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This chapter is from the book

X-COM: UFO Defense: Closet Classic (1994)

Genre: Father of Turn-Based Tactics Publisher: MicroProse Developer: MicroProse/Mythos Platform: PC

X-COM: UFO Defense (also known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe) is one of the finest strategy games ever designed. Released by MicroProse in 1994 during that company’s strategy heyday, it’s easily on par with classics such as Master of Orion and Civilization.

X-COM had everything: great graphics for its day, eerie sound, hordes of personality and charm, tactical depth, and lots and lots of options. Industry legend Sid Meier once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that a great game is all about forcing players to make choices. X-COM was loaded with choices.

"Cool game, but it’s no X-COM," was the common lament of strategy gamers in the late 1990s.

Alert! These Aliens Are Ticked Off!

The story behind the action was pretty straightforward, pulp fiction UFO stuff. In 1998, UFOs started appearing in the skies across the globe. Reports of not only sightings and abductions became commonplace and the people were freaking out, demanding that the government take action. So, the most economically dominant countries met in secret to form a covert multinational combat task force to take the aliens head-on. The new organization was known as the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit or X-COM for short.

You were in charge of the X-COM task force from top to bottom. There was a lot more to think about than just sending out your troops to investigate an alien sighting. Nations would actually back out of the X-COM alliance if they felt the service wasn’t up to snuff (thus reducing your funding). On top of pleasing countries across the globe, you had to construct buildings at the X-COM base, create new base sites, and hire scientists to study alien technology recovered from crash sites.

Administrative stuff aside, the meat of the game was still hunting down and taking out people-hating aliens of all shapes and sizes. Combat itself was turn-based, with each team member assigned time units that were expended through movement, crouching, firing, lobbing grenades, and so on. Pretty basic stuff, really, but what stood out was the alien weaponry and the fact that your team members were unique.

Each member of your X-COM squad had all sorts of traits that helped them to stand out from one another. I can even recall some of the names of my squad mates. Hersch was green and would freeze almost at the sight of an alien, whereas Sams was a grizzled veteran who could take anything the aliens dished out and returned fire with anything in the human arsenal. Consequently, it genuinely hurt your cause if one of your team members was too injured for duty, or worse, gunned down in their prime. For a game to have an effect like that, and that I can remember the names of team members a decade after the fact, is a testament to just how amazing and engrossing this game was.

After X-COM

X-COM was extremely popular and was one of the best-selling games of 1994–95 and with any popular game it brought on several sequels, none of which ever quite recaptured the essence of the original.

The series could still be revived though. Atari now owns the rights and with today’s graphics and sound technology a 3D turn-based alien-hunting game could be a hit. How about something like the original X-COM using the Half-Life 2 or Unreal engines? Nah...that makes too much sense and would be way too much fun. Forget I brought it up.

Another fantastic alien-killing, squad-centered, turn-based game from the 1990s was Blue Byte’s Incubation, which many consider the true spiritual successor to X-COM.

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