Commodifying Soldiers in ‘XCOM 2’

Whether you’re throwing low level units on the front line or witnessing unexpected heroism, XCOM 2 encourages you to see your soldiers as capital.

Written by Lasse Lund / Published on April 4, 2017

XCOM 2 puts you through the grinder right from the start, even on normal difficulty. The alien occupation force has advanced weaponry, psionic powers, increased strength in numbers, and can call for backup mid-mission. Through my own tactical mistakes or plain bad luck, even my most experienced troops with advanced armor fell left and right, or were captured. Not only did this make each subsequent mission more difficult, but it took an emotional toll as well.

"When it came to battle, they were the first ones sent into the fray in order to give my veteran soldiers a better chance of survival."
A major aspect of the XCOM series is permadeath—once a soldier is gone, they’re gone. No continues, no extra lives. This is counterbalanced in that you are encouraged to form emotional attachments to your troops. You can customize how they look and what they wear. You can change their name and give them callsigns once they reach a certain rank. In XCOM 2, your soldiers have a written backstory – which you can adjust to your liking. I often found myself diving into the customization menu as soon as I obtained a new recruit to update their uniform, give them a new hairstyle, modify their personal info, and help them fit into the resistance community I was building. Some players will even name their soldiers after their close friends or relatives.

You also follow their progression from mission to mission and begin to see each one’s personal story emerge. You mentally cheer them on when they make a clutch shot to save the day. You rage when they miss one that would prevent an enemy from gunning down a squad mate. You sigh in frustration when they panic in the face of overwhelming odds and disobey orders to cower for their own safety. You celebrate their victories and wallow in their defeats, seeing it reflected in their faces and body language on the jet ride home from battle.

An emotional bond forms so that when they fall, you feel each and every death.

However, I noticed something happening as my campaign limped forward and an increasing amount of soldiers fell—I started to feel more apathetic towards my new recruits. When they joined my team, I would still go in and customize them a bit, but I wouldn’t bother renaming them or giving them a backstory. When it came to battle, they were the first ones sent into the fray in order to give my veteran soldiers a better chance of survival.

However, while fighting in these near-impossible scenarios, heroes emerged as well. During a mission to escort a VIP to safety, I had to aggressively push forward in order to get out in time. Many of my experienced soldiers were in the infirmary, so my squad was made up of rookies. One of them was James Ryan.

James had zero combat experience and, as is standard protocol with such rookies in XCOM, I ordered him to establish a forward line, mere inches from enemy soldiers, so his teammates could press forward. I expected him to be gunned down almost immediately, but shot after shot, kill after kill, James just kept surviving. Despite taking massive amounts of damage, he held his ground and cleared out the final enemy soldiers, allowing the VIP to rope out to safety. I sent him into the jaws of death, and he emerged the hero of the day.

XCOM 2 is full of difficult choices and they rarely turn out like my decision to send James into near-certain death. More often than not, you pay for your decisions dearly and feel the weight of each loss. From battle to battle, the future is unpredictable and you can never be 100% certain of what the outcome will be. However, despite the toll, you can’t dwell on the past—you have to keep pressing forward.

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