X-COM: UFO Defense is widely considered to be one of the best PC games of all time. Unique in its ability to create moments of pure tension and present you with a team of soldiers that are ultimately expendable but each unique in some way (prompting you to become attached and feel heartbroken when they die), X-COM inspired a whole generation of gamers and remains deeply embedded within the psyche of modern gaming today. With the release of XCOM: Enemy Within just around the corner on the 15th of November, and looking sweet to boot, I think that it is appropriate to look back to where the XCOM phenomenon started all those 19 years ago and see just how well it has stood the test of time.
The premise is excellent. You take on the role of a global organisation, which is funded by a council of nations, tasked with staving off an alien invasion. To do this, you have to capture alien technology, conduct research and eventually determine the origin of the alien menace. The only set piece is the final mission and how you get there is largely up to you with your only constraints being how pleased the council is with you; perform too badly for too long and its game over. It’s like a sandbox that gently nudges you in the right direction, without ever really feeling on rails or too open.
One part of the game that has not coped well with time’s ravages is the graphics. The interface looks chunkier than ever compared the mostly streamlined arrangements we are used to today and, while somewhat endearing, the sprites don’t look particularly lush either. Of course this is to be expected from a game that is nearly 20 years old and the game itself is so engaging that you won’t care.
X-COM: UFO Defense has a world map that you use in real time to look for alien ships. Once you have shot one down and sent a transport full of fresh faced soldiers to investigate it switches to turn based strategy mode, sort of like Total War in reverse. One thing that can be said about the turn based parts of the game is this: they are rock hard. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, failure is a wraith that looms high over every mission. This difficulty is welcome, however, because it creates tension; any of your squad could die at any time. It also makes the angry sound of plasma fire ten times more terrifying. This is a level of pressure on you as a player that the Firaxis remake could only replicate by bombarding you with decisions that all had bad outcomes, essentially robbing you of freedom. But while that game was ultimately rather fair, the original is anything but. There are a number of features that demonstrate this with particular clarity, namely the Blaster Launcher. It is supremely frustrating to be on the receiving end of because of its obscene blast radius, and makes the game too easy when you get hold of it for the same reason.
X-COM: UFO Defense is not as perfect a game as everyone would like to think as they gaze back at it with rose-tinted goggles, but it is an invaluable slice of gaming history that I would recommend to anyone who enjoyed Firaxis’ remake or anyone, for that matter, who is at all interested in turn based strategy. Happy alien hunting!
X-COM: UFO Defense is available on Mac, PC and Playstation. You can purchase the PC version here