RE:Play X-Com UFO Defense
The Unknown is at the heart of what makes the Alien frightening.
Perhaps the motives can be guessed at from actions taken but can they ever really be understood? The Alien lends itself to mystery by its very nature, and mystery is the gateway to horror. Cosmic Horror not only plays into the natural fear that the alien will generate but creates the concomitant terror of the laws of the universe being useless to protect you becasue you didn’t understand those laws as well as you thought you did. Your most advanced weapons which are the pinnacle of your technology, will be less useful than a Neanderthal throwing a wooden spear against a diving F-16.
Cosmic Horror always brings with it a call to the ancient beyond knowing. With the exception of Lovecraft and Howard, American storytellers don’t get it instinctively. The British however do.
Consequently, it took an English game developer to create one of the most legendary strategy game franchises in the history of computer gaming.
Julian Gollop, to the best of my knowledge, was the very first Generation X gaming dev. Born in 1965 Gollop grew up playing Chess, Dungeons and Dragons, plus a whole bunch of Avalon Hill board games. Avalon Hill specialized in military games, its best known is Advanced Squad Leader.*
Gollop’s first game, published in 1982 (at the age of 17), was called Time Lords. Yes, those Time Lords, the BBC was flirting with video games at the time. This was obviously a product of the 8-bit era, as such the game relied on your imagination to do all the heavy lifting. It was (naturally) a strategy game. As a Time Lord, you would take various races found throughout all of time and space and try to engineer them into an unstoppable force of universal 8-bit conquest. One of the more intriguing facets was its time travel mechanic. Trapping an enemy in an infinite paradox was a legit strategy.
Gollop’s next game had something to do with Red Dwarf. It was another strategy game for the BBC. He moved on from there to Games Workshop, a relationship that proved unsatisfactory as he only made a thousand Pounds for eleven months of work. People familiar with Games Workshop are wearing their shocked faces.
He then went to the LSE to study Sociology, (*long tired sigh*) yeah Gollop is one of Those, but this is an examination of his work, not his politics. Skipping ahead.
He and his brother founded the company that become Mythos Games, their best known game was Laser Squad and this was where X-Com really began life. In the late 1980s all strategy games were turn-based by technological necessity. The limitations of the software drove the design. Regardless you can see X-Com’s DNA in this game and it’s still present in modern iteration.
By 1988 game development was quickly becoming something you no longer could do with your bros over brews in the basement. If you were going to make it to the big time you needed a partner. At least that was the popular business model, however, not everyone got burned by it.
In the late eighties, no one was bigger in strategy games than MicroProse. Their knock-it-out-of-the-park hit was Sid Meier’s Civilization. This one is important here. The Gollop brothers had enough of a reputation that MicroProse was willing to work with them on Laser Squad II. However, MicroProse had a few notes.
Some games are born to feature creep and some have feature creep thrust upon them. Gollop came back from MicroProse reeling under the weight of the scope increase that his senior partner had dropped on him. In a nutshell, they wanted a game that combined the tactical turn-based simulation of Laser Squad with a global strategy game on a running time clock like Civilization. Instead of an unknown distant world, MicroProse wanted the game set on Earth.
Since Julian Gollop was a British Generation-X Science Fiction fan he automatically defaulted to the lore of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s UFO for his setting.
In fact, the UK release of X-Com was even called UFO. The war against the alien invaders was now a secret one. A council of funding nations was established to combat the Alien menace. X-Com was given the best technology on Earth but in truth, it was barely good enough to stop the least of the Aliens that had come to do us harm. However, capturing and studying Alien tech allowed X-Com to produce more capable weapons.
In real terms, X-Com was literally two games running concurrently and they would hand off back and forth. One was a genuine global strategy game where you started out with baseline technology and personnel. You would pick a spot on Earth to put your first base, a rich country would give you better funding for the base. You got two fighters (Interceptors) and one troop transport (Skyranger). You would scan your local terrain and when a UFO appeared you would launch an interceptor to bring it down. After that, you would send out the Skyranger troop ship to do mop up. When the Skyranger landed Laser Squad II began and a turn-based tactical squad scenario would be played out.
The squad would have a variety of weapons to pick from; regular combat rifles, and one or two heavy weapons usually a mini-gun (so damn silly) and a rocket launcher with a lot of splash damage. If you had first shot down the UFO then the ground combat was pretty easy. However, there wouldn’t be much in the way of alien resources because the ship was damaged.
Sometimes you’d be in luck and you would catch an intact UFO on the ground. Since the UFO was undamaged the resistance would be much stiffer, it was a tougher nut to crack but a correspondingly rewarding one. Much more in the way of alien resources would be available including their fuel Elerium-115, which was vital to fuel your more advanced tech and you could only ever capture E-115 from the Aliens, no producing it yourself.
Speaking of more advanced tech, this was where the strategy would come in. You would have to hire scientists to study your captured alien tech, after a set amount of time sciencing something, it would be unlocked. Then the engineers, that again you would have to hire, would build it for you for another set amount of time. Somewhat disturbingly, you also had some tame Joesph Mengles on staff to study the Aliens themselves. Both dead and (shudder) alive. These also functioned as unlock trees, you had to unlock one before moving on to the next techno-goodie.
Balance of income and expenditures was critical. You needed to unlock alien tech to take on the tougher aliens later in the game. Your income was dependent on the Council of Funding Nations if you did a good job of countering the alien threat in their territory the funding would increase. That said, occasionally you would have to ignore an alien attack but then you might lose a member of the Council of Funding Nations. Your biggest headache in that regard was a Terror Attack, ignore one or botch the mission and you would definitely lose that member nation, thus lowering your funding. X-Com’s world politics were brutal, you could afford to lose some nations but if you lost the United States you may as well start a new game. You did have the option of becoming an arms dealer, building weapons, and selling them off which would usually become necessary in the late game just to stay afloat. By then you had a global military that needed to be funded one way or another.
Regardless, you had to build those other bases to have global coverage. Although they didn’t all have to be big ones. A base with just radar was fine if it was reasonably close to another base that had an Interceptor. You could build up some bases and leave others as just listening posts.
Your most critical resource (aside from the Elerium 115) was your Veteran soldiers. You could lose Rookies all day and not care about it but if you lost a high-ranking veteran, (particularly one that was psionically gifted) and you would be pulling your hair out. You had to be running several strategies all at once to win the game. Where do you build bases? What do you build on your bases? How do you build the base? How many scientists do you assign to which project? Do you think you will need ground weapons more than new ships? Should I prioritize new ships? What loadout do I send on which mission? Should I have a base as a major manufacturing facility? How many eggs do I put in one basket?
Your worst problem was the inevitable attack on your base. If you had prepared for it, it could be fairly easy. First, if you had designed your base with defense in mind you increased your chances. Create enough choke points and the Aliens would have to enter a ‘fatal funnel’ to attack you. You also had all that base’s troops available all at once, instead of being limited by the size of your troopship. However, a lot might be Rookies, easily panicked with no armor and armed with whatever leftover crap you hadn’t cleared out of the base inventory yet. Or if you weren’t careful, completely unarmed.
Mission loadout would matter a lot. If you were attacking a shotdown UFO then there wasn’t much to pick through, and you could just go heavy on the explosives. Aimed shots were more important on Terror Attacks because you needed to rescue as many civilians as possible. On the other hand, fighting Ethereals was a nightmare because they were constantly psionically attacking your troops, consequently, you didn’t dare give a human a rocket launcher or even grenades because they might turn and attack your own troops. Fortunately, you had robot tanks by then and they couldn’t be mind-controlled. The problem with that was that you had to take at least one of the Ethereal leaders alive to discover the location of the main alien base. Which was Mars.
By that point in the late game, assuming you hadn’t lost, you had an all-star squad (platoon really) of high-ranking veterans you would send on that last mission, and for once you didn’t mind taking causalities from their ranks. Destroy the base under the Martian pyramids and you saved mankind.
X-Com was a long time in development, so long in fact that MicroProse had been merged with SpectrumHolobyte. Whenever you have a merger there are always going to be development projects that are canceled. Sadly, X-Com was one of them. Real-time strategy games had supplanted the turn-based tactical genre, (those were yesterday’s news). Consequently, tanking a turn-based squad game that was overdue was an easy call.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the merger appears to have been kind of a clusterfuck, and no one thought to tell Julian Gollop that his game had been shitcanned. When he presented his magnum opus to his surprised senior partners, it was news to him that he should have moved on with his life. It was still a little rough and he was only given a month to finish it, so it was shipped a little rough. Meaning the game was buggy but since it was the mid-nineties, PC gamers were willing to accept that to a certain degree, (to be clear it wasn’t as undercooked as Redneck Rampage). All said and done, MicroProse knew they had a winner.
X-Com was successful enough to spawn a franchise. X-Com 2 was very much in the same style as X-Com. Frankly, it was a reskinned X-Com 1 but more polished on launch. Then some really bad decisions started getting made. Apparently, a Judge Dredd fan got promoted at SpectrumHolobyte and the franchise flew off the rails with X-Com Apocalypse. X-Com Interceptor wasn’t a notable improvement, it was just a knockoff Wing Commander. MicroProse was in bad shape by the late 1990s, they had tried to get into arcade games which was nuts by the mid-nineties. It started getting hit by lawsuits to include one by Avalon Hill Games. Eventually, MicroProse got bought out by Hasbro.
The last of the OG run of franchise games was X-Com Enforcer, it was just a third-person shooter. Series fans hated it. There was also something called X-Com First Invasion that I didn’t even know existed. Feel free to discuss that one in the comments if you ever played it.
There were also quite a few Jank Clones of X-Com, but none of them were that good. Okay, on second thought, Xenonaughts wasn’t bad at all, I admit it freely.
All these games did one thing though, it demonstrated that the franchise still had starving fans hungry for more out there.
Which didn’t change the fact that the official franchise was put to bed for about a decade and then was revived in the worst way possible as an early 2010s “Mass Effect style” 3rd person tactical shooter. XCOM: Declassified was released during the lowest point in FPS history. This was back when you were being herded through the game to arrive at your next cut scene.
The cut scenes seemed to matter more than the actual gameplay back then. I remember looking at the promo site for it and while I knew I would play it, I also knew that it wouldn’t scratch my X-Com itch. Then out of the blue one day, the promo site was suddenly split in two on the one side was the soon-to-be-forgotten XCOM: Declassified but on the other was the much more intriguing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it offered to let you play a trailer.
The moment X-Com veterans heard, “Hello…Commander,” they knew they’d come home.
*ASL wouldn’t be published until 1985, but it gives you an idea of the kind of games Avalon used to make.