X-COM: UFO Defense (PC) review
"The forever-set benchmark of Turn Based Strategy"
Jimmy was never destined for greatness. His stereotypical deep-South accent was eclipsed only by his bucktoothed grin and general sense of inbreeding and his idea of a good time was a riveting afternoon plucking away discordantly on his banjo while sitting inside his Alabama-style wooden hut while snatching quick, ogling glances at his sister. To Jimmy, the word “hygiene” was a greeting, and books were merely toilet paper substitutes.
This all changed when he was abducted by aliens.
Jimmy wasn't really surprised when a squat, grey figure with a bulbous head and dark almond eyes showed up one day and spirited him away to a sleek, silver-hued elongated ellipsoidal; after all, many of his friends and neighbours had told him at length about their experiences with such beings. What did shock him was the lack of 'probing' that, if his information was correct, should have been something along the lines of that time Uncle Jed got wasted on moonshine and took him camping in the woods behind their cabin. Rather, he was dismembered at the webbed claws of his intergalactic kidnappers, and his DNA spliced to an alien foetus.
What was left of Jimmy got the chance to revisit his quaint backwoods town again shortly after. A slack-jawed yokel made some passing comment on how he'd told the government them thar aliens where setting up to invade, but he was sliced gorily in half midway through his sentence by a wave of plasma fire. Jimmy, now lacking any form of sentience, was little more than a throwaway solider, a fearsome mess of piled flesh sculpted into a remote-control zombie with a gun. By coincidence, what he did to Uncle Jed was far worse than the old drunk’s previous crime. I mean, heads just shouldn't explode like that.
Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that Jimmy suffered alone in his atrocious fate; throughout the world people mysteriously disappeared, and small villages mercilessly wiped off the map. Despite its general incompetence, even the world’s governments had to finally acknowledge that the impossible was happening: extraterrestrial encroachment was well underway. But, by then, the unworldly hordes had been busy covertly harvesting humans and using their DNA codes to swell their ranks. Droves of intergalactic terrorists swarmed the globe in sudden, stealthy attacks, adding to their stock of humans as if building a collection of purloined cattle, their numerous disc-shaped vessels a common sight in the night sky. After a few entanglements, it was discovered that their advanced technology was too much for the military alone to deal with.
To combat the threat, it was decided that a team of the most elite Special Ops personnel would be combined with an enormous supporting team of scientists, technicians, and the best military facilities available. This new establishment would be primarily responsible for defeating the would-be invading overlords; they were to fight back the alien menace, and in doing so they’d procure information on their advanced weaponry, their vastly superior crafts, and the scaly cretins themselves. This fresh institution would be funded by the world’s powers, their monthly payments augmented by funds generated through research and development. They were to be known as X-Com.
This is where you come in.
There will be no Sigourney Weaver armed with a loading suit for this one. Will Smith can keep his dark suits and audience-friendly rapping in the cupboard in this instance. Arnold needs not bother trekking through jungle vegetation, and Bill Pullman won’t have to worry about going anywhere near an F-19. No, today's alien invasion will be dealt with the old-fashioned way -- with wave after wave of troops, all under your command.
Choosing the location of your first HQ will be the initial choice you make. This base (and all subsequent ones) serves as a platform for all your out-of-combat activities; it is here that first-time players will first be struck by the enormity of the game. You see, in X-Com, fighting off the alien menace is much more involving than simply throwing artillery fire at them until they go away. You'll have to combine fighting with micromanagement that has you establishing these sorts of bases throughout the globe, each with certain needs and uses. You need housing for your staff, weapons for your marines, and labs for you scientists, to name just a few. Each and every bullet fired by your troops will need to be supplied by you; every order issued to your technicians will be given by you.
Sounds daunting, I agree. But by the time one of your base's radar systems picks up its first UFO sighting and sends out a custom-equipped fighter jet to do combat, you're hooked. These duels are played out on a radar screen where you choose the aggressiveness of your plane’s commitment; taking a defensive stance by hanging back at the edge of your weapon’s range or being more aggressive and blasting the UFO point-blank. Either craft can pull out of the battle anytime it wishes, but most often these encounters end with either the UFO crashing or your fighter destroyed. Top Gun reincarnate it's not, but it does place great emphasis on the arming and upgrading of your fighters. If you want to score big, you're going to need the best hardware available.
And if you're feeling that, you'd be even more pumped when your personal carrier full of armed-to-the-teeth marines is dispatched to deal with the possible wreckage -- and to eliminate any alien life that may remain. This is where the main attraction of the game will always lie: going head-to-head with the little green men.
Combat dynamics play out in a turn-based fashion, similar to that of titles such as Shining Force and Fire Emblem. However, things are more in-depth than in either, and strategy plays a far bigger role.
When you first venture out from your craft, you discover that the area surrounding your transport is blacked out. The only way to uncover more of the map is to explore, which means that you only see what your troops can see. Of course, knowing this, the otherworldly opposition takes every chance to conceal itself from your sight, hiding in buildings, behind scenery, and within the wreckage of its downed craft. The crafty little buggers will often sucker you into the open where they can (and will) attempt to reap on you greater slaughter than General Custer could ever have dreamed of. That isn't to say, however, that they’re granted with any locating abilities you’re not; they're just as blind as you are and equally prone to being snuck up on. In this case, nothing says "Welcome to Earth" more than being shot in the back of the head.
Another touch that places X-Com above other standard turn-based strategies is the time units system. Every step you make, every shot you fire, and even every time you spin your troops around to face in a new direction eats away at your marines’ allocated time units. You'll need to keep this in mind when exploring hostile territory; there's nothing worse than rounding a corner to find an alien who is unaware of your presence and not having enough units to mow it down where it stands.
Happily, the game does what it can to help you avoid such catastrophic circumstances by allowing you to reserve the time units needed for any of the three differing methods of attacking. These abilities include a quick shot that eats less time units by sacrificing accuracy, a steadied shot that will take quite the sizeable bite from your time reservoir, or, if your firearm is capable, a spray of bullets that rattles off three consecutive shots at a low hit percentage for when you absolutely, positively need to spray the area with carnage.
Allowing you to take shots at any aliens you may find on you travels is not the only thing reserving time units does for you; it also gives you the chance to blast away any foolhardy invaders that may stray into your line of sight during their turn. Let’s say that you have troops camped outside a crashed UFO, each of them with enough units left for a shot when you end your turn. Come the enemy movement stage, a hostile pokes its extraterrestrial head out of the door. What follows is reflex firing from not only your troops, but also the target itself. Individual soldiers unleash a torrent of firepower on the enemy, their order determined by the reflex stat, until it’s killed. Of course, should the alien have the better reflexes, the first shot would belong to it. Particularly unwary campers could find that instead of dodging plasma beams, they face a grenade that'd been lobbed into their formation -- but the resulting explosion would ensure they wouldn't have to worry about it for long.
Whereas your main offensive capabilities consist of the wide selection of firearms you can wield, you are certainly not limited to them, as the grenade reference suggests. Not only can you swap your rifle for the game’s equivalent of a chain-gun, but you can also load it up with explosive or heat-expansive ammo. Not enough? Perhaps slugging a rocket launcher over the shoulder of a designated heavy weapons specialist will bring a twisted smirk of joy to your lips.
Away from firearms, you, too, can lob grenades at any target that has taken to ground -- but you have more toys still to play with. You can place strategic flares to light up dark corners, and you can even plant timed demolition packs or motion-sensitive explosives to try to catch foes creeping around your perimeter. Maybe you'd rather use a few smoke grenades to cover your retreat or use them to set up a stinging attack on your temporarily blinded enemies, relying on a motion tracker to pinpoint your targets in the dense artificial fog. You can do all this and more, such as employing remote-controlled mini-tanks armed with the most destructive armourments you can graft on the their sturdy metallic frames. And you'll need every bit of it, because no matter how well you arm yourself up, the invading forces will have the upper hand. Their technology is well beyond your current reach...
Something will have to be done about that.
Your alien chums will always manage to give you a lot to worry about, such as their much larger force and enormously superior weaponry. Sadly, plasma cannons that make your initial assault rifle look like last season’s outdated super soaker isn't the only threat they present; they can also assault you on a psionic level, an ability that allows them to mine their way into the very depths of the human subconscious. This may result in the affected marine panicking, either dropping his weapon and running for cover or spraying the area with a panicked wave of gunfire. In a worst case scenario, the alien can take control of its new puppet, effectively gaining a weapon already planted within your midst. The only way to claw yourself up to an equal playing field is to learn what you can from your visitors and turn their own methods against them.
Once you clear the hostiles from a crash site, it's time for your non-combat teams to move in and remove anything of use from the former battleground. With the correct research on these claimed artifacts, your troops will be able to handle the very weapons that have hitherto been used against them. Not only that, but learning about the newer strains of alien technology will help improve every aspect of your war efforts. Remember the earlier mention of your inferior aerial abilities? Perhaps grafting a few components from their own crafts will help even the score. When you gain enough knowledge and alien-manufactured materials, you can even fashion a UFO-jetfighter hybrid that combines the strengths of both models. Who's laughing now? Certainly not the invaders, who now find their own weaponry leveled right back at them.
Even they themselves are not safe from your scientists, who will also take a scalpel to any corpses that are left decomposing in a puddle of whatever passes for blood on their planet. Learn the secrets of psionic use from the creepy Ethereals, withered aliens who depend mainly on their telepathic powers in battle, or the weakness of the sinister Cryssalids, crab-like creatures that don't need weapons of a conventional method; they prefer to plant parasites into unsuspecting human hosts, turning them into zombies who turn on their former allies. Doing the wet-work on these corpses will not only teach you more about the army you battle against, but it’ll also uncover more theories and ideas you can research. By the time you have constructed a containment unit in one of your bases, you will be able to store any live aliens you may have captured and interrogate them.
Of course, waging global war isn't cheap, and if you're going to be successful, you're going to need a constant, steady cash flow. While you can sell unneeded alien artifacts for a little extra currency, most of your money comes from the funding you receive for keeping the world’s governments happy. Doing a good job of defending a major country’s borders will result in more funding being put your way, but dissatisfaction might not only lead to a decrease -- should you continue to disappoint, countrys may sign pacts with the invaders themselves. And not just the untrustworthy countries like France, either; any government at any point might decide that their odds would be better if they sided against you. If all governments turn their collective backs on you, the visitors win. Or, in the famous words of another marine who once waged war against hostile aliens: game over, man.
With all these elements present, it would have been easy for X-Com to have become a random jumble of the game, but it manages to merge all these differing aspects together credibly. Watching your troops start out as a bunch of green rookies with simplistic rifles to grow into excessively-armoured behemoths, equal in weaponry and skills to their opposition, is only accessible by excelling in every aspect that X-Com has to offer. Perhaps you'll start the game cautiously sniping away at the vulnerable Floaters that might’ve staged a terror attack on one of the world’s capitals, but with a little time, you'll be confidently trading shots with mighty Cyberdisks after infiltrating an alien encampment.
X-Com gives you quite the daunting task to undertake in saving the entire world from invasion. But despite the many challenges it presents, playing it is an enormously rewarding experience that, even in the day and age of such hugely superior technology, has yet to be truly replicated.
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