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River City Retro Alien Wars 2: They Came Back For More


A fine day to everyone out there and welcome to part two of the River City Retro Alien Wars. As I said last time, UFO: Enemy Unknown was a true masterpiece. It kickstarted an incredible formula of global strategy and small squad based tactics. Unfortunately the series was damned to a slow death in the pits of oblivion. Just like how a candle flickers wildly before it goes out, the series had one last moment of glory before inevitably going down. Or did it? Today we're going to have a look at its first two sequels that stayed true to the their roots and proudly carried the flag onwards. The first one was the dreaded X-COM: Terror From The Deep.

The first thing you'll notice is how vastly similar it is to its predecessor. The geoscape, the battlescape and all of the game's mechanics are pretty much exactly the same. Let me quickly explain why this is. The first X-COM was actually developed by Mythos Games but published by MicroProse. MicroProse asked Mythos to shit out a rushed an uninteresting follow-up but they refused and started to work on the much more ambitious X-COM: Apocalypse. Since Mythos didn't take the dump requested of them, the good people at MicroProse sat their own asses down on the toilet and put their bowels to work. The result is a horribly constructed bugfest that hardly brought anything new to the X-COM experience.

Ok, I'll admit that that might have been a little too harsh. Terror From The Deep does have a few things going for it. For starters it has a pretty damn cool name! Just try saying it out loud. "Terror From The Deep!" Yeah, that's bad-ass! Also I like the theme it's got going. The music, the environment, the alien life-forms, it's all so dark and horrifying. It's like the game is telling you that you might have beaten Enemy Unknown but this time we're not fucking around. If you're going to play this game, you're going to cry and wish you were as dead as your soldiers soon will be! And cry you're going to. Early versions of Enemy Unknown suffered from a bug that defaulted the difficulty level to the easiest while Terror From The Deep's easiest mode is said to be harder than the hardest one in the original. Heck, there's even an alien race that is immune to nearly all of the available weaponry at the time you first encounter it, forcing you to either take it down with meelee stun weapons or run back to the submarine and haul your ass out of there.

Still, it's basically a reskin of the original with a deep sea setting. Instead of building your base on land, you have it submerged in one of the earth's oceans and most battles are fought out on the seabed. With the exception of a few newcomers like meelee weapons, every leaf in the tech tree has a perfect equivalent in Enemy Unknown. Something that didn't have an equivalent though, is a bug that renders the game unbeatable in case you research some stuff in the wrong order. I've also seen it happen that aliens just disappear from the battlescape only to magically reappear on their own turn and kill all my guys.

As bugged and uninspired as Terror From The Deep is, I'm having a hard time trying to hate it. After all, the fact that is it so vastly similar to the original means that it's got the good sides too. Due to its higher difficulty, I spend even more time micromanaging my squad and I grow just as attached to them as I did before. It's such a shame they wiped their ass on this game so much. It had the potential to be what The Japanese Mario 2 was to the original Mario.

For me, it didn't even need to be as true of a sequel as Mario 2 was. If they had just taken more time to properly finish and debug this game, it could have made a fine stand-alone expansion pack. Damn it, who am I kidding? I love this game! I love it like I would love a handicapped child. Just if you're looking to get into the X-COM series ... don't start with this one. In fact don't even play this unless you really enjoyed Enemy Unknown and are looking for a challenge. Keeping a guide with you to avoid the bugs wouldn't hurt either.

So while Microprose fed us their cripple underwater slugfest, Mythos Games was working on the real sequel to Enemy Unknown. That is what eventually hit the market as X-COM: Apocalypse. First thing you'll notice when you boot up this game is the lack of a geoscape. If you turn to the manual and read the backstory, you'll find out that it's not just the geoscape either. It's a lack of the whole world! That's right. This game is called apocalypse for a reason. At the end of Terror From The Deep, the alien underwater city of T'Leth rises to the surface and explodes, releasing toxic gasses that slowly poison earth's atmosphere.

Most of humanity has since fled the planet and colonised new worlds. Back on earth however, self-contained self-sufficient cities have started to appear. These are kept in delicate balance by several corporations. Each of these deliver essential parts of the city's survival, save for the crime syndicates. These cities seem like tiny utopias. Even though the world outside is more reminiscent of the Fallout series than anything else, life within its walls is safe and people enjoy more comfort than ever before. No matter how awesome it is to live in a little dome like that, the city's social structure gradually starts to collapse and at the base of it all lies an inter-dimensional alien attack. Who would have guessed?

In X-COM: apocalypse you are charged with the defence of the city Mega-Primus and the missing geoscape is appropriately replaced by the cityscape. You get an isometric perspective of the city which is rendered in a way that strongly reminds of me of games like Sim City and Rollercoaster Tycoon. At first I was sad about losing the global scope but if you look closely, the game has actually gotten much more complex.

Everyone in the city is dependant on the efforts of private corporations and X-COM is no different. You buy weapons from the Megapol police force and the Marsec private security company while you receive funding from the government and use the Transtellar transportation services. This makes diplomatic efforts much more complicated. In the previous two games, all you had to do what intercept UFO activity in a certain area to gain their favour. This time around, all corporations have their own relations. They will do business or fight among themselves entirely independent of you.

Each company has a certain disposition towards X-COM. Having corporations friendly to you, will offer you certain benefits that range from being able to recruit from their staff to them actually aiding you in battles. Hostile corporations however, will refuse their services entirely. You can improve relationships through bribes or destroy them by attacking their real estate.

The latter will often result in them demanding financial compensation from you afterwards which you can decide to either pay or not pay. If the organisation is actually naturally hostile to you like the cult of sirius or the aliens, don't worry about paying those bills and just blow up whatever you want. Yep, you just read that right. The aliens are actually considered an organisation or rather, they can become one. In the previous games, the aliens would already sign non-aggression pacts with certain countries but this time they're going one step further. If you fail to defend a company properly, chances are that the aliens will eventually infest its CEO, rendering it permanently hostile to X-COM.

Attacking their buildings isn't just limited to the cityscape either. Excessive use of explosives or incendiary ammo in the battlescape will damage their buildings and lower both their esteem of you and their financial capabilities. If you really mess up, they might even start to consider the aliens as a better alternative and refuse your bribes no matter how big they are.

Speaking of the battlescape, it has had its own set of refinements. First of all you are given a choice between the classic turn-based system or a brand new real-time option. For me personally, turn-based is the way X-COM games should always be. When bullets are constantly flying by your ears, you'll be clicking all over the place with little time to get to know your soldiers. Keeping them alive gets a lot harder too since it's nearly impossible to fire at enemies without getting a rocket or grenade straight to the face at the same time. I know other players might have other preferences but for me, playing real-time is equal to my soldiers dying.

Even in turn-based mode though, I've got some mixed feelings about the battlescape. Your soldiers have enough time units to run halfway down the hall, get up on a table, dance the samba and and then come home in time for dinner. Where nearly every shot was lethal in the first two games, here you start out heavily armoured and the real dangerous weapons don't arrive until mid- to late game. This does take away from the suspense in the original two. On the other hand, there have been some improvements too. For instance the music now changes depending on what happens during the battle They really add to the atmosphere and especially the action scenes are great. Just wrap your ears around that. It's bad-ass!

You've got much more control over your units too. You can make them either run, walk or crawl which all have their respective effects on speed and accuracy. Even their behaviour during the enemy's turn can be controlled through three settings that determine how likely they are to run for cover or stand their ground and fight. In case you're playing in real-time mode, this translates to how the AI behaves when you're not micromanaging your units for a moment. Most battles now take place indoors as aliens attack Mega-Primus' buildings one by one and that's actually pretty cool. You get a much more personal view of the city and its differences in social standing as you fight in schools, slums, food processing plants and even cultist temples.

The environments were already completely destructible in the past two games but a rooftop would just keep floating even if all of the supports beneath it were blown up. X-COM: Apocalypse fixes this. If an alien is shooting at you from atop a sniper tower, just shoot out the supporting pillars and watch E.T. crash to his death. Just be a bit careful what you do with other people's property as they might bill you for the damage later.

So now that we've taken a look at both sequels, is Apocalypse a worthy follow-up to Enemy Unknown? Absolutely! It loses some stuff, gains some others and essentially does perfectly what every sequel tries to do: it's new enough to be refreshing and old enough to be familiar. Is it a better game than Enemy Unknown? No it isn't. Apocalypse expands upon its formula very well but there's one detail missing here: involvement. When I play X-COM: Apocalypse, I just don't feel as attached to my soldiers as much as I did back in Enemy Unknown. Is that going to stop me from playing the living crap out of this game? Hell no and it shouldn't stop you either!

At this point the X-COM series has had a bit of a hick-up but it's moving entirely in the right direction. Unfortunately, this is also the last time it did or at least under its official title. Join me again next week when I'll tell you all about how this wonderful series sank deeper than the pits of hell itself.

I'm still a random dude named Metallion and thank you for reading River City Retro!
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About Metallionone of us since 4:11 AM on 10.14.2009

I'm a dude that used to write cblogs regularly but doesn't do that any more.