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randombullseye avatar 3:02 PM on 01.12.2012  (server time)
Old School Games: X-Com

Sometime early last year, I was in the middle of strategy heaven. All those Nippon Ichi games and spending time with old Gold Box games really made me love strategy all over again. I've always been a chess player. Something about controlling my team of dudes and killing another team of dudes does it for me. I forget who, I think it was a European friend online, convinced me to try out X-Com. As a huge fan of fantasy like X-Files, how in the holy hell did I go twenty years without knowing X-Com UFO Defense? The alternate title for UFO Defense being Enemy Unknown, in case anybody feels confused. The copy I played said UFO Defense, so that is how I keep referring to it as.

As I start writing, I'm trying to pinpoint exactly when I played the game. It was definitely before the announcement of the new first person shooter game. It was around the time I was playing MAG and Mass Effect on two TVs, as well as cheating on my PS3 and 360 with the PS2 version of Onimusha 3 on a third TV. While this was all going on, I got copies of both X-Com games. I say "both" because they're only two that are really for real X-Com games. The others are spinoffs that don't really play the same at all, but are merely set in the same universe. A major shame, as X-Com is one of the most fascinating strategy games of all time.

So I'll cover UFO Defense and Terror From the Deep, both of which are amazing games worth playing. Both of these are really easy to describe in terms of gameplay and mechanics. You have to controlling phases of the game. One is a view of the earth where you monitor for alien attacks or alien space ships. While on this map of the earth, you build army bases for your dudes and research new weapons, while manufacturing others and maintaining jet fighters. As you spot an enemy attack, you then dispatch a ship loaded with a team of guys, whom you can arm individually with the armor and weapons you've bought and then this starts the combat phase.

During combat you'll have to one by one, position your squad outside of a drop ship, then seek out each individual alien. Killing them all results in a win, however, as I experienced very often while playing, killing as many as possible and making a retreat for the ship and escaping was a valid strategy. Often I would lure out aliens into the open, while I had several guys with rockets waiting near the ship to blast the crap out of them. Early encounters on low difficulty settings are relatively easy aliens with laser like weapons, but later they get some particularly nasty enemy types that I won't dare spoil for a new player.

UFO Defense is absolutely brilliant. The deceptive simplicity of the game that could last for infinity is so simple to play, but utterly complex and hard to decipher. I say that, as when I started my base and set a group of guys out to attack, I had absolutely no idea how to get them to leave their ship. Luckily, I was in the year twenty ten, and the internet was a thing I could use to find out how to play this game. Each of the little icons doesn't have a hover over tool tip to teach you how to play. And you can totally have your guys shoot rockets into your drop ship, killing six of your eight dudes in one move. I did this, and laughed out loud at my stupidity.

This intense learning curve made me want to play the game more. That this game would dare to be like this intrigued me. Once I got the hang of moving my characters, spotting my first enemy alien was an event. At this point, I had not learned how to manufacture weapons at my army base. Once I got all that figured out and armed every guy on my squad with rockets, blasting holes into buildings and rushing in to kill aliens in this turn based game did it for me in ways no other game ever could. When I realized I could taze an alien, pick up their unconscious body, then take him back to my army base and study him, that was one of those gaming moments that I'll never be able to explain to anyone that hasn't had that for themselves. I just laughed and laughed about this game.

Terror From the Deep is actually a re-skin of most everything in UFO Defense. However, weapons work differently as most of your combat takes place underwater. When forced to fight above water, weapons like torpedos don't work the same as they do beneath the sea. Subtle changes to the way the game is played for this underwater setting drastically changes the game. Forcing you to have at all times a team for above ground combat as well as an underwater wet works team. I like the word combination wet works for some reason, I think it was a brand of Spider-Man toys at one point? Either way, Terror From the Deep feels a lot like UFO Defense. The art, the way it works, all of it is just reskins from UFO Defense put underwater. New aliens and weapons show up, although they all had a counterpart in the original game that was eerily similar. I still found it to be an interesting game, but seems like an expansion pack than a proper sequel.

Both games have a staggering amount of options for how to deploy your dudes, what to equip them with, how to build your army bases, what to do inside those bases as far as preparing weapons or research. Once I got laser weapons that could evaporate dudes, I really felt like I had accomplished something. Even if my time with the game never really got anywhere outside of me fighting a losing battle against an enemy I didn't understand, I felt like both games were excellent ways to spend time. Even now, I feel like loading it up, setting it to the toughest difficulty, and seeing just how long I can make it with my piss poor skill at the game.

The game adds in all these extra layers on top of everything else with having to watch the mental health of your squad while they enter combat. Occasionally seeing an alien will make a guy freak out completely. And not to spoil the enemies for anybody, but the really nasty aliens I mentioned have mind control powers that can wreck even the best ideas on how to deal with that. Worse still were the guys who created super alien zombies from my dead team mates. I just couldn't hang with that. The game kept throwing things at me that I just couldn't understand and I've yet to spend time reading a guide and learn more about how the game works and how to properly combat an alien that can take control of your dudes. When I quit playing, I had just figured out how to properly use tanks with lasers attached to them, which was amazing.

As for sequels, there have been several that I've already mentioned. Apocalypse adds a real time element that I'm not a fan of. It still plays a lot like UFO Defense, but it isn't necessarily as closely related as Terror From the Deep. X-Com Interceptor is a space sim, for better or worse, that exists. Another game, a shooter spin off that feels totally unrelated exists with X-Com Enforcer. I've seen a lot of Eastern European dudes trying to recreate X-Com with their own fan games, but none that I've seen or played capture the essences of these two games. There really was some magic being created here, if you're into strategy take a chance and pick these up. They're on Steam and several other downloadable services for fairly cheap, so go give them a try!

Did you ever play X-Com?

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