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Wednesday, September 14, 2022

X-COM: UFO Defense

Microprose is a name well known to old school PC gamers for their in-depth simulation games that don't sacrifice playability and fun along the way. X-COM was a combination of a turn-based tactical combat game and a business sim, having the player build and manage an army to repel an invading alien force.  But does the game's complexity and high degree of challenge still play well today, or is it left behind by numerous other games of similar concept?

(The game is known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe and X-COM: UFO Defense in North America. the 2012 remake combines the two titles together into XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which makes Googling rather tricky!)

Widely regarded as a genre classic, XCOM: UFO Defense is a game that can be pretty intimidating to newcomers - per the time period it had a rather hefty HUD of icon-only buttons and unlabeled bars, and there was no in-game tutorial - all of its mechanics were instead laid out in a 133-page manual that goes into eye-watering detail about every facet of the game and its intricacies.  Even the first thing you see is rather jarring, as you view a zoomed-out 3D model of the Earth and choose where to place your first headquarters, then once you've done that, you just sit and watch a clock tick down and wonder what to do next.

Well, the basic flow of the game is thus: you're given the worldwide view, and from there you can click on your base to manage your team's loadout, purchase new equipment and soldiers, or research new tech.  At first, your units are pretty pathetically armed, just having pistols and the odd rifle or grenade, and they're generally none too accurate with them either - rather a problem when even the most basic enemies in the game wield deadly plasma weapons that can kill with one good hit and have no visibility problems even in the dead of night.  Yep, it's one of those games - you'll be going through a lot of redshirts until you manage to have a few survive to earn promotions, improve their skills (through repeated practice a la games like Darklands and Elder Scrolls) and see new tech get researched that improves their survivability by leaps and bounds.  Just a couple solid hits from a heavy weapon will still drop a heavily armed, highly trained soldier, that said, so learning to avoid being in harm's way as much as possible is often a better plan than trying to be Rambo.

Anyhow, on the world map you wait for a UFO to arrive (turning up the speed is generally a good idea, as they take quite some time to arrive), and once they do, you send out an aircraft to intercept them and (hopefully) shoot them down.  Obviously a standard Earth aircraft stands no chance against a massive mothership, so at first targeting only the smallest of UFOs is the best plan.  Once a ship is shot down, you can deploy your troops to the site to battle the aliens and salvage whatever's left, which is where the majority of the game's action takes place.

The game's combat is equally complex to its business sim element, pitting your squad against an unknown number of aliens across Earth's many different biomes - everything from deserts to farmlands to forests to the arctic.  They're pretty ruthless too, often hiding out in small rooms and around blind corners for a soldier to enter, then immediately killing them with a reaction shot.  So, checking corners to find them is the first step; after that, it's a good idea to kneel (or even go prone) to increase accuracy and reduce your own chances of being shot.  One can also rely on other tactics like unmanned tanks or grenades, but these tend to be quite destructive (destroying useful alien artifacts caught in their range) and quickly become obsolete against larger threats, so they should be used sparingly.  At least once a month you'll also have to endure a "Terror Mission" - a battle against several dangerous, otherwise-unseen alien types in crowded cities, with aliens actively firing on civilians, and much more prominent environmental hazards - exploding gas pumps, collapsing roofs, aliens shooting at you from upper floors inside houses, and so forth.  Later on the aliens will also become aggressive toward X-COM itself and begin attacking your bases, which, if you don't have good enough defenses to shoot them down, will result in gradually more aggressive in-person battles on your home turf, with a loss meaning the complete loss of the base as well.

That's all pretty rough, so how do you even up the odds?  Why, by taking advantage of a transplanted component of games like Civilization, of course - Research.  You can create a few things without having to venture into the field at all, including some more useful (and ammo-independent) laser weapons and handy things like Medkits and Motion Scanners, but the vast majority of your tech will require you to engage your enemies and scavenge battlefields.  Completing a mission successfully will have your team gather up just about every single salvageable thing at the site, from alloys to Elerium to weapons and yes, even alien corpses.  All of these then be researched at your home base and applied to a whole lot of useful things for future endeavors - Alloys will allow you to build armor, researching the aliens' weaponry will let you use it yourself (not just in on-foot combat missions, but aircraft weapons and base defenses as well), researching components of their ships will let you build better ships of your own, and dissecting dead aliens will often give you clues to their specific tactics and any weaknesses they may have, which will definitely help you out in future encounters.  Even more valuable, though, is your ability to defeat aliens non-lethally and capture them to study them in further depth, which unlocks highly powerful abilities like psionics (a notorious game-breaker in both their hands and yours) and is ultimately necessary to find the aliens' base of operations and prepare for the final battle against them.  So, while you will see a lot of dead soldiers, destroyed equipment and maybe even lose a base or two over the course of the game's campaign, as long as you manage to get some new tech out of it, they might just be acceptable losses.

The business sim element comes into play behind the scenes, too.  At the end of each month you'll be given an evaluation by all of X-COM's member nations, and those that are happy with your progress (often because you shoot down UFOs and stop terror missions in their territory) will often agree to increase their funding; inversely, those unhappy with your progress will give less funds, or if too many aliens land there, may be swayed to make a pact with the aliens and leave X-COM entirely.  Money is also rather tight at times, so selling surplus items in your stores is often a good idea.  Just don't ask why there's a high-paying gray market for spare alien corpses; I'd... rather not think about it.

So, while there is a lot to take in and the unwieldy interface and punishing difficulty make it a game that's bound to drive off a lot of less-experienced gamers, X-COM is a classic for good reason.  Its gameplay is fairly complex, yet quite fun and rewarding to learn, and seeing the gradual change of a bunch of barely-trained misfits into badass armored soldiers who can snipe aliens from a mile off and mind-control them to do a lot of the dirty work while never exposing yourself to harm is quite fun and rewarding.  There's not a huge amount of overarching story - most of the game's lore is told to you through research screens and a brief bit of narration at the very end - but it doesn't mean it's a game that won't give you plenty of fun tales to tell.  A true PC classic and well worth playing, especially as there's a lot of great player mods (and a source port in OpenXCOM) to make it very playable even today.  Really, the only downside is that never really got a worthy successor for over two decades - it had a slew of decent-to-terrible sequels later in the 90s and early 2000s, and it wasn't until 2012 that it got a reboot that finally did the prestigious name of X-COM justice.

Developer: Mythos Games
Publisher: Microprose
Platform: PC (DOS/Windows) Amiga CD32, Playstation
Released: 1994, 1995, 1998
Recommended Version: I've only personally played the DOS version, but I have heard that the Playstation version is missing some elements of its computer counterparts (like dynamic lighting).  The DOS version is also the most widely available nowadays, being available on Steam for about $5 USD.