a bit stuttery when loading missions, but otherwise fine, as far as I can tell. Meanwhile, how bad am I at XCOM 2? By way of an answer, here are a few of my recent save file names: Everyone Dead. Big Error. Oops. These sound like cocktails served at the world's worst theme party, but they also, to their credit, sound like the sort of thing an inexperienced soldier might radio back to base when things go horribly wrong. Okay, maybe not Oops, but when I'm the soldier in question nothing is ever entirely off the table.

So XCOM 2 is hard - although, now I'm playing on Xbox One, there's at least the slight balm of being reunited with the first game's really beautiful console control system. As I play, I'm starting to realise that it's hard for a variety of interesting reasons, and not all of them are down to ingenious mechanical changes following on from Enemy Unknown.

I will come clean here. After a good few hours of play, I am still on the first mission, the one right after the tutorial, where you head out and capture an unstable alien energy source to power your base with. I have played this mission many, many times. I can complete it, but I can't yet complete it in the manner I wish to, which is: everyone alive, a few bits of loot picked up, and nobody even remotely wounded. That last part is the current sticking point.

Yes, I know, I should be able to do all of this quite easily in the first mission of the game, and why don't I just get good? Well, with all this restarting, I am slowly getting good - or at least I'm getting less awful. What's interesting to me, though, is why. Why do I suddenly want to excel at a series that I was previously happy to blunder through? Why do I hit reset even when most of us are safely back in the skyranger?

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Part of the answer is that XCOM 2 really is just harder - or rather, more exacting. A new focus on missions with timers, along with a fresh willingness to bring in reinforcements, keeps you moving forward - and moving forward is always a recipe for disaster in XCOM. Then there are the terrifying baddies, with all of the first game's low-tier foes evolving into forms in which they really don't look so low-tier anymore. There are things in that first mission - and, honestly, it's not a very long or complicated mission - that properly freaked me out on my initial attempt. And, compact as it is, there were things that surprised me on my fifth, eighth, twelfth playthrough of it. Just now I got blown up by an exploding bit of scenery at the very second in which I thought I was clinching a flawless victory.

But still, why the restarts? If it's a harder game, shouldn't a shifty, low-talent player like myself be happier to scrape victories, even this early on? Clearly not. And this is where things get a bit weird. XCOM 2, that peerless blend of cold tactics and converging mechanics, is changing years-old behaviour in me not through its new design tweaks so much as through its new fiction.

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Let's go back a bit. Enemy Unknown was not a game with a particularly cheery narrative. You were defending the planet from horrible alien invaders, and as events progressed you'd probably lose nations from the coalition that funded you, and you'd definitely lose cherished soldiers that you sent into battle. Even so, I now realise that the game benefited from a certain home advantage. I never felt that worried because, poor as I was as a military commander, I was still nominally in control of the planet, and that made me, at times, even a little blasé about things. You can game the alien invasion somewhat in Enemy Unknown - sit back and grind waves of low-level skirmishes to build your team up after a wipe. You can do all this in XCOM 2, I imagine, but I find it much harder to give in to the impulse. And that's because things have moved on. The aliens won. XCOM is now essentially a terrorist force, living outside of Earth's new hybrid society. The game is so very good at creating a sense of this, and of fostering a sense that you are living hand-to-mouth, that I find myself unwilling to waste any opportunity that I get.

Hence the restarts. If my situation is that precarious, I want to take maximum care of things at every stage, even if that means taking more care than I genuinely have to. I never worried about wounded soldiers in Enemy Unknown. To be honest, I tended to look at dead soldiers as being all part of the fun of the experience. Now, though, I'm basically playing Ironman, and a few tweaks to the storyline have given me a new mantra: leave nobody behind.

There are benefits to this, of course: for the first time I am fully engaged with the full sweep of experiences in a game that I love. And with all the restarts, I'm getting a genuine sense of the beautiful variety that XCOM can wring from even the simplest encounters.

I remember when they first announced XCOM 2 and it became apparent that the failure ending for Enemy Unknown was the ending they were treating as canon. At the time we all laughed and said: perfect. Perfect for XCOM. It turns out that there was even more brilliance to that decision than we could know.

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