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Looking Back on Classics: X-COM: UFO Defense


X-COM: UFO Defense is a strategic turn-based game that was developed by the now defunct Mythos Games in 1994 for PC. It is a turn-based strategy game that has some city building elements that places the player in command of Earth’s defenses during an alien assault. You begin the game by selecting where to place your base of operations, which can be anywhere on the planet. You can expand this base and add more personnel, equipment, and vehicles through various menus and interactions with the base map. Alien ships will begin appearing shortly after beginning the game and your aircraft need to intercept them or they will create bases on the ground. If/when this occurs; you must dispatch a ground team to deal with the alien threat. When your troops arrive at the landing site the game switches into its turn-based mode. You control where your soldiers go and what they do, tile by tile. This mode also occurs during terrorist attacks by the alien forces that occur seemingly at random around the world.

There are several unique features that make this game stand out and make the game fun to play almost twenty years later. First is the sense of discovery that the game presents you with. There are many different alien types and you are constantly running into new aliens that have different strengths and weaknesses. On top of that, when you are victorious in battle against the aliens you can discover some of their technology and then attempt to backwards engineer it and make it for your own soldiers. In the base menu you can research your own technology. This makes for some thrilling moments of discovery (although it is disappointing how the game takes place in the year 1999 and we don’t have any of the super cool technology the X-COM forces have at their disposal…).

Another thing that makes the game interesting is the tactical aspect of the game. Certain weapons can destroy cover and take out entire city streets or huge chunks of buildings. You can lure enemies into ambushes. Enemies need to be in a line of sight in order for your soldiers to fire at them and vice versa. If it is night in the overworld, then it is also night time in the battle modes which makes enemies less visible. Enemies can take up sniping positions on rooftops and use doors and ships as cover. The enemy’s use of their technology is surprising and very deadly. At the beginning of the game soldiers can only take a single shot from the alien’s plasma weapons.

Now, as awesome as those previous aspects might have been, I am going to talk for a bit about the things that were not great and have not aged well. First, this game is hard. I was playing it on the easiest difficulty and I lost three whole platoons of soldiers before I was able to defeat one group of aliens. Second, this game looks like butt, and that is sugarcoating it. Everything is rather muddy and the overworld is a rough approximation of the earth with glowing dots for bases and UFOs. Some people say that graphics do not matter very much; however, they do certainly help an experience rather than hurt. Third, the strategic segments which are the backbone of the game are tediously slow. The system is good, but it does not flow well at all. It takes much longer than it should to move units into place and for the alien forces to make their moves. By far one of my least favorite aspects of the game was the beginning of each land battle simply because you have to move your troops out of the dropship one at a time. Also, the lack of some basic tactical options like jumping or climbing over a fence is both strange and frustrating.

Overall, the core game is fun, albeit definitely dated. I would enjoy a graphically updated version of this game ported to PC or even as a downloadable title for consoles, if it also had some minor gameplay tweaks. If the upcoming revamp of the X-COM franchise can recapture the sense of discovery and tactical combat (in FPS form) that the original delivered, then it should be quite the smash hit.

For those of you looking for some more info on X-COM: UFO Defense there is an episode of Replay that came out featuring… you guessed it, X-COM! Be sure to check it out.

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