It’s not even Christmas day and cabin fever is setting in at Chez PCGamesN, the imaginary boudoir that I’d like you to think we are all forced to inhabit over this Christmas break. Having lost another argument about Borderlands 2 DLC, Steve (that’s me!) has thrown a stack of plush velvet pillows at Jeremy. “Words fail Steve Hogarty once again,” quips an unfazed Jeremy. “Don’t you quote Gore Vidal at me, you festive bastard,” Steve retorts. “We’ll settle this on the game grid,” spits Jeremy, which is his way of saying “let’s play XCOM and write up our battle report, that might be fun!”
Was it fun? You decide.
Jeremy: There’s a suspicion at PCGamesN that I’m not very good at XCOM. Nobody’s said anything outright, of course – we’re much too polite for that. But strange, high-pitched noises drift through the marble corridors of our chatroom, like the echoes of recent laughter. Tim won’t let me have a go with his office sniper rifle. And just this morning Paul averted his gaze when we locked eyes at the mulled wine cooler, busying himself with an errant shoelace.
There’s a professional reputation at stake here.
There is something really awful in XCOM’s multiplayer: the two-minute timer. If you’re anything like me – ponderous, indecisive, easily panicked – it’ll catch you by surprise and leave you on the back foot for your first couple of matches. When I fought Jules, I was leaving snipers out in the open; abandoning crack assault troops alone and vulnerable out back with the bins. Just awful.
The first thing Steve and I do is cut the squad size limit from six to four, thereby removing my Achilles’ heel. I hobble confidently into battle.
Steve: I’ve never played XCOM in multiplayer because I fear confrontation and I’m still not sure about all the buttons. Also, Jeremy told me that XCOM has a separate bunch of multiplayer-specific classes, each one a preset arrangement of skills taken from the single player game. I didn’t know much about those either. I’m a firm believer in trusting your instincts however, and my instincts told me to pick a flying sniper and fill the rest of my squad with vaguely generic assault and heavy soldiers. Anything to get me out of the confusing squad selection screen as quickly as possible. Also, I’m not sure but I think Jeremy has between 17 and 25 soldiers in his squad (he claims he has only four), immediately turning the odds against me, the underdog. The loveable underdog.
Jeremy: I’ve sussed out the various multiplayer classes just enough to know which sniper variant I want – the one with the Squadsight ability. As long as the implausibly-named Rosario Rivera has line of sight through one of her chums, she’ll be able to shoot Steve’s legs off from the other side of the map.
Two of my other slots are filled with near-identical beefy assault types – Claude Laurent and Javier Suarez. They’re kitted out in the most expensive armour I can find. In the last slot, I plump for a wild card. She doesn’t have a name. Let’s just say she’s going to make small talk in the dropship a little awkward.
Steve: With no understanding of my soldiers’ individual abilities, I set about inching them forward into defensive cover. Police cars and doorways are my best options for now, as they imbue each of my men with half-shields and full-shields. Shields are good things, if memory serves. My sniper takes to the skies meanwhile, and I position him in front of the gaping hole on the side of the police station’s first floor. Or, as I think this map is set in America, its second floor. The floor you mean when you say “I’m just going upstairs for bit, don’t touch my stuff”.
Somehow, floating in the sky gives my sniper half a shield of defence. Perhaps an armoured cloud is floating nearby. Either way, everybody is in overwatch. Jeremy could be anywhere. He could be everywhere. But it’s more likely he’s anywhere.
Jeremy: My band of brothers, sisters and new acquaintances has spawned directly in front of the opulent marblefaçadeof a police station like none I’ve ever seen. Steve chuckles disarmingly about “forgetting most of the controls”, but he won’t take me that way. I can see his mocking face peeking under the maintenance door ahead, reflected in every one of the staired entranceway’s 18 windows. For an XCOM commander, paranoia is top-of-the-CV stuff. I send three of my squaddies darting into cover along the front side of the building.
Steve has no idea I’ve brought an alien to a fleshy human fight. She’s scurrying in through the maintenance door now, taking up position behind the storeroom shelves on what I hope is Steve’s right flank.
Steve: Trying to control flying units in XCOM is like trying to point something out to a dog, where they do that thing where they look at the tip of your finger instead of the object you’re trying to draw their attention to. Controlling my airborne sniper is exactly like that, as I desperately try to click on just one of the seven cuboids of three-dimensional air beneath my two-dimensional cursor. Mousewheeling up and down only seems to make certain parts of the police station’s roof disappear, though all of the upstairs desks, burning CRT monitors and assorted detritus remain hovering in place. It’s a challenge to make my next few moves under these glitchy circumstances, but I manage to move most of my team into the building, where my and Jeremy’s units begin to trade reaction shots. The scuffle is non-lethal, shaving a few hit points off the odd Chryssalid (he’s got a alien, I didn’t know that was allowed), though I’m intimidated by just how heavily armoured my opponent’s soldiers are.
Jeremy: My human contingent have taken root in the lobby of the station proper. They begin diligently emptying their machine guns in the direction of Steve’s grunts. They haven’t hit anything yet, but it seems churlish to chide them when they’re working so hard.
Meanwhile, my alien’s been shot. The damage isn’t so bad – a measly two hit points – but my pride fares worse. How on earth did he see my generous mandibles jittering about behind these sparsely-packed shelves? I’m outta here.
Steve: Jeremy’s Crystalid comes skittering out of one of the police station’s many, many doors, right into the line of sight of my vigilant hovering sniper, Thanos Boulos, who, despite presumably decades of sniper training, somehow manages to miss (this would become a theme of the match). The alien Chrysanthemum, to be fair, is departing the police station with gusto, as if spooked by an alien ghost or a scary story. He quickly scurries behind a truck, out of sight of my squad, and so I promptly forget that he’s there or that he ever existed.
Jeremy has also marched three of his soldiers into the station’s cramped main doorway, which happens to be within rocket-firing range of my Heavy. I launch an explosive missile in their midst, destroying a chunk of the building and knocking a fairly impressive six hit points off each of his nearby units. Amateur stuff, Jeremy: keeping your soldiers spread out is the fourth or fifth tooltip the game gives you, dude. To add injury to injury, I have an Assault soldier throw a grenade at their feet, taking a further three hit points. Woo, I’m definitely winning.
Jeremy: I always do this. Something in my Northern blood convinces me to conflate physical closeness with safety; tells me that if we all huddle together for warmth, everything will be okay. Well, everything is not bloody okay. Three quarters of my squad are now partially exploded. If XCOM is a race won with hit points, I’m running on half a tank. Suarez stands in a small fire that’s broken out over what remains of the elegant oak flooring, alternately standing, kneeling and standing up again in a demented dance of doom.
Some small good has come of this, though. Fear causes my thought process become tighter; my resolve thicker; my nose wetter. I’ve claimed the mantle of the underdog.
I send Laurent cannoning up the stairs – nominally for reconnaissance, but really because I want to be anywhere but in that lobby. As he reaches cover, Laurent comes face to face with a sniper in gleaming white armour, hovering just outside the window, as if it’s nothing. Luckily I’ve activated his Run and Gun ability. Run and Gun is the last friendly house for the foolish and desperate; it allows you to shoot after dashing, in flagrant violation of XCOM’s basic principles. Lead fills the face of Steve’s knightly sniper, halving his hit points. But it won’t be enough.
Steve: Though he’s just been absolutely shot to bits, Doctor Hoversnipes appears unfazed and resolute. His first point of order is to use his Headshot ability to remonstrate with Laurent, who cowers ineffectively behind the thin outer walls of the police station. An exploded head means Laurent is now critically injured, which is an effective death sentence considering neither I nor Jeremy opted to bring any medical supplies with us. Bandages take up valuable space that could otherwise be used for things like grenades and motivational cassette tapes.
Downstairs, I use the inexplicable psychic powers of one soldier to panic the enemy. I’m not sure what panicking is supposed to do, but it seems to work in Jeremy’s favour on this occasion, as his allegedly mindless unit has it together enough to haul herself out of the flames and into really good cover, on my turn. Psy abilities are rubbish and the special effects look like they should be flying out of a Care Bear’s tummy. I should’ve reloaded instead.
Jeremy: I do my best to ignore Cpt. Laurent’s breathy death throes and try to focus on the task at hand. Sixty dithered seconds go by. Suarez, not long for this world, reaches into his back pocket and absentmindedly rolls an alien grenade in the direction of Steve’s nearest two thugs. They obligingly spill hit points all over the deck, and I run out of time. Steve’s white-suited soldier removes the head of Rosaria Rivera. Her sniper rifle clatters to the deck, unused. Things are bad. I turn to my monster.
Steve: Jeremy’s Chrystmalid does a big eggy kiss on Major Arnold’s face, which simultaneously murders him and turns his corpse into a zombie-in-waiting. After one turn he’ll resurrect as a shambling puppet of Jeremy’s psychopathic whim. Reacting to the clear and present alien danger, my nearby Heavy grapples upwards to a nearby ledge. I’m vaguely aware of the Crysaloid’s ability to jump up levels to hunt its prey, but I remain hopeful that Jeremy isn’t.
Not that it matters, he sends his alien after my no-longer-hovering sniper instead, who has been unceremoniously floored by a lack of rocket fuel. He’s relentlessly gouged and poisoned by the chitinous bastard, though as a small blessing, the sniper succumbs to his injuries before the Crysamid can inject him full of his offspring. Which would’ve been gross and not sexy in the slightest.
Jeremy: I can pinpoint the moment my last single player campaign turned sour – the day Chrysalids began lifting my rookies ten feet into the air and extracting their humanity like sugary yolk from a creme egg. I like to keep an open mind, though, and I think I’m beginning to see things from the other side. Sometimes there simply aren’t enough yous to go around.
I begin scampering through what used to be the ground floor of a dour old police station, spreading a little sharp humour here, some cutting commentary on the mortality of man there. It all becomes quite jolly, like a game of tig in which the odds cumulatively stack in my favour.
All of this goes over the head of my new friend, a rotting former soldier who’s a bit slow. But I’m glad for the company. Suddenly it’s becoming clear that if there’s anybody in control, it’s not that dullard Suarez, camped limply in the doorway. And it’s certainly not Cpt. Laurent, busy painting the carpet red upstairs. This has been a monster show all along.
Steve: This is the moment where I miss two shots in a row, both with a 93% chance to hit. I haven’t done the maths but a real professor has told me that the chance of this happening is less than 0.1%, and is what is known in academic circles as “bullshit”.
All that remains in this fight are my altitudinous Heavy and my incompetent Stormtrooper, Jeremy’s alien spawn and his very fortunate bullet dodger. It’s all to play for in this clash of the XCOM titans.
Jeremy: I’d been led to believe that Steve was good at maths, but he doesn’t manage to puncture the right sort of holes in sweaty Suarez. What he does do is take the fight outside to the car park for an impromptu finale. XCOM’s is an ever-shifting battlefield, you see – a continual realignment of defensive and offensive lines.
My alien comes clattering out of the maintenance door, new friend in tow. On cue, the zombie soldier flowers into a second, brand new Chryssalid. Suarez pulls back behind an upturned car and softens up Steve’s heavy, ready for the monsters to do their happy business. I hear Steve say: “I’m going to take a massive risk”.
Steve: Jeremy’s being playing fast and loose with his Crispalids, clearly buoyed by a premature sense of victory. He’s failed to deliver death swiftly enough, and in one turn I eradicate both alien menaces. One with a devastating close-range rapid fire attack, and another with a well placed grenade from a lofty perch. My Heavy takes lethal damage when Jeremy’s one remaining soldier whips out a cracking reaction shot, however. I’m forced to take drastic action. We’re both clinging desperately to four solitary, lonely hit points.
I use my last remaining soldier’s run and gun ability to move as near to Jeremy’s final unit as possible, leaving him in the open and vulnerable. If I fail to end the game decisively in this turn, if my shot is wide of the mark, the consequences will be dire. Either way, it ends here. It ends now.
I take aim with a 58% chance to hit. Good odds.
Jeremy: I feel like I’ve woken up from a dream; a haze of angular appendages and flung spleens. The waking has cost me dear, but as my sole, sweaty human clings to the storeroom wall and to life, I realise I have a chance to win this the right way.
I march Suarez up to Steve’s Heavy and waggle an assault rifle in his face. Chance to hit: 100%. If there’s anything more bluntly human than a point-blank execution, I don’t know what it is. I pull the trigger.