4 Feb

The X-COM Series

Filed under: PC Games 3 Responses

Stepping out of the transport is usually one of the most dangerous moments in the game for your soldiers.

Steam had the entire X-COM collection on sale for a measly US$2 over the weekend and I bought it despite knowing that I most likely will not make a serious effort at actually playing any of the five games in the collection. This is because the first, and widely considered the best, game in the series, UFO: Enemy Unknown (the names are a bit confusing because the games were sold as UFO in the UK but X-COM in the US) was first released in 1994. This means that I first played it when I was 18 years old, and darn if I don’t still remember it as one of my best gaming experiences ever.

Sixteen years later while the core gameplay is as good as ever, the graphics are a muddy mess and most importantly, user interfaces have improved by leaps and bounds since then. This is why as much as I love the game, it’s hard to replay it now. While I can just about stomach the graphics, it’s too much work nowadays to do trivial stuff like manage the inventory levels of your soldiers’ ammunition, to flip between different screens to manufacture stuff and look up their stats etc. The game seriously needs streamlined management screens, right-click mouse functionality and lots of mouse-over tool-tips.

For those who don’t know why this game is so great, here’s an overview. Earth is being invaded by extraterrestrials and the various governments have banded together to create a global organization, known as X-COM to fight this threat. This means that they contribute money every month to the operating budget of X-COM. As the director, you’re supposed to use that money as you see fit to keep Earth safe. This means building bases all around the world and equipping them with interceptors to take down UFOs, hiring soldiers who will go investigate landed and crashed UFOs to retrieve valuable artifacts, hiring scientists to research the aliens’ technology and engineers to build useful stuff using that technology.

Whether in the first or second game, building your first base in or near the US is a good idea simply because it pays so much of your budget.

The game is played in two modes. In the Geoscape mode, you have a model of Earth and can plan your strategic moves on it. Whenever one of your bases detects alien activity, you have the opportunity to send your forces against it. All this is quite involved, as all of your bases have limited storage space for equipment and personnel. You also need to manually manage your equipment inventories to make sure that your soldiers have enough ammunition of the appropriate types and that your interceptors are armed with missiles. This is also where you assign your engineers and scientists to various projects. At the end of the month, the various governments give you money based on how well you’ve done. If you fail to prevent the aliens from infiltrating national governments, they will eventually become allies of the aliens and stop giving you money.

The second mode is used when your soldiers engage with the aliens. This can be when they send them to investigate a crashed alien ship, when you’re responding to an alien terror attack on a human city or when the aliens get upset enough with X-COM to directly assault one of your bases. In this mode, you directly control your soldiers in a turn-based tactical battle. Each soldier has stats such as accuracy, which determines how accurately they shoot, time units, which determines how far they can move in a round, and stamina, how much damage they can take etc. All the information that you get in this mode is directly derived from what your soldiers can see. So if an alien is sneaking up behind one of your soldiers, you won’t see it until it’s too late.

The game is notorious for being fiendishly difficult especially at the beginning when your soldiers are inexperienced and must rely on human technology. At this stage even a single hit from an alien weapon will instantly kill any of your soldiers so it’s a good idea not to get too attached to any of them. You also have too little money at first to build a network of bases that can cover the whole planet and must concede that some countries will inevitably be lost to the aliens. Later, the odds are evened a bit as your soldiers become more experienced and you build new gear using alien technology. Be warned however that the aliens will up the ante as well by sending more varieties of aliens and even make use of their dreaded mind control powers on your soldiers.

Yes, you can perform autopsies on corpses of aliens brought back to base. Just don’t tell Mulder and Scully.

This sense of progress and escalation is what makes the game so good. You go from automatic rifles and fighter jets to plasma cannons and advanced space-worthy craft as your scientists and engineers toil to understand and exploit the alien technology. To win the game, you need to collect the corpses of the different varieties of aliens to perform research on them and eventually need to capture live specimens to interrogate as well. I won’t spoil the ending for you but I will say that it involves a suitably epic mission that can only be performed after reaching the apex of alien technology and capturing high-ranking alien commanders alive.

The sequel, Terror from the Deep, was a bit of a let-down and I didn’t spend much time with it. It was made by the same team but was a complete rehash of the first game with the only change being that everything now takes place underwater as the aliens have changed tactics and started attacking Earth from the beneath the oceans. It was in fact such a rush job that basically every object and alien in the original was simply converted to an undersea equivalent. I understand that it’s quite a bit harder than the original however.

The third game, Apocalypse, was more original in that this time X-Com is charged with defending a single metropolis instead of the whole world. This put you in a living city, so if you bought a shipment of missiles from an arms manufacturer, you’ll actually see the vehicle leave the manufacturer’s factory and make its way towards your headquarters. The tactical portion of the was changed to real-time however and while you could still enable a turn-based mode, most gamers thought it was inferior to that in previous versions.

Over the years other companies have tried to make unofficial sequels as well but the general consensus is that they’re missing the magic of the original. Many of them change key mechanics or lack important features, such as the fully destructible battlefield. The Holy Grail remains a graphically updated game with better UI but everything else left unchanged. Hopefully once everyone sees how many sales a 16-year old game can generate, someone will be willing to put up the money to make that happen.

Written on February 4 2010 and is filed under PC Games. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “The X-COM Series”

Deimos Tel`Arin

hey, i bought the x-com complete pack off steam too!

played x-com: ufo defense on my old laptop (p4 1.6ghz 256mb ddr1 ram) during chinese new year holidays at kampung lol

well, yeah the controls are … not friendly but the game play is still awesome! 😀

i had to hack my soldiers’ stats though.


Yeah, I noticed you playing it on Steam. I didn’t think anyone would be dedicated to playing it so much though because of the interface and how ugly it looks on modern high-resolution screens. One of these days I should try out one of the portable versions.

Deimos Tel`Arin

ah? you are in my steam friend list liao? what is your user name oh?

oh, i was playing it in windowed mode, looks awesome to me!

kinda feels like some complex flash game lol

press alt – tab to play it in windowed mode. much better. 😀

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