X-COM: UFO Defense Review

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To call this one a "good" game would be the understatement of the century. It's a timeless classic, to this day beating the best modern strategy offerings from the last 10 years, and - believe me - this isn't nostalgia talking. Today, in 2005, the biggest obstacle to playing this game is NOT its dated graphics, but (a) finding a (legal) version of this game and (b) getting it to work under the current generation of Windows. Still, that's no excuse: Windows 98/ME works well with the DOS version of the game (which you should be able to find on eBay, etc.), as does the Windows XP emulation mode (just get DMSound for the Sound Blaster effects and music.) In addition, a much more robust Windows XP version also exists; search around, as I did. The fact that I went to such troubles to play X-COM in 2005 should tell you something: this game is equal to the likes of Red Alert, StarCraft, and Civilization, some of the greatest strategy games ever.

It's a timeless classic, to this day beating the best modern strategy offerings from the last 10 years.

GAMEPLAY
Here's the setup. It's 1999, and UFO sightings (of the classic variety) have become common. Aliens are starting to routinely land in major cities, infiltrate governments, and destroy the population. There's no hope of living in peaceful coexistence; these guys don't care about anything but colonization, and they don't exactly speak "human", either. These aliens are of the Roswell 1947 variety - mysterious, deadly, psionically enhanced. No single world government stands a chance of fighting their superior technology. This is where you come in: the U.N. has created a project named X-COM, whose only purpose is to put an end to the alien onslaught. You are the commander.

This is what you want to avoid.

The gameplay is innovatively structured in a two-fold manner. Normally, you play with a 3D view of Earth (you can spin it around, zoom in to see city and country notations, etc.) You start the game with a base in a location of your choosing, and a certain amount of funds. In this Geoscape mode, you'll be able to look at a 2D plan of your base, add facilities to it, manufacture the technology you already know (in the beginning, things like conventional fighter planes, rifles, and grenades), research new technology, manage funds, etc. Surprisingly, none of this ever seems boring. In addition, you'll be supplied with a couple of hangars (on your base), an Interceptor (an F-15-type air-to-air fighter), and a Skyranger (an aerial transport for your troops).

There's nothing like thinking you're safe, only to turn around and find a friendly old Sectoid standing with his plasma pistol pointing right at your face.

This is where the action-packed second part of the game comes in. Sooner rather than later, you'll see UFOs going about their business in the Geoscape view. You'll see one land, for instance, if you don't use your Interceptor to shoot it down first. You can then use the Skyranger full of soldiers to scour the landing or crash site. Here's where the game becomes truly exciting and creepy - the tactical mode. The action is turn-based, presented from a 2.5D isometric perspective. Each of your soldiers has his own set of strengths and weaknesses, which seem randomly determined at the time the soldier is hired, including his speed (the number of time units per turn before the soldier is unable to perform any more actions). Soldiers move through realistic terrain (determined by where on Earth the action takes place), possibly encountering aliens or alien technology. When a soldier meets an alien, he'll have the opportunity to shoot it or take it alive, a choice determined by proximity and the kind of weapon you have equipped. Depending on the weapon and the kind of shot (aimed, snap, or automatic) you're willing to take, your soldier may or may not miss. In the beginning of the game, both the weapons available and the lack of experience in your men/women will amount to some lousy shooting. The aliens, on the other hand, come out of nowhere and seem not to miss all that much by comparison (not to mention that they have fancy plasma weapons, whereas you're stuck with silly assault rifles). This really adds to the terror of the first few missions, as you really begin to hate your enemy - once a soldier is dead, he or she will never return. In addition, you don't see the 3D terrain until you've actually looked at it, and even if you can see the terrain, you'll only see enemy units there if you're looking in that direction. There's nothing like thinking you're safe, only to turn around and find a friendly old Sectoid standing with his plasma pistol pointing right at your face. This is not only tense and exciting, but also realistic.

A small crashed UFO, seen in tactical combat mode.
And speaking of Sectoids, they're the aliens you'll encounter first, but far from the only ones. I counted 6 major races, not including the various alien blobs. Particularly freaky are the Chryssalids. Get this: They attack civilians and your soldiers, who immediately become zombies. Kill a zombie and what do you get? A Chryssalid! They're fast, too - and probably constitute my favorite game enemy out of all the games I've ever played. By contrast, the Grim Reaper look-alike Ethereals don't really pack a punch, but they look creepy and they can control your soldiers' minds , making them kill off everyone around them. The aliens are already a pain in the butt, but just as I thought I'd figured them out, along came all the psionic races to make me reconsider my tactics.

If you doubt the veracity of my gushing, just wait until you start looking cautiously for Chryssalid zombies around every corner. In real life.

Once the mission is completed successfully, your soldiers automatically collect all the corpses and technology - and possibly unconscious aliens - that were not destroyed. The X-COM scientists can then study this stuff, improving the available technology and gaining information about the weird ways of the aliens. (All this stuff is conveniently stored away in an encyclopedia of sorts, which one can access at any time.) Eventually, you'll duplicate the aliens' capabilities in all areas of your operations, and even surpass them in certain ways. Engineers can then be trained to manufacture the technology you've gained. You'll soon be making laser and plasma weapons, advanced defense facilities for your base(s), and even new, advanced ships (including space-capable ships!). All of this stuff is intensely cool, and helps greatly in dealing with the aliens. The alien research will also explain the various mysteries of the alien way of life, including how they infiltrate governments, what they do to kick back and relax (one word: drugs), and much more. In fact, you'll eventually understand what each individual UFO is trying to do when it invades Earth space; believe me, these guys have a plan, even if doesn't seem like it at first glance. Overall, it's silly to give this game's timeless gameplay anything other than a perfect 10. If you doubt the veracity of my gushing, just wait until you start looking cautiously for Chryssalid zombies around every corner. In real life.

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
The graphics are a little hard to evaluate today in 2005, but I promise to rate by today's standards, not those of over 11 years ago, when the game was released. Certainly the low-res VGA graphics don't look impressive by today's standards. But, they are still artfully done and very menacing. The way the mission terrain is randomly - but realistically! - generated based on the mission's location in the globe (desert, forest, steppe, arctic, etc.) is impressive. The time of day also plays a large role. Night missions are considerably more difficult than daylight ones. The insides of UFOs and alien bases also look convincing within the game's very limited (by today's standards) technology. The aliens are incredibly freaky-looking, and there are all different kinds of aliens. The human soldiers are rather faceless, however. The game's user interface looks good, with its Japanese manga-inspired background. Technically speaking, I don't remember any strategy games that looked better in 1993, and I would have given it a 9 back in the day, but it's unreasonable to give this game anything higher than a 3 out of 10 today.
This Earth-based plane is no match for alien craft.

The sound is fairly average. The music is rather quiet and truly kicks in only in certain situations (in missions, it's mostly composed of ambient sounds). Only the air-to-air sequences really have any energetic music, which is good, but insignificant. I wish more had been done with music in this game. Sound effects are minimalistic but could be chilling back in the day (particularly when a female soldier is killed). The sound wasn't a strength for this game even in 1993, so I'm forced to give this a 2/10.

REPLAY VALUE
The game has unparalleled replay value. It's definitely quite difficult until you figure out the correct battle tactics and the most efficient resource policies. You'll learn to attack in groups of 3 or 4, to crouch behind cover, and to sell expensive alien technology at a profit. You'll also learn to research aggressively, and to build new bases to cover more area (after all, countries you're not serving appropriately will lower, or even drop, funding - eventually, the game ends if enough countries are unhappy). Every mission is different from the next, so you're not likely to run into repetitious gameplay. The aliens themselves mix it up, throwing attacks ranging from recon to terrorizing major population centers to attacking X-COM's bases, if they can find them. And while it will be difficult, you'll be able to beat the game - even without finding all the available technology. This means the replays will let you explore further (for instance, you will be able to get your hands on psionic technology to control the enemy!). In addition, there are five difficulty levels, and the most difficult level is definitely doable once you've gotten good. In fact, once you've mastered the game, you'll realize that the aliens aren't all that scary; their strengths, which are their superior weapons and psionic abilities, are balanced by the fact that (a) humans can be a lot smarter, and (b) the aliens just can't aim very well. But good luck getting to that point.

X-COM: UFO Defense is truly unsurpassed in its genre, despite its inferior technology and numerous sequels.

LIKE FINE AGED WINE
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about X-COM is how well it has aged compared to similar landmark games in other genres. X-COM more or less invented tactical turn-based combat, just like Westwood's Dune II more or less invented real-time strategy, and just like Wolfenstein 3D came up with first-person shooters. Now, be honest: Is Dune II really better than newer games like Rome : Total War or StarCraft, or even classics like Warcraft II and Command & Conquer? How about Wolfenstein 3D compared to Half-Life or Half-Life 2? That's what I thought. But X-COM: UFO Defense is still truly unsurpassed in its genre, despite its inferior technology and numerous sequels. And that makes it an absolute homerun of a game. 9.6/10.

Your soldiers will greatly improve with practice.
A balanced base is critical to your long-term success.
A good commander can see long-term trends.

Pros:

- two totally different gameplay styles

- innovative, realistic tactical squad gameplay

- strategic resource management is deep

- no mission is like another

- imaginative enemy design

- challenging but rewarding

- completely unparalleled replay value

Cons:

- extremely dated graphics technology

- somewhat difficult to find a copy


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