This game and I have a long and adversarial history. I owned the PlayStation port, and thought it to be the most difficult, though strangely enjoyable, game in history. For whatever reason, I couldn’t best those damn aliens – though perhaps it had to do with the fact that I was only in middle school at the time, and my tactical and management knowledge was abysmal. Regardless, it took me almost ten years to beat this game (though not of continuous play) and now that I have defeated it fair and square, I’m ready to drop some words about what is probably the best strategy game I’ve ever played.
X-COM: UFO Defense (subtitled “Enemy Unknown” in Europe) finds the Earth under siege from increasing numbers of mysterious alien invaders sporting terrifyingly advanced technology. Faced with the now undeniable existence of extraterrestrials, and their obvious danger to Earth, the nations of the world pool their funds into a multinational research and defense force named X-COM. They have the sole task of researching the invaders and defending the planet from them – a bit like Tom Clancy’s international Rainbow group, but with aliens as their quarry. You play as the leader of this group; tasked with wisely spending your limited government dollars while directly controlling squad-based ground missions when the aliens come out of hiding.
Quite a diverse range of both responsibility and control is put at your fingertips. For starters, you must pick a location for your first base; placing it and future facilities to cover the globe with an overlapping detection network. One of your major goals is to keep the aliens from harassing your top contributors all the way into surrender (which obviously ceases funds from that country), so placing bases near the moneymakers is vital. You direct the layout and construction of new facilities – balancing anticipated growth with immediate costs.
But bases are more than just radar facilities and launch platforms. You can set up labs, and control the direction of research by dictating which tech trees or recovered alien gizmos to study; hiring as many scientists as you can afford to work those projects. You control the manufacture of researched gear; either for use in the field or to flip for a profit. You control the equipment supplies in the base; selling unwanted materials, buying new ones, and kitting out your soldiers and aircraft for coming battles. You don’t pick what’s on the cafeteria’s lunch menu, but smart management decisions should ensure that your crew will be serving up plenty of charbroiled alien asses.
It sounds like a managerial sim, and like it has the potential to be Microsoft Excel with alien graphics. Luckily, the actual choices are fairly straightforward and hassle-free. With a minimal number of clicks, you will have restocked your soldiers, sorted your recovered artifacts, and maybe read a research report your eggheads finished during the last mission. What’s important is that a perfect balance here has been struck – you have all the control you need over every aspect you want to control, with any real micromanagement swept off to the side.
This works excellently, because the real game is about the turn-based strategy action. When a UFO gets detected by your expertly-placed bases, (you DID place them expertly…?) you can launch interceptor fighters to shoot it down. You start with advanced mimics of modern jet fighters and missiles; capable of dropping smaller craft, but useless against the big boys and their devastating beam weapons. A simple engagement window lets you weigh the dangers of closing to individual weapons ranges against the very likely chance of the UFO shredding your expensive plane, or kicking in the afterburners and easily sprinting away. If you successfully damage a UFO over land, it will crash and become a new mission marker for your ground squad.
These rough n’ ready bug blasters are pulled from the ranks of the world’s finest, with randomized stats making for potential snipers, burly heavy weapons dudes, quick-reacting snap-shooters, etc. A simple graph interface details everything about each soldier, from time units per turn to a measure of his or her bravery, allowing you to easily sack anyone who doesn’t measure up. And if you’ve got the funds, you can purchase or construct heavy weapons platforms that act as miniature tanks – soaking up and dishing out more damage than a human, at the cost of a hefty chunk of change to replace them if they’re destroyed. A second class of transport ships ferry your troops to any ground missions, and after loading the transport up with guns, soldiers and tanks, you head out to the scene.
Ground missions are handled in an isometric view, with soldiers moving upon an invisible grid. Missions take place in locations ranging from secluded farms to downtown urban areas, all with randomized geography. Each side (always you vs the aliens) gets the opportunity to move all of their soldiers in one turn. Each individual soldier has their own supply of time units, which dictate the total number of actions they can take in that turn. Everything from moving, crouching, shifting inventory, and shooting take up varying amounts of time units – most clearly displayed so you know what you’re getting into before making each selection. Yet another risk vs. reward system is in play here, so aimed shots have a higher accuracy at the cost of more time units, or moving a long distance can leave your soldier without time units left to fire if he encounters an alien. A series of handy buttons can reserve the specific number of time units needed for a particular shot, hopefully preventing any surprises.
You use your turn to advance each soldier, take shots at any aliens you can see, or make any tactical preparations for the next move before ending your turn. The aliens then shift their units around similarly, though the screen is dark for their movement phase – the exception being the occasional glimpse of an alien passing through a soldier’s line of sight. Another soldier stat also determines reactions, and if a soldier has unspent time units, they have a chance to fire a “reaction shot” during the opposing team’s turn, should an enemy unit cross into their view. Aliens can fire reaction shots too, so careless soldiers can round a corner only to get cut down by a waiting alien, even though it was your turn.
When you start X-COM, you’re vastly outclassed and outgunned. Your initial soldiers have nothing but wimpy rifles and no body armor; forced to face creatures with brutal natural powers supplemented with a variety of handheld energy weapons. One wrong move (literally, just one) can lead to the burny plasma death of one of your soldiers, and a heavy random element of enemy placement and movement keep these ground missions incredibly tense. You never know exactly where the aliens are going to be, and each one is deadly enough to make bumping into one a serious concern. Not only do dead soldiers cost money to replace back at base, but soldiers also increase their skills with successful missions – making veterans much more useful than the sludge coming out of X-COM boot camp.
Furthermore, dead soldiers affect morale during the mission. Morale is derived from the soldier’s bravery stat, and soldiers with low morale will literally crack – wasting a turn by firing off shots blindly, panicking, or even dropping their guns and running away. Not a good situation while the alien bastards actually respond to spotted soldiers, close in, and hunt your squad from the shadows. And if that wasn’t bad enough, some aliens have the ability to mind-control your soldiers; forcing them to panic, or actually taking full control of them. I had the misfortune of having a rookie mind controlled in the first turn, who then turned to his squaddies in the transport and fired his rocket launcher. But fair’s fair in X-COM, and through research in certain fields, you can train your soldiers to mind control the aliens too.
Considering all this, X-COM isn’t really a scary game, per se, but it certainly racks the nerves. Especially considering that even as you unlock new alien weapons through research, there are increasingly-deadly toys left for them to bring out, and some nasty alien types (twelve in all) with some brutal natural abilities. Part of the fun of X-COM is playing for the first time and hitting your first encounter with a new species. There’s serious trepidation as you try and figure out what they can do, and some real shock as you see what some are capable of (such as turning a corner to find a two-story alien mech that shrugs off your plasma shots).
Luckily, your boys in beige are up to the task. Bringing back alien corpses and gear unlocks research – not just for the guns, but also for how to kill each alien species more efficiently. This information leads to smarter loadouts, which lead to safer victories. Barring that, you can blow up the entire fucking city block. That’s right – every structure in the game can be destroyed with sectional damage (a bit of a rarity for games of the time). The hole you create is determined by the strength of the explosive, so gunshots can shred single doors, grenades can blow out walls, alien rockets can smoke an entire floor. You could walk through the front door of a UFO, right into the alien’s waiting gunsights, or you could blow a hole in the side of the craft and surprise them from the side. You could send in a squad to clear out an office building room by room and floor by floor, or just put some missiles through some windows and see what comes of it. You shouldn’t do this while civilians are on the map, (who run around randomly and are meant to be protected) but that doesn’t mean you can’t.
Explosions even have further effects beyond the initial blast. Things that explode also tend to burn, and that fire spreads outward with each passing turn. Fire continues to spread as long as it has fuel (boxes, furniture, etc) and also generates an expanding cloud of smoke that causes stun damage to humans and aliens caught inside. Stay inside the smoke too long, and anything organic will fall unconscious. When in doubt, smoke em out.
If it’s not already apparent, X-COM is a stupefyingly advanced game for 1994; surely part of the reason it gained all the accolades it did. Actions in the game world have logical results, and while “realistic” may not be the right word, it’s a game world that truly feels “natural.” Cover gets destroyed as it gets shot. Buildings and parts of the terrain block each soldier’s visions, creating black gaps in their field of view, and giving a legitimate advantage to seeking out high ground. Soldiers with bad aim can’t be expected to hit something halfway across the map. Smoke grenades can be used to block the aliens’ vision and obscure your movement. Crouching gives an accuracy and protection bonus. Blowing the town up with rockets is certainly fun, but expensive as you’ll have to pay for new rockets when you get back to base. And throwing a primed grenade into the middle of a gas station has, well, expected results.
The game continues on this way, with X-COM called upon to respond to alien terror attacks in urban areas, find and destroy alien bases, and even defend their own bases against retaliatory alien raids (yes, shoot down enough UFOs in an area, and the nasties will come looking for you… I’m telling you, the developers thought of everything!) Global alien activity will increase month after month until the situation becomes untenable, requiring you to eventually find the end-game mission hiding at the end of the research tree. In the meantime though, you’ll build up multiple bases with multiple teams of tiny little bug-stomping badasses, and come away with more than a few awesome war stories.
X-COM probably sounds like the best game ever made by now, but it does have its flaws. The heavy randomization and extreme disadvantage you start at makes the game brutally unforgiving. You’ll swear the game cheats when aliens can find you in the dark, or snipe you from blocks away. It took me about ten years (not of continuous play, of course) to finally beat it, which is understandably more to ask than most gamers will want to put in. It’s a unique experience these days, since the game doesn’t hold your hand in the slightest. It makes it more satisfying to overcome the stacked odds, but naturally, anyone who doesn’t have a lot of time to invest, or isn’t prepared for an excessive amount of senseless ass-paddling from the game, is surely not going to put up with it for very long (though managing saves at base and before each mission can help ease your suffering).
X-Com is such a rich and detailed game that I could write pages about all its cool little nuances. Yet it’s almost worth letting new players discover them for themselves. If you haven’t checked out X-Com yet, and you’re interested in strategy or turn-based games, this one is highly recommended, even against today’s modern competition. It’s excellent at creating an interesting situation and expertly replicating all the important aspects of it. You may feel like you’re losing battles to unfair random chance, but you can always bounce back through smart planning and frappé aliens through solid tactical execution. If you’re not a fan of strategy sims, but find anything about what I wrote interesting, you might want to check this game out anyway. It might just convert you.
Brilliant, timeless, turn-based strategy game.
Unforgivingly tough, even at the easiest level. Will require a real time investment to beat.