According to the in-game counter I finished my 20th campaign attempt the other month. When I first started, Mitch convinced me that the only way to experience XCOM properly was to play Ironman mode so I dove straight into a Classic Ironman campaign. After getting completely torn apart by the first three missions, running out of money and soldiers and having all my interceptors shot out of the sky by an abductor, I decided I would drop down to Normal difficulty.
Well XCOM, you had my attention, but now you have my interest.
After five more failed attempts I finally got enough of a grip on the game to beat it. I promptly installed the Enemy Within expansion and decided to take on Classic once again. This time, however, I had enough respect for the game to use save states. After trawling my way through a punishing campaign full of MECs, cloaking space-octopi and bad decisions, I eventually had a second victory for Earth under my belt.
Despite all the new toys and abilities Enemy Within brought with it, my first victory on Ironman mode was way more satisfying. I can't even remember who was on the final mission from my Classic team but I know my psionic Assault Col. Morgan was the volunteer, backed up by Sniper Col. Faessen and Heavy Col. Hodson-Kersey on that first Ironman run. I'll never forget Faessen's 99% shot that missed, costing the life of my then-flanked Support Col. Tomlinson.
It was a grueling process panned out over six campaign attempts but it forced me to experiment, fail and learn until I became skilled enough to overcome it. When that final cutscene played and I saw the end credits for the first time, I could not stop myself from grinning. The satisfaction was supreme.
But what made it so good by comparison? XCOM is a game about patience, careful planning and risk vs. reward (but let's call it "RvR" from now because I'm lazy). This RvR concept scales from the micro level of deciding whether a 70% shot is worth taking if it would leave your support out of position, to the macro level of investing thirty hours of your life into a campaign you can lose (and kudos to Fireaxis for having the balls to make a game that can actually beat the player, and not just in the "oh no, looks like you'll have to respawn to thirty seconds ago" sense either). The general principle of RvR is the greater the risk, the greater the reward needs to be. High reward for little risk only satisfies the conservative and the lazy, and high risk for little reward is idiotic and wasteful.
In a basic sense, the entire premise of Ironman mode increases the gratification of the player’s victory by increasing the risk of playing such a game mode. The player invests their valuable time into a campaign that may very well end in failure. Sometimes you will lose fifteen hours to a failed run and all that’s left to do is wipe away your tears, learn from your mistakes and try again... and again. And again.
But not all the satisfaction is withheld until the end of the game. The thrill of Ironman comes from the knowledge that all your decisions are permanent and that if you choose badly you could put yourself into a death spiral. This means every little action you take holds significance. A single poor command, misspent resource or badly timed miss can have devastating results over the scheme of the game.
Small mechanics and features reinforce this experience. The fact that you can visit the memorial to view all the men and women who trusted you with their lives and met their end as a direct result of your ineptitude goes to show this. The memorial serves no in-game purpose other than to remind you of your mistakes (or the bull**** that are Thin Men). At this point I'm conditioned to take the sound of bagpipes as a signal to leave.
The weight of your soldiers' lives is exaggerated by their death's having the potential to cause your other soldiers to panic. This is particularly evident in the early game when your soldiers' willpower is as strong as a wet tissue. One soldier panicking can cause a horrendous domino effect that can leave your squad exposed, snivelling in a corner or shooting at their teammates. Panic is a s*** time.
Ironman prompts some interesting emotional attachment to your soldiers. You can call me a dork for saying so, but no other game has made me salute my computer when my soldiers do well. Hell, one of them even got a short story written about her. But to become invested in your squad is to suffer when one of them is killed. It got to the point with Rookies that I wouldn't bother customising their getup unless rose above Squaddie rank. I like to imagine that they thought it was a matter of 'no respect until you've earned it' but in actuality it was to help their Commander deal with the weight of dozens of lives on his conscience.
After several runs of XCOM 2 I decided it was time to return to Enemy Within for a Classic Ironman run. Hoo-boy! What a time. Despite my level of strategy being much better than before, it still took me roughly eight attempts to nail it. Even then I was riding on a rolling wave of soldier sacrifices. It was a bitter and tragic endeavor but it's some of the most intense and satisfying gameplay I have ever experienced. If we ever do get invaded by aliens I'll be signing right up to the XCOM project. I can't possibly be a worse shot than the Rookies...