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Why X-COM Matters (To You)

Funny thing. Whenever I try to write about X-COM, as in X-COM the game, not X-COM the place in my heart, I stall. It's too big. I need to do it at the right time (or perhaps for the right paycheque, I suspect). Where to start? Where to end? There have been superb summaries, makings-of and play diaries. It's a well-documented game, for sure. Yet I'm not sure there's been that simple one-two punch of why our collective knickers remain so thoroughly entwisted by it. Perhaps the words of one are not enough. Let's try the words of many.

I've taken a brief crack at 'doing' X-COM at the end of this post, but first let's hear the wisdom of the crowd. Via the endless ease/horror of Twitter, I asked why people love X-COM. Here are a few of the replies, from gamers, critics and developers alike....

@lemmy101 [coder for Zombie Cow] It was the first time (to my mind) that two deep and extremely well done gameplay sections were in a single strategy game. Like Total War with its campaign game and battle game. But like AGES ago. And with Laser Squad bits.

@richardcobbett [PC Plus features editor, PC Gamer contributor, god of mega-words] It's all about the competency curve - starting out as the underdog, then slowly clawing to power and taking the fight to the enemy.

@MikeChannell [Reviews Ed, Official Xbox Magazine UK, sex pest] Naming your squad made each soldier far more important than in most games. All the more galling when they became host to an alien.

@phillcameron [Sometime RPS contributor] Because it's a great blend between management and tactical squad-based antics. And it's got fuckmothering aliens.

@troygoodfellow [Games journalist, good fellow] X-Com was nearly perfect game that everyone of a certain age played. For a strategy game, it was also deeply personal.

@humanstu The spinning globe. Just grounded the whole game with a tangible sense of realism. Y'know, mixed with aliens and ufos.

@psychicteeth [creator of Eufloria] primarily: researching alien loot and using it against them, finance, upgrading, procedural levels. Secondarily: recon, strategy.

@playmaglan [staff writer, Play Magazine] It's the last game I can remember trading something for when I knew nothing about it. I just liked the box art. I WAS YOUNG.

@draconianone atmosphere, strategy, big fucking guns, global scale, diverse gameplay, character persistence, story (yes, really!).

@dartt [Maker of excellent Gmod art] The tension. Each member of your squad is precious, but they are all so frail, each corner you turn could result in a sudden death.

@keenanw A great example of how music can affect the experience. The tension felt in the Geoscape and in battle was because of the music.

@larrington [Generous giver-to-me of a copy of Legends of Valor, complete with ultro-map] Several reasons. Multiple layers of control (geoscape/battlescape/research/production) means I feel like the fate of humanity is properly in my control & anthropomorphism of troops. Aside from some minor interface quirks there's so little I'd want to change.

@imperialcreed [Really truly called Barry White.] Still, to this day, it instills more terror and creates more tension in the combat missions than you'll find almost anywhere else.

@twistedinc Fantastic mix of taut tactical combat, engaging management sim, good writing and an evolving set of problems.

@jazmcdougal [PC Gamer contributor, owner of awesome name] Competing with rivals, trying to be a good security business while researching and fighting aliens, was a rewarding balancing act.

@lobo_tuerto X-COM matters so much because it was an integral experience, it had 3 very different contexts (base building, earth-view, battle-field) it had economics simulation (budgets), research, and it gave you a thrill everytime you went to explore a site!

@The_B [You know, The B] It's a series that manages to make you feel incredibly powerful yet immeasurably fragile at the same time.

@misterbrilliant [Editor of PC Zone, frighteningly young] I never played it and I tried to play it once recently but it was old and confusing and I didn't know what was going on.

@mechtroid Because even when I, a man who hadn't even HEARD of it until a few months ago started playing, I couldn't put it down. The game's simply timeless.

@monstersden [Made Dragon Age Journeys] Because you controlled every aspect of the war against the aliens. Multiple overlapping layers of strategy.

@Chris_emf [formerly of Total Film magazine, floppy hair] For me it was constant tension in combat, which Brian Mitsoda explained here better than I ever could.

@liquidindian People want this amazing update to X-Com, but X-Com was the amazing update to Laser Squad & Rebelstar. Maybe X-Com was the zenith.

@kierongillen [robocrazy] Well, it was the first game I ever reviewed professionally. Or, at least, as professionally as I do anything.

[Kieron scored X-COM 35% in said review, for what it's worth....

Calm down! It was the the legendarily shoddy Amiga 500 port.]

Thanks for your time, everyone. So, yeah. My turn.

It's the trend of the moment to blend genres - particularly to drizzle a little RPG dressing over any and everything. Some of it's working, and moreover some of it's working naturally, but a lot of it is still a little crude: LOOK WE PUT SOME RPG IN OUR RTS. X-COM, originally planned as Laser Squad 2, doesn't do that - it doesn't garishly signpost its claimed cleverness in the way, and that's because it doesn't really try to combine genres. It simply takes a selection of things it thinks - it knows - work, and puts them all into a box together. It's a genre-fusion so natural that it is almost its own genre. "X-COM." That doesn't simply mean a franchise - it means a very particular type of game, one there have been all too few excellent examples of. Only a few other games have become genres too - Diablo, for instance, but that's nowhere near as bold and smart a prospect.

X-COM is a game from another universe. It doesn't play by any genre's rules, but instead just gets the hell on with being itself, utterly itself and nothing else. It is the nexus of gaming - strategy, action, roleplaying, management, horror, storytelling, chess. The setting and the look were/are an ideal shell for this. Familiar sci-fi tropes, rendered with colourful glee yet creeping menace. People are dying. Your people are dying. There are monsters in the dark. They're going to kill you, unless you can out-think and out-guess them. Out-thinking and out-guessing the monsters is the only way to save the whole damned world. That's not the half of it.

Psychic combat. Flying suits. Destructible walls. Aliens who plant eggs inside you. Rocket-launchers that can fire around corners. Saving cities. Building spaceships. Capturing live extra-terrestrials. Robotic tanks. Invading Mars.

Its unfortunately aged interface aside, X-COM remains to this day incredibly accessible despite how much it tries to cram in. When people cry in despair that the new XCOM is a first-person shooter, some of them may be dismissing a fun game out of hand, but the reason is not empty fanfury. No-one really cares about the X-COM universe, that the colour scheme isn't right or that the Brotherhood of Steel didn't used to care about civilians. They care because they want the one game that genuinely did it all to come back.

X-COM was made by six people, and came on three floppy disks. So much, from so little. This DOS title from 1994 remains a signpost to the future of games.

No, that's still not right. One day...

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X-COM: UFO Defense

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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About the Author
Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.