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Modder Superior: a swabbie's guide to X-Com conversion mod X-PirateZ

Horny on the Spanish main

Sin Vega first introduced me to X-PirateZ three years ago, already a sprawling X-Com: UFO Defense mod by "Dioxine" about leading a crew of sexy lady air-pirates in a post-apocalyptic world. She called it "The greatest total conversion ever made" at the time, but I wasn't so convinced. Massive as it was, I felt it was still skeletal and confusing, requiring much trial and error and many false starts. A lot has changed since 2016, and it has grown into a (mostly) coherent strategy RPG sandbox with a devil-may-care attitude on par with Disgaea.

Orbital, underwater and underground missions are in. Story arcs, bounty hunts, tons of factions, over a hundred mission types and more guns than anyone could ever use. There are duels and even dating, somehow. There are also problems, of course, any mod of this scale has some, but I'm officially on board now. This may be the best total conversion I've played, and less likely to kick newcomers in the teeth than classic X-Com. Still, there's a lot to learn and tons of new systems, so here's a crash course on X-PirateZ, plus a guide for surviving your first year as a corsair captain.

The X-FileZ

Europe, circa 2600. Your hideout name may vary.

The original X-Com put you in the commander's chair of a paramilitary, globally funded organisation tasked with fending off alien invaders and eventually stopping them at their source. It also had you marching poorly trained idiots into firefights with plasma-toting aliens. While a true '90s classic and still entertaining to this day, many bounced off it due to its uncompromising difficulty, and just how easy it was to lose all your fragile, squishy humans to just a few aliens. It's no surprise it didn't work out for X-Com - plasma weapons hurt.

X-PirateZ builds on X-Com in every way. You're the commander of a gang of beefy mutant women in the world X-Com lost, squatting in a forgotten bunker. After falling into a protection racket deal with nu-Earth's governments, your gang upgrades from petty crime to piracy. It's far more open-ended than X-Com, with more story, factions and technologies, but less pressure at first. If you become a world-straddling pirate queen loved by the common folk you may get the chance to liberate Earth from its masters, but for now you're just in it for fame and adventure. Savvy?

Getting Shipshape

The poor old Skyranger just doesn't have much of a place in this world

Before continuing, let's address the large-breasted elephant in the room: X-PirateZ is shamelessly, comically, borderline-idiotically boobular. Much of the mismatched and frequently pilfered art in its seemingly boundless Bootypedia (it's not a UFOpedia, because they're not unidentified anymore) features bare-chested ladies. And some rare bare lads, to be fair. It's self-aware and generally harmless, but if it's a deal-breaker, fair enough. Really, though, it's just a distraction from the mountain of self-indulgent nonsense that is X-PirateZ.

If you're not dissuaded and don't mind wrestling with an overstuffed old interface (the research and manufacturing screens practically bulge with new options), then setting up is easy. You will need:

1. X-Com: UFO Defense from Steam or GOG. It's only £3/€5/$5.

2. The latest build of the mod from the X-PirateZ forum (currently version J12, published February 24th).

Install the original game, then unzip X-PirateZ wherever you want it. Navigate to where X-Com is installed, and copy the contents of the 'XCOM' sub-folder (the one containing 'UFO Defense.exe') to 'UFO' within the X-PirateZ directory. That's all you need of the original game. You can even uninstall it if you want.

Now just run OpenXcomEx.exe, go to Options/Mods and select X-PirateZ from the drop-down. You're all set! Tweak and tune the settings to your preference. Have a poke around, and then peruse below for some advice on establishing your buccaneering empire.

I Wanna Be A Pirate!

Yar har, fiddle de dee, being a pirate is alright to be!

X-PirateZ is a frankenmod, a kitbashed chimera pieced together from scavenged scraps of a hundred other games. You'll hear familiar music (a couple of tracks from Brigador fit nicely), see familiar art (some stuff from Fallout, Skyrim or even Second Life), and fight familiar baddies. Almost all of Doom's monsters show up as an increasingly prevalent demonic faction, while many of the 'Humanist' space-Nazis are lifted straight from the Wolfenstein games. Despite this, X-PirateZ has a personality and identity all its own, and a mountain of lore to research.

The mod commits fully to its messy setting. X-Com lost, the aliens ruled for centuries and the Earth is now a backwater on the empire's fringes, with a largely mutated population. You and your buddies start out fleeing The Academy, a 'pure' human faction. Your Ubers are a breed that's tougher than regular humans, but require radiation from Elerium-115 (now called Hellerium) to live. During their escape to an abandoned X-Com base, they pick up a sack of old guns and an electric-powered hovercar. They can use them, but have no idea how any of it works.

Knowing nothing and having less expected of you works to this mod's advantage. While classic X-Com threw your useless rookies against aliens with plasma guns, the first couple of missions you're likely to be given in X-PirateZ are gentle. Some Academy goons with stun-prods and low-calibre pistols sent to recover you are the worst you'll see initially, and your gang have a sack of powerful flintlock rifles, better stats and better night-vision than regular humans. You can slowly work your way up to infamy. Here's some tips for surviving your first year of skulduggery.

Bootlegging 101

Stealing stuff gets you progress, but your adventures are funded by booze

You're not out to save the world (yet), just trying to pay your crew and keep your monthly mission score positive. You should immediately set your Runts in the manufacturing wing to work brewing moonshine and selling it while you work through your initial research options. Hire more Runts until you're out of crew space -- they'll pay for themselves within days. Do NOT hire Brainers until you're sure you can support them, as they cost a ferocious $200k and demand $100k in monthly wages. On difficulty 2 of 5, your initial protection payments from governments will only cover those initial three researcher's wages.

If you research 'Visit Nearby Town', then 'Pirate Clothing', 'Our Culture' then finally 'Cunning', you'll unlock your key to riches: X-Grog. Brew it by the vat, because the profit margins are massive. Later on, research 'Vodka' and 'Apples' to get to Chateau De La Morte apple-wine, after finding a bottle of it in the wild to sample. Brew that instead for even more profits! You'll need fresh apples for it (missions to defend Lokk'narr villages from Sky Ninjas pay in fruit), but you can make millions per month if you build the maximum three Extractors to fuel your still, plus Burrows to house enough Runts to run at capacity. Spend money to make money and you'll be rich.

Catch And Release

Probably won't learn too much grilling these folks, but they make for good ransom money

This mod doesn't so much have a tech 'tree' as a four-dimensional spider-web of stuff to research with many dead ends. In order to open up new subjects, you'll want to capture enemies alive and have a chat with them. This is surprisingly easy, and if the last armed enemy on the map is neutralised (either knocked out or dead) any other unarmed humanoids on the map automatically surrender. Bring them home and interrogate them via the research screen. Happily, the game says that most captives are released after questioning, so don't feel bad about pumping civilians for info.

Capturing and interrogating foes is also key for your score. High scores mean big bonuses, maybe enough to cover your upkeep, so keep nabbing and chatting. You can also interrogate the same NPC type multiple times for more related knowledge. Once you've got all you want to know, you still have other options. You can just sell prisoners for ransom, or have your Runts rob them. Robbing nets you their personal effects but only half the ransom money; you're sending them home naked, which is a bad look. Later still you can offer prisoners paid work or even enslave them, if you're evil.

Mostly Legitimate Business

While you'll eventually get into hunting ships that haven't landed near your base (jump on those green X's), your first ships aren't armed, so you'll rely on contract work. The map will be populated with targets of opportunity (like raiding Temples Of Sirius) or jobs from local governments, asking you to stop the occasional bandit attack. Once you've researched bounties, you'll start getting Rank D missions from the Goblin Zaxx bank (shady stuff), Jack (bandit suppression, mostly) and the Mutant Alliance (hunting evildoers). These jobs are often fun, varied and rewarding.

Aside from slow score decay (don't go too long without any jobs), there's no penalty for passing on missions you don't like the look of. Early on, you can even ignore Mutant Pogroms (terror missions), although later in the story you'll be representing the Alliance, and not showing up at all will earn you a big point penalty. On top of the usual money, score and loot you get from bounty missions, you'll also gain trophies. Your Runts can trade these in to your contract-givers to earn faction credits, which in turn can be traded in to permanently unlock new shop items and techs.

Of the early rewards you can get, unlocking the Scoped Magnum is my advice. Only a five round magazine, but gives you near sniper-like power and accuracy one-handed. Even the weakest of rookies can now do significant damage at decent range. Beyond that, you'll want to do jobs for all three factions equally, which will eventually unlock the options to upgrade to rank C missions. This won't cause rank D stuff to disappear, just offer even more choices. Also, any research option bracketed with exclamation marks unlocks a new mission type, which you'll see on the map soon.

Point Cutlass Away From Face

A puzzling weapon indeed - those Sky Ninjas are inscrutable

X-PirateZ combat has more rules and a more gentle escalation of technology than the original game. You'll want to check the 'Hawtkeys' [sic] pages in the Bootypedia (filed under 'mysteries') for some of the new controls available. The most important early on are holding Control to give sprint commands, which drain stamina but let you cover more ground. The second is Scroll Lock/Space, which shows your crew's personal night-vision. Ubers have slightly sharper eyes than regular humans and lesser mutants, so night missions are your friend, at first.

At night, hit the L key to turn off personal and ship lights, and then occasionally check the regular vision mode to see where street lights, torches and other light sources are. Avoid those, and stick to the shadows. If you can see an enemy at the very edge of your vision, chances are they can't see you unless they've got some kind of fancy helmet with night vision. If you're within night vision range, you're also likely within a quick sprint of melee range. Close combat is very viable in X-PirateZ, and capturing enemies alive is key, so pack baseball bats, clubs and (once you've stolen some) stun-prods.

Flintlocks have nice heavy butts (ha), so you can use those as melee weapons. While it's possible to kill targets accidentally with this or a swing with a baseball bat, you'll generally just knock a target out. Make sure you grab their weapon and pocket it, so if they wake up they'll be unarmed. Firing guns at point blank range gives any adjacent enemy a chance to knock the gun's barrel away and send the shot wild, which increases with the size of the gun and the target's agility. The AI often doesn't back away that one square, so rushing down big guns with melee fighters works.

Hide Your Chests And Booty

Running around naked is fun, but bullets bouncing harmlessly off your shield is better

As much as the game's art may suggest that running around near-naked is the way to go, wearing nothing is suicidal and the rags you start out with are rubbish. To get your sweet X-Grog, you also had to research Pirate Clothing, which your Runts can stitch together for practically nothing. It doesn't stop bullets, but it gives you a lot more carrying capacity, improves morale, and generally looks snazzy. Some outfits can be worn several ways, providing different perks. Fun for style! (But for the stat conscious, middle or right-mouse clicking stuff in menus often brings up number details).

Your next step armour-wise is Durathread, fractionally more armour than pirate clothing, but light and a nice agility boost. You can also buy Warrior armour a bit later, which is heavier and bulkier, but will outright stop most smaller pistol rounds. Higher-class hired hands come with a suit of this by default. Make sure you've got clothing to spare, and that everyone -- even folks you're not taking on missions -- is dressed. You never know when you'll have to defend your hideout, and if everyone's rushing to repel boarders naked you'll just feel silly, and not very piratical.

Larceny Is The Life For Me

A stunningly good month, and it still doesn't even cover wages and maintenance bills

At first, you won't be constructing your own gear. Some you'll be buying, and later you can manufacture ammo, but for much of the game you'll be using stolen arms. Only a few more esoteric weapons need researching to use -- a gun is a gun, after all -- so grab whatever you find lying around, even mid-battle. Hoard everything until you need to clear stuff out. A handful of things can be sold immediately like Credit Chips and Money Bags (which converts them into usable cash) but the rest should only be sold if you're broke or out of space.

Eventually you'll get a feel for what stuff just isn't fitting your play-style. When you realise you've got forty holdout pistols and a barrel full of ammo for them in storage, you can probably get rid of those, but selling is instantaneous anyway. Until you run out of storage space, you might as well consider the stuff in your hold to be liquid assets. Plus, sometimes you'll end up with missions that require certain civilian-passing outfits and concealable weapons, so best have those on hand. Oh, and DO NOT sell the Menacing Hull, Tiny Drill or (later) your Codex. They're key story items.

Expect The Unexpected

Half the crew died to a single psychic zombie - never travelled without a mortar crew since

So, you've done a dozen Scientific Experiments missions, and they're pretty standard: run in, knock out a few Academy goons, come home with medical loot. Except for when you arrive to find everyone (un)dead, and your squad bombarded by a naked super-zombie with pyrokinesis. Sometimes, X-PirateZ throws you a curveball. Yeah, you can bail if you want, but the rewards for weathering such a storm are great. Just make sure your landing ship is well stocked with Just For Emergencies gear, like rocket launchers, plasma cutters and demolition charges. A wide range of damage types helps.

Once you've upgraded to a larger landing craft, it helps to keep an attack dog or parrot aboard, too. They're far cheaper to replace than Ubers or even human peasants, and can let you quickly and safely scope out what kind of trouble you've landed yourself in. This is especially helpful when trying to raid landed enemy spacecraft. If all you're packing is handguns and clubs and you see someone in Marsec power armour, just turn around and go home. Sometimes you're just out of your depth, and learning when to call it quits is a skill worth having.

Do What You Want 'Cause A Pirate Is Free!

It'll be a good while until you even start unraveling what the greater plot of X-Piratez is - good hunting

While your mileage will undoubtedly vary, it's been estimated that a full playthrough might take as long as 200 hours, introducing surprises all the way to the end. I'm nowhere near completing the game, and a new version featuring new enemies, weapons, mission types and facilities seems to release every few weeks. If you can deal with the aged UI and gratuitous nudity (which I wouldn't mind nearly so much if the art was consistent) there's good times to be had. Freedom enough to allow for some real, expressive role-playing, while still being tactically engaging.

With all this under your belt, you should know all you need to survive. There'll be unexpected events, new enemies rising (watch out for blood rituals), new mission types introduced, and maybe even rivals setting up shop after your first year. So long as you've got a consistently positive score, income, and aren't losing too many troops on missions each month, you've got the fundamentals. Congratulations, you earned your pirate diploma, and you've already crafted the appropriate hats - you can throw them in the air if you want. Y'arr, me hearties; go forth and plunder!

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