Retro Sample Week: X-Com UFO Defense

(This is part of my a special week in which I sampled several smaller or more niche retro games from my GOG library. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Ah, X-Com. Also known as “the game my friends and I played nonstop during our junior year of college.” And I’m not really exaggerating here; it was not infrequent for me to wake up during the night to see my roommate Bob wasting aliens in the glow of the computer screen. It was just a well-polished, fun, and very replayable package.

The idea behind the original is that aliens are real, they’re starting to invade all over earth, and you’ve been put in charge of a special task force to fight the aliens while stealing their tech. There was a base building/research/economy portion of the game that took place between missions, but the bulk was spent in fighting turn-based battles against the bad guys.

I don’t have a lot of patience for turn-based anything these days, so as much as I am fond of this game, I thought it would be best suited to a quick sampling for this retro game week!

A major part of the appeal of this game was its persistence — you create a base, grew it, recruited teams, and had to deal with your successes and losses as they came.

On beginner mode, you start out with a pretty decked-out base and a lot of cash (you get an allowance from world governments based on your performance and also if they are not aligned with the aliens, which is totally something that can happen.

There’s almost an overwhelming number of options right off the bat, although this isn’t that complex when you go through a few games. You can create multiple bases — and probably should, in case your main base is invaded (which is also totally something that can happen) and destroyed or conquered.

Here’s how it all goes down, usually. You’ll scan the globe and then be informed that there’s a UFO incursion somewhere on the globe. You send out interceptor planes to shoot it down, then a crew to go handle the hand-to-hand combat and see if they can salvage anything. The interceptor part is pretty boring and wasn’t given nearly the attention that the ground portion was.

And here we go! The ground portion is all about moving and using your troops one at a time as you gradually explore the map, root out the aliens, and look for their crashed ship. Since there’s so many unknown factors on the map (and aliens can kill quickly), it’s important to keep troops moving together instead of splitting up like horror movie victims.

Oh no! It’s… that… alien guy! I love pixel art as much as anyone else, but sometimes it’s so hard to make out what you’re supposed to be seeing.

Mr. Purple Alien, meet my mosh pit of party platooners!

Spoiler alert: He has a very bad day.

There are different sizes and types of UFOs that you can intercept. This one is quite tiny but cozy, I think. The mission ends when either the aliens kill all of my guys, I evacuate, or I kill all of the aliens.

Let me say in conclusion that I was right — I have very little patience for this slow turn-by-turn-by-turn gameplay. Individually moving each soldier gets really old after a while, and a single small map like this could take as long as 20 minutes. The whole game is riddled with such encounters, so it’s terribly lengthy.

My biggest wish was for a context mouse for controls. You can click on the ground to move, but any other action (such as shooting, going prone, dashing, etc.) requires the additional click of a specific button. This was the sort of old-school mouse gameplay that started to change in the mid-90s. I do not miss it.

2 thoughts on “Retro Sample Week: X-Com UFO Defense

  1. Good gosh did I spend many, many late nights playing this game, and yelling at my damn soldiers who were “mind controlled” into friendly-fire shooting my other team members. The “current” version (XCOM 2 on Steam), continues the story and is also an excellent game – albeit the same sort of squad management is present for ground combat. If you like the ground combat but want something more real-time, check out “Door-Kickers” (also on Steam).

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