In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.
I was pretty bummed out when Jim Brown didn’t make it out of that Nazi chateau. Long before his star turn in Mars Attacks!, the eight-time NFL rushing champion was part of Lee Marvin’s ragtag group of suicide commandos in the 1967 war classic, The Dirty Dozen. He wasn’t the only casualty. We also lost Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, and Donald Sutherland. Sure, Charles Bronson and Marvin escaped, but that hardly comes as a surprise. (The stars of Canadian mountie opera Death Hunt would never succumb to something as trifling as a few dozen heavily armed Germans.)
I had grown attached to those unshaven miscreants, all parts of a single, cohesive unit, each with their own part to play. The characters in 2001’s Commandos 2: Men Of Courage are no different. The main characters are a potpourri of nationalities and handy skill sets, and you play with a rotating combination of spies, sappers, fighters, and drivers hailing from Allied World War II countries. The game employs every Hollywood war movie conceit imaginable. The settings for most levels are built around cinematic staples like Saving Private Ryan and The Bridge On The River Kwai.
The level entitled “The Guns Of Savo Island,” for instance, is a variation on The Guns Of Navarone. This time, it’s a Japanese artillery installation, but the principles are the same. Your Australian marine (the underwater murder expert) swims around, taking out sharks and enemy divers. The British explosive guys blows some stuff up. The Irish pugilist pugilizes guys. If they work together as a team, the guns get taken out. Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn couldn’t have done any better.
Each member of your commando team has a fleshed-out bio strewn with archetypical flourishes. We’re told, for instance, that Irishman Jack “Tiny” O’Hara was sentenced to 14 years hard labor after punching out a superior officer. Yet the text hastens to add the O’Hara was later reinstated and promoted following an operation “where after being shot in the arm, isolated from his unit, and without using a single firearm, he sneaked into a bunker and killed the 16 enemy soldiers inside before returning to the Allied front line.”
The other seven team members have equally hilarious CVs. There is, of course, the cool-as-a-cucumber British aristocrat sniper, Sir Francis T. “Duke” Woolridge (of the Sheffield Woolridges), and Russian femme fatale/nickname expert Natasha “Seductress” Nikochevski. The Commandos must be mixed and matched effectively to sabotage the Axis war effort. Each skill is essential, to the point that the mission can’t be completed if you lose even one of your fellows. “Leave no man behind” is the ironbound law of Commandos 2.
Not all strategy games put such a premium on a soldier’s life. From the very beginning of last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, players are made violently aware of their own mortality. The training mission sends your team to investigate sketchy reports of alien activity on Earth, and only one of the original four makes it out of that scrape alive.
The lone survivor is told that the XCOM project is a multinational concern activated in the event of a hostile alien invasion. (If not some combination of Nazis or zombies, you knew the apocalypse was going to involve aliens.) At the massive underground facility from which this war is waged, scientists, engineers, and soldiers work in concert to counter the aliens and adapt their superior technology for humanity’s use. In order to acquire test subjects and extraterrestrial materials, though, strike teams must be sent to global hotspots like abduction sites and crashed UFOs. And the aliens aren’t giving up their internal organs and anal probes without a fight.
Unlike Commandos, which occurs in “real time,” XCOM progresses by turns. Leaving your soldier exposed by moving too fast might—when your turn ends—result in a gaping chest wound. If you fail to position him behind proper cover, your heavy weapons expert is liable to be dismembered by cyborg arachnids that turn human corpses into walking zombies. (Even dead aliens can be deadly, as some bodies dissolve into a poison gas.) Unlike the precisely constructed maps of Commandos 2, much of the XCOM terrain is randomly generated. Beyond the fundamental principle of getting the aliens before they get you, there’s no “right” way to play each mission, and therefore no guaranteed safe passage.
XCOM’s character situation is more akin to Oregon Trail than it is to Commandos. Rather than saddling you with premade occupational saboteurs, it allows you to recruit, cultivate, and customize your own forces (including names). It’s a good thing, too; post-invasion earth is a scary-ass place. Even the best tactician is going to lose some troops. Fair-to-middling tacticians will be forced to call up a steady stream of replacements as humans try to close the interstellar military-industrial gap. Frailty, thy name is heavily armed super soldier.
Because of their extreme expendability, I found myself developing a much stronger attachment to my XCOM forces than I ever did with those pesky Commandos. When a Commando dies, the level restarts from the last save point with no penalty. With each death, you learn a little more about that particular map’s intricacies, and you get that much closer to clearing it. When soldiers are killed in XCOM, on the other hand, they are gone forever, remembered only with a spot on the ever-expanding memorial wall. And if, like me, you name your soldiers after friends and acquaintances, the losses are all the more agitating.
Since I was threatened with sudden termination, I’m not going to disclose exactly how many Gameological brethren were lost in my XCOM campaign. Let’s just say that if it wasn’t for the brave leadership of Col. Kodner and Maj. Gerardi, things would’ve gotten ugly. My girlfriend must never know that she was killed by friendly fire after having her mind warped by alien psionicists. Baby, I had no choice.
The fact that you can lose characters and not lose the game raises the stakes of XCOM in significant ways. If Commandos followed a similar set of rules, I can say with some certainty that Sir Francis would be sipping tea in hell before the end of the first mission. And he wouldn’t be alone. But each Commando is irreplaceable, and the trick isn’t keeping them alive so much as it is learning the best ways to apply their unique abilities in concert. XCOM’s characters are surprisingly disposable; you can spend half the game promoting and upgrading a Dutch assault trooper or a Chinese sniper, and one wrong step in some burnt-out, Muton-infested favela in Brazil will render all that invested time moot.
Unconsciously (at first), I found myself filling the front lines with soldiers named after people to whom I was, let’s say, less attached than others. “So-and-so didn’t call me on my birthday. Let’s see if sending them into this ominously silent office building jogs their memory.” And, likewise, I tried to protect those whose loss would trouble me the most. I’m convinced you don’t really know how you feel about someone until you face an army of rampaging UFO kill-bots. It’s jarring, the personal realizations that emerge once you have to decide who among your friends lives and who gets iced.
Having your best friend die from dysentery or drowning on the Oregon Trail was morbidly thrilling, but at least you could properly remember them through an epitaph riddled with poop jokes. There is no such personal remembrance for XCOM’s fallen, beyond the residual guilt I feel when flipping through the contact list on my phone. Sorry, bros.