Ken Levine takes a reaction shot and Sid Meier saves the world

My last three hours with XCOM: Enemy Unknown were better than the 25 before it. And all I needed to do was cheat to finally enjoy it.

After restarting the campaign three times, having it crash seven, and with occasional visual artifacting, I was ready to delete the game from my PS3 hard drive. After all, I thought to myself last night, it was a free download. It wasn’t like I needed to run up a played-to-paid ratio with this game. And really, there wasn’t anything holding me to finishing it other than my own pride in trying (and failing) to parse its often obscure and frequently obtuse research and upgrading system.

Initially anyway, my sole reason for even thinking about it was to prepare for an upcoming VGHVI session. At the time, I curious about the game and the reactions of so many people back when it came out. I felt the session gave me enough of a excuse to finally sit down and try it out. I just needed to invest a few hours, I thought, and then I’d be able to talk generally about it for an hour.

Of course, and as it has turned out for many things for me lately, I ended up missing the session because of work. I had played through a few missions, read some articles on it, and had some notes. But I didn’t really get to share those. And, as I soon learned, didn’t come anywhere close to finishing it that first week.

Between last week and this one though, I have been chipping away at it. A couple of hours here. A few hours there. I’d managed to rack up close to 25 hours total and was still, as far as I could tell, nowhere near the end of the game. It had been over a year of in-game time and I didn’t know how to move the game’s story.

I had more supplies than I needed. I was flush with thousands of space-monies. But the aliens kept attacking.

My soldiers would die. More would replace them. Yet, no progress was made.

Finally, and after the game crashing again early this morning, I decided I’d had enough. I was either going to finish the game in this sitting or I was going to delete it completely. This was the ultimatum I had set for myself.

I started researching some strategies and came across the information that it was possible to cheat. Setting your soldiers name’s to any of the Heroes (Ken Levine, Sid Meier, Joe Kelly, Otto Zander) would produce those characters — and their higher stats. The downside, of course, was that Trophies would be turned off for as long as they were in use.

That’s when the game changed for me though. It went from a slog through countless (and often pointless) missions of “Kill all aliens for reasons” to watching multiple Ken Levine and Sid Meier characters march all over the battlefields murderating everything in their path. In other words, it moved from a dark and gritty war setting to a science fiction farce. The difference of Independence Day to Mars Attacks.

The game had become funny to me. Every attack a Ken Levine character made was 100% accurate and often killed things in one shot. Using the psionics of a Sid Meier allowed me to control most enemies. A Joe Kelly or Otto Zander was powerful enough to take down everything but the most powerful foes.

Using this absurd cast of soldiers, and often with multiple Ken Levine and Sid Meier characters on the same mission, I made my way through the next couple of hours. Nothing stood in my way and, even if I lost one of my soldiers, I would replace them with another hero of the same type.

The culmination of all this came on the final mission, the point of no return. It was supposed to be the test of my squad’s strength and resolve. One wave after another came at my team and they mowed them down easily. Often, in fact, as reaction shots.

Enemies would suddenly appear and my team, all of which I kept on Overwatch after each move, would blast them as they came into view. Another would approach and, before they could even have a turn, I would have either completely destroyed them or left them with only a little health. If the game’s convoluted theme was one of forced evolution, of the price of “uplifting” species, here was the ultimate proof of its peak — and absurdity — in action.

With no effort on their part, my soldiers were transformed into Heroes who won every battle. No training was needed, just typing in a few commands and they became the best. No battles one after another to move them through the ranks. Instant movement from zero to Hero.

The final battle, the few seconds that it was, could not have ended any other way given the path I took then. Standing in the doorway to the last few enemies, two Ken Levine characters set on Overwatch triggered their auto-attack and killed the last alien. No long drawn out fight. No Pyrrhic victory. Just two shots from ridiculous characters from what I had come see as an equally ridiculous game.

Even as one of the Sid Meier characters, and I had long ago lost track of which was which, gave their grimace before the final cut-scene, I read it as a shrug instead of some acceptance of their fate. This wasn’t personal sacrifice but a surreal acknowledgement of the game’s story. Someone had to die for this prolonged conflict to matter some writer had decided and, as I interpreted the last look, one of the Sid Meier characters realized it was him.

But really though, what was one Sid Meier’s death when I had a dozen more? As soon as I gained the ability to produce super soldiers on command, the game was over and the theme, for what it was, thoroughly defeated. This was war without cost and conflicts without meaning. If I was supposed to ruminate on what war does to a society, there are better ways. If it was about what forced evolution might mean, it could have been presented more meaningfully on a smaller scale instead of trying to cram it in during the last mission.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was, I finally decided, a farce waiting to happen. Pulling away the mask of gritty soldiers and war-torn environments showed it was just another game in a long line about shooting things that aren’t you because they aren’t you. It’s a game that could have used satire much more effectively than trying to be serious about its message through its systems only. If it had embraced the silly nature of the game and especially the enemies, it might have been easier to understand its themes without ultimately resorting to breaking its mechanics.