X-COM: UFO Defense

X-COM: UFO Defense
Game Name: X-COM: UFO Defense / UFO: Enemy Unknown
Platforms: DOS
Publisher(s): MicroProse
Developer(s): Mythos Games
Genre(s): Turn-Based Strategy
Release Date: 1994

This game and I have a long and adversarial history. I owned the Playstation port, and thought it to be the most difficult, though strangely enjoyable, game in history. For whatever reason, I couldn’t best those damn aliens – though perhaps it had to do with the fact that I was only in middle school at the time, and my tactical and management knowledge was abysmal. Regardless, it took me almost ten years to beat this game (though not of continuous play) and now that I have defeated it fair and square, I will defile its memory by reviewing it on this site.

X-Com: UFO Defense (UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe) carries a pretty intriguing concept. UFOs have started to appear in great numbers around the globe, and most of the major countries are now forced to recognize the existence of hostile extraterrestrials and their danger to little ‘ol Earth. The solution is to create an international organization (the X-Com of the title), funded by a pool of money from all the member nations, and tasked with the sole job of researching the aliens and defending the planet from them. This means you’ll be operating internationally, similar to Tom Clancy’s Rainbow group, but with aliens as your quarry.

The 3-D Geoscape is where you'll track alien activity.

The real genius of X-Com comes from the fact that the game is strong enough to support not just this idea, but all its interesting details. Not only will you be managing the construction and operation of up to seven bases across the globe – which is a task in itself – you’ll also be the commander of the forces on the ground and oversee their assaults in a brilliant turn-based mode. There’s the potential to run the game for years of in-game time, and probably a couple months of real-life time will be required to beat it.

The best way to cover the game, I think, is to take you through a typical day at the office. When you start, you’re given one base and encouragement to build more. You have a pool of about 4 million dollars from over thirty nations that chip in monthly, based on how you’re doing. Protect them well, and they’re likely to increase funding. Neglect them, and they might be coerced into a secret pact with the aliens; cutting off your cash and letting the beasties use their country as a base. When the game begins, you are equipped with standard (read: weak) military rifles, fighter jets, base defenses, etc, and a total lack of knowledge about your enemies. As you pick UFOs up on radar, you engage them with your fighters and, if you’re lucky, force them to crash land. Your soldiers then raid the wreckage, bringing back corpses and alien artifacts. You must employ a staff of researchers to learn about new alien technologies and weapons, and a staff of engineers to reproduce this equipment for your troops, or for income. Meanwhile, your research of the aliens – often after struggling ham-handedly to capture them alive – will start to point you toward the overall goal of the game. I will leave you to discover this for yourself.

This sounds like a lot, but we’re just getting started.

Anytime you send ground forces against the aliens, you actually command the squad of up to 16 soldiers in a turn-based tactical game. The field layout reflects the terrain you shot the UFO down over. Snow, desert, jungle, and rural farmhouses are the most typical. However, you’ll also see urban settings when aliens decide to attack the population directly, or your own base if you piss them off enough to track you down. Your troops will be outnumbered and outgunned in the beginning, but as long as they are supported by your research staff and strong tactical thinking on your part, your little guys will persevere.

The engine for these battles is quite something, and supports fully destructible terrain. You could easily choose to assault a building with a squad of troops, making your way carefully up the levels and shooting what shoots back – or, you could send in a rocket tank to blow holes in the building and frappe anything inside. The base ops and field missions are tied together seamlessly, so you’ll have to decide what kit your troops will have before shipping them out, and doing something like firing rockets haphazardly is just as expensive as you think.

Managing the base is never the chore that it seems like it would be, probably because you don’t have to worry about micromanagement (such as, what lunch your staff will have today), but you are allowed to control everything you want and need to control. This includes things like weapons loadouts, ammunition types, purchases, the direction of research, the selling of items for profit (and to free storage space), etc. The real micromanagement decisions are covered under hefty salaries for all your staff ($50,000 a month for one scientist!) and once-a-month maintenance fees for your facilities and craft. You have to pay these fees, so skipping on them or settling for faulty equipment isn’t an option. If you can’t pay, you’ll go into debt, and extensive debt is another game over scenario.

As for the troop side, you hire new recruits based on a number of RPG-like stats, and are encouraged to keep them alive. Not only do these stats rise with experience, but you start taking away some really interesting battle stories, and a few characters really do become little heroes unique to your game. For example, I had a lieutenant with 120% aiming stat who could hit anything on the map. She would often deploy first, camp out by the landing gear, and pick off anything that came close. I also had a trooper named Helga who had a tremendous strength stat. I would assign her the heavy equipment like rocket launchers and autocannons, and started calling her “Heavy Helga.” She would fill a support role in my fireteams like a SAW gunner, until alien tech got lighter and her rank rose to become a squad leader. None of these roles are required, mind you, but that doesn’t stop you from assigning jobs to squad members best equipped to handle them. Rank is doled out automatically with experience and enough troops.

Your high-ranking soldiers are thus likely to be your best and most experienced soldiers, suggesting they should be leading the various assaults, but higher ranked soldiers also give a bigger hit to the entire morale of the team when they die. Low morale makes for edgy and unpredictable soldiers, who may simply drop their guns, flee, or lose a turn. Aside from all these game reasons to take care of your troops, it’s really quite interesting to see how much your international coalition of salty badasses really grow on you. The game assigns them random names, but gives you the option to rename them to your friends or enemies, encouraging even more of a personal attachment.

The ground-level game ties into the management game in ways beyond simply outfitting your troops. The research your scientists perform pay off in clues after an autopsy about weapons a specific alien might be vulnerable to, discovery of a new stat and how to train it, and designs for weapons and tech to be used on the ground. You can then employ a staff of engineers to build these weapons or armour, ship them around to the bases were they are needed, suit your troops up, and raise hell more effectively. It’s not just weapons either, you can also research/build medical kits to revive or heal troopers (very valuable), motion trackers to record and display alien movement during their hidden turn, and similar probes based on alien technology. Idle engineers can flip weapon designs for profit, or you can sell excess equipment from UFO raids to an unnamed market. You’ll make a ridiculous amount of money this way, and all that really matters is that there’s always a buyer.

You can’t see in the dark while the aliens can. It’s a good idea to time your missions for daylight from the Geoscape.
The aliens, of course, are nasty, and are made up of a group of around ten different species with their own abilities. Some are tough shock troops and master marksmen, others can control the minds of your teammates, another can run like The Flash and turn troops and civilians into zombies. All are dangerous, and all require some real tactical thinking to take down. They are terribly smart, even at the easiest difficulty level, and operate under the same rules that you do. If one of them sees you, all of them do. This leads to near-ambush situations, or more commonly, unseen snipers shooting plasma at you from the dark.

Your troops can get in “the shit” pretty fast if you’re not careful and posting them to cover each other. Yet the very harrowing nature of it all is what makes the game so enjoyable. Sure, it can be frustrating to have aliens mind-control a rookie with low morale, then force him to turn and fire a rocket into the troop transport, vaporizing your entire team. But it forces you to learn and be more careful, and isn’t such a setback if you remember to save your game. Heh.

X-Com is such a rich and detailed game that I could write pages about all its cool little nuances. Yet it’s almost worth letting new players discover them for themselves. If you haven’t checked out X-Com yet, and you’re interested in strategy or turn-based games, this one is highly recommended, even against today’s modern competition. It is excellent. If you’re not a fan, but find anything about what I wrote interesting, you might want to check this game out anyway. It might just convert you.


The Good

Brilliant, timeless, turn-based strategy game.

The Bad

Unforgivingly tough, even at the easiest level. Will require a real time investment to beat.

One Comment

  1. Mr Creosote says:

    “UFO: Enemy Unknown” in Europe. Not “X-Com”! The obvious inspiration for the game being the TV series “UFO” from 1970…

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