Jun 21, 2011

Retro Review: X-COM: UFO Defense

This review is written for X-COM running under DOSBox on a mid-line Windows 7 laptop.

            When it comes to old games, there seems to be diminishing returns as to whether or not it’s worth it to go back and play it. Even when you can get it to run on modern hardware, the gameplay is usually so outdated when compared to modern iterations that all it serves to do is destroy any nostalgia you have had. However, with all of the recent hubbub about the new XCOM game and the associated revilement from the dedicated fanbase, I decided to go back to 1994 and see what was so great about the original. I’m happy to say that not only is X-COM: UFO Defense a fantastic game, but it still holds up and feels unique even after nearly two decades.

            In short, X-COM puts you in charge of an international group of G-men that are asked with defending the world from an ever increasing alien threat. And when I say “in charge”, I mean in charge of everything. From your base layout to manufacturing to budget management to directly commanding troops, you call all the shots. If this sounds daunting, it’s because it is, and the game gives you very little instruction of what you’re doing. That said, a few hours of trying and failing is more than enough to get a grasp of the basics, and on the easiest difficulty that’s all you need to survive long enough to learn the rest.

The Geoscape is where you manage large-scale operations
            The best way to describe X-COM is to divide it into its component parts. The first of these is the Geoscape, a world map where you locate and hunt down UFOs around the globe. From here you can see all of your bases, and can deploy aircraft to attack enemies within radar range. There is a fair bit of strategy in how you deploy your craft; early on, all you need to do is send a fighter to shoot down a hostile, but as time wears on you’ll be tasked with multiple UFOs at once, including some that can make mincemeat of your basic interceptors. This forces you to determine which UFOs are high priority and make a guess as to which is heading where in order to deploy and shoot down as many as possible. It is also beneficial to simply follow certain enemies in order to either recover them whole or tail them to their base, which you can assault to slow down the alien advance. 

As your troopers level up, they can get pretty badass
            Speaking of assault, the ground level turn-based Battlescape is where the majority of your time will be spent. What you bring to battle is entirely of your own choosing; from which troops to what gear, X-COM never makes any decisions for you. The Battlescape is governed by Time Units that determine how far any one trooper can move, whether they can change stance or how they can fire. As the named individuals survive multiple deployments, they can level up, increasing TUs alongside health, accuracy and other statistics. The levels in the Battlescape range from tiny forested areas to larger urban environments, depending entirely on where a UFO is shot down or tailed to. This can drastically alter the combat, which relies on distance, line of sight and verticality. The vertical aspect of combat is one of the truly dated bits that I ran into; the fact that units (friendly or hostile) on a higher plane cannot be easily selected without manually moving the camera up and clicking them takes far longer than it should and can be infuriating later in the game when your troops have flying suits and may be on up to five different planes. That said, the combat still feels good, with the different weapons feeling powerful and shots often being one- or two-hit kills on either side of the battle.

Your various bases can get very complex
            The final aspect of X-COM is base management, and while this may sound like the boring part, it actually does well to split up the combat and can have a huge influence on the flow of a specific game. Here you use money earned for defending the countries of the world (or selling captured alien goods) to build structures like hangars, laboratories or factories, as well as living quarters to house the required soldiers, scientists and engineers. The labs are able to research dozens of different things, such as new weapons, UFO parts or the aliens themselves. As research is completed, the workers can construct these alien technologies for you own use, including improved radars and UFO-esque interceptors. The interface for all of this is dense, and there’s a constant struggle to ensure you have ample budget, parts and on-duty soldiers to be constantly producing and protecting from potential alien retaliation. On top of that, you can have up to eight bases, which can be quite a handful. Once again, however, enough trial and error can show what you should and shouldn’t focus on and the best way to keep yourself in the black, financially.

            As far as story goes, there isn’t much to go on. Each game you play starts you out with a single base of your choosing, and from there you decide how to proceed to turn your small agency into a worldwide alien ass-kicking powerhouse. The information that you do get comes from research, where apart from discovering new technologies you can look into alien anatomy and origins, as well as interrogating live prisoners to learn more about what is going on with the increasing alien attacks. Once you have developed certain technologies and have discovered the necessary info about the aliens, you are given the option to engage in a final mission to finish them off once and for all, which is how you can actually finish the game. It comes down to a Civilization style of gameplay, which is by no means a slight against it except that it gives any one game of X-COM only as much personal involvement as you are willing to give it.

            It’s not a walk in the park to get running, with DOSBox being a requirement to even install. That said, you can get the original off of Steam for $5, and it has all of that external software included and configured. It’s easy to write off as crazy those people who hate new sequels simply because they’re too different from the original. While I certainly think that the new XCOM looks interesting, my experience with the 1994 version has been so positive that I absolutely see where those superfans are coming from. If you have any interest in older games and have a bit of patience, you should definitely check out X-COM.

Images captured by author


  1. You have awesome reviews. Good stuff!

  2. Oh my god, this is one of my favourites games of all time! Follow your blog

  3. plane genius. epic game. listen to cliffy b?

  4. I'd like to see a remake of the original XCOM, just to update the graphics, & fix the bits they couldn't pull of as well as they'd of liked, back in the 90's.

  5. wellpickedbooger:

    It's a fan-made remake of X-COM. I had crashing issues and it's way, way more complex than the original is. That said, it is structured literally identical.

  6. very nice review of one of my favorite games :)