While the new “XCOM” game by 2K Games won’t be out for a while, the massive wildfire it has created on the internet is still raging. Many younger gamers won’t understand what the whole deal is, seeing as the original games were released almost two decades ago (God I feel old…), and thus it occurred to me that I could kill two birds with one stone and write an article about it. My aim: to educate younger gamers about this incredible specimen in gaming whilst paying tribute to my favourite game of all time.
Let’s get in the time machine and examine this gem from the past. While we’re at it, why don’t we check if these past two decades have tarnished its shiny exterior?
The original X-COM game was called “UFO: Enemy Unknown”, Released in Europe in 1994 by Microprose, it was a truly remarkable company that many PC gamers from those years will remember fondly. In the States the game was called “X-COM: UFO Defense” because of copyright problems with a classic TV series, but that´s another story.
The game’s plot is simple enough; it’s 1999 (the future!) and alien sightings and abductions are on the rise. So inexplicably on the rise, in fact, that their deniability by world governments is no longer viable. After several failed and bloody attempts at contact and even combat, it becomes clear that this is not something that any single country can tackle on its own, so “X-COM” (the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit) is founded to combat the alien menace.
X-COM is half management sim and half turn-based strategy game. In the management sim part, the “Geoscape”, you’re presented with an Earth globe in which you can set bases around the world and access your multiple databases. You do not, however, simply set down a base and be done with it. Bases can have several different rooms and installations that make their uses varied – things like hangars, laboratories, Anti Air defences, etc. From here you also control your fleet of interceptor ships and troop transports, seeking out UFO’s to destroy before salvaging their alien technology.
Here you can also hire soldiers, conduct research, and manufacture/buy equipment. The different interfaces take a bit of getting used to, but in general, the learning curve for the Geoscape is relatively short.
When one of the aforementioned interceptors shoots down an UFO, you can send in the boys to try and capture it. This switches us to the “Battlescape” the second part of the game. This turns the game into a turn-based strategy game and will fill most of your time. This also takes some explaining, so buckle up, this is gonna be long.
The detail this part of the game has is, still to this day, jaw-dropping. While terrain tiles are limited and most maps tend to look like more or less the same (I didn’t know Madrid’s suburbs looked exactly the same as those in London! and where are all the cars?) the amount of detail in them is simply superb. Multi-layered maps feature buildings with several floors, streetlamps, bins and trees accurately fill the streets. Hundreds of corners, windows and benches provide excellent cover from deadly alien snipers.
Terrain is also destructible, and by destructible, I don’t mean “this wall and this bin are destructible by ‘X’ weapon so you can proceed on the level”. Nope; EVERYTHING can be blown up, dissolved or shot till it crumbles. If you’d like to go nuts with explosives and blow up a whole city block searching for your prey, you definitely can. Sometimes the aliens themselves are not beyond those tactics, but beware; your financial supporters don’t look kindly to wanton destruction in urban areas, especially if there are civilian causalities involved.
The learning curve here is a bit steeper. You have multiple buttons to give orders to your soldiers (kneel, inventory handling, saving TUs for later, manage map layers and maps, etc…). Also, you have to learn how soldiers behave and what their different stats mean. Doing ANYTHING with a soldier consumes their “Time Units” (TUs), so you have to calculate whether a soldier will have enough TUs to move behind cover and shoot. You can also switch around inventory and pick up weapons and items from dead soldiers or aliens. You can even pick up unconscious soldiers or aliens for rescue or capture.
Progress in the game is incredibly satisfying – at the beginning your soldiers are not exactly Veteran SAS, the X-Com unit is experimental and most governments don’t believe it has much chance of accomplishing anything.
Your soldiers are also all new recruits with little to no combat experience. As they survive missions they will grow in XP and get better and better at their jobs. The way XP is handled is also quite well thought out for the most part, as soldiers get better at what they do… if you make them carry huge loads of guns and equipment to battle, their strength will grow, their accuracy will grow if they shoot lots etc.
However as some might have already noticed by my earlier comments, the beginning of the game is unforgivingly difficult. X-Com starts with a meager budget, rookie soldiers and, while starting equipment is supposedly the best humanity can offer, your guns and vehicles are nothing more than pea-shooters compared to what the aliens carry. Fortunately, this makes progress even more satisfying, snatching victory and researching those small pieces of alien tech you managed to scavenge. From that, gruesome battle tastes sweet indeed, and players can get really immersed in the growing conflict.
Graphically, X-Com uses well drawn sprites and pictures to represent everything. Despite being very low-res and not that detailed by current standards, it still has aged well; everything is functional and serves its purpose perfectly. Animations are fluid (even though soldiers and aliens look a bit stiff) but the lack of melee attack animations seems like a weird oversight.
The sound is simply spectacular. The game’s tunes fit the atmosphere to a tee and get you in the mood, with quiet non-intrusive electronic music for Geoscape, frenetic and fast paced music for UFO interceptions and moody, hair-rising background music for Battlescape. The amount of tunes is limited, but they never grow old, and you’ll find yourself humming them for years.
Sound effects are also A+ material; explosions, shots, impacts, and more miscellanea things such as the sound of RC Tanks, or the eerie noise alien grav-vehicles do when moving, bring life to the different sprites in the game. The screams from aliens and soldiers still give me chills every time I hear them.
So, in conclusion, does the original X-Com holds its own nowadays? Definitely; with its immersive gameplay, well constructed world, and magnificent atmosphere, it’s no wonder people are excited about the new XCOM game. UFO: Enemy Unknown (or its American counterpart) is a game that should be in any gamer’s library, and since you can get it on steam with ALL its sequels (good and mediocre alike) for as little as £3.50 it’s pretty much a sin against the god of gaming not to have it.
- Jose Luis Pérez Zapata