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How Did You Screw This Up? Pt. V: X-Com Edition

Now that the Holidays have come and gone, and a new year is just beginning, it's time to get back to what's important: discussing past disappointments in video gaming. I think we can all agree that's the proper thing to do. And, as this is a new year, I think nothing defines hope for the future like aliens. With that in mind, let's tackle today's subject:

Subject V: X-Com Apocalypse

For those keeping track, Apocalypse is actually #3 in the X-Com series. Let us start back at #1...

The Original: X-Com: UFO Defense (or UFO: Enemy Unknown if you happen to be European)

Way back in 1993, I remember heading over to a friend's house one day. I walked back to his room to find him, and pushed open the door. Despite the fact that it was something like 5 in the afternoon, his room was pitch black, the curtains drawn tight and the lights off. The only illumination came from the pale glow of the computer monitor that he was hunched in front of. There was no sound in the room except for an eerie, low-pitched dunh-dunh-dunh coming from the speakers over and over again.

"What are you doing?" I asked cautiously.

"I'm playing this new game; check it out!" he replied, barely looking up from the screen.

I peered over his shoulder, getting my first look. He was cautiously moving a squad of soldiers, one at a time, down a dark city street. Each step forward revealed views of hidden alleys and shadowy building interiors. Though I could see no enemies, he was clearly quite nervous. Methodically, he arrayed his troops in a half circle, covering all angles, taking shelter behind the poles of a nearby gas station. Satisfied with his moves, he ended his turn, ready to face whatever came. Five second later, a little gray alien with big black eyes came stepping out of a nearby ally, fired off a blast of glowing green energy, and hit the gas pump next to my friend's troops, setting off a chain reaction that blew most of them to high hell.

"Aw damnit!" he cried.

My love for X-Com was born on that day.

X-Com, set in the year 1998, followed the day-to-day adventures of your international crew of soldiers set to defend Earth against increasing alien incursions. Aliens, it turned out, are total jerks. The game was divided into two main halves: the Geoscape (a fancy word for the Global View) and the Tactical View (a fancy word for where you do the fightin'). In the Geoscape view, your job as commander involved selecting locations for bases, outfitting those bases with facilities and equipment, recruiting and training soldiers, researching both terrestrial and alien technology, and dispatching interceptors to shoot down hostile alien craft. In the Tactical View, your job as commander was to shoot the shit out of aliens and, preferably, not get the shit shot out of your own troops along the way.

It sounds simple, but as many games have proven, finding the proper balance between management and action is no easy feat, but it's one X-Com pulled off with ease. Base management and research never feel like a chore, and the background information revealed through research and the UFOpaedia are rich in detail and a blast to read. The tactical battles, though, are where the game really shines.

Looks like someone is ready to star in a conspiracy video!

After shooting down an alien craft (or locating one on the ground already), you dispatch your group of soldiers to go take them out. Play always starts with your soldiers in your landing craft, with only what they can see of the map out of the open ramp being revealed. Moves are turn-based, with each unit having a number of action points available to them based on their stats and equipment. After the players go, the aliens go. Units with leftover points and high reaction rating can take shots of opportunity even on their off turns, so it was always important to keep some in reserve (and to remember the aliens could do the same). The landscape was revealed as your soldiers gained new lines-of-sight, and was limited by whether it was day or night. As anyone who has played the game can tell you, landing in the jungle at night was a sure recipe for stress and terror. The objective on every mission was simple: eliminate the aliens by any means necessary. You could kill them, you could stun them; all that mattered was that they were out of commission.

The Blonde Brigade, oft spoken of in alien fighting legend.

Again, simple enough. What really sealed the deal for X-Com, though, was the atmosphere. Every single aspect of the game gelled in just the right way to create an almost seamless gameplay environment. From the pleasantly sci-fi bloops whenever you would press a menu button to the way civilians would scream in terror and flee down the streets, you couldn't help but get drawn in. The fact that the game was set in the present day made it all the better -- towns with gas stations and white picket fences, farm fields full of wheat -- everything was familiar enough to feel extra creepy when you knew that somewhere in the shadows lurked a Muton ready to lay down some hot plasma death. When you sat down to play X-Com, you too would probably feel compelled to draw the curtains shut, turn off the lights, and let yourself jump a little when the sound of alien feet skittering in the darkness met your ears...

Yes, I loved me some X-Com, so you can imagine my excitement when I heard about...

The Sequel: X-Com: Apocalypse

"But wait," you say, "wasn't Apocalypse #3 in the series? What about #2?"

To which I reply "Fools! This blog is not interactive!" But then, upon further reflection, decide to give you a proper answer. Yes, there was a #2 in the series, X-Com: Terror From the Deep. But, in my opinion, it's really more of an expansion pack than a proper sequel. The engine was the same, the graphics were the same, the gameplay was the same, and the whole thing was basically a reskinning of the original set underwater. Apocalypse, on the other hand, looked set to take the series on a more forward path.

Released in 1997, X-Com: Apocalypse picked up many years after the end of TftD. Because of the war with the aliens, Earth's environment has been torn to shambles, and humanity has concentrated itself into several humongous uber-cities. The largest of these, Mega-Primus, is where X-Com command currently resides, ready to fend off any further alien invasions. Mega-Primus itself is a vibrant place, a monument to humanity's scientific and social achievements, and also one of the ugliest cities you will ever see. When mankind decided to rebuild in the face of destruction, they apparently decided to do it with lego blocks and all in primary colors. Yes, gone were the old X-Com days of small town America, replaced instead with hover cars and building with paint jobs that would make Mondrian cry.

Mega-Primus: Where Breakable Glass Tubes Are All The Rage

When I was first met with the sight of Mega-Primus, I was a little put off, to say the least. The creepy atmosphere of X-Com was destroyed in one fell swoop, replaced instead with art-deco glass bubbles and bright, bold colors. To add insult to injury, the foes of this particular X-Com jaunt, extradimensional aliens bent on conquest, apparently were spawned from a primordial soup of crayons and felt. Bright blue aliens, bright yellow aliens, even bright pink aliens; these guys were about as terrifying as Play-Doh.

And, yet, despite these visual atrocities, I am a forgiving man, I was ready to give Apocalypse a pass on the atmosphere as long as the gameplay held up. My willingness, as you may have already guessed, was in vain. Apocalypse took the well-balanced, elegant simplicity of X-Com and chopped it up into little tiny bits. As I said, Mega-Primus was a vibrant place, and things happened in it constantly. So many things, in fact, that you usually had no idea what was going on. Hover cars littered the skies, hover trucks littered the roads, and aliens fly around constantly like they owned the place (which they often did). Funding for your X-Com organizations came from a cartel of businesses that ran the city, and keeping them happy was paramount. This would be well and good except for the fact that aliens were always infiltrating them, replacing the CEOs with pod-people, and that every action you took was likely to piss someone off. Worst of all was that fact that buildings in Mega-Primus, despite their lego-like exteriors, were seemingly made of paper mache', and that one stray shot from your ship's weapons would often send a random facility toppling to the ground, killing thousands and royally pissing off whoever owned it. They, in turn, would often respond by attacking you, which in turn led to more battles that would collapse more buildings, etc, etc. I exaggerate slightly, but the management of keeping all these groups happy and felt like far too much of a chore. The corporations could also make your lives miserable in other ways, as certain ones controlled key aspects of your operations. MarSec gets taken over by aliens? No more weapon purchases for you! Transtellar made about that warehouse you knocked down? Now your personnel can't travel anywhere in the city! Fantastic.

Beyond all of the political and management machinations, though, Apocalypse still had a chnace to succeed on the tactical front. Unfortunately, it committed what I consider one of the most heinous of crimes: Converting Turn-Based to Real-Time.

To be fair, the game did give you the option of deciding which method you wanted to use, but it was painfully clear that the combat and AI were built around the concept of it being real-time. So much so that it almost seemed to punish you in some instances for trying to play turn-based. One of the earliest alien weapons you face were guns that fired pods that would hatch open, release a brainsucker, and have it charge the nearest unit. In the real-time combat mode, these were barely a problem, as you would just have all of your soldiers fire off a spray of machine gun fire, most likely killing it in short order. In the turn-based mode, these things were amazingly lethal, as your soldiers would often not have the proper reaction ratings or accuracy early on successfully fend them off. The maps were also often huge, multi-leveled affairs, so turn-based missions could take a long, long time. Obviously, I would've preferred the game to be centered on being turn based, but I could've accepted the real-time if it were implemented more solidly. Most missions just turned into ten-second long firefights with aliens popping up like whack-a-moles. Real-time also detached me from my soldiers, as I suddenly wasn't really spending any time with them, and they just became slot fillers (Machine Gun dude, Machine Gun dude 2, Chick with Laser). Add to that the fact that you could lose an entire squadron if the building they were in collapsed because somebody sneezed to violently, and you really couldn't be bothered to even try to get to know them.

Where It Went Wrong

The original X-Com is, to this day, a game that draws people in. When you sit down and play it, no matter how aged the graphics may look now, you will find yourself sucked into its world. X-Com: Apocalypse, on the other hand, is a game that almost seems to challenge you to be engrossed by it. Almost every single aspect of it seems designed to remind you that you are just a guy at a keyboard watching this game; do not try and get involved on any visceral level. The art direction choices are questionable at best, and the game mechanics are far more complex than they need to be in many instances, and far to simplistic in others. Apocalypse feels like a classic case of idea glut; the designers had a lot of good ideas, and rather than trying to develop a few of them really solidly, they attempted to develop all of them mediocrely. X-Com was a game of elegant simplicity and rich atmosphere; Apocalypse was... not so much.

Don't even get me started on this...

If you have never played X-Com before, I highly recommend you get your hands on it. It has aged incredibly well, and there is plenty of support for getting it running on modern systems. You will not be disappointed, unless you hate joy.

Part I: Master of Orion Edition
Part II: Star Control Edition
Part III: Ultima Edition
Part IV: Tactics Edition
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About ZargonXone of us since 2:37 PM on 10.19.2007

Since the day my daddy handed me an Intellevision, I was set on the path of the gamer. I've got a special home for gamers with history that you can check out right now: Spectacle Rock
Mii code:[email protected]


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