Saturday, May 15, 2010

Great Games #2: X-Com: UFO Defense

In my first post in this series, I stated that Civilization II might be my favorite game of all time. I still think that's true, but I could probably say the same thing about this game, X-Com: UFO Defense (known in Europe as UFO: Enemy Unknown), too. For now, let's call it my second-favorite, but it really is a close call.

X-Com was a strategy game released by Microprose Software in 1994, and it's widely known and well-respected to this day. Note that Long Tail Gamer has the best video clip about the game (unfortunately, I can't figure out how to embed it here), as well as sources for purchase (very cheap these days) and links to instructions on getting it to run on today's computers. Yes, it's still very playable, if you don't mind the ancient graphics.

Let's Play X-Com has around 2,000 screenshots illustrating their play of the game (with their own storyline added). Take a look. It's pretty neat. (But beware spoilers if you follow the story too far.) And if you decide to play the game yourself, you might check out XComUtil, a utility which fixes the difficulty bug (if you want to play on anything but "easy") and adds a few very useful enhancements to the game.

Basically, X-Com takes UFO mythology - perfectly adopted, right down to the cattle mutilations - as its theme. This isn't War of the Worlds. Instead, aliens are just probing the Earth (and its people), flying their craft on mysterious errands, landing in isolated locations for nefarious purposes, building secret bases, and occasionally launching terror raids on our largest cities. Finally, the nations of Earth decide to fund the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit (X-COM) to fight back.

(screenshot from Rock, Paper, Shotgun)

You begin on January 1, 1999 by building your first base somewhere on Earth, probably either in Europe or North America (realistically, you especially need to keep the richest nations happy). Eventually, you'll need bases - if only containing radar facilities - scattered across the planet, but they're expensive to build and to maintain, and you must always watch your budget. From these bases, you'll detect UFOs, launch fighters to knock them out of the sky, manage your scientific research and engineering activities, and equip your ground troops who'll do the dirty work of cleaning up crashes and defending against terror raids.

This first part of the game is "real-time," more or less. The game does pause whenever you look inside a base or open up any other menu, and you can speed it up or slow it way down (from five second to one day increments). Certainly, you have all the time you need to think of what you want to do. And you really must plan ahead. Every purchase and every hire takes some minimal amount of time to get to your base, and construction takes weeks before it's completed. And everything has not only an initial cost, but a monthly upkeep cost, too.

(screenshot from Let's Play X-Com)

When a UFO is spotted by your radar, you can send a fighter after it (luckily, the first UFOs are small and weak, but this doesn't last). The goal is not to destroy the UFO completely, but to make it crash. After all, you need to research alien technology, which starts out far, far better than your own, to investigate everything possible, right down to alien corpses, and to understand what's going on by interrogating live aliens, eventually. So when a UFO crashes, or lands for some purpose of its own, you send a transport plane to the site with a heavily-armed away team.

At this point, the gameplay changes to turn-based. Your turn begins with your men and women inside their transport plane, near the crash site. Everything they do takes a certain amount of time, and each of them has only a limited amount of action points. They must start exploring their surroundings, without leaving them too exposed at the end of the turn. Furthermore, if they have enough unused action points remaining at the end of the turn, they'll be able to fire on aliens that they see during the alien's turn. Opportunity fire is very important in this game.

Of course, it works the other way around, too. All too often, your first people to leave the plane will immediately take fire from aliens nearby. And at first, you are woefully ill-prepared to fight. The aliens have far better weapons and other equipment. One shot from them will likely kill your guy, while you may hit them many times with your puny rifles without taking them down (assuming that you can hit them at all, since your people also tend to be very poor shots at first).

(screenshot from Cosmic Maher)

You can send a tank out to scout and draw fire, if you have one, since tanks can usually take a few hits from an alien before they're destroyed. But tanks are expensive and take up a lot of room on the transport. And unlike your troopers, tanks don't improve with experience. On the other hand, you'd usually rather lose a tank than one of your very promising soldiers. Well, that's just one of many decisions you must make. At first, UFOs are small and may only have two or three aliens still alive after a crash. But larger craft show up soon enough, deadly in the air and full of dangerous aliens on the ground. X-Com is nothing if not challenging.

But it's great fun. This kind of turn-based combat is tense and exciting. Every step may reveal an alien - or turn deadly, as a distant shot takes out your guy (aliens can see farther than your people, especially in the dark). You have to keep your people close enough to support each other. But if you keep them too close together, aliens will wipe them all out with an explosive rocket or a grenade. And when you've finally moved all of your soldiers - leaving them behind cover, as much as possible - you must click the "End Turn" button and see how the aliens respond. Did you make sure to have someone watching the rear? Remember, you can only see what's in your soldiers' lines of sight.

Eventually, with luck, you'll kill or capture all of the aliens, and the battle will end. You'll get a report grading the fight and listing what items you were able to recover (and how many men you lost), and your people can return to base. Then you can put your scientists to work researching whatever alien equipment or corpses you retrieved - or even live aliens, assuming you captured any and have a way to keep them alive long-term. Alien equipment also becomes a welcome new source of funding, though you don't want to sell all of it (much of it you'll want to use yourself).

(screenshot from Giant Bomb)

You can hire and fire scientists, engineers, and soldiers as you wish - provided you have enough money and enough room for them at the base (living quarters and working space). The soldiers all have individual names (which you can change as you like) and individual statistics, which will improve with use. This means that you can - and should - fire your worst soldiers and hire replacements. It also means that you'll really hate losing your best people,... but that's war. (There are two hidden stats which research will eventually uncover. Unfortunately, they might show you that a very good soldier is actually a liability - if you haven't discovered that in battle already.)

As time goes on, you'll start seeing larger, more dangerous UFOs and newer kinds of aliens. But if you've done well, you'll be improving your own equipment, too. (You'd certainly better be!) If you keep the nations of Earth happy, they'll increase their funding. If not, if you're not effective in keeping them protected, they'll decrease their funding or even stop supporting you altogether, cowardly making a separate pact with the aliens.

Most of your time will be spent in the turn-based battles, which take place in a number of different terrains. If I have any complaint about the game, it's that there aren't enough different battle terrains. The farm terrain - complete with buildings - is my favorite, while I didn't like the jungle, desert, or arctic terrains that much, but they all get old after awhile. Admittedly, there are a number of different UFOs, too, which generally must be entered to rout out all of the aliens. And various features of each terrain are randomized a bit. So there's quite a bit of variation.

(screenshot from Let's Play X-Com)

But without a doubt, defending against terror raids in Earth's cities is the most fun of all. Aliens will attack a city to try to intimidate the nation. Terror raids are an absolute priority for you, because if you don't stop them, you'll lose funding from that nation entirely. In addition to killing or capturing all of the aliens in several blocks of a city, you're also supposed to keep civilians from being killed. (That's almost impossible, unless you use a nonlethal attack against them yourself.) But what's really fun is that - like all of the other battle maps - everything is destructible. So you usually end up "saving" the city by leaving it a burning, smoking ruin behind you.

That destructible terrain is another reason why this game is so great. If you open a door, there might be an alien waiting in ambush on the other side. This is particularly the case when taking the battle into a UFO itself. So the smart move is often to blow a hole in a wall and enter that way, instead. This game is quite challenging, but the possibilities are endless. You aren't forced into a linear kind of play, but can make your own decisions about how to proceed. That's really great.

X-Com: Terror from the Deep was the first sequel, released in 1995. That could have been a great game, too, if they'd given it any thought at all. What could be more fun than aquatic and amphibian aliens attacking in and around Earth's oceans? The possibilities are endless. Unfortunately, they just stuck underwater scenes into X-Com without apparently giving it the slightest thought first. So, for example, you got a game where your soldiers still threw grenades... underwater!

OK, it was still X-Com, so it was playable,... just really, really disappointing. It could have been so much better! There were such wonderful possibilities that were just ignored.

X-Com: Apocalypse, released in 1997, was OK. Actually, I had a lot of fun with it. But it's set in a single futuristic city, so you lose the worldwide outlook of the earlier games. And especially disappointing for me, you were penalized when the city took damage. Damn! I really missed the destructible cities of the first game, where no one cared how much damage you did. That's just fun!

And that was the end of X-Com. Oh, there have been other games that used the name for marketing purposes, but none were really X-Com. Everything has to be a first-person shooter these days, don't you know?

OK, I should mention a few other games, I guess. UFO: Extraterrestrials was released in 2007 by Chaos Concept as a "spiritual sequel" to X-Com. It was playable, but had poor graphics and not nearly enough different kinds of aliens. (I've heard that it's been improved by mods, though. Maybe I should check it out again sometime.)

(screenshot from Let's Play X-Com)

And UFO: Alien Invasion is a fan-made open source clone of X-Com. I tried it about three years ago, and it seemed to have promise. But it was a long way from being finished. These volunteer fan projects are great, but they struggle to ever finish a game. And there's no destructible terrain, due to the game engine they're using, so that's disappointing (understandable, in a volunteer effort like this, but still disappointing). Finally, you can't save the game during a battle. That's absolutely ridiculous! I hate games that try to force me to play their way! And battles take a long time in X-Com. For some of us, the real world must sometimes take precedence over game-playing.

The Jagged Alliance games (1994 & 1999) had similar combat to X-Com, but nothing else was similar. They were reasonably fun, but not anywhere close to as good as X-Com: UFO Defense. The turn-based combat was critical to X-Com, true, but the game was more than just that. It was a package deal, and the whole package was absolutely incredible. Really, if you haven't played it, find some cheap source and give it a try.


Anonymous said...

Great post, thanks

WCG said...

Thank-you, Anonymous. It's an old post - one of my earliest - and I see there are problems with the screenshots. I did learn better, eventually. :)