Remembering the Fallen, and the Decisions for Which They Died, in XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown reintroduces itself immediately with very familiar themes of sacrifice. In the first mission, a tutorial, I lost three squad members, and there seemed to be no way to avoid it.

The game, I think, was conditioning me not so much to accept death, but to accept that it is on the table whenever you send your men and women into action. Soldiers die permanently in this game because of your commands. It is a powerful influence upon millions of choices in the original, greatly loved strategy game, and Jake Solomon, Enemy Unknown's lead designer, swore that feeling would be in the one he's building at Firaxis.

"Her nickname is Doc, and her name is Irina Ignatieva," Solomon said, recalling a support soldier who made colonel on his last mission. "She was on this mission, a very, very difficult one, midway through. I lost four of my six soldiers."

Only Ignatieva and "Disco," a heavy weapons soldier, survived. Disco himself was mind-controlled and turned on his colleagues. He perished on the next operation. "From that point on, I was so attached to Irina," he said. "She was my only colonel at that point, and she was the only one who survived that mission."

She got all of the good gear, Solomon said, in a way I took as a tribute to her survival and her unit's sacrifice. "And when she did die, I was like ... ehhh turn off the game," Solomon said. "We're not saving that. We'll just reload."

It was charming to hear a developer talk about doing things, in his own game, that we do in ours when we come to that one result we just cannot accept, and to speak sentimentally of the personal canon he created in one. The fact longtime X-COM players—and Solomon is one—have taken decisive losses, crushing defections from their alliance, and gut-wrenching deaths and still moved forward probably earns them a mulligan or two when a favored soldier falls in the line of duty.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown makes it clear early on you're going to have to deal with this. The introduction delivers a great narrative that imparts a very sober feeling of fighting for something ultimate—your planet, your species. It's in the unit cohesion, which any officer will tell you is vital to success, where you gain a feeling of fighting for someone.

"In the original game you would have these soldiers—they wouldn't tell you what country they came from, but they had these very distinct names, so you kind of knew their nationality," Solomon said. "They were these very small, pixelated images of your soldiers. But when you lost them, you had a very strong emotional connection to them, because you made up stories for them. I didn't want to force that story onto the player, because that's just not what this game is.

"We're not so much telling a story but we are sort of building the stage and giving the player props to tell their own story," Solomon concluded.

In my two operations I investigated the first contact with the Sectoids in Germany, then went to China to clean up from a reported abduction. There was another abduction in Kansas City, so I was forced to choose which one to respond to, knowing full well the civilian panic would rise wherever I didn't go. This is a key outcome throughout the series' history. Letting a nation go unattended will result in it leaving the XCOM alliance—meaning all of its resources are unavailable to you. Sometimes a strategic neglect is necessary if there's no way to save the country.

"It's almost impossible to keep everyone happy and when countries leave, that's something as a player that's like, oh, God, Russia just left, Solomon said. "They're gone, their resources are gone. And there's no getting Russia back."

"The fact that you can have actual consequences is what allows a player to feel like they've had an actual success," Solomon said.

That's why an "Ironman" mode, which does not allow reloading of gamesaves (it's very much like Diablo's hardcore mode) is available from the start, if you really want to play without the means to undo a costly decision that, in hindsight, was the wrong one. Solomon said playthroughs will vary, but he expects most runs will last "into the upper 20 hours" and span between 20 and 30 operations.

The tutorial was very good at communicating expectations and the fact this is turn-based gives you time to explore the map and see exactly what your options are and your routes to higher ground. I was a little slow to grasp the way to change the elevation and highlight, for example how to climb to a roof. Longtime PC gamers won't play it without a mouse, and the game will show them special attention, but for console players, getting around the field and executing commands was relatively simple enough. Time units are still a part of this game, and still govern the considerate deploying of your forces.

Unit size is smaller than what original fans will remember, starting at four-member squads and then players can earn an upgrade to six. The compact units should strengthen the attachment to a player's personnel. So was another interesting design choice: the flag of that soldier's home country is stitched to the back of his or her collar.

So when the camera zooms in on a sprint, or as your fighter leans out of cover to take a shot, you'll see the flag and be reminded, that's my Russian heavy trooper. In my case, he was the sole survivor of the first operation.

A 2K Games representative present for the interview, Brian Roundy, talked about playing the game to about the fifth mission, when he noticed he had an Australian soldier with the last name of Lee. Elsewhere in the barracks was a rookie soldier, also named Lee, also from Australia. On the spot, Roundy invented a backstory that these two were brothers, one older, one younger.

"You can't put them on the same mission together!" Solomon said.

When an operation came up in Brisbane, Roundy sent both to it, as if moved by their desire to defend their homeland. The mission ended in disaster. All four were lost. The last two were the Lees, with the older brother, a medic, trying to revive his little brother as the mutons closed in.

"Somewhere, Mrs. Lee is being visited by two officers ..." Solomon mused.

This is why the game has a memorial wall in the bar in the barracks of your home base. You enter the bar, and at first the plaques are grayed out. But as your soldiers die, these plaques are filled in with a picture, and text listing the deceased's name, their number of kills, the name and location of the operation where they died, and the date of that operation. Funeral bagpipes play as you pause at the memorial.

As the death toll mounts, shot glasses are added to the bar. It is a place to go after a difficult mission, where you may have a drink for Disco, and Doc, and the Lee Brothers, and all who served your world and left it too soon.