So, I got up to Chapter 4 of my novel. Impressions of writing this sort of long-form fiction after such a long time? It seems a lot harder than writing plays. And obviously it’s slower. You need to get character A from a ventilation shaft to the other side of a cargo bay in a sneaky way…well, that sort of thing is taking me a couple of thousand words at times, depending upon the complexity of the action (ie; the number of gun-toting guards!) A couple of thousand words in a play could be several scenes in which many dramatic twists and turns take place. Not that what I’m writing isn’t dramatic – it’s just a different kind of dramatic. And I don’t think you can rush it. When I read it back I can tell if I’m bored, or cutting corners with the prose. I seem to be able to avoid the thing which ruined my early attempts at novel-length fiction – a tendency to try to impress and be cunning with language. I think (I hope) my current style serves the story and keeps things pacey whilst not being too by-the-numbers.
By-the-numbers. There’s a phrase we all use all the time and that’s another thing I’m finding I want to challenge myself on. Finding alternatives to weary old phrases that are so familiar they’re next to meaningless in terms of evoking mood or emotion – is definitely a challenge. I’m a big fan of William Gibson but I find I don’t want to go quite that far – I want to tread a fine line (another cliche!) between finding new or alternative phraseology whilst remaining very accessible for any kind of reader. I love the density of the language in Neuromancer but I can see that it would be off-putting to some and I must admit it sometimes seems contrived.
Then I decided I’d take a break and play some games. I settled on XCOM: Enemy Within after watching a few episodes of Zemalf’s excellent series and picking up some tips. I didn’t quite feel ready to go for Impossible Ironman mode (highest difficulty, no save’s) so went for Classic Ironman instead. And I’m so glad I gave this game another go! After beating the original game on normal mode about a year ago (with saves) I gave up on any of the higher difficulty levels after getting my butt kicked every time. And I still feel that response was justified. There are faults with the game: the strategic, base building level is far too prescriptive in terms of what you need to do to get anywhere and there are serious flaws in the tactical, turn based combat (the way the game calculates line of sight is way off at times and flanking shots don’t register when everything on screen suggests they should). All this can be overcome by reading guides and watching other players but still – you shouldn’t have to do that.
Having said all that I am now loving this game. I think it might be my favourite turn based combat game – scratch that, my favourite game – of the past decade. It’s so tense in Ironman mode and on a difficulty level where the enemy AI is cleverer enough to punish every wrong move. This is something missing in so many games these days. I remember a time when games where a challenge and you had to think. XCOM is definitely that and much more. The presentation – cutscenes, music, general ambience of what’s going on – pumps you up for an epic fight against the unrelenting alien horde and when you lose – and your soldiers die – it is genuinely heartbreaking. To see these guys that you’ve pumped hours into levelling up and customizing – picking nicknames, gear and deco – to then watch them die to a fluke shot from a sectoid…it’s a strange thing. Failure is difficult to stomach but the chance of failure it’s what makes victory so thrilling.
A specific change added with Enemy Within (among many others – mecs, gene-mods, new enemies) is an alien assault on XCOM HQ late in the game. To put this into context – it can take several days, sometimes a week, depending upon the time you have to play, to get to this stage of the game. You will generally have started to hone your strategy and have some powerful soldiers who work well as a squad. Then suddenly, you’re caught with your pants down. There is no squad select screen for this mission and your men can get thrust into combat in their basic gear if you haven’t prepeared (and beyond reading a guide there is no way to prepare for this mission). They also don’t all arrive in a unit – instead arriving as reinforcements – one or two at a time.
Playing this mission was amazing. I deliberately avoided guides so I didn’t know when it was coming or what would happen. All I knew was that the base would be attacked at some point. Once the mission began it soon became apparent I was in deep shit – with aliens pouring through breaches in the goddamn walls. I though “Surely the game won’t make you fight a mission where the odds are too much in the aliens’ favour this late in the game – with no time to prepare…” How wrong I was.
With my best mec reduced to a burning wreck and my fully skilled up, squad sighted sniper dead at the feet of a mind-controlled comrade I thought “that’s it, a week’s worth of progression wiped out in a single mission.” My only remaining team-members – a close combat assault guy and my medic – were unfortunately still mind-controlled. Then I remembered vaguely that mind-control had a turn limit. Three turns. They would return to my control and the only way to win once they did was to charge across the map and take out the two sectoid commanders with the psionic abilities that had wiped out my party. The only thing that made this possible was the fact that the medic was wearing ghost armour with one charge left and the assault guy had a single ghost grenade.
As soon as the mind-control broke they stealthed and charged – managing to gun down the commanders and playing cat and mouse with a sectopod on one health until they could take a decent shot.
This was literally the most fun I’ve had in a game in years and it was all due to the fact that the chance of defeat was very real. Of course, I’ve since learned that there are several easy strategies to beat this mission but man am I glad I didn’t use them!
If you’ve given up on XCOM because of the insane difficulty on higher levels I’d urge you to give it another shot. Watch some guides. There are ways to win that aren’t immediately obvious but once you’ve got your head around them the game really starts to shine. And Ironman is a must!