Why X-COM Matters (To Me)

By Alec Meer on April 14th, 2010 at 3:49 pm.

Oof, tough day. I totally get why people are upset, but once again it’s worth waiting for a few more details before you decide the new XCOM is the end of all that is sacred. Maybe it will be, maybe it won’t, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little honest hope. Today does, however, spell the end of a decade-long dream that someone would throw really serious money at resurrecting the fantastic hybrid genre 1994′s X-COM created. There is a great sadness there – so many ideas left to die, never bettered in the long gap between then and now. So let’s be hopeful, cautiously or otherwise, about XCOM, but let’s also raise a glass to X-COM. We owe it so much, and we may never see its like again. Sniff.

This is the first of two posts exploring why I (and many others) unwaveringly believe X-COM is one of the most important and greatest games ever made. We’ll talk about the game itself in the second one, but first please allow me to indulge myself with this autobiographical prelude. This is why X-COM matters to me.

It is sometime, I would guess, in 1993 or 94. It may be Summer. I’m browsing the magazine racks in a branch of WH Smiths in Worcester, England. I haven’t had a PC for long, and it’s the only games machine I’ve ever owned apart from a malfunctioning ZX Spectrum. Owning it (well, my mother owns it, but I’m allowed to use it weekends) has been a transformative experience for me. I’m desperate to play everything that’s released for it – like a lot of gentlemen my age, 1993-94 was the year I became a gamer. 365 days that made me what I am.

There’s just one problem: I can’t afford any games. It’s all copied floppy disks and, most of all, demos played to death and beyond. Trouble is, I can’t afford any games magazines either.

I can’t remember the magazine itself. PC Something, obviously, but it’s more a hardware one than a games one. Cover-mounted floppy disks don’t come cheap, so the magazines that carry two of them are rare and precious things. PC Something does have two, but that isn’t enough to encompass what was clearly a bumper month for demos. There’s some old crap sellotaped to the front (possibly a trial version of Lotus Office), but also a promise that you would be posted a bonus demo disk if you called a certain phone number and quoted a code from inside the magazine. As an additional clever/cruel gimmick, you’re only allowed one of the three demos on offer. One shall stand, two shall fall. The options are Sim City 2000, something I’ve forgotten, and another game I don’t recognise called UFO: Enemy Unknown.

Boy, do I want that Sim City 2000 demo. UFO? Never heard of it. Don’t care. Everyone’s talking about SC2K at school, though. Gotta have it. Can’t afford the magazine. Not fair, not fair. Idea! I scribble down the phone number with a leaky biro I found floating around my blazer pocket, and I’m just frantically flicking through PC Something to find the special code when one of my more surly teachers passes by, determines that lunchbreak is over (it bloody isn’t! There’s four minutes left!) and orders me back to school. No. No. Noooooooooooooooooo…

Home, that evening. I still have the phone number. I call it, not really knowing why – I’m such a goddamned wimp that I’m liable to hang up the second someone answers. Fortunately, a machine answers. A calm, pre-recorded, non-judgmental machine. A machine which simply wants me to intone my name and address. I do so, hope blossoming in my teenage pigeon chest. This is going to work! And then… the code. The bloody code. I um and ah into the line, then hang up, shaking. I’ve broken the law! They’re going to get me! And I’ll never get that Sim City 2000 demo now!

I don’t know how long passes. Time was different then. It may only have been a few days, but it seems like a lifetime. One day, a small parcel arrives for me. I don’t get parcels – this is strange and exciting. My father eyes me and it sternly, presuming mischief and/or contraband. Somehow, I escape upstairs with it. I don’t have the faintest what it is, but as I peel back the bubble wrap I spy the top of a 3.5” floppy disk. No way! It’s the Sim City 2000 demo after all! They must have somehow mistaken my whimpering and heavy breathing for the secret code. I win. I totally win.

I lose. It’s not Sim City 2000. It’s something I’ve never heard of. I’m disgusted, with it and with myself. UFO: Enemy Unknown? Hopeless Nerd: Playing Games Unknown By Anyone more like. I’m too miserly to bin it, though. It’s a free thing. It must be used at all costs.

I peer at the label, and my sneer softens. There’s something incredibly compelling about the picture of some giant tentacle beast with spaceships for hands. Of course there’s something compelling about it. I’m 13 years old, for God’s sake. Batman’s awesome, and I record Red Dwarf every week. That tentacle beast is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

I’m talking about the picture at the top of this post, the original UK cover art for a game you might also know as X-COM: UFO Defense. The picture is awful. Incredible. Unforgettable. And nothing whatsoever to do with the game itself, in that cheerily irrelevant way a lot of game art used to be.

I loved that disc. So colourful, a tiny beacon of joy and glory. A few weeks/months later, after I’ve been enthusing/boring everyone at school with my daily anecdotes about this incredible game I’d found, a rich acquaintance buys X-COM. He graciously allows me to copy it. With reverence, I copy the first of its three disks over my treasured demo disk. I Tippex out the words ‘playable demo’ and the logo of the magazine, and I’m left with something that is absolutely perfect.

I can’t believe I don’t still have that disk. A combination of theft and accident gave me my most adored game of all time: that disk is part of my DNA. The unexpected arrival of that disc is probably one of the most defining moments in my tiny life. It’s why I work for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, it’s why I spend so much time at a PC every day that I have agonising RSI in my right hand, and it’s why I flew to San Francisco to see the new XCOM a few weeks ago (No, not telling yet. Watch this space). I can’t believe I don’t still have that disk.

1993 once more. I dig out that phone number and try again, hoping that they’ll randomly send me Sim City 2000 instead this time. Months pass. Nothing. Rumbled.

It would be around a decade before I finally played Sim City 2000. Conversely, I have played X-COM at least once every year of my life since 1994.

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139 Comments »

  1. Dagda says:

    Thank you for confining the nostalgia to a seperate post. Speaking as a young whippersnapper of a game designer who first took a long look at the series last year, the X-Com games are amazing in ways that need no rose-tinted glasses to be seen.

  2. Premium User Badge

    lhzr says:

    “Today does, however, spell the end of a decade-long dream that the fantastic hybrid genre 1994’s X-COM created would be resurrected.”

    why would an X-COM FPS mean the end of the genre that the original created?

    • Alec Meer says:

      Expressed that badly- tweaked now.

    • Premium User Badge

      lhzr says:

      :)

      but they don’t need to throw a ton of money at something like this. most fans of the genre would prolly be satisfied with a clone with decent graphics and the same gameplay. yeah, i know that not all the cash goes into the gfx/anims, but still .. cloning x-com shouldn’t be a terribly expensive undertaking. there’s still hope for the genre even if it’s never gonna be mainstream enough to be worth investing a huge sum into.

    • JuJuCam says:

      A perfect world would be one in which the update that everyone one wants exists as an easter egg mini game in the new game…

  3. Mr_Day says:

    Sadly, the piccie-ture you mention about the boxart isn’t there, which is a shame.
    For those who care, I got the original UFO game when TFTD had just come out and a mag called PC Attack runs a competition – win an X-com shirt, pin badge and mug, and a copy of the original game for answering three questions.
    One question was “Spell xylophone”. They had actually written that out.
    One posted letter and about 2 months later I get a package with a Terror From the Deep shirt, mug, pin badge and UFO Enemy Unknown.
    Which doesn’t work on any of my computers. So we called up tech support and swapped the floppy disc version for a cd version, which does work. Hooray!
    I freaking loved it. I ordered the sequel from Special Reserve (remember them?) And om-nommed both the Apocalypse and Interceptor games (and I do like Interceptor, but then I was raised on Wing Commander, Elite and X-Wing).
    Then the Alliance game was announced. An X Com fps! I was one of a large number of people very excited about that – in my mind I have remade the X Com games a dozen times over, each time the geoscape and random events remain, but the intercept craft are playable as a flight sim, and the squad is controlled through a fps interface. It probably wouldn’t work, but in my head it is fantastic.
    Fuck it, it might work. Space Hulk did.
    EDIT: Oh, you put the piccie ture in. Fail Hard 2: Fail Harder, Petey.

  4. Baboonanza says:

    ‘A combination of theft and accident’
    Copyright infringment is not theft!!!!!! OMFG!

    Just kidding, nice piece.

  5. jsutcliffe says:

    UFO: Enemy Unknown (for that is its proper name, international versions be damned) was my first PC game, having been previously using an Amiga. I’d played other turn-based things (History Line and Battle Isle mostly) but never been able to get into them, so I wasn’t expecting much from UFO. I was quite wrong — it became an obsession over the next few months, and it was one of the few games that I completed without resorting to cheats.

    Oddly, I’ve never played TFTD, and any attempts at playing UFO again since have resulted in utter failure. I don’t remember it being especially difficult, but the game beats my backside into submission every time I’ve tried to play it over the past five or so years.

    • Mr_Day says:

      UFO was never anything but arse-rapingly difficult.

      I put the game on normal when replaying it for the first time the other month, only for it to chuck ethereals at me only two missions in. Harsh.

    • jsutcliffe says:

      @Mr_Day
       
      That just confirms something I’ve long suspected — I was way smarter as a 14 year-old than I am now. :(

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      Hodge says:

      I remember the original UFO having a bug where the difficulty would reset to hard after a short period of time, no matter what difficulty you picked at the start. I think it was saving or loading a game that triggered it.

      I freely admit that I was a shameless quicksaver with UFO – if I survived a round of enemy fire unscathed, I’d save at the start of the next round as a matter of principle. If I lost more than a couple of guys I’d go back to that last save.

      Even with that system the game was a complete bastard… but what a magnificent bastard it was.

    • stahlwerk says:

      There was a bug in the original version that reset the difficulty to “beginner” after the first battle, which may have been fixed in re-releases.

      Unfortunately, Microprose heard the comments about the low difficulty and — not knowing about the bug back then — made TFTD the hell UFO was always meant to be.

    • stahlwerk says:

      @hodge that’s what I get for my extensive research and dabbling about in the ufopedia.

      Here’s my source.

      OT: UFO was a great game, probably the most fun an 11 year old boy could have not involving dinosaurs or star wars.

    • Premium User Badge

      Hodge says:

      @stahlwerk Dammit! I remembered the bug but got it the wrong way around. Thanks for the correction.

      And is it just me or has the post-editing feature gone AWOL? Maybe it’s been taken by a GHOST POST.

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      Chaz says:

      What also made it even harder was that there was no real instruction on how to play it, i.e. useful strategies etc. You just got thrown in at the deep end to muddle through, only to find 20 hours later that a few choices you made right at the start of the game had completely borked things for you, forcing you to start all over again from scratch.

      Building your base and managing it, doing all the research and taking your squad out into the field to do battle was fun, but it was utterly soul destroying when the game could just casually wipe out your organisation in a single event, consigning hours and hours worth of game play right down the shitter.

      It was a great game for the time, but game audiences have changed, most people just don’t have the time or patience to invest in games that pitilessly punishing anymore.

    • FunkyBadger says:

      I never played UFo – only TFTD.

      And that’s still probably my favourite game.

      Took me dozens of attempts – over probably 4 years real time, I played it on my Dad’s PC on visits back from Uni – to ever unlock the psychic tech and improved armour.

      I still have nightmares about the Tentaculat…

    • Bret says:

      UFO is even better, if you can believe it. No ship terror missions, for one.

  6. redpanda says:

    This is wonderful

  7. Mister Adequate says:

    “I flew to San Francisco to see the new XCOM a few weeks ago (No, not telling yet. Watch this space).”

    Okay. I’ll admit. That gives me a measure of hope.

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      HermitUK says:

      It does at least show that 2K’s marketing department are having a serious off-day. On the one hand, we’ve got a die hard XCom fan saying “don’t give up hope yet wink wink nudge nudge say no more”. On the other, we’ve got a press release that pretty much says “We heard kids like FPS games and Aliens these days, so here’s XCom with FPSing and Aliens!”

      Note to marketing department – if you’re not going to show anything, presumably because a magazine has the first exclusive on the game itself, best not to say anything at all.

    • D says:

      ProTip: Don’t get your hopes up.

    • Premium User Badge

      HermitUK says:

      @D

      Very true, but therein lies my point:

      For anyone unfamiliar with XCom, this press release essentially announces another FPS. The solitary screenshot is unlikely to generate spontaneous interest.

      For anyone familiar with XCom, the press release contains next to no info about the game, but simply says “It’s an FPS”. Given the previous attempt at a more action-y XCom was Enforcer, it’s like the press release was written to deliberately worry and/or agitate the fanbase.

      So what really was the point of the press release at all? Why not wait another week or two til PC Gamer or Game Informer or whoever has their 8 page exclusive can break the news? Along with a bunch more screens and that oh so important point about how the game plays.

  8. Fumarole says:

    Sadly I own all of the games but have yet to play them. One of these days, I keep telling myself.

  9. /V/endetta says:

    What details?! It’s a f*cking FPS. The game is already FUBAR.

    • Mister Adequate says:

      @ /V/endetta: I think the whole point of this piece is that Alec does actually love X-Com as much as the rest of us. We can tell that pretty plainly, we all have our own memories of first encountering it. So whilst the press release might be a load of gubbins, his repeated statements like “Well let’s all hold up a moment here” carry a good deal more weight when he reveals he has actually seen the thing.

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      phlebas says:

      BAR, quite possibly. But not necessarily FU. There have been good shooty games.

  10. Rinox says:

    Nice piece Alec. :-) I love semi-accidental coming of age game stories. Here’s one of mine: As a young boy I bought Daggerfall with my very sparse allowance after reading the stories about absolute freedom and a world of wonder in a PC magazine of my dad. I came home and excitedly installed the game…watched the cool FMV intro, created my character and…got stuck in the beginning dungeon. No matter what I seemed to do, I would get killed by almost everything and everyone I met – mostly because I misunderstood most of the game mechanics and had a poor grasp of English. I also thought the entire game would be moving from dungeon room to dungeon room, which crushed my hopes.

    After a while, I gave up. I took it back to the store and tried really hard to convince them to take it back, but the store employee had little qualms about blowing off a sorry young boy and told me it wasn’t possible (a lie, i knew later). Naturally little young me didn’t insist. So I went back home and tried again…until I made it out of the starting dungeon and discovered the entire world on the surface! It really blew me away the first time I went into town and saw the guilds, shops, people, walls…etc. The game was so, so much more than what I’d imagined by then and more than fulfilled its promises.

    I didn’t stop playing for years, and to this day Daggerfall is still one of my nostalgia favorites of all time. Thank you asshole store employee!! :-)

    • EthZee says:

      And what do you think of Morrowind and Oblivion? I guess that would be the nearest parallel, here.

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      drewski says:

      I too started on Daggerfall, loved it despite it’s many flaws and quirks (and bugs, oh God, the bugs, you modern gamers don’t know how lucky you have it), and thought Morrowind was absolutely brilliant.

      Oblivion’s…OK.

  11. Brumisator says:

    Heartwarming story right there, Alec.

    I want to me 13 in the 90s again. :(

  12. GetOutOfHereStalker says:

    i own x-com, who else owns x-com? (me)

  13. GetOutOfHereStalker says:

    (someone make an xcom mod for the sims)

  14. Acosta says:

    Great story Alec, thanks for sharing it. When I think on games like X-Com, SC 2000, Syndicate or Master of Magic, my memories of them get more vivid, more intense. Some people call it nostalgia but I’m sure that’s not it because I played some other stuff and I barely remember it, those games had something special that is hard to find nowaday, maybe a different mindset from the designer and the team involved.

  15. jackflash says:

    Great post, Alec. The original X-Com is still my favorite game of all time, to this day. I love how you started the story, because that is exactly how I was exposed to X-Com for the first time. A humid day in western Wisconsin, I think in July, playing the X-Com demo on my friend’s 386 for hours while the clouds rolled in. It completely rocked my world. We played that demo for dozens and dozens of hours of the next few weeks, until I could finally afford to buy the thing (and a PC). Then, playing through the winter next year, renaming my troops after my best friends, reloading saved games when said best friends got turned into enemy aliens by Chrysalids, or dismembered by a guided missile gone astray, or an autocannon missing its mark (bloody things always were pretty inaccurate). Probably the best gaming memories of my life, there. X-Com recalls that golden age of PC gaming more than any other title. An age where games like Magic Carpet and Dungeon Keeper and Syndicate and Duke 3d got made. God, we’ll probably never have anything like that ever again, and that’s sad.

  16. JuJuCam says:

    To be honest I was never in love with X-COM the way a lot of people here were. I simply couldn’t penetrate the unforgivingly difficult… well everything about it from UI to strategic to tactical gameplay. But I do appreciate the gravity of this unique gaming experience from quite close to the dawn of PC gaming and, I guess from my perspective if someone tried to remake or make a sequel of Star Control II and did a bad job of it I’d probably do my best to try to forget it ever happened.

    Thing is… I can still play StarCon II and it’s just as good a gaming experience as it ever was. I can still play Fallout I and II. I can still watch BBC’s The Office. Or “Death at a Funeral” which is being remade with Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence (!). It’s actually really easy to ignore bullshit remakes and sequels.

    And there’s a possibility that taking a new direction, no matter how generic and safe that direction is, may produce something worth having a shot at playing simply by virtue of the legacy. And if not, well, that’s what DOSBox was made for.

    • Latro says:

      The difficulty is part of the appeal.

      X-COM clicks when you see it as a struggle between the underdog and the Champions of the Universe. In the beginning you are nothing. Less than nothing. Dont even attempt a terror mission. Be sure you will have 75% of your squad dead and call it a success.

      Every “victory” (as in, not total defeat) is a step, though. A step for payback. If you manage your steps carefully, you will reach the point of payback. The point YOU are the unstoppable force of destruction. And that contrast make it work.

      Now, if you are talking about Terror from the Deep, forget it, it is insanely difficult :-P

    • JuJuCam says:

      Yes but I was a sensitive kid and could never take half my team being obliterated no matter what I do in all of the first few missions.

    • Latro says:

      I know the feeling, its my normal feeling too, except X-COM. Somehow I managed to “change the chip” with it. So it is not “half the team dead no matter what I do” when I play, is “objective done no matter the cost… hey, JUST half the squad dead? WIN!!” :-)

      It helps there are infinite recruits with names and stats and nothing else. Most of the related games insist on personality, which has its charms but would not fly on X-COM.

      (I spent AGES with Jagged Alliance and Jagged Alliance 2 ensuring nobody died, ever).

    • Bret says:

      If you feel like that, (Lord knows I did first time out), well, that’s what the mid battle save is for. Takes a while to break the habit, but it’s still a good game.

      Only lost one man thanks to that.

      Of course, by now I’m trying to teach myself to play ironman style. Like all of us should eventually ect ect.

  17. Tom O'Bedlam says:

    Its odd actually, my first encounters with the X-Com series involved theft and accident as well.

    My initial X-Com experience was disorienting and incredibly hard, being a 7 year old attempting to play terror from the deep on my dad’s PC, he’d got the game from his mate who used to get those big bumper CD-ROMs with pirate games (remember them?), so there was no manual, no clue as to what to do. So I abandoned it, its impossible.

    Next encounter, is seeing the X-Com apocalypse advert in PC Gamer in 1997, the one showing a cat scan of someone who’s been brainsuckered, the scans gradually shifting into the head of a septoid. Knowing nothing else about the game, I wanted it. I loved the atmospheric cool of the advert and the accompanying picture of a base defence in front of a Annihilator. God, I wanted that game, but being 10 I was never going to be able to afford it.

    I’m now 13, a friend has lent me his copy of Carmageddon 2: Carpocalypse Now. I’m really excited about this game, I saw Death Race 2000 the weekend before, I can’t wait to act out the film from the comfort of my computer. When I get home and excitedly open the box I see my friend has put the wrong damn CD in the box, instead its X-Com Apocalypse, easy mistake I guess, both CDs are red… I’m still disappointed but whatever, I’ll play this game then, the name rings a bell.

    …It’s 4 hours later, I’ve not left my seat the entire time. I really, really need the toilet so I try to stand up and fall over in a heap. Turns out I’ve been sitting there, my entire body coiled in petrified tension, for so long my legs have locked into two solid blocks of meat.

    I’m now 23 and I always find myself returning, every year, to X-Com: Apocalypse. I’ve never found any gaming experience as nerve wracking or enjoyable, how could anything compare to the sound of a multi-worm crawling somewhere nearby, just waiting to explode with carnivorous hyperworms?

    • Tom O'Bedlam says:

      Ah… I forgot to mention. He never got the game disk back. Though I’ve got a feeling he’s still got my copy of Age of Empires.

  18. monkeybreadman says:

    Played it then and playing it now. I love this game.

    The main reason i think its great, is it allows your imagination to make up your own story. For example, i and i’m sure lots of you have too, always build a top secret research base at the north pole. I always call it IceStation North (i have to abbreviate) and imagine a hidden base in the ice filled with scientists prodding aliens and stuff. If i wasnt at work i’d be playing this now

  19. JuJuCam says:

    I don’t know if you realise but RPS is a blog run by four guys who are dedicated to PC Gaming. I don’t know where you get the idea that they MUST SELL GAMES. They’re not in the business of selling games. They’re not pushing some company line for a paycheck. PR firms don’t pay people to run their stories. Frankly I think your comment and attitude is out of line.

    • JuJuCam says:

      Apparently I replied to a ghost comment that was deleted as I was replying.

  20. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Great post Alec. As always.

    Hoping to see the rest of it soon.

  21. rocketman71 says:

    Wow, you pirating pirate! :P

    And you didn’t get to play Spectrum in the 80s?. UK and Spain where the best places to live for that.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      Don’t be ridiculous. Portugal would even buy the magazines from UK. It was a fever around here like I never seen since.

      Meanwhile, Eastern European countries would move on to carry the machine to this day, being some of the most prolific (and incredibly skilled) spectrum game coders in recent years.

      South America countries also greatly adopted the machine, with some of them even producing their own clones.

  22. Ian says:

    Oh get away with you.

    • Ian says:

      Er.. that was a reply to a post that appears not to be there any more. O_o

    • JuJuCam says:

      You too, huh? Let’s sit around a camp fire and tell stories of the ghost post.

    • Divebomb says:

      The absolutely hilarious post from the previous xcom story wasn’t appreciated. Haha.

    • Ian says:

      I’ve heard it has three tails and steals your NickNacks. :(

    • JuJuCam says:

      I heard it leaps upon you from above and makes you look foolish as you swipe away at nothing…

    • Bret says:

      I heard it lays eggs in your stomach that turn you into a zombie.

      While smiling.

  23. Tom Armitage says:

    And: because it was one of the first great demonstrations of cause and effect: the turn-based sequences punished you for foolish bravery, reminding you that, for most of the game, you were outclassed by the aliens; the interdiction segment forcing you to Deal With Shit before it Got Serious and the governments decided the Aliens were a better ally than you.

    But the best, best, best cause-and-effect thing in it is the base-building. Why? Well, because it seems as if the separate modes of the game are all distinct – after all, they’re separate executables on the disc, passing data back and forth between one another.

    But! When the aliens finally attacked one of your bases, you discovered that the base-creation screen wasn’t just a prettified tech tree; the layout mattered, and you’d be forced to slog through corridors you’d laid down yourself, terribly placed lifts and hangars allowing the blighters into all your labs and barracks. All of a sudden, it was clear: all the components of the game were, in fact, connected, and you had to play them all well to survive.

    • Quine says:

      This.

      As someone who put far too much GCSE revision time into Rebelstar2 (also insanely hard) and many a happy hour into Laser Squad, this was the pinnacle of turn-based excellence. It was like a series of Laser Squad scraps but with RPG progression and proper context for the locations and your little guys. Gaming has been all downhill since.

      I wonder what happened to the Gollops? Haven’t heard anything since that PBEM tactical fighter thingy they did about a decade ago…

    • Latro says:

      I know that, in theory, is as you say, and in practice, many people devoted HOURS to the theory and practice of safe base layout.

      I didnt. Couldnt figure out how to make a base that was ultra-safe and useful. If I’m not remembering things wrong the aliens entered via the aircraft pads?

    • Premium User Badge

      phlebas says:

      As far as I know the last thing Julian Gollop did was Rebelstar for the GBA. Nothing for PC since Lasersquad Nemesis.

    • Premium User Badge

      Hodge says:

      Yeah, I used to try to keep the hangars grouped together in a corner to keep the aliens together. I love that choke point idea, though. My bases tended to take up the entire floor plan, so I never thought to try anything like that.

      I still remember my base being invaded for the first time, how it quickly dawned on me that the ‘level’ I was playing on was actually what I’d built in the business screens. I was speechless – it seemed ridiculous to go to such detail, and yet they had. The game is full of little flourishes like that.

    • Quine says:

      Would running and gunning down the corridors of a base layout you’d built yourself in an FPS have the same appeal? Probably not but you can always hope.

      I’ll be buying a suspiciously large quantity of red barrels given the chance.

  24. CogDissident says:

    Actually, having worked for a PR firm. They did hire people to run positive PR pieces on them. And infact had a room of 20+ people that did nothing but go on forums and blogs and generate good press for various customers.

    Side note: Did you know that you can hand money to Yahoo and have them search-rank you higher?

    • CogDissident says:

      Gah, was trying to respond to a comment above, replied in the wrong spot. Not implying the author was paid off at RPS, just that some of them can be.

  25. Paul B says:

    This post reminds me a bit of not-very-good film Sliding Doors. Is there an Alec Meer in an alternative dimension who didn’t receive the disk through the door, and is now a Pig Farmer or Heart Surgeon? I wonder…

  26. Premium User Badge

    Morph says:

    I also browsed the magazine racks of WH Smiths in Worcester in the early 90s. Woooo!

  27. Cooper says:

    My glimmer of hope, if you’ll allow me it, is not for the next game using the XCOM IP.

    It’s that the huffing and puffing, the nostalgia and reverence, the AIMs and the fans who are clamouring on the inter-tubes about the new XCOM game will be a catalyst for someone, anyone, producing a turn-based squad tactical game (with a coherent metagame with which it is woven) in the near future with the same care and attention that the original XCOM had.

    • Divebomb says:

      stardock are watching. watching and waiting

    • monkeybreadman says:

      Stardock make XCOM! If you’re worried about the license call it YCOM, or Call of COM, or COMSHOCK

    • Saiko Kila says:

      Stardock and “near future” don’t play well together. They have been meddling with clone of Master of Magic since 2004 and the product still has to hit the shelves. Though I have some confidence in them.

    • Lilliput King says:

      I’m unsure of why an FPS is incompatible with the meta-game of the first two X-Coms.

  28. PASTRIES says:

    i also would have appreciated a less…. predictable? pandering? take on X-Com, but it’s best not to get too worked up over this – the era of first person shooters AND the sad, lonely era of narrative games are BOTH drawing to a close.

  29. MrPyro says:

    UFO was actually my favourite two-player game when I was around 15-16. I really enjoyed the base-management/research/interception bit of the game, but hated the ground combat. I had a friend who hated the management but loved the combat. So we’d spend many a happy hour playing, swapping over whenever we got to or finished a ground combat mission.

    TFTD boat terror missions suck though.

  30. bvark says:

    Can’t believe no-one else begged, borrowed or stole to get a copy of UFO: Enemy Unknown after hearing it was a game by the makers of Laser Squad.

  31. Pamplemousse says:

    As sad as I am about it becoming a FPS I think we can only judge when we play the game, I have become increasing skeptical about press releases.

    Anyone remember this?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNWppHev3ZA

    That was not what Dragon Age was like.

    Playing Dragon Age changed my mind about it, maybe – hopefully – the fps will not be awful.

    • D says:

      This is an interesting point. Maybe the industry has thought this through and are now actively doing reverse marketing. First they market the game in development as the most bland and mediocre FPS, giving no credence to the original source material, and somehow this gets everyone talking about buying this. When the game then comes out, it’s actually a much deeper experience with a seamless mesh of the TB strategy and FPS genre, but only the fans will know this before they buy, as the average gamer never reads the reviews! They make the game for the fans, and it still sells to everyone like butter!

      Yeah. Can I try that pipe of yours?

    • D says:

      I get what you’re saying though. It might be a great game, even. But without turns it can never be an X-COM game. This is exactly like Bethesdas.

    • Lilliput King says:

      “I get what you’re saying though. It might be a great game, even. But without turns it can never be an X-COM game. This is exactly like Bethesdas.”

      Except that what Fallout 3 got wrong was the characters, quests and worlds. The combat was fucking terrible, certainly, but in that respect it was true to the originals.

      Which begs the question, if being turn-based is key to what a game is, is it required to have every other recognisable feature? It’s hardly like every conceivable addition to the Fallout franchise is required to have hexes or rubbish graphics in order to be Fallout. They weren’t what made the game good, but they were necessary in order for it to be made. I’m unsure of whether being turn-based can be considered a limitation imposed by technology, but the face remains games have a certain essence which is difficult to capture. Being turn based isn’t key to that essence in anything but Checkers.

      I also find it unlikely that Alec would be urging us not to piss on XCom’s PR parade if it was a straight up shooter.

    • FunkyBadger says:

      An “X-Com” style shooter, would be as tactical as SWAT4 and as deadly as a Portuguese Man’o War with a flick-knife.

      Hmmm, that sounds quite good, actually. Somebody make it happen.

  32. Feste says:

    I still have that box with that artwork sitting up in my wardrobe now. For me it wasn’t just about the game, which was awesome, but that it was one of the last boxed games which came with fluff worthy of the name.

    A short memoir of a X-Com soldier’s training and first mission, a history of the invasion; it was all perfectly pitched at nerdy boys like me and kept me hanging on.

    The game was slightly too hard but it required me to start to learn room clearing tactics, popping smoke and waiting for a couple of turns for it to expand before you rush the room. The destructible enivronment leant to some really last-ditch tactics.

    And even outside the mission you had autopsies and research into technology man was not meant to know. It was a game that created a world to me, it did just enough to feel complete.

    Luckily I’ve got it on Steam. Might give it a go.

  33. Weylund says:

    Alec: most of us who were 13 in 1993 had been gamers since the mid-80s. I had an Atari 800, a Nintendo, and an Apple IIGS prior to the PC. You lost half a decade, man!

    That said: X-COM was one of the handful of games that made me who I am. TiE Fighter, Star Raiders, SEAL Team, and Wargames Construction Set II: TANKS! being the others. Funny that nearly all of those were PC games… I guess I’m lucky my father needed a 486 for his home office.

  34. Dan (WR) says:

    I bought UFO: Enemy Unknown for the Amiga when it came out and it was a very special game. I loved the RPG elements of naming and building a team and coming to care about them, and the turn based nature tied into my boardgame love too. I’ve not gone back to it in years as I suspect the game would now whoop my feeble old-man brain.

  35. mrtillo says:

    I think the most sadistic feature of UFO was giving the player the option to name their soldiers. I only had one squad, and I named them all after my closest buddies from school. Now, imagine the trauma of seeing them repeatedly plasma’d, blown up, mind-controlled, infected, etc. over and over and over and over again. Never have I saved/reloaded a game as much as I did that game. The only compensation was the moment that I first got a chance to use the blaster launcher. Firing that beautiful bastard and guiding the rocket right into the face of an oncoming chrysalid was one of the finest moments of catharsis that my younger self ever experienced. God bless UFO.

    • Saiko Kila says:

      I always tried to give them meaningful, living names. Most of the rookies were dying long before when you gain practical immortality, but these who lived through this were real Heroes, inspiring Commanders and walking Legends. I play UFO sometimes (on PC, not Amiga) but I still remember these first names. Sixteen years now.

  36. Bret says:

    Latro said:
    I know that, in theory, is as you say, and in practice, many people devoted HOURS to the theory and practice of safe base layout.

    I didnt. Couldnt figure out how to make a base that was ultra-safe and useful. If I’m not remembering things wrong the aliens entered via the aircraft pads?

    Airplane hangers and the access lift. Which means you put all three hangers in a row just pass the lift, creating a devastating choke point.

    Turns base defenses into a turkey shoot. Use the tanks as the recon force. They’re the most expendable, usually.

  37. diebroken says:

    Sic transit gloria PC…

  38. Cinnamon says:

    These days if you got sent the wrong game it would probably be some boring old over hyped shooter game.

  39. the_fanciest_of_pants says:

    I for one am remaining cheerfully optimistic about the new XCOM. Until I’m convinced otherwise by actual facts.

    The fact that it is an FPS is not enough to deter my enthusiasm.

    Anyone who is willing to write off the game completely based on the (ludicrously scant) information we have so far is a bitter moron, in my humble opinion.

    • Latro says:

      Optimistic? Nah.

      Enraged? Neither.

      X-COM is what it is. This doesnt looks like X-COM. It may surprise us. It may be good. It may be even a worthy successor. Or not. I really dont care at this point , will take a lot of possitive info to get me excited about it. But hate, ruined childhood, WTF?

      Its Fallout 3 all over again. Yes, I would very much have liked to have seen “Van Buren”. Hell, I would BUY “Van Buren” today. Fallout 3? No, its not Van Buren. Its not bad, either. It doesnt piss into my memories – cause the memories are still there and the GAMES too, to play as much as I want. Yes, I want the “real successor”. As I’m not going to get it anyway, whatever this does is to be judged on its own terms. Nobody is obliged to make the sequel I want.

      The only weird thing in this is the insistence of companies that keep reviving old IP to “harness the fans” and then doing it in a way that rational fans will not care one bit about. Irrational fans are another story :-P

  40. CMaster says:

    Never really played the original UFO.
    Played the TFTD demo a fair bit, picked the game up from a bargain bucket when I got a bit older.
    God damn that game is hard. So hard that I never got very far with it before getting a startergy guide off a friend, that at least explained that Deep Ones were the most important research subject ever.

    But I absolutley loved it. So much. Sunk many, many hours into it, and an awful lot of save/reloading. I recall being terrified of Lobster Men the first time I met them. I had sonic weapons but only bits and pieces of aqua plastic armour. After the first one I met killed like 3 of my men, I finally got it with 3 sonic cannon shots. It fell unconcious!

    On the subject of a remake, I’ve been thinking about this for years. For a long time, making the tactcal missions FPS-ish, á la Space Hulk was the idea. I might still stick with that idea, but my recent ideas have said that the best kind of XCOM-like you could get would ditch the XCOM name and setting. It was good, but it isn’t necessary. You can move the combination of staretgic planning and tactical combat to so many different settings. Mine was of some clandestine anti-government paramillitary group. Instead of funding nations, you get your money from missions and a variety of different sources. Cause wholesale destruction and death, anarchist groups like you, but civil-liberties types pull out. Attack a corporation for nice treatment from Socialist Revolutionaries and rival corps. Etc.

    • Link says:

      That sounds quite a bit like how Apocalypse went about its funding actually.

  41. Mario Figueiredo says:

    I seriously propose a “Julian Gollop One a Day” week at RPS if we come to realize they are going to defile X-COM name and importance in gaming history.

    Here’s my suggestion (in historical order):

    Nebula
    Rebelstar Raiders
    Chaos
    Laser Squad
    Lords of Chaos
    UFO: Enemy Unknown
    Magic & Mayhem

  42. Chris says:

    I adore XCom. I have it on a CD and play it at least once a year myself. I didn’t have a computer when I first played it, but my friend did. He used the top couple save slots, I used the bottom couple save slots, and another friend used the middle save slots. We would play or watch the other person play into the wee hours of the morning.

    The greatest bit was that I beat the game before my friends. The guy that owned the game had an elite squad of six or eight men. All armed with flying armor, med kits, psi ball things and blaster launchers. He had hover tanks as scouts and he would overcome his obstacles with tactics and precision. Life was precious, he had invested time and energy into training his men.

    I loaded my craft with mostly unarmored recruits packing plasma rifles and not much else. The rare favorite characters had flying armor. My strategy generally revolved around the premise that I seemed to have an endless supply of soldiers as long as my money held out. Soldiers that flubbed a shot the turn before were likely going to be the first man through the door next turn.

    I lost nearly half my force when I discovered that going down the elevator meant all those not ready to go into the base proper were locked out. I took out the leader with my last soldier. My friend hissed in disgust. He had been watching intently for intel on how his troops should engage the enemy. Smugly secure in the fact that I would fail and he could swoop in behind with his elite force and do what I couldn’t.

    Good times….

  43. phil says:

    This makes me so nostalgic, never played X-Com until a couple of years back, but as a nipper I tended to nick the demo disks from the front of magazines at every opportunity (even the MIGHTY gum adhesive and selotape combo used by Amgia Power fell to my avaricious fingers, though I did eventually start to buy it.)

    I was caught once in WH Smith. I explained that as it clearly stated they were free disks, I should be allowed to take one, I just didn’t want the magazine they came with. Kids pirating games today risk missing out on these crucial childhood experiences.

  44. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    Throughout almost the entirety of 1994, I set aside a couple of times during the day – a half hour before school, and the hour before I went to bed. They were my UFO times. I would adhere to them no matter what.

    I’d never done that for a game before then, and I’ve never done it since. The game’s a freaking masterpiece.

  45. Saiko Kila says:

    UFO has been my favourite game for the last 16 years. Apocalypse is also high on list, in Top Ten. Therefore to try an attempt like that is to utter a blasphemy. There were many points raised, that the gameplay is important (both strategic and tactical) and resource management and so on so on. But I’d like to point out, that you CANNOT be an FBI agent in game like that. First, agents aren’t military commanders with dozens of subordinates and their own multiple, fortified bases, they’re more like cops or officers, they shoot don’t think. Second, FBI is an government agency, funded by government, not some international independent organisation financed by world community of free people. Third, this is an USA agency, and you know they’ve been already infiltrated and are a part of conspiracy and soon would withdraw any support for anti-alien defence, that should be obvious! UFO commander is not agent Mulder! (nor even this guy who would become Smoker after zombie outbreak) I don’t know how could they even aspire to incorporate such elements into the story, if they want to retain the Original Spirit of XCOM. Bold, they are.

  46. Colton says:

    Any time someone says “Have you played ‘X’ game yet? It LOOKS AMAZING !” I force them to sit and play X-Com for a day – that typically shuts them up for good.

  47. clive dunn says:

    The last i heard Julian Gollop is living in Romania and he was having terrible trouble with the local builders putting in his new kitchen. I seem to recall he’s got a job with some software firm out there.

    Julian, if you’re reading, how you doing?

  48. clive dunn says:

    oh, and if Alec has seen the new x-com (it’s not too late to get the hyphen back in), and he hasn’t killed himself (or anyone else) i think we can safely assume that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY.

  49. Thelonious says:

    I was too young to properly grasp UFO when it came out. I loved it, in shit-your-kecks-when-the-Mutons-turn-up sort of way, but I could never progress very far. XCOM Apocalypse was the game for me. Acres of irrelevant backstory and atmosphere by the bucketload, along with plentiful opportunities for mayhem and ultraviolence. Beautiful game, despite the farting alien sound effects.

  50. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    My own childhood memory of X-COM was of seeing my friend play it, the same semi-rich friend who also gave me a copy of Master of Orion. (How is it that Microprose seems to have a monopoly on those old 90s games that still make the “best games of all time” lists year after year?)

    I don’t recall when I actually started playing X-COM myself. Maybe I got a copy from him too; maybe I just started playing it when copying DOS games over the Internet became possible. Either way, I know I’ve been playing it a long time.

    I actually just started playing it again last week, out of the blue, and deliberately broadcasting that fact via adding it to Steam as a non-Steam game, even if the Steam overlay doesn’t work within DOSbox. And at some point, I sat down and started wondering — what exactly is X-COM? What were the key elements that made it so great?

    I think you need to address each half separately. The two parts, geoscape and battlescape, really are separate games — both figuratively and literally — that happen to transparently communicate with each other. Obviously your actions in each have an impact on the other, which is what makes them a cohesive game, but each has its own separate genre, gameplay, etc.

    I’m not really sure how to classify the geoscape. It’s easy to just call it “generic strategy” and leave it at that, but that seems like cheating and doesn’t say very much besides. I think the key here is that it all feels real. It’s not like e.g. Civilization — which, while using real-world concepts and units, is very clearly an abstraction. Instead, you’re detecting UFOs in realtime (well, 5x realtime minimum) and dispatching interceptors to deal with them, then watching them engage in combat, shot by shot.

    Later, you get to build new radar bases and watch your global defence network come online. Eventually you get to see individual alien missions and witness the patterns behind what were seemingly random attacks before. You get to watch helplessly as a battleship on an “alien retaliation” mission makes a beeline for your base, praying you can manufacture just one more laser rifle before they get there … and then watch them zoom overhead and go searching around the continent because you shot down their scouts and they don’t actually know where to look. (Heck, they might not even search the right continent — the AI searches wherever you’ve been shooting down UFOs, and doesn’t cheat to find you.)

    The battlescape, though, is much easier to classify. It came to me when I was storming a Large Scout, trying to get the navigator alive even though I didn’t have anything better than stun rods to do it with. My tanks quickly secure the area, then move in and cover the UFO front door. My troops stack up at two different points along the outer UFO wall, and sniper squads sit further back in case anything unexpected pops out. Lone troopers run up and plant high explosives at two different points on the wall. (I’m running XcomUtil, which patched them to have enough power to blow a small hole in a UFO wall, i.e. more than just big heavy grenades.) The walls are blown, we throw smoke grenades in, and then both sets of troops move in under cover of smoke, quickly clearing the room and stun-rodding anything they see. We take one casualty, but we get our navigator, and the mission is most certainly a success.

    That was about the point where I realised — X-COM is a sort of “SWAT with aliens”. True, not every mission involves that sort of coordinated SWAT-style room clearing; often it’s easier and safer to just send in a blaster bomb or a few rockets and nuke an entire farm building rather than actively clear it. But especially in the early game, your options for dealing with battle essentially come down to real-world police tactics. Even terror missions are like hostage situations where the enemy has already started shooting hostages. (Of course, things go from “police” to “military” later on — blaster bombs are like having air support on call, for example. Maybe that makes it more like “Rainbow Six with aliens”. The old tactical one, not the new “Vegas” crap.)

    The funny thing is, SWAT 4 is right up near X-COM on my list of games I’d love to see a sequel for, and I know I’m not alone in that. There’s something to be said for a game where you’re unequivocally the “good guys”, rather than most shooters, where at best, you’re fighting for your nation (any war game), and at worst, for your own self interests (GTA, etc.). Where the enemy is firmly entrenched and your only advantages are surprise and sound tactics. Where often your goal is to take the enemy alive if possible, but if all you have is a stun rod and the enemy is on the other side of the room pointing a gun at you, you’re fully expected to shoot.

    The ability to destroy buildings and terrain is pretty important, too. In that sense, X-COM was something of an extremely early prototype of Red Faction Guerrilla. Sure, destroying an entire building with nothing but a sledgehammer was a nifty gimmick, but the real value of RFG’s destructibility was when you started taking it for granted. You’re escorting hostages out of a building, but you get ambushed at the front door; you happen to remember what side of the building you parked on, though; and so, without even thinking about it, you quickly blow a hole in the nearby wall and hop directly into your waiting truck.

    It’s the same sort of thing in X-COM, where you might casually decide to blow a hole in the side of a building just so you can see inside, or cut your way directly into civilian warehouses with laser rifles rather than take the long way around and use the doors. (Frankly, the doors are typically more risky anyway, although this stems from X-COM’s inability to open a door without actually walking through it.) There’s nothing quite like firing a blaster bomb in through the window of a farmhouse to take out an enemy you saw skulking around up there, only to see it obliterate the entire second floor and a chunk of the next building over. It wouldn’t be nearly the same if you just saw an explosive blast go puffing out through the doors and windows.

    That’s why I’m rather worried about one of the work-in-progress free X-COM clones out there. It’s using the Quake 2 engine for rendering, and apparently, Q2 can’t handle the notion of walls being altered in realtime. So, just like that, they throw out one of the key concepts of X-COM.

    And in imagining an X-COM without destroyable buildings, I start to realise how many different little things came together just right in X-COM, and how different (and broken, IMO) it would be if any of those elements were removed. I think that right there is the problem with trying to do a sequel or even a pure remake of X-COM. There’s just so many things you need to do right — things that were actually easier back in the day when graphics and graphical expectations were more limited.

    Anyway, sorry for the long rant here. I guess this is all to say — yeah, X-COM matters to me, too.

    • Marar says:

      Just wanted to add to that: you CAN open doors without walking through them, just right click them.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      You must be thinking of the Windows version. or the Playstation version, or Terror From The Deep, or something. (I know the latter two had door opening.)

      I literally just went and tried it, standing in front of a UFO’s door and repeatedly right clicking on the other side — no go. (Unless you only mean civilian doors.)

    • CdrJameson says:

      Did Laser Squad teach us nothing?

      ALWAYS* open doors by blowing through them on autofire.

      That way any aliens hanging around on the other side get to eat Laser Death, rather than handing you their opportunity fire sandwich.

      *This advice may not be quite so useful on terror missions.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      Bah, you earn more points killing aliens than you do for losing civilians, and it’s one fewer civilian for the Chryssalids. Besides, terror missions are just about saving face in a bad situation, not about actually doing a good job. ;)