X-COM is a brutal game, its style is repentantly 90s both artistically and in gameplay. Visually it had aRob Liefield like aesthetic for all the characters (picture huge hulking torsos and insanely small ankles and waists). The gameplay used randomly generated battlefields with ever increasingly difficult tactical situations and enemies. From day one you are out manned and outgunned. But this was the thick of the 90s and we had yet to shuffle off the mantle of keeping the dream alive to Portland or adapt to the “hand holding” that many old school gamers complain about in the modern game world.
The premise is simple, you are in charge of the mysterious X-Com organization and tasked by a shadowy Council based out of Geneva to defend the world from the threat of Extraterrestrial Combat (ergo X-COM). You are given a regular budget to pay for the building of bases and upkeep. You have a variety of tools available to you each base creating a “radar footprint” to scan the night skies for the presence of alien threats. The flexibility of the systems built in to this game are nothing short of astounding for its time, you start the game with a brief dynamic intro. Music pumping you watch a crowd of innocent civilians gunned down by a merciless horde of speed suit bedecked aliens. X-COM is immediate in its response launching a sleek interceptor to deal with the threat. A trio of heavily armed soldiers (one of whom has become synonymous with the image of the title, picture a blonde Pauly D.) launch out of ports atop the vessel gunning down aliens as they go.
Before beginning the hunt though you will want to make sure you load up your drop ship with crew and weapons. Each soldier is unique with randomly generated names, stats, and appearances (including the aforementioned Proto-Pauly D. Alien Hunter). One of the soft spots many fans of the franchise have is renaming the crew (my posse of Tim, Adam, Kingsley, Bruce, Andrew and myself plus one other randomly named red shirt gunned down many an alien). The inventory system is complex, out of the gate there are a variety of weapons and ammunition that are available for purchase and you have to keep track, as your campaign drags on you will deplete ammunition and will need to ensure you have enough stocked to keep your men and women in the fight, add to this the fact as you battle the Xeno hordes any crew who fall in battle may in fact die and will leave an empty spot on your drop ship. The temptation is to load your crew up with the heaviest meanest guns around, problem is the bigger the bang the heavier they are and at the early levels that means you will be slowed down and unable to use these weapons effectively.
Once your base is ready you can return to your global overview (or Geoscape) and watch the seconds tick by, a turn based strategy game there are three modes. Base building where you can buy and build bases to monitor the heavens, Geoscape where you can watch the seconds tick by and scan the skies, and combat when it’s time to get in the thick of things. You will be spending the majority of your time in the Geoscape controlling the speed time passes you can twist and turn the globe as you watch the sun rise and set on a blue, white and brown rendered ball.
Once your radar stations pick up an alien threat you will be alerted and zoom in on it. If the threat is still airborne you will want to launch an interceptor immediately. Interceptors have a limited range and the faster moving UFO may be able to simply outrun your team. My technique was to launch multiple interceptors from bases near the UFO to try and cut it off before escaping, but this is only effective once you have multiple bases. It is a wise tactic to launch an interceptor even if your target is on the ground when spotted. These aliens don’t sit around waiting for you to make an appearance and will pick up and leave when their mission of terror is completed.
The ideal combat situation is to down the alien vessel with an interceptor and then go in with your crew. When an alien vessel is shot out of the sky the crew compliment is depleted making it an easier target. If you are landing at a site where the aliens landed before you could get there you will find a much tougher threat. Combat is done using a ¾ isometric over view called the Battlescape. It uses an unforgiving line of sight and fog of war mechanic in randomly generated battlefields. Your first encounter will always be the easiest consisting of a small vessel with a handful of Sectoids (aliens designed around the Greys UFOlogists and Whitley Strieber were making popular during this time). By the end of the game you will pray to face an army of Sectoids as you will be thrown against ever increasingly difficult foes including Floaters, Mutons, Etherials, Silicoids (think the Horta from Star Trek), Snakemen, and a slew of “Terror Units” (more on them in a moment).
Combat is turn based with your troops deploying from a drop ship, you may not want to deploy all your troops immediately as the battlefield can get quite chaotic and it’s always a good idea to have backup. Your team uses “movement units” and the amount available varies based on the random stats of your soldier, as mentioned earlier the amount of equipment your team can impact the number of units available (heavier the gun the slower you move and react). You want to try and end your turns with a cache of units in reserve as this will give you an opportunity to react to enemies if they move in to your line of sight.
As you face tougher enemies you will often find yourself in situations where you not only can but WILL almost definitely lose. Thankfully there is always the option of running away by returning to your drop ship saving your troops to return to fight another day and a true general knows that some times this is the best option which is why it is a good idea to leave behind some troops to watch your escape route. This is especially important as veterans rank up and you may want to abandon Vancouver to the aliens if it means saving that guy who’s been with you since day one and is an alien killing machine.
From these encounters you are able to bring back the spoils of war, broken alien weapons, power supplies from captured ships, the corpses aliens (or eventually stunned live aliens) and strange new alloys. Researching the corpses of these fallen enemies reveals new technological opportunities and soon you can go from your early and important research in to Motion Trackers and Medkits to powered armour and mobile combat platforms. Never discount the importance of science and engineering in securing the future!
The map will be crawling with aliens and you will not just face your normal foes but you will also face “Terror Units” super powered unique foes that who would present a challenge under the best circumstances. On top of Terror Attacks the aliens will also start launching raids on your bases. If your base is undefended they will wipe it off the face of the Earth without so much as a shrug of their scaly shoulders, if you were wise enough to put a garrison of seasoned soldiers you may be able to fend off the raids.
The game can in end in a few ways, you could lose the confidence of the council and be de-funded or go over budget your books running red for two months going bankrupt (both pretty real world and dreary ways to end a game), your bases may be wiped from the Earth or in a best case scenario you identify the alien base located on Mars and launch a raid breaking the back of the invasion force and liberating Earth from its Alien oppressors. To give you an idea of how hard this last option is, I have been playing this game on and off for 20 years, I have only made it to this option a handful of times.
Several knock off versions of the game were released over the years with varying levels of success and the franchise was reborn in 2012 by 2K Games as XCOM: Enemy Unknown on the Xbox360, PS3, and PC (dropping the hyphen because hyphens are so 90s). The reboot received the Enemy Within expansion in 2013 (adding bio-engineering and cybernetics to your suite of tools as well as a third faction). A prequel was also launched in 2013 called The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, originally planned before XCOM: Enemy Unknown The Bureau was originally called XCOM, it was shuffled around due to a troubled development cycle being restructured in to a prequel by Irrational Games, 2K Australia and 2K Marin. The Bureau is actually a fairly solid Mass Effect style squad based combat game and ties in to the story of the rebooted universe of XCOM: Enemy Unknown with a really subtle tip of the hat to the rebooted series could be easily missed.
- Complex layered gameplay
- Amazing technology for its time
- Complete squad management
- Interesting research options
- Truly random combat situations
- BRUTAL learning curve even on easy levels
- Randomness can create no win situations (but hey we all need our own Kobayashi Maru)
- Micromanagement of resources can become overwhelming