Written by  :  The Captain (4)
Written on  :  Apr 27, 2001
Platform  :  DOS

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The BEST game of all time.

The Good

Everything good about this amazing game has already been quoted by the other folks wriing reviews. It's tough to describe to the 'uninitiated' how good the game is, because you'll keep going off on tangents about the bazillions of game features, and little perks that keep you glued to the screen. How good is it? Well, being the year 2001, and being a game developer myself, I've seen, played, and created more than my share of games. Each year games make new leaps in technology, surpassing their predecessors. We see every technology-related buzzword imaginable (and a few that have yet to be coined) pop up in public relations blurbs. The latest polygon pushing graphic engines, 3d sound technology, megapixels, terra-hoo-hahs... Know what? It all doesn't matter a damn. Having never played X-com until this year, after we have 1.5ghz processors and hudreds of megs of ram stacked in or machines, a far cry from the old 386 X-com needs, when it popped up on Classic-Trash.com, I thought I'd give it a whirl.. after all, all the 'old' magazines and gaming vets said it was great... It's free, what could there possibly be to lose?

Well, weeks later, as I write this bleary eyed and exhausted, I'd have to say that it's the best 3.5 meg I've downloaded. Many games come close to beating out X-Com in my mind, notably Bullfrog's Syndicate, Sid Meyer's Pirates, Lucas Arts' Sam n' Max Hit the Road, Maxis' SimCopter, Ion Storm's Deus Ex, and Blizzard's StarCraft. But none will ever edge it out. the ambiance, atmosphere, gameplay, and nail biting terror beat out any qualms you might have about the graphics or dated engine. After all, no matter what the game, the 'good' graphics and 'bad' graphics alike will fade in your mind after you play the game, and the gameplay will rear it's ugly head. The good gameplay is the keeper, and the forgettable will be shelved for something new. Snazzy, cutting edge graphic fests will always be superceded by the next generation, but incredible gameplay is timeless, and that's the key.

IGN.com has done a very nice job of outlining the brilliance of X-Com, and why they too named it the best game of all time. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt in explaining it.

"There are four things that make X-COM great that still haven't been surpassed in other games.

1) The sense of attachment to your troops

Almost better than any RPG, you care about your characters in X-COM. Once stories start happening to your characters, they take on a special significance. The best computer games don't necessarily tell you a story, but they let you create your own memorable stories. You'll remember the time a new squaddie single-handedly took out a roomful of aliens with a suicide grenade. You'll remember being ambushed before you could step off the ramp of your Skyranger. You'll remember the time a bad ass female soldier mowed down everything in sight with an auto cannon. You'll remember the time you just flattened an entire building because you knew an alien was hiding inside. You'll remember the time a rookie with a med-kit dashed into harm's way to save the lieutenant. You'll remember your early attempts to train and use psionics against the aliens. You'll remember those tense hunts as you pair your men off and spread out into back alleys and farmhouses. You'll remember your first raid against an alien base and your first visit to someplace further away than you thought you go.

- advertisement - Because the characters improve through battles and accumulate stories, it's not always about how big your gun is, something first person shooter and many RPGs can't see past. Instead it's about where a character has been and how far he's come. As in real war, a brutal and senseless process of natural selection winnows the lesser soldiers out, leaving behind the strong and the lucky. X-COM was made to be played over the long haul as an ongoing story that is just as much about your characters as it is about an alien invasion.

It's a seemingly minor detail that you can name your characters, but this makes a big difference when it comes to giving them a place in your imagination. Everyone has probably used the names from Aliens: Drake, Vasquez, Hudson, Hicks and Apone. Maybe even Gorman and Frost. Did you get as far as Dietrich, Spunkmeyer and Wierzbowski? For a really weird experience, name your troops after people you know, your friends and family, your boss or your co-workers. It's pretty demoralizing when your mother gets shot or your best friend gets mind-controlled and you have to put him down.

2) The way the gameplay unfolds in the campaign

The way you play X-COM changes as your hard-working scientists climb the tech tree and give you new ways to play the game. It starts out small with your men taking up rifles against Sectoids in small UFOs. But X-COM keeps throwing in new twists, like motion scanners, hyperwave decoders, and battleships with full complements of well-armed Mutons and their Ethereal overlords. Bigger guns and psionics come along as you're facing more powerful enemies, but there's always a sense that your resources are limited and you have to spend them wisely. Time is just as precious a resource as money as you fight for the hearts and minds of the countries of the world.

Some of the fun is sucked out once you learn some of the tricks like how to manufacture laser rifles for a thriving economy or how to build a base optimized for defense. But even then, there's a lot to do between battles. X-COM is a long game and you'll probably fight over a hundred battles by the time it's over, but they're held together and driven by a strong and compelling strategic shell.

3) Atmosphere

X-COM rode in on a wave of renewed interest in aliens and conspiracies a la X-Files. It conveys perfectly the feeling of being on the fringe of a horrible vast plot from somewhere else. You get a real sense that those little alien bastards are poking their noses into international affairs, that they're up to something as they flit about in their nimble ships. The actual incursions are just moving dots against a map of the world, but it completely works from the point of view of someone sitting at the base and tracing radar contacts while sending out interceptors to shoot the offending UFOs down. It works even better once you start to appreciate the cause and effect relationships between the different alien ships and how they influence the political and financial scene. It's really a surprise when the little boogers come gunning for you at your own base.

During the actual missions, X-COM used darkness and limited visibility to good effect. What you couldn't see would kill you, so every door and dark alley was an unnerving potential trap. Nighttime missions were especially frightening. Death could come quickly in X-COM, especially in the pre-armor phases of the game. The sound during the missions deserves special mention: shrieking victims, slithering hissing aliens, and an eerie pulsing soundtrack. Even the sound effects in the shell screen were great. How many times have you heard a control panel sound effect in a movie or TV show and thought to yourself, "Hey, that's an X-COM button!"

4) The way you can break stuff

An important element in an action sequence, particularly one with guns and other things that go boom, is how you clearly demonstrate the destructive power of a battle. Bullets wreak havoc. They break glass and shatter the bottles on the bar. An explosion can knock over a wall and a molotov cocktail can burn down a house. But in a first person shooter, all this has to be scripted and it takes up precious CPU cycles. There's a strange irony in the fact that it takes a staid turn-based game like X-COM to really capture the mayhem of combat.

Things break in X-COM and the game captures this beautifully. It's one thing to shoot out windows and punch holes through walls with your gun, but destroying the entire side of a building with a rocket is uniquely satisfying. Throwing a grenade is truly an event. My first shot with a blaster bomb was one of those rare peak gaming experiences that I'll never forget.

Because X-COM captures these four elements so well, it remains the best turn-based squad-level combat game you can play."

The Bad

It's *too* good. Everquest has nothing on this puppy.

You'll lose sleep.

Deal with it.

The Bottom Line

Like I said, the only way to describe X-Com to others is as the BEST game of all time. Hands down. Three meg download. Do yourself a favor (unless you like sleep).

By now, there shouldn't be any reason for you to *not* get this game. Well, what are you waiting for?

Now, you must excuse me, for my heavily equipped Avenger is approaching the Alien's European base, and it's time for The Captain to kick ass and take names.