Two legends created by human history have had such unifying vision that any negative review would endanger the reviewer. One is Tupac Shakur; the other is X-COM. For my longevity, Tupac can wait for now while I attempt to explain X-COM’s place in so many “top games” lists, a fact that suggests the game as necessary.
In the distantly past future of 1999, the Earth is invaded by Aliens. Thus, the E-COM, the Extraterrestrial COMbat Unit, forms as the first common human interest since the microwave. The title soon changes to X-COM because it sounds cooler, but the group’s original purpose holds steadfast: by building bases, intercepting alien aircraft, and researching anti-alien technology, X-COM aims to contain the alien threat and eventually bring the fight back to the enemy.
Two games in one: Battlescape and Geoscape
X-COM is most frequently associated with its legendary “Battlescape,” the turn-based module. Here, each unit has a given number of “time units” per turn for you to allocate, from walking and opening doors to shooting and throwing grenades. This is not a revolution — Julian Gollop, the mastermind behind the series, had already courted this idea (which really had root in tactical board games) in Laser Squad and Rebelstar. X-COM, however, is able to penetrate the experience into my dreams, where I’m still haunted by the creaks of doors opening and screams of civilians dying on the Alien turns, under the shroud of darkness that keeps me dreading the next Cyberdisc that could round the corner. Even if I were brave enough that night to be unfazed by cold, humming, unthinking levitators of destruction, the very name of “Chrysallids” still chills my blood, thanks to the night in September 2001 when four or five Chrysallids sauntered into RobertELee-COM, my main base in Virginia, and left it as the setting to the next Resident Evil.
The aliens, similar to their potential in-laws from Neon Genesis Evangelion, attack through channels beyond melee and guns, forcing different strategies to be prescribed for different enemies, as engaging each species on its strength is suicide. As for tactical options, opportunity fire (firing during the opponent’s turn when your “reaction” ability is high and you have movement points left over), different types of fire (a precise “aimed” shot, an instinctual “snap” shot, or a “burst” of inaccurate but numerous bullets), being able to crouch (making the soldier harder to hit and more accurate) and many other such details allow a wide variety of styles and emergent behavior. Occasionally, great stories emerge, such as the LP I’ll mention at the end of the post.
However, Battlescape is not the entire game; the key draw of X-COM is its combination of Battlescape and Geoscape, a city-building/research portion where you build bases, recruit soldiers, and perform research, all while reacting to global UFO activity. I highlight “combination” for a reason—Geoscape is not merely a backdrop to Battlescape, but rather a layer for several important decisions. As the entity who could be directing several battles at once across the planet while naming all of the new recruits “Michael Jordan,” you are still restrained by the very human problem and solution that is money. To balance the monthly budget, some goals must be sacrificed for others: do you want to hire those extra eggheads to start working on new armor from the UFO alloys salvaged from the last fight, or should the money go towards outfitting Aussie-COM so the aliens don’t just stay out of your radar by flying through the Pacific like they always seem to? Putting bases closer to richer countries means more chances to foil alien plans in those areas, leading to more funding from them. Less optimistically, countries can pull out of the program entirely if they’re dissatisfied with your treatment of alien activity in their soil, or if the aliens successfully land an infiltration mission and coerce the leaders to stop funding you.
I dare to say that even if the battles were completely automated, the Geoscape alone could have served as a mediocre, but at least playable, Civilization-wannabe. Battlescape, meanwhile, could easily dress as a mission-based Western Fire Emblem-style game with minimal tweaking. Thus, X-COM really contains two fairly complete games together, instead of using a game-minigame model that many others espouse. The battles in Master of Orion are fun but really an afterthought; the strategic scope of the Panzer General series really only has choices of the sort “mission 16A or 16B?” in each playthrough.
Glue makes the game shine (for sake of my analogy, just assume Shiny Glue exists)
However, X-COM did not stop here—many failed attempts at cross-insemination of games have ended at two complete games that clash for space and attention, creating two-headed giants who would rather have been born separately (in particular, I’m thinking of a game that I really wanted to love, Lords of the Realm II). Not all of these games have been failures—Star Control II is an extremely good example of two fairly good disjoint games masquerading as one good, if not great, game, even having its battle minigame directly accessible from the main menu as a game type—but I hold that X-COM’s highest achievement is inserting quality “glue” between its two parts, breathing life into a chimera of addiction.
What does this glue look like? One example is the base layout: the actual relative spacing of the structures in each base is not only to make the city-building section look like SimCity—when your base gets attacked, the confrontation in Battlescape actually reflects the layout of the rooms, so if you really wanted those grenades in storage, don’t put the storage room so close to the hangar or the access lift (rooms open to the air and thus usable by the aliens as entry points).
The best connection between the two modules, however, is the research mechanic. If an alien leaves a corpse in Battlescape, it can be studied for weaknesses and inspiration for new research in Geoscape. Even better, if it were to be captured alive by stunning damage or gas, it can be interrogated: leaders give away plans, engineers illuminate UFO technology, medics talk about the biology of other races, etc. Alien gadgets are of course confiscated and then studied; eventually your engineers will be able to replicate them, or even combine them with human technology for hybrid weapons and vehicles.
Now, consider what happens in the psyche of the player-addict (yes, you). Geoscape, with a soundtrack teasing ambiguous tension, primes a desire to wait for Battlescape, because then you can advance research and make more gadgets. This means it is almost impossible to end the game in the Geoscape: you’re always waiting — either for that UFO cruiser to land in Japan (so you have an excuse to attack it) or for the laser cannon research to complete so you can put the team on hovertanks. And of course, nobody ever ends a game in the Battlescape: your hand won’t let you, forcing that one last turn to find that one last alien. Put the two together and you have a recursive recipe for addiction that is unreasonably legal while crack is not.
Pretending to be a balanced review
Now, I roast X-COM’s main imperfections. Numerous game-crashing bugs aside (note to new players: save frequently), X-COM takes a curious place in many hearts as one of the games we love but could never (fairly) finish, due to the unscalability of many endgame elements. There will be so many UFOs flying around that even the Battlescape encounters start to dull by the time you’ve seen all the UFO types. Also, after your squad of 8 soldiers turns into an army of 100, you lose the personal connection you had to each Michael Jordan, especially since they all start to look the same in those suits.
The guillotine for a strategy game, however, is the slippery slope that comes with the lack of challenge. By the endgame, the combination of your resources, technology, and incredibly leveled-up soldiers naturally prod you towards a couple of easy strategies that you never need to diverge from (to X-COM veterans: Blaster Launcher. Oh yeah, and Psi-Amp). By then, each mission is really just a chore to work through before the final showdown, one that thankfully offers one last spike of challenge before the mediocre ending.
But seriously now
However, as a long-time X-COM-mando returning to the game once every couple of years, I feel the first half to two-thirds of every campaign is always paced very nicely, with new discoveries emerging at the right intervals to balance the new challenges. Not only that, every time a “favorite game?” discussion comes by, X-COM’s greatness commands me to include it in the discussion, for the same reason Chekhov’s pieces dictate short story lovers to gush over his work.
I end this review by giving a look at my naked mind when I play the game: when I go through an X-COMbinge, I don’t see the sun get up (and then go back down, and then go up again that one time…). I wince when my soldiers are hit, closing my eyes and then hoping they’ll still be standing when I open them, anxiously hoping the team medic is one turn away instead of two. I cheer, sometimes audibly, when my personal favorite in the squad connects that impossible shot into a second-floor window before the alien drops dead. And no, of course I don’t name that favorite soldier after myself and pass the name onto the new favorite each time the old one dies and I finish crying.
Yan Zhang enjoys all games, from Street Fighter to social dynamics to foosball. He believes the most important liquids in the world are water, rooibos, protein shakes, green tea, and Guinness, in that order. He is a born-again Bostonian. His other blogs are Concrete Nonsense and Blue Slate. You can contact Yan at .
What does Earth do after killing the aliens? Kill more aliens, of course. In the official series we have Terror from the Deep and Apocalypse (then Interceptor, but let's not talk about that), and there is an offshoot “spiritual sequel” in the Aftermath, Aftershock, and Afterlight series. Another tribute, UFO: Extraterrestrials, pays homage to X-COM by being fairly faithful to the core game mechanics.
My personal favorite comes from Julian Gollop himself: the Gameboy Advance release Rebelstar Tactical Command, a Japanese-flavored tactical turn-based RPG. It is exactly what I feel Battlescape would have been without Geoscape.
However, as always, there has been a great(er?) indie effort to continue the legend outside of the commercial sphere. UFO2000 is the most complete project, a multiplayer deathmatch remake of Battlescape. Project Xenocide and UFO: Alien Invasion are other fan-projects in the traditional X-COM setting.
UfoPedia is the most complete resource on the game itself.
A great way to live or to relive a game is to read a good LP (“Let's Play”), and this one is absolutely incredible, recommended for either a newcomer or a fanatic.
Know of any relevant "further reading" links not listed here? Please let me know.
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