The whole world seemed to be on a collective alien/UFO/mysterious kidnapping high in the early 90s. From The X-Files to “investigations” by Unsolved Mysteries and Alien Autopsy, we all seemed hellbent to believe that there really were aliens out there. This game was described to me by a friend over dinner (after watching The Lion King, bizarre, right?) as a strategy game in which you built a team of soldiers and sent them around the world to combat alien threats. Seventeen years later, X-COM is now long-departed from an era of novelty in strategy games, standing alone, having withstood the test of time and executed so well that it simply couldn’t be replicated.
In the distant year of 1999, alien attacks around the world are on the rise and efforts by individual countries to fend against this wave of kidnappings and mutilations are complete failures. At a secret conference in Geneva, a group of countries agree to secretly fund an internationally-based, militarized response named the Extra-terrestrial Combat Unit, or X-COM. As the newly minted commander of this fighting force, your job is to build and manage its operations, from base-building and personnel to research and the nitty-gritty urban warfare. In reality, X-COM is really two games in one, the macroscopic Geoscape and the turn-based affairs of war in the Battlescape. A huge reason why this game has remained at the top of my list wasn’t sheer nostalgia (although it helped), but rather the game’s design still works incredibly well long after its 1994 debut. X-COM sported a mature cartoon look that was stylish without lacking credibility. The music? Oh, the music. A creepy set of purring synthesizers and echoing chirps lent a chilling overtone to the entire venture.
After a stylish introduction in which the X-COM is deployed to battle an urban invasion, you’re given your first glimpse at the Geoscape, a thin menu mounted to a 3D globe in which you manage threats, access your bases, and fast-track through time. As soon as your scanners pick up a UFO, you can deploy your interceptors to shoot it down, sending out the trusty Skyranger transport to bring on the ground fight and recover the goods.
You’re in charge of virtually everything. You hire soldiers and watch their stats, even changing their names as you see fit. (When we played in 1996, Kelly and I would divvy up the troops as they were hired and manage them, their stats, and control them on the battlefield individually.) Did you want to build a base that consisted entirely of fighter interceptors? You can do that. You’d also have to build the hangars, purchase the fighters, and manage their armament as well. Get some funky new tech back from the field? Man up your laboratories and get researching. That new tech would eventually allow you to produce new, more powerful vehicles and weaponry with a human twist. A trusty UFOpedia keeps all of your research (including autopies!) convenient.
Your first transports are slow and if multiple UFOs appear at once, you may have to pick your battles wisely. Better buildings let you scan further, more bases provide better coverage and help assuage your funding nations’ fears. If any of those countries feel you’re not doing a good enough job, you’ll find out on the monthly report that evaluates changes in funding; some may even drop funding entirely, forming agreements with the alien menace. Worse still, your sources will eventually find alien bases that require sieging and your base layout skills will be put to the test when your bases get sieged as well…
This is the nitty-gritty fun part that dictates the flow of the game, playing like an advanced version of chess. This is the point where you lead your troops to victory in a variety of situations: from a singly-manned alien scout ship in the arctic during the day time to a gargantuan three-story ship nested in the rural countryside or a terror attack on an urban center at midnight, no two battles are ever the same. Your soldiers are allotted a finite number of time units each turn that allow them to move, fire, crouch, and so forth. As they rank up and get experienced, they become more flexible. When your best-ranked soldiers get mulphed in a fight, it’s a crying shame, not just because you watched them become seasoned vets over the course of dozens of missions, but because your other soldiers on the field will began to demoralize and panic. The battlefield isn’t a flat grid, but there’s verticality as well. You may have to scale buildings or mount soldiers on roofs to get good angles. (A funny effect of the game’s lack of physics involves blowing out a floor on a building and watching the remainder above it float in the air like a bad Red Faction: Guerrilla glitch.)
Your first combatants are the typical sort – the greys you see in virtually every form of alien media – but as time advances, you begin to see the full covenant of races. One in particular is the Chryssalid (the bug-eyed monstrosity you see up top) that’s an exceptional terror. It not only has an insane amount of time units, but its weapon is impregnation: let one close enough to your troops and they’re transformed into zombies. Kill that new haggard form and a new Chryssalid spawns from the corpse – a vicious cycle. Eventually, the aliens become tougher and start to tap into your soldiers’ minds, causing panic or outright loss of control. There’s nothing like losing an entire chunk of your operation because one guy was taken by mind and murdered his fellow operatives. Of course with time, you can train your team to do the same thing to them.
At the end of each encounter, you’re granted a score based on how many aliens you killed, and how many of your troops and civilians stayed alive that affects that respective region’s opinion of you. On top of that, if the mission was at a crash site (and the ship not busted up too much) you’re granted an incredible amount of technology to research and use. You also see your surviving troops rank up and become the go-to guys when you start new operations elsewhere in the world.
Sequels and Future
The original game was a big success for MicroProse and while the Gallop brothers were interested in doing the next big step in the series (which became X-COM: Apocalypse), MicroProse had an internal group quickly assemble a slightly-skinned sequel titled Terror From The Deep. In that game, you took the fight underwater against aliens that were awakened by the destruction of their base on Mars at the end of the original title. The game required arming troops with ground- and water-appropriate weaponry as well as elaborate new missions on cruise liners and ports of call. The game was also much harder than the original.
X-COM: Apocalypse arrived in 1997, taking place not on a global stage, but in an incredibly complex urban mass called Mega-Primus that looked similar to a futuristic SimCity. Mega-Primus hosted a variety of factions you had to ally/war with, and every structure in the city was owned by one of them. UFOs arrived via inter-dimensional portals and terrorized apartments, slums, and even sports arenas. Unfortunately, the creators took the nimble complexity of the first two titles and ratcheted it into the stratosphere. Your deployments could be of such a large size that they were divvied up into fire teams for easier control. Combat could be waged in traditional turns or in real-time and battles that were previously in confined areas with a four-story maximum were expanded into battles that spanned for hours. The amount of control that you had over your troops was overwhelming on the battlefield and off and as a result, the game was a bit of a labyrinthine mess. Because so many were dedicated to the completion of the game at a point, the art direction also went way off the charts: X-COM’s flying vehicles were modeled off of 50s-era Cadillacs (fins and all) while some of the aliens looked ripped straight from puppet shows. Coolest part, though: stray shots from a firefight to shoot down an alien ship may strike nearby buildings, sending chunks collapsing to the ground.
X-COM: Interceptor was a middling space sim that felt downright primitive compared to contemporaries like X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and Descent: Freespace. X-COM: Alliance was promised in 1999 as a tactical first-person shooter that you could play cooperatively with three other people. Long before Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon were at their respective peaks, the idea of a tactical first-person science-fiction shooter powered by the Unreal engine sounded amazing, but it simply wasn’t meant to be. Alliance and all other X-COM projects were cancelled by Hasbro, who simply didn’t ‘understand’ the brand. The less said about Enforcer, the better.
At E3 2010, 2K – now owners of the IP – unveiled XCOM (pictured above), a first-person shooter from the creators of BioShock 2 that casts you as an FBI agent who goes around the country investigating alien threats in the 1950s. There are no Sectoids or Chryssalids to be found here, this is a complete reinvention that features inky-looking aliens and floating, geometric shapes that can vaporize you. It’s easy to pass the game off as an action-oriented cash-in on our nostalgia, but I’m willing to give them the time of day if it ends up being a decent title.
I’d say if you read this far it’d be a sin not to go onto Steam right now and purchase UFO Defense right now for only $4.99, but its sluggish emulation prevents a straight-out endorsement. If you can find and play a stable version of this game, you owe it to yourself to experience this masterpiece of a game: the greatest ever made.