X-COM: UFO Defense (PC) review
"Note: This game was originally titled UFO: Enemy Unknown and is also known as X-COM: UFO Defense in the United States. As the series progressed, the title X-COM: Enemy Unknown became more prevalent and is consistently used throughout this review. "
Note: This game was originally titled UFO: Enemy Unknown and is also known as X-COM: UFO Defense in the United States. As the series progressed, the title X-COM: Enemy Unknown became more prevalent and is consistently used throughout this review.
ALIEN invasion was a common theme of popular culture in the 1990s. TV hits such as the X-Files encouraged people to believe in shadowy agencies dealing with alien threats.
PC gaming was quick to cotton on to the rich potential of such an idea, and one game in particular still has a strong following today - X-COM: Enemy Unknown, which also owes a large inspirational debt to Gerry Anderson’s live-action TV series, UFO.
The game set a new bar for tactical, squad-based gaming that some say has never been surpassed. Even today thousands play this game, and there are numerous fansites, third-party addons and patches available to enhance the experience.
X-COM’s roots lie in creator Julian Gollop’s earlier turn-based squad combat games, the first of which was Rebelstar Raiders, released in 1984 on the ZX Spectrum. This primitive title, mostly written in BASIC, was gradually refined and expanded over the years, achieving noteworthy critical and commercial success with Laser Squad which appeared on numerous formats during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The principles of combat remained constant from these early days - players would control a squad of soldiers individually, who were allotted “action points” to spend on activities such as moving or shooting. Ingeniously, the game also allowed players to save those points to shoot at their enemies during THEIR turn.
Following the success of Laser Squad, Gollop was touting a demo for a proposed sequel to possible publishers. Several publishers were interested and eventually a deal was reached with Microprose - home of the renowned Sid Meier, creator of Civilization, Pirates! and many serious, detailed war simulation games with impressively thick manuals.
Microprose liked Gollop’s combat engine, which at the time supported two-player action, but wanted more strategic depth to go along with the tactical action. Gollop responded by incorporating features from other big strategy titles of the day, to add new game modes which would complement the fighting and create room for long-term planning.
The concept evolved - now, the player would be in the role of supreme commander of the EXtraterrestrial COMbat Unit- X-COM, founded to respond to the invasion of Earth by hostile aliens armed with overwhelmingly superior technology.
The revised design adds a base management system which allows players to construct bases, develop an economy and manufacture items for sale or use, research captured alien technology via a system very similar to Civilization’s technology tree, train and equip troops, and more. In addition to the tactical squad-based combat and base management modes is the Geoscape - a 3D representation of Earth, showing UFOs and other alien activity detected as well as allowing you to order your own craft to intercept aliens or travel to sites of interest, such as crash sites or locations where the ETs had landed.
The Geoscape also provides access to a wealth of statistical information on what your sponsoring governments think of your current progress and the UFOPedia - a store of all the information you had gathered on the alien invaders. You can also study graphs showing where the hotspots of alien activity are and your main sponsors- very helpful for deciding where to build new bases.
However, the finest human technology is obsolete in this war. It soon becomes apparent that you will be fighting a guerilla campaign against an invader with superior weaponry and limitless numbers. What you must do is pick off weaker targets and capture their technology, so that your scientists can research it and turn it against your foes.
And that is where the game’s genius lies: Initially, your forces are pathetically outmatched and will be cut to pieces by the plasma-firing ray guns of the aliens. But gradually you learn how to fight back, taking those same weapons you have learned to hate and going out for revenge.
The game becomes an arms race of sorts - in your first few battles, you may find yourself hard-pressed to deal with a small band of the iconic “Grey” aliens, but the alien threat constantly evolves, with new foes, tactics and weapons being brought into the battle. Meanwhile, X-COM must keep up to ensure the upper-hand and be able to contain the enemy.
Failure to check the hostile advance, allowing the alien to establish bases, terrorize civilians and infiltrate governments will result in your funding nations becoming displeased with X-COM’s efforts, either reducing their levels of sponsorship or even signing treaties with the aliens, terminating their support of your campaign altogether. You are also given a rating, which is influenced but not entirely based on your performance in combat missions, at the end of each in-game month, which assesses how effective X-COM has been across the world. Perform poorly for too long and X-COM will be terminated, which means “game over” for you - and the human race.
In short, the scope of the game is tremendous. The player has control of virtually everything, from purchasing upgrades and setting up bases to ordering each and every gunshot. This depth really makes you feel like the fate of the world is in your hands.
Manouevering your forces around 3D isometric Battlescape, used for all troop combat, is a tense experience. The line-of-sight mechanics means it is entirely possible the aliens will see (and shoot) you before you can see them. And because the game is turn-based, you can often find yourself with units exposed to a threat you haven’t managed to take out - meaning you have no option but to pray helplessly.
One very nice feature is that all terrain is destructible. You can completely change the appearance of a battlefield - blowing up buildings, burning fields, even blasting through the hull of a spaceship. This opens up a whole slew of tactical options involving cover versus high explosives, even though the game physics do occasionally leave something to be desired (for instance, you can blow up all four walls of a farmhouse and marvel as the roof remains unsupported in mid-air).
The feeling when you get to try out some new piece of technology is wonderfully rewarding - there are some marvellous weapons and items waiting to be discovered, some of which completely change the gameplay.
The graphics, of course, are pretty naff - they weren’t all that good even in 1993. Sound is also simplistic, but effective in creating a tense atmosphere that perfectly complements the gameplay.
The visuals are simple sprites and comic book-like static bitmaps. Nothing to write home about, though it is easy enough to tell what everything is. Fortunately every soldier you control has a name and rank, so you find yourself becoming attached to your troops. You can even rename them, which helps as an aide-memoir when it comes to assigning them specialist roles.
The game can also seem very slow at times – especially in Battlescape missions where you find yourself hunting that one last enemy. But this also builds tension.
You will find yourself exploring the battlefield, when suddenly an alien will take out one of your troops with reaction fire (saved time units), which invariably evokes a response of “Oh crap! Where'd that come from!?” Suddenly you have to make calculated guesses about enemy positions and the feeling of danger when approaching an unidentified enemy is superb.
It sounds mad to say it, but this ancient, turn-based game actually manages to be scary at times!
I first encountered X-COM on my PlayStation back in 1995. It seemed so incongruous compared to the rest of the machine's lineup, with a brilliant premise, and I felt compelled to pick it up. For the first few hours, I was bamboozled by the game's complexity and icon-driven interface. But then, when I was on the brink of giving up, it clicked. Dear God did it ever click!
X-COM became an obsession from that point onwards, and ruled my gaming life for months on end. And now, 14 years since I first played it, I picked it up again and discovered I still love it as much now as I did then. If that doesn’t deserve a perfect rating nothing ever will.
Community review by Doomy (August 21, 2009)
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