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UFO: Enemy Unknown retrospective

X-COMmunicating a strategy classic.

And so there are these aliens and to you've got to stop them and you have loads of different guns but then they've got like Snakemen and psychics and you have to build a base and you shoot down UFOs with jets and there are missiles and lasers and radars and scientists making stuff then you get flying suits and hover tanks and you can mind control things and you build your own UFOs and there are zombies and you go to Mars and you fight a big eyeball and there's this remote-control missile launcher and you carry dead aliens in your backpack and…

It's deeply strange to be in a position where I need to assess why the original X-COM: UFO defense, aka UFO: Enemy Unknown, was and is so brilliant. My earliest encounters with it were based on babbling schoolyard enthusiasm, the joyful disbelief of the 12-year-old over the quantity of sci-fi indulgences on offer in this strange, apparently unheralded game. At the time, it sounded like lies - the innocent stream-of-conscious blather of any young boy when talking about something that had fired their imagination. So discovering that all that mad stuff really was in the game was a blissful moment - and even had X-COM been a terrible game, I'm fairly sure it would have lodged permanently in my impressionable mind anyway.

Come 2012, pre-teens cannot be moved so easily: they've done it all a thousand ways in a thousand games and a thousand episodes of Ben 10 and Doctor Who, and quite frankly so have grown-ups too. So all the discussion around this week's remake has become acute dissection of why it does or doesn't work, and of course how it compares to its revered parent.

That is too many soldiers, let's be honest. Half of them will end up just lurking on the ship for most of the mission.

Going back to X-COM in the wake of XCOM and its many changes throws many things into sharper relief - it forces a sort of objectivity from me that hasn't been remotely possible over the last two decades of worshipping at its VGA shrine.

I can see a game that's more flexible and with a greater density of tactics, features, victories and fail-states than its 2012 reincarnation.

I can see a game with an awkward, unhelpful and inconsistent interface that predated the huge changes Windows 95 and Mac OS 7 brought to the way we use computers.

I can see a game that's hard as nails and scary as a face at the window at midnight, and one that demands players teach themselves everything and take loss and death on the chin.

I can see a game where the missions lack a bigger tactical picture, where most of your too-large squad staggers aimlessly and slightly tediously across the map, jealously guarding time units in the hope of stumbling across near-stationary enemies, then all rushing over in a desperate huddle when one finally makes itself known by insta-killing one of their mates out of nowhere.

Unlike XCOM's oddly murky and single-HQ approach, in X-COM the base you build between missions grows before your eyes - and soon enough must expand to whole new bases across the globe.

I can see a game where I have at least a dozen different objectives in my head at any one time, where I'm juggling a quantity of balls that any mainstream game would shy away from in commercial terror today. A game in which I both figuratively and literally create my own, unrepeatable path through, working through its tech-tree as my squad organically grows and tearing through the wall that lies between my soldier and the enemy.

I can see a game where the majority of my soldier's actions don't especially matter, compared to the life and death tension attached to every shot in XCOM.

I can see a game that can and will co-exist with rather than be supplanted by its remake. X-COM and XCOM are completely different games, both ingenious and both flawed in their own ways. I'd kill for a hybrid of the two, but having two rather than one sure is nothing to sniff at.

I could preach about grenade-cooking or rescuing injured allies by carrying them in their mates' backpacks or the dark wonder of seeing my own base from a new perspective when aliens invaded it or the importance of which direction units were facing at the end of a turn. Most of all, though, it's the terror of X-COM that will likely be what keeps it just a nose ahead for me.

Where XCOM has more of a SWAT approach, a small squad who don't roam too far from each other moving relentlessly forwards to the evident heart of the action, X-COM is hide and seek with death rays and things that go 'BANG! YOU'RE DEAD!' in the night. The original has that classic horror movie element of having to split up, of lone soldiers entering dark places and finding monsters waiting for them in the shadows. Then, face to face with an implacable alien foe, they run out of time units. Cut to another team member on the other side of the map, warily combing a cabbage field for signs of deadly life. They hear a 'zzzzzap', a blood-curdling scream, and they know that they have one less friend in the world. They know, more or less, where a fate exactly equal to death is, and now they have to go over there themselves. Lummee.

This Chrysalid is very pleased that somebody's playing with its intestines.

That is the quintessential X-COM experience and, once first impressions are swallowed down, the blocky graphics, ridiculous Liefield-inspired character designs and bothersome interface don't subtract from its tension and terror at all. It's such an evolving experience too: superstar soldiers will emerge at random, tiny differences in stats and a few cases of being in the right place at the right time seeing them soar above their fellows. Then, when they are lost, just when you know them best and when their hard-to-pronounce Eastern European names are engraved on your heart, the grief is immeasurable.

X-COM was always a game about losing, and not too far departed from those same masochistic tendencies that inform Dark Souls today. The losses, the causalities, the skating on the brink of disaster has to happen in order that those few snatched victories feel hard-won and meaningful.

The return of X-COM as XCOM and as a turn-based strategy - against all odds and even the dismissive comments of its own publisher in previous years - has much the same spirit. X-COM's values were lost, ignored and abandoned by those who held the rights and by those who could have made rivals. But the small victories of the unfailingly faithful - the Long Play diaries, the open-source remakes, the Steam re-releases and even the evident passion for the game at Firaxis - meant something survived the losses.

For years we were punished, and this week we had our reward. It might be different, it might pull a few punches it perhaps shouldn't and it might not manage to wholly supplant its predecessor, but unbelievably it is a true-blue turn-based strategy game with blockbuster presentation. X-COM was and is important enough for that to happen. We lost many battles, but by God we won the war.

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UFO: Enemy Unknown


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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.