Written by  :  J. P. Gray (120)
Written on  :  Dec 18, 2007
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.6 Stars4.6 Stars4.6 Stars4.6 Stars4.6 Stars

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The definitive classic of multi-genre gaming. Master chef Gollop mixes all the ingredients perfectly, and simply.

The Good

X-COM: UFO Defense starts the player out in an immediately evocative scenario: you are the sole line of defense against alien invasion of Earth. Cliched? Trite? Already-done and done well since Space Invaders? Not so fast. This time our tired alien invasion plot isn't a stand-in "meaning" for abstract gaming cliches that could just as well be tied to any old concept, but rather an integral justification for a streamlined and brilliant game experience.

The game has two modes—strategic, and tactical. In the former the player can build facilities, buy new bases and equipment, hire soldiers and scientists, research technologies, build weapons, track and intercept UFOs. In the tactical mode, the scope changes to a small isometric slice of terrain, wherein the player equips and leads a squad of soldiers to wipe out any aliens that infest the surface. Seems like standard fare for a turn based strategy with an added action element, but there's a crucial difference--the strategic decisions are made in chaotic real-time (albeit with the option to slow things down), and all the action occurs in the traditionally staid format of turn-based gameplay.

It's easy to miss the impact of this, but the way Julian Gollop has reversed the cliched modes of play for action and strategy is extremely important to the game's style and feel. Contrast this with Archon or Lords of the Realm, other excellent genre-blenders which make the opposite and more traditional choices for action and strategy gameplay style. With the strategic view occurring in real-time, urgency -and- a sense of complete control are both carefully maintained, reimagining the normally staid, relaxed gameplay that is provided to the player of traditional turn-based strategy. As UFOs flit around the globe in real time, you don’t respond to static, finalized enemy decisions, but rather to –ongoing- actions that require precise timing and resource management for a successful response. Aliens (either flying, landed, or terrorizing civilians) aren't waiting around for you—if you take too long to respond or lack the resources to do so, you can only helplessly watch them go about their nefarious business.

And how is that business described? Simply but brilliantly. No cinematics, no flashy graphics, simply red dots flying around and turning into green x’s as they land. In the beginning game it seems almost random, since the player lacks the knowledge to divine alien intent, but –every- UFO mission has a deadly purpose. After interrogating some live aliens, you’ll learn about the –alien- missions, and what’s at stake if that red dot becomes a grounded green x and escapes unmolested—a new alien base can be created, a terror attack can be unleashed, your bases can be discovered and destroyed. They may engage in abduction, government infiltration, harvesting of Earth-based life (including humans!) for food—all evocative and frightening purposes behind those little red dots. And they require no graphics whatsoever for the player to understand and believe. Just a bit of imagination. Once you learn what those little buggers are up to, new strategic decisions are necessary beyond any “stop all dots, kill all baddies” cliché. Aliens attempting to infiltrate governments or discover your base suddenly receive priority for destruction, and if a terrorist ship isn’t stopped, it will cause a massive terror attack on an urban center, requiring a dangerous and costly tactical response. You may want to let supply ships for alien bases land before assaulting them rather than shooting them down, as this provides maximum resources from a tactical engagement. In addition to the added atmosphere and strategic considerations, any and all of their missions can impact your relations with various countries, your funding, the safety of your bases, and the scale of future alien attacks. All this added atmosphere and strategy results from little red dots and green x's? Brilliant!

The story unfolds primarily through research. As alien weapons and lifeforms are researched, gradually their dark purpose and origins become apparent. Live aliens of a higher intellectual order provide insights into alien strategy and society, dependent on the alien’s rank. You’ll learn far more useful information about their strategy from leaders and commanders, medics will provide you with research concerning other alien lifeforms, and navigators will provide you with the ability to decode a UFO’s purpose directly from radar. All are useful, all advance either the plot, atmosphere or strategic scope of the game.

The tactical mode is what really shines, however. Terrain is destructible, and the weapons are overpowered, balanced, and extremely fun to use. Soldiers build skills with use, and may be given custom names and equipment. Aliens are unique and terrifying, and their AI is brilliant but entirely fair as they are given the same abilities and limitations as the player’s units. As with the strategic mode, a perfect balance is struck between urgency and control, and again it’s due to an unusual choice: turn-based action gameplay. The chaos, fear and anticipation of combat are well simulated—opening a door or turning a corner and seeing an alien is a terrifying experience. This is largely because due to the action not being entirely divided by turn: units are not altogether static during an opponent’s turn—they may fire back if enough time units are available to do so, and their reaction skill is high enough. So all real-time questions remain: Do I have enough time to kill it before it reacts? Do I have backup to cover me in case I fail to eliminate the threat? Do I have time to run to relative safety? If I move, will it react and shoot me down? All these tactical problems are there and well-executed in a turn-based format. Since these benefits are maintained, the added control of turn-based gameplay perfects the system in a way that the often out-of-control mess of real-time tactics could never duplicate.

Lots of reviews here already mention the details and window dressing of X-COM gameplay that greatly enhance the experience (RPG elements, attachment to individual soldiers, etc.), so I thought the innovative, counter-intuitive choices the designers made to realize strategy and action deserved most of my review's attention. The balance achieved between player control and excitement is the big victory, and this makes X-COM a remarkable and unique experience.

The Bad

As far as gameplay goes, there is nothing wrong with this game. The dated graphics are the only real complaint.

The Bottom Line

A tour-de-force of innovative, unexpected design that broke barriers, transcended gaming cliches, and remains unmatched to this day.