Play Hard, Get Tough: The thrilling danger of XCOM’s Ironman difficulty mode


Continuing our new PS Blog series looking at the best examples of harder difficulties in PlayStation games – and to mark the recent release of XCOM 2: War of the Chosen – we talk to Firaxis about its franchise’s toughest difficulty.

In the pantheon of difficult games, 2K’s XCOM series is something of a rite of passage for players. On lower difficulty levels, the game’s challenging enough; players who rush into battle without guarding every corner and planning out their attack soon find their soldiers turned into paint. Even the greenest XCOM player knows they have to take their time, exercise caution and above all else, save their game as often as possible.

But even the most battle-hardened XCOM players think twice before they tackle any of these games on Ironman mode. The hardest of the hardcore believe this is the way XCOM is meant to be played and the mode requires total commitment before one starts it.

Not only are enemies faster, nastier and far more vicious, but players only have access to one save file. This file, incidentally, will be overwritten with every action the player takes in a mission.

This means if they put a foot wrong – by, say, moving through the fog of war too quickly and finding their squad surrounded – there’s no earlier save file they can go back to. They can spend hours levelling up and kitting out their XCOM soldiers, only to see them wiped out in minutes due to lousy tactical planning on the player’s part – and there’s nothing they can do to save them.

Firaxis on its love letter to the original game

“The basic ideas behind Ironman are a core part of the XCOM series history. XCOM is a game about making tough decisions and extreme consequence. While the modern XCOM games let you save before and after every decision, the real way to play is to make a decision and commit to the reaction of your choices,” says Garth DeAngelis, the Senior Producer on XCOM 2.

“When we made XCOM: Enemy Unknown, we wanted to establish that we weren’t watering the series’ challenge down. We included a variety of difficulties and options to make the experience more accommodating to a wider audience, but Ironman mode is there for fans of the original XCOM. Ironman mode is our love letter to the original game.”

To say that completing XCOM on Ironman is far from a cakewalk would be an understatement. In fact, it’s so hard that, according to DeAngelis, less than 5 per cent of the game’s player base has managed to do it. Those who have belong in an elite subsection of players that prove that, even though Ironman mode is tougher than a bag full of nails, it is actually possible to complete the game on this difficulty.

How the studio made sure Ironman was tough, but fair

DeAngelis says the developers over at Firaxis had a pretty big task ahead of them to make sure that Ironman mode wasn’t just hard, it was fair too.

“Ironman is a modifier on how the campaign functions, so our designers were focusing more on balancing the different difficulty settings,” says DeAngelis. “Getting Legend, XCOM 2’s hardest difficulty, just right was a big challenge, but design did a phenomenal job. We wanted it more “fair” than the hardest difficulty in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Legend is more about punishing the mistakes the player makes. Playing well in both the Tactical and Strategy layers of the game will get you through just fine.”

It also helps that the QA testers at Firaxis are some of the best XCOM players out there. DeAngelis says the team conducted playthroughs of the hardest difficulty settings on a regular basis for both games. Overall the testers were invaluable in providing vital feedback on when things felt too unfair or too easy. “The first tester to beat Legend sent us some great feedback in a long note that also included how triumphant they felt after getting through all of the hardships,” says DeAngelis.

So what can players expect when they tackle XCOM on Ironman mode for the first time?

Tips if you want to tackle XCOM’s hardest mode

Well, there’s that single save slot to worry about – your options at times are ‘Save’ or ‘Quit’ – but the game’s overall difficulty is ramped up significantly; assets are more expensive, enemies can often be more technologically advanced and it some instances, it’s better for players to cut and run mid-mission. This may lead to a member of the XCOM counsel abandoning the project but it’s better to take a quick hit than lose a ton of assets and soldiers on a mission that’s lost.

“Ironman is XCOM, an already brutal game, in its most challenging, purest form,” says DeAngelis. “You’ll have to ask yourself what are acceptable losses because there will be times when you’ll lose soldiers and fail missions. Legend is also about 1.5 times longer than a normal campaign, so buckle in.”

“Legend Ironman can be beaten, but you’ll have to make the most of every item, soldier, and opportunity to get through it alive. If you can beat it, then you’ve mastered the game.”

Naturally, any players who want to tackle XCOM or XCOM 2 on Ironman mode have a wealth of information available to them. The community has a ton of walkthroughs, videos and a rigorously maintained Wikipedia that gives players an insight into the game’s essentials – unit types, special abilities, which research to carry out quickly and the best strategies to use when base building.

DeAngelis doesn’t recommend jumping into Ironman mode right off the bat, though. Rather this is a mode, he says, that players should only have a crack at after they’ve experienced the game a number of ties.

“Don’t play on Legend Ironman your first time through XCOM 2. Both the strategy and tactical portions of the game have had major changes since XCOM: Enemy Unknown,” says DeAngelis. “Even veteran players will need to readjust their strategies when jumping into the sequel.”

“We’ve even recommended Veteran, or Rookie, for an initial playthrough. Experience the entire campaign a few times so you’re familiar with what’s going to happen and when. Being able to prepare ahead of schedule is going to be a huge help. Also, use lots of grenades to remove enemy cover.”

So. Ironman mode. Commander, do you think you’re hard enough?

Read more in our Get Tough, Play Hard series:

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