Commentary Corner - Iron Man Mode in Gaming

Commentary Corner - Iron Man Mode in Gaming

If you're a regular reader of Vulkan's Corner, or you remember reading my writings before the Thanos Snap of my media server, you will remember that I love turn-based combat.

It helps there have been some outstanding turn-based combat titles in the last decade. XCOM, Total War, Darkest Dungeon and many more besides. Turn-based combat is right up there on the nerd hierarchy, right next to cheesecake. It makes me happy just thinking about it.

This blog post is really a love letter to how much "Iron Man Mode" adds to a turn-based combat experience. It started off with Darkest Dungeon, where there is no option to save and reload. Every choice is permanent and the stakes are higher organically, as there are no do-overs. I found myself really enjoying the experience and I felt a greater sense of engagement thanks to the game's organically higher stakes.

At the time, I thought Darkest Dungeon was an isolated example. Darkest Dungeon was, after all, built around the constant autosave and had no failure state. You were always able to round up another group of losers, so you'd never have to forfeit a hundred hours of progress. So I fired up the excellent XCOM 2 (with the outstanding 'War of the Chosen' DLC) and got cracking with Iron Man Mode. The failure state is real and possible in XCOM 2 - once you run out of losers, that's the ball game. What followed is one of the best video game experiences I've had and a watershed moment for my video game tastes.

Normally an XCOM playthrough is defined by how much time you spend crawling through the save menu. This is because your neuroses won't allow you to complete a mission without so much as a scratch. Lose a dude? Reload a save. Caught flat-footed? Reload a save. Having too much fun? Reload a save. This sucks a lot of the fun and immersion out of the game. Instead of keeping the gameplay loop front and centre, it keeps the game firmly rooted in the save and load menu, where nothing exciting happens. This resulted in XCOM becoming dull, without challenge and also robbed me of any chance to become genuinely better at the game - you know, if that really mattered.

But playing in Iron Man Mode turned XCOM into the game the developers always intended it to be. A dramatic, intense and immersive experience where every choice mattered. Whilst the challenge increased marginally (due to being unable to prevent a star operative from being smashed into wallpaper paste), I found the lack of saves to be liberating. I also learned to make the most of bad situations and minimise risk.

The moral of the story is that I enjoyed the game far more for removing my ability to save-scum. But I wanted to do more research - if I opted to save scum, would my enjoyment of a title be affected?

When I conducted my playthrough of Total War: Warhammer 2 - which does not have an autosave feature - I allowed myself to save-scum early and often. If I made a mistake or the the impact of a decision I undertook had unforeseen consequences, I would reload a save. I enjoyed my time with the game due to the content, but I grew to hate my own cowardice. With no risk, I would often auto-resolve a battle to check to see if I could skate by without fighting it. If I lost a general, it'd be right back to the pause menu to have another go. At the end, I knew I had cheated myself of a proper experience, and I enjoyed the game less as a result.

By removing the safety net I improved the quality of my gaming experience. But also had an interesting anecdote. That these modes are not about making the game more stressful, or keeping your adrenaline pumping whilst you play. Instead it's about keeping the gameplay fluid, moving the player and content along. A moment spent in the menu to reload a save destroys any organic momentum and immersion.

And though it sounds scary to remove the safety net for newer players, I would encourage all gamers to try Iron Man. It says something about how much I value the mode that when I started my playthrough of XCOM: Chimera Squad, I automatically engaged Iron Man, knowing very little of the game's mechanics. I feel it should be included in every turn-based combat game as an option and maybe even made mandatory. It's also another reason to be happy for Darkest Dungeon's mainstream success - without it, I'd never have been brave enough to try Iron Man.

So that's my love letter to Iron Man mode. One of the best features to pack into your turn based combat game. I certainly look for it in every turn-based title I play and it always goes on by default. I can't imagine playing turn-based games without it.

And neither should you.

Catch you next time,
Vulkan

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Rowan Naveau

About Rowan Naveau

I'm Rowan (Vulkan) - and this is my blog. Here you'll find a stream of consciousness about video games, wargaming and just about everything else.