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A Time to Build: The Ultimate X-COM Squadron

For starters, I'd guess that by and large people have either never heard of the X-COM series, have been bludgeoned over the head about its awesomeness by rabid fans, or are one of said fans. It suffices to say I am in the latter group. While the other entries into the series were remarkable in their own right, only the original, X-COM: UFO Defense, has a special place in my heart.

I have had a decade-plus long love affair with this game, which began when I bought a copy of it's European counterpart, UFO: Enemy Unknown, at a computer show (any other old-heads remember those!?) for around ten bucks. To be clear, the titles are different, but they are the same game. It was sometime in the early 90's and I didn't hold out much hope for my purchase, but my Dad was being chintzy with my allowance that day and so this is what I ended up with...

This was perhaps the best money I have ever spent on a gaming purchase, as I pretty much played the game until it exploded. The utterly insane level of personnel and supply management, combined with the tactical, if sometimes frustrating, turn-based gameplay make for an unparalleled experience. Having said all that, let me address some of the specifics of the game and how it pertains to this month's theme.

For those of you who aren't familiar, you play as the head of a multi-national organization that has been created to ward off the escalating threat of alien involvement in Earth affairs. You begin with a meager budget and must first build a central base, complete with labs, living quarters, storage facilities, satellite arrays and a variety of evolving surface to air defense systems. You can build additional bases as the game progresses and, just to share a bit of strategy, this generally involves placing them in the countries that are footing the bill for your little operation. From these bases you manage inventory, research, manufacturing and personnel, as you launch various assaults on alien targets around the globe.

In order to grow your operation, you must be an efficient, turn-based killer in your ground assaults against the aliens, as well as a fiscally sound CFO when micro-managing the group's operations. This game doesn't simply give you the resources you need to create an alien extermination squad to rival the dudes in Predator, you have to earn them, slowly and painstakingly.

Initially, your squad has a bunch of sand in their vaginas. For instance, you have to deal with the wussy human weapons, whose effectiveness (except for the auto-cannon) is more or less equivalent to firing a BB gun at a polar bear. However, as your research progresses, the arsenal grows in kind. First lasers that are developed in-house, then you start co-opting all the alien's gear, and finally you end up with a crew that is utterly badass. This includes such badassery as a flying suit of armor, heavy plasma weaponry, and the alien grenade, the latter of which I estimate could level a city block.

Your research continues as you continue to fight off the growing alien hordes, which now include more and more dangerous species. You learn about the aliens plot to probe our lifeforms, infiltrate our governments and, ultimately, their devious plot to takeover the world from their Martian base. Meanwhile, you steal their technology (UFOs, craft and base weaponry), their corpses (for research), and, presumably, their dignity (via interrogations that almost certainly involve waterboarding). This results in your amassing a wealth of knowledge and equipment. Your squad takes a form the world and those alien bastards have never seen and grows to epic proportions.

There is this amazing sense of satisfaction you receive from rolling 24 deep in an alien spacecraft, with each of your crew strapped with flying suits, heavy plasma, and alien grenades, topped off by a commanding officer who can literally command the bad guys to march in front of him before he blows their head to pieces with super-heated electrons. I imagine the sense of accomplishment is akin to birthing a child, but it's probably nothing like that.

In closing, building the ultimate X-COM squadron is a fantastic exercise and one that I go through on at least an annual basis. For those of you who enjoy building a team and micro-managing many elements of its progress, this a great game to try. It is retro and it is tough to run on new machines (you need DOS Box), but trust me when I say it's worth it.
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About Rational Animalone of us since 2:05 PM on 04.07.2008

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