X-COM: Terror From the Deep

X-COM: Terror From the Deep
4.5
Game Name: X-COM: Terror From the Deep
Platforms: DOS
Publisher(s): MicroProse Software
Developer(s): MicroProse
Genre(s): Turn-Based Strategy
Release Date: 1995

When I finished the first X-Com I was elated. I’d had a great time throughout my war against the aliens, and the final battle made the two months I had spent seem worth every minute. Realizing how much fun I’d had with the first, I immediately cracked open the second. The sequel promised new enemies and new challenges in the underwater realm of Earth’s own oceans. It’s a clever idea, and a region fairly unexplored in games. Underwater environments also make for perfectly alien locations requiring new equipment, new tactics, and a new approach to X-Com – or so you would think. Instead, this is a game rushed out in months to meet fan demand, and what you’re doing is essentially playing the first game over from the start.

The Geoscape is redrawn with new funding districts, this time with an obvious focus on oceans.

Excuses for this are varied and readily offered, but it’s important to note going in that the core game is identical to Enemy Unknown. I’m not just talking about the gameplay. The game itself is identical. Names and descriptions have been changed to suit the new underwater setting, but the stats for these weapons and craft are precisely (or within 5%) the same. All of the research from the first game is conveniently useless in water, so you start with identically comparable underwater versions of your starting kit from EU, and progress through a mirror-image research tree.

The similarities run so deep that it’s down to having the rare alien element “Zirbite” replace the rare alien element “Elerium” to power advanced alien tech, psionics is now “molecular control,” and you’ll have to spend millions on building one magnificent combination fighter/transport craft that is the only one capable of reaching the alien super-base. Sound familiar? It’s almost insulting, especially when you consider that grenades are still thrown underwater the same distance as they are on the surface, the dye grenade effect looks suspiciously like smoke grenades on land, and you can’t float to higher levels without the assistance of “flying” armor. The underwater environment that’s supposed to sell the game really is a simple texture and layout switch; again making it unclear as to why you would want to buy this version at all.

The answer is because it is still the refined X-Com gameplay that made the first so worthwhile. The battles never deviate from the central idea of loose fireteams searching cautiously for hidden aliens, and it is masterfully focused and tense. Tying the battles seamlessly with a global base, equipment, and research system gives these fights purpose, value, and consequences. Outfitting your soldiers properly can be expensive, and how much ammo and explosives you fire off will have to be paid for back at the base. Your soldiers also progress in stats and abilities with each successful mission, making each worth keeping alive – not only for sentimental and cost reasons, but because veterans are far better than the sludge coming out of X-Com Boot Camp.

However, if any of this interests you and you haven’t played X-Com: Enemy Unknown, I HIGHLY recommend you start with the first. It is a fantastic game, even more so when it’s your first play and you’re just learning what the aliens are truly capable of. Since both games are so similar, you should just jump ahead to the “better sequel.” Enemy Unknown is the real game here. TFTD is the optional side story if you just haven’t had enough, or the mildly fresh version to play years later when you’re hankering for X-Com again. Enemy Unknown is a must-play. TFTD is not.

The new trail effects for underwater projectiles look particularly nice, and help in tracking their shooter.

The new trail effects for underwater projectiles look particularly nice, and also help in tracking their shooter.

Why not? For one, it’s much harder. The weapons and items may be the same, but the aliens have received a definite overhaul. All are about twice the strength of their original counterparts, with tougher hides and seemingly better eyesight. While your guys barely have enough time units to tie their shoelaces, the bugs here can fire off four or five shots a turn, allowing just one to easily take out any soldiers that try to surround it. They’re also magnificent at reaction shots (a mechanic allowing one side to shoot during the other side’s turn) and take them readily and accurately. And they LOVE grenades. In EU, watching your spacing made grenade attacks less likely. In TFTD, they’ll throw grenades at you just for the hell of it. Their blast radius makes them good for shredding unarmored aquanauts, so an individual behind cover isn’t always safe. But tossing them at the feet of solitary soldiers for a guaranteed kill just seems cruel.

And these are just the initial aliens you encounter. I intentionally won’t get into the tougher alien types that will start to arrive, as TFTD is very good at recreating the shock and fear of meeting a new breed. Rest assured that they are nastier, have ridiculous amounts of time units, and sport abilities to put the Cryssalid and the Sectopod to shame. While EU’s Sectoids provided a nice, even matchup against your unarmored grunts, TFTD throws your fumbling soldiers right into the fire from the start. It doesn’t matter how good a commander you are when your soldiers can’t hit an alien with any one of the three auto-fire shots from one square away. I had half of my eight-man squad slaughtered on their first mission by ONE alien armed only with a pistol because nobody could hit him.

You’ll grumble, pound the desk, and probably call somebody a motherfucker as you watch your entire squad getting picked off from the dark like something out of Predator. Such situations are all too common. Yet it’s strangely enjoyable to be put against such odds, especially when even the death of your whole team isn’t a game over. Perhaps it’s because in a world of Doom-like games with endless ammo and health kits, or RPGs that scale with your current “level,” it’s unique to put in a situation where you are vastly outclassed and expected to overcome it. Still, anyone unprepared for this level of senseless ass-paddling is going to be frustrated, disappointed, and maybe a little angry at what they signed up for.

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All new surface locations play pretty much like the first game, though your kit is now slightly restricted (underwater weapons won’t work on land).

I’ve spent quite a bit of time bagging on the game, but I do want to point out some fantastic improvements clearly made from studying the first title. First and most grateful is that the aliens’ use of offensive mind control has been turned down to much more acceptable levels. Sectoids in EU started tickling your squad’s brains right out of the gate, but here it will take quite a few in-game months before you encounter foes who make this a concern. I cannot easily stomach a defenseless rookie getting mind-controlled into massacring his teammates by an alien halfway across the map, with the only solution being to sack the rook. These situations are less common in TFTD, or more accurately, they arrive at a time that you’re better prepared to handle them.

Two key interface additions have been added for time unit management. You can still reserve time units for aimed, snap, and auto shots, but now you can also toggle a reserve for kneeling. This stacks on top of your shot reserve, and ensures that you will always have enough time to kneel at the end of that soldier’s turn. This ensures you can get your guys to cover – which is frequently more important than a clear shot – or add crucial accuracy to a shot. The other button zeros out all remaining time units at the end of a soldier’s turn. This is exclusively to keep someone from shooting a rocket into his teammates with a careless reaction shot. Mind control or panicked shots take away from the next round of time units, so this won’t help there.

Weapons are indeed ported directly from the original, and you can easily find the clones for the terran, laser, and plasma guns. There are only three that are brand-new, all of which are variants of a hand-held drill. These are close range weapons, and as you can imagine, almost totally useless. They virtually guarantee a kill though, even on the toughest enemies, which does encourage you to find some way to make them work. Many enemies also carry a specific weakness to certain ammo types (fire, armor piercing, those drills), encouraging a varied kit. As said before, weapons and their physics ignore the underwater setting, so there’s no additional considerations beyond find and shoot. The only real difference is a nice graphical effect simulating air bubbles trailing in the wake of a projectile.

Lighting seems improved over the first, with more variety, and better fades.

Lighting seems improved over the first, with more variety and better fades.

Oceans are the focus of the game, and their topography offers a different battlefield than the farms and cities from the first. The basic ideas of moving from cover to cover still apply, but there are many more hills, trenches, and coral shelves to deal with (or take cover in). It also means your foes will have plenty of places to hide, and plenty of obstacles to mask their movement, and it’s harder to get a full view of the battlefield, since coral towers and hills work to mask large areas in shadow. Some debris and seaweed will litter the ground, potentially tripping up soldiers, and the depth of the crash site makes a difference as well. Depth is shown on the Geoscape as darker blue areas, and the darkest will be equivalent to a night mission in the first, regardless of the time of day. Bring your flares.

Terror missions always take place on the shore, as the aliens assault resort islands, port cities, and cruise ships at sea. Including both land and underwater missions is an awesome addition, though it does very little to change your tactics. The most apparent differences are that your flying suits only “fly” underwater, and your strongest weapons, namely torpedoes, will not work on the surface. You’ll have to pay attention to your loadout before hitting the beach, but that’s about as far as the changes to your plan go. It’s still a welcome change of pace, and quite fun to send your squad storming through a casino and ripping up the tables with sonic rifles.

Underwater sounds are appropriate, with a nice aquatic background sound within the missions. Hard to describe, but seems like the results from sticking a microphone into the ocean. Each weapon sounds different on land and sea, and the underwater acoustics sound believable. The auto-cannon in particular is a blast (yuk yuk), especially when loaded with explosive shells. Harpoons give a quick “shhhhick” as they slice through the depths, and satisfying squeals of aliens when the connect. The only part that seems off is that sonic weapons don’t sound particularly sonic, but I believe the idea is that they simply create explosions underwater. In that sense, mission accomplished.

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The initial deployment is still dangerous, and now you can’t take cover by the wheels.

There are a potentially confusing number of versions and repackaging beyond the Gold, CD, and Playstation versions. Most are compatibility tweaks to make the game run under Windows 95, though the CD version also provides CG movies to replace the still frame cutscenes. The game works best on a Windows 95 system with the appropriate patch. Running the DOS version in DOSBox is possible, but with finicky cycles that make the Geoscape too fast and the Battlescape too slow. Compatibility patches for Windows XP have been floating around, as well as an XP-supported version released on Steam, but both tend to make the game run too fast in the Geoscape section. It’s perfectly playable, but split-second decisions during interceptions or rushing to land a squad before nightfall become difficult when the slowest time option still ticks hours by in seconds.

I could go on and on and never say enough about X-Com. But I realize that whenever I do, I’m actually talking about the original. Terror From the Deep is a great expansion pack, and should be thought of as such. It’s only for those who adored the first and were disappointed when it ended, but it’s hardly a sequel. For newcomers or tired vets of the First Alien War, rest assured that TFTD is strictly optional. It manages to capture the greatness of the original only by shadowing it with every step, and is remarkable only in offering a fresh environment and new aliens with increased difficulty.

 

The Good

Great graphics do a beautiful job of rendering the tactical side of underwater combat. Polished gameplay continues to be enjoyable. Brand new zones to fight aliens, though tactical considerations don’t really change.

The Bad

Basically the same game as the first, but harder. Not even close to a proper sequel.

 

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