Monday, January 16, 2012

X-COM: UFO Defense

When we discuss great games from yesteryear, the list is usually a relatively consistent one, considering the subjective nature of it. We of course talk about our Ocarinas and our Mario Brothers, but there's another subset that seems to exist in a separate realm of its own, the PC game crowd. Games like Baldur's Gate, Starcraft, Fallout 2, Homeworld, and Mechwarrior. They're games that defined an era, and are still heralded as some of the best games to grace the platform. 

With the recent announcement of what is reputed to be a true successor to the franchise, I wanted to take the time to talk about X-COM: UFO Defense (Also known as UFO: Enemy Unknown and X-Com: Enemy Unknown, depending on when and where you played it), a game I never played back in its heyday. You see, when X-COM was originally released in 1994, I was only 4 years old, and there was absolutely no way my father would have left me play a game like X-COM. Even if he had, I probably wouldn't have been able to grasp any concept of it, considering that until this point I was still playing on his old 2600 almost exclusively.

I share this factoid so we can establish that I have no nostalgia for this game, or the series attached. When I originally played it only a few months ago, I came into a 17 year old game with expectations based solely on having heard about how amazing the game was, for a very long time. I expected this to somehow be a beacon of light in an otherwise slow slog of no new releases and general fatigue with my usual stable of games.

I found that and so very much more.

The name X-COM refers to the organization you head, the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit. You see, the planet had suddenly been attacked by an unknown alien enemy and despite their greatest efforts, individual nations had been miserable at combating the alien menace individually. In December of 1998, the most powerful nations of the planet Earth convene to pool their resources in a united effort to fight off the invaders. This is where X-COM, and the actual game, begins.

This is the Geoscape.
X-COM is divided in halves as far as gameplay goes. On one side, you have the Geoscape, a polygonal representation of the planet Earth. At the start of the game you are prompted to place the location for your initial base, which can be on any body of land, whether Switzerland or Antartica. Your location will determine how close you are to various nations, and your ability to quickly respond to alien threats in those areas, which will effect the funding you receive from each individual nation. From this screen, you'll manage your base (buying or selling equipment, performing research, manufacturing weapons/technology for your troops, etc.), watch for UFO's, and dispatching fighter/transport vehicles to strike against the various threats you will encounter.
This is actually really good! Honest!
On the other hand there is the Battlescape. This is a turn-based strategy game, where each side has a number of units each with individual “time units”. These allow them to do a number of actions before they can no longer do anything for the remainder of their side's turn. The amount of “time units” a unit has depends on their personal statistics, the weight of equipment they are carrying and their veterancy. Units can move, change the direction they are looking, stand/crouch, use equipment or fire their weapons during their turn.

Combat in X-COM is for keeps. Early units will die to a single hit from an alien, and friendly-fire is absolutely possible. This, combined with some truly terrifying alien types, creates a virtually permeable air of dread and terror in the game. When you never know if a Chryssalid is going to step from the shadows and convert your very own troops against you, the game becomes nerve-wracking quickly.

These words will haunt you.

A major selling-point of X-COM is the destructible terrain, enabling a vast number of combat options. You could walk through the door into the living room of this suburban home to engage the alien menace that you know to be inside, but this would likely result in the death of a unit. Alternatively, you fire a series of rockets into the building, killing the alien without concern. You can also use stun rods, which require you to be directly adjacent to an alien and attack them, but allow you to capture a living alien for study, which will enable you to then research new technology, equipment and maybe even reach the alien homeworld for an assault on the very heart of the problem.

X-COM is legitimately one of the best games I have ever had the pleasure to play, and I can say this having gone in with high expectations and zero nostalgia to fuel my enjoyment. You owe it to yourself to play the original X-COM (and the sequel, Terror from the Deep, despite being little more than UFO Defense with a nice facelift and even harder difficulty, is also great) if you have the chance. You won't be disappointed. 

Dan is an EMT, as well as a casual Spaceman. Feel free to follow him on Twitter.


  1. I first saw my dad play X-COM UFO Defense back in 1995 when I was 5. Very fun game and it has aged very well. What my dad did to speed up the game was to hex edit the stats of all the soldiers attributes to 160, to speed up the combat. It makes it a lot more bearable playing on Superhuman difficulty. You can cover the map in 6 turns instead of 40.

    I'm looking forward to the new Geoscape, and I hope there will be more randomized combat environments.

  2. I've never played this, but I'm really interested!