Low-Rez Recollections: X-Com

Such a minimalist box cover, isn’t it? It’s like the company wasn’t even trying to market their game. It reminds me of those cheap ass modern movie poster campaigns where all they do is show you some weird logo on a black background, with a website address off in one corner. What kind of arrogant idiots would dare to ship off a brand new, unproven franchise with this representing their spot on the game store shelf?

Oh, MicroProse. Sold.

You may not understand, although I think I might have touched on this phenomenon in the beginning of my article on the Civilization series. These are the guys who produced some of the best, smartest, most innovative strategy titles of the 1980s and early 1990s, particularly anything with Sid Meier’s name attached. By the time 1993 rolled around it didn’t even really matter that his name wasn’t on X-Com, I snapped that sucker up in all its 3.5″ floppy disk glory, loaded it onto my PC, and was treated to one of the most bitchin’ opening cutscenes ever created. I remember every time a friend came to visit who hadn’t seen it, I had to show them this shit–it was that cool.

Okay, it was cool for 1993… and remember, this was also back when the big anime craze had yet to hit North America full force, so I hadn’t seen hair like that except in Street Fighter 2. Even though the graphics and sound are very outdated, I still think there’s a great sense of pacing to this, not to mention how it gets you excited to kick a little alien butt.

That said, the rock ’em, sock ’em style of gameplay depicted would exist only in our imaginations… but for PC gaming of that era, we really didn’t mind. Box art never matched the contents and the whole idea of “grabber” openings was still in its infancy.

I can say at least that I didn’t mind. I love turn-based strategy. I like to take my time and think, not scrabble and twitch, and the death of computer turn-based strategy gaming in favor of “real-time” is something I mourn to this day. The original X-Com was one of the last great turn-based games, particularly where something like small unit tactics was concerned. It’s not to say I despise all RTS, since I enjoyed certain exceptions like Starcraft or Myth: The Fallen Lords, but nothing makes me happier than a game where I have the opportunity to sit back, rub my chin, and carefully consider what I’m going to do next. If I still followed sports, baseball would continue to be my pick.

Stop that, you damn kids.

The heart of X-Com was a turn-based small unit tactics simulator, but it didn’t just stop there, you had a lot more to manage if you were going to successfully defend the human race. And in order to do so (you damn kids), you had to actually crack open the thick manual provided with the game and read it. There was no tutorial level or hand-holding, you started the game, chose a location for your first base on a globe of Earth, and the clock started ticking. This part of the game was not turn-based. If you opened up one of the management screens then time would pause, but otherwise the clock moved forwards, and every second that passed meant an alien threat might appear. Behold the Geoscape:

You have to protect all of that. Somehow.

Even worse than the threats that appear, though, are the ones that don’t. You see, in the beginning you get one base with a very basic allotment of living quarters, radar detection, and a couple of hangars for your fighter-interceptors and assault transport. Your radar has a limited range, meaning any alien craft that appear in the night skies outside that range will go about its ominous business in the nations of the world without you even knowing, much less being able to do anything about it.

This is bad. Did you notice that button on the Geoscape labeled ‘FUNDING’? Let me quote the story introduction from the original manual:

It is the year 1999. Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) have started appearing with disturbing regularity in the night skies. Reports of violent human abductions and horrific experimentation has struck terror into the hearts of millions. Mass public hysteria has only served to expose Earth’s impotence against a vastly superior technology.

Many countries have attempted to deal independently with the aliens. In August 1998, Japan established an anti-alien combat force; the Kiryu-Kai. Equipped with Japanese-made fighter aircraft, the Kiryu-Kai certainly looked like a powerful force. However, after 5 months of expensive operations they had yet to intercept their first UFO. The lesson was clear: this was a worldwide problem which could not be dealt with by individual countries.

On December 11, 1998, representatives from the world’s most economically powerful countries gathered secretly in Geneva. After much debate, the decision was made to establish a covert independent body to combat, investigate and defeat the alien threat. This organization would be equipped with the world’s finest pilots, soldiers, scientists and engineers, working together as one multi-national force.

This organization was named the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit.

Basically, open up that funding window and you see a list of the nations signed on to the X-Com project, along with their monthly contribution to your coffers. The United States was by far the biggest, but countries all across the globe were signed on for this, and they’re all hoping to see some bang for their buck. Lack of response to alien activity in their backyards makes them unhappy, and they’ll decrease funding. Make them too unhappy and they might sign an appeasement pact with the alien forces, withdrawing funding altogether.

If that happens with the United States, you might as well restart the game, but any country pulling out hurts. This is a secret war, with no particular agenda at the beginning except investigation and defense. In the beginning you’re pretty much in the dark, and doing the best you can with the money you have to establish bases, outfit those bases, recruit scientists and soldiers, and respond to alien activity as much as feasibly possible to keep the nations convinced X-Com is a good idea worth devoting large portions of their GNP towards.

While this may all sound like a lot of crap to deal with on top of fighting aliens, it actually adds a great deal of immersion to the experience. Recruitment takes time. Research takes time. Building bases takes time. And while your first base almost certainly is advisable to drop somewhere around Minnesota where you can cover as much of North America as possible in your radar sweep, you’re going to eventually need to establish more because you don’t want to leave any corner of the globe occupied by your funding nations helpless. But at the same time, you have limits, and that’s why it makes sense from a purely economic standpoint to keep the United States (by far the biggest contributor) happy first. You just don’t want to neglect Europe too long. Or China. Or Brazil. Or…

I could go on for a long time on all the logistics here, but it was actually quite a fun part of the game to perform this balancing act. You could try all sorts of strategies, such as establishing relatively cheap “listening posts” (a base with little more than a radar module) in remote locations of the globe so you could at least see what the aliens are up to, even if responding to them might still be out of reach.

Yeah, so, I should get to that. Basically, once you’ve finished spending your money trying to get the initial phase of your project together, it’s a waiting game of detecting alien activity, usually in the form of a pop-up pause informing you a UFO has appeared in range of your radar. You’re then tracking that little dot, and can dispatch an Interceptor from your base for a little “Welcome to Earth” action in the form of cannons and missiles.

You will also feel horribly outclassed in watching just how slow the best fighter jets mankind can produce are in comparison even to the smaller craft the aliens use. More than once I can recall howling in frustration as they zipped away unimpeded by my puny human efforts. So it’s very satisfying the first time one of your sky jockeys manages to put a missile up a UFO’s tailpipe and force a crash landing. There’s a little minigame that happens to determine this, which is simplistic and yet brilliantly tense. And mind you, if you try to tackle anything bigger than a small UFO with your starter planes and starter armament, you will have the pleasure of watching them swatted like annoying gnats. Sometimes in the early stages, you just need to let certain things go, and funding decrease be damned. It’s less expensive than having to replace a jet for no gainful purpose.

What gainful purpose is there? Well first, shooting down UFOs ups your score in the area it happens, which is good for funding. But secondly, forcing a UFO crash means you now get to send in the troops and get an up close look at exactly what you’re dealing with.

This is where the terrifyingly good small unit tactical simulator comes into play. And I do mean terrifying, especially at the beginning. You’ve recruited volunteer soldiers from around the world, men and women, each with different, randomly generated statistics governing such things as their carrying ability, accuracy, and resistance to panic. You can also fire these recruits if they don’t measure up to your standards, which I felt was highly recommended in the case of people with a low bravery score. Morale played an important role and the last thing you needed in the face of the enemy was some dude running, freezing up, or wildly spraying a room with friendly fire. Everyone could increase stats as missions progressed, but only if they survived.

I mentioned that on your first mission, you have no idea what the enemy is, right? That’s why the North American release was X-Com: UFO Defense, but the alternate title was “UFO: Enemy Unknown”. Then your Skyranger assault transport full of fresh-faced recruits touches down in Farmer John’s cornfield, and this is all you (and they) see:

O hai, Fog of War.

Just deploying from the transport was a harrowing experience. You might notice that there’s a tank involved here, which is actually an autonomous robot small enough to fit in the plane. It still takes up the room of four soldiers, but I personally always liked having one along because if any aliens were in line-of-sight of that exit ramp, they would attempt to slag the first thing that moved, and let’s just say you learn very quickly that your soldiers don’t survive well when hit by plasma pistols.

Not that you’ll know what you’re being shot with, there will be zapping and screaming and half-glimpsed shapes in the darkness, until finally one of your guys gets a rifle shot or grenade burst off and is rewarded with an inhuman death rattle as a grey corpse collapses in puddles of its green blood.

Three of ours for one of theirs… that’s good, right?

The fact that this part of the game is turn-based does jack all to lessen the tension level of these missions. In fact, it arguably increases it. Because it’s turn-based, everyone, human and alien, has a set number of “Time Units” available to perform actions with, like moving and shooting. You will quickly learn that using up all your Time Units is risky at best, suicidal at worst, because you will be at the mercy of anything the enemy decides to do on its turn. Having spare time units means the ability to react when an alien appears at the window, perhaps shooting it in the head before it can do the same to you.

This is also why stepping off the transport is so harrowing. The aliens haven’t gotten a turn yet, but they’re sitting on a full stack of TU’s with which to react to you sticking your head out. But you’ve also got to get the hell out of the transport before one of them thinks to toss an explosive at your nicely clumped troops.

As the fight rages, obstacles get destroyed, things catch fire, and smoke billows–smoke which does reduce both vision and accuracy, and can even knock a human or lesser alien unconscious if they stay in it long enough, which makes “smoking them out” actually a viable tactic. The building blocks of a given map environment (farmland, desert, urban, etc.) tend to stay the same, but their arrangements, not to mention the disposition of the crashed UFO and any surviving aliens, are always randomized to make each encounter nerve-wrackingly different. Everything is destructible, which is another reason I always hauled along a rocket tank. Why chance sending a trooper into that dark building when you can just blow out the wall and then riddle any hiding aliens with massed bullets?

I just really can’t say enough good things about this part of the game, but your first mission is only the beginning. Once you’ve managed your first successful UFO retrieval, you drag all the alien corpses and weapons and parts back to your base, and now those Scientists you recruited get to work. Because your assault rifles might work fine on those little greys, but as the autopsy results come through you’ll learn they’re only cogs in a much larger machine–a machine that has much larger aliens involved.

Wait. So something *else* made these little bastards that have been killing my best troops?

It’s a race against time as you struggle to keep your funding, defend the Earth, and find out what you’re up against while also reverse-engineering their technology in a desperate bid to even the playing field before it’s too late.

And it was totally, completely addicting. It’s one of those games that was fun even just watching someone else play, especially if you said helpful things like, “Oh gee, you accidentally threw the grenade at your feet? And no TU’s to run away? That’s gonna hurt.

The game’s ability to keep you on your toes, changing up every time you started to relax into routine, was also memorable. Later in the game aliens would even stage assaults on your bases if they got pissed enough, which meant your B Team might end up trying to fight them off, and you’d be kicking yourself if you didn’t include proper chokepoints when you built your layout. But by far the most hair-raising missions were when you got a pop-up alert that a certain city was experiencing “Alien Terror”.

Always in urban areas, often at night (when you had trouble seeing but aliens didn’t), and involving some of the more horrible opponents, Alien Terror meant our extraterrestrial friends had decided to take out their frustrations on a civilian population. And yes, that means you also had to deal with panicked civilians.

Ignoring an Alien Terror mission was a gigantic hit to your score. Responding to one was a nightmare. You not only had to try to keep your troops alive and kill or subdue all the aliens, you had to prevent the aliens from killing the civilians running about (score loss), and not kill any yourself (bigger score loss).

With all that, it’s at least a blessing that property damage doesn’t affect your rating. So, uh… yeah… I still brought the rocket tank.

What? Look, even the official strategy guide for the game (back when men were men and strategy guides did more than regurgitate information in the manual) talked about these missions in particular and provided these words of wisdom as to your priorities.

– Get your people back alive.

– The civilians are not your people.

Terror missions had Chryssalids for crissake. CHRYSSALIDS. This reference will make no sense to anyone who hasn’t played, but anyone who has probably just let out an involuntary curse.

Or a voluntary one.

But yeah, see? Vulnerable to explosives. Like rockets. If a Chrysalid is in the Circle K with three civilians, you TAKE THE SHOT. If you don’t they’ll just end up dead, anyhow. Worse than dead. And then there will be many a panicked cry of “Where’s Apone?!”, etc.

Oh yeah, you could totally rename all of your guys and gals from their defaults. Just in case you wanted to recreate the squad from Predator or Aliens, or just suffer that much more when they died horrible deaths on your watch.

Did you know some players taking their troops to missions suspected of harboring Chryssalids would have everyone carry primed grenades in their off-hands? Just in case?

Seriously, fuck Chryssalids.

But all praise to X-Com. The original and its sequel are both just absolutely fantastic pieces of gaming, and even though there have been several substandard spin-offs since then, this year we may finally be getting the updated reboot we both want and deserve.

And it’s turn-based.

Maybe there’s still some room for baseball in this ol’ modern world, after all.

You can find more of my Low-Rez Recollections of PC gaming of the 80s and 90s through the power of Google. Or, if you’re sick of hearing however my voice sounds in your head, why not try Erik’s take on gaming in his discussion of Star Trek Online?

About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense. http://cwolf.zxq.net/
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1 Response to Low-Rez Recollections: X-Com

  1. Pingback: Very Special Blossom: The Geek | The Satellite Show

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