RetroAhoy: X-COM

RetroAhoy: X-COM

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Fear of the unknown is quite a natural response. What we don’t understand we can’t predict – and unpredictability is dangerous. Perhaps that’s why aliens make a compelling enemy: an unknown threat with mystery motive has formed the basis for many a science fiction story. It turns out they’re also a good fit for video games: from Space Invaders to Halo, they are a flexible addition to any canvas of conflict. But where they really excel is when the obscurity of intent becomes an integral part of the game - and at this intersection of strategy and aliens there lies one gleaming example.

X-COM is a long-standing series that started with 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown, also known as X-COM: UFO Defense. It tapped into an extra-terrestrial zeitgeist and brought turn-based strategy to a new audience, and even retains a cult following today. It spawned quite a few sequels, and although the series stumbled into uncertainty by the end of the nineties, XCOM has enjoyed a successful revival in recent years, under the stewardship of Firaxis. So, how do you adapt the complexities of table-top strategy games for a computer that only has 48 kilobytes of RAM? Why would any publisher take a chance on a turn-based game when real-time games were the next big thing? And of all series worth saving – why choose XCOM? If we’re going to talk about UFO or X-COM, we should probably start with the main man behind the series: Julian Gollop.

He’s a British game designer born in 1965, which meant that the emergence of the 8-bit microcomputer coincided with his teenage years. A coupling of a passion for table-top games incited by his father: and the boundless free time afforded by youth; led to the perfect conditions for a budding game developer to grow. With his early work for the 8-bit machines he quickly established a reputation for consistently high-quality strategy games, many of which from this era are remembered fondly today – and many of which reveal the seeds of the X-COM series. Gollop’s first game design credit is Time Lords, programmed by a school friend of his and released for the BBC Micro in 1983.

It was the inaugural release of a new strategy game publisher called Red Shift. Time Lords is a turn-based strategy game based on a pen & paper concept, with its theme drawing rather heavily from Dr. Who. It’s a thoroughly confusing game involving up to 5 players in a galactic game of conquest: you can travel across 5 planets, and 15 time zones – and the goal is to ensure the proliferation of your chosen civilisation by influencing the outcomes of wars and thwarting the chronological skullduggery of other time lords. But beware, as actions carried out in the past will propagate through later time zones.

It’s a very novel concept – I’ve not seen many strategy games where creating an infinite time paradox will result in a game over. But even here, we can see a hallmark of hidden action – the uncertainly of what your opponent is up to. Gollop’s next game was Islandia, again for the BBC. It’s a Risk-like strategy game with naval combat, set across a cluster of randomly generated islands. Players take turns across economic and movement phases, and the winner is the player with the greatest accumulated wealth after the set number of turns has expired.

The gameplay is a little slow, but it’s otherwise straightforward and despite its simple mechanics there is quite a degree of strategy involved. The only downside is you need a human opponent – Gollop’s early strategy games lacked an AI to play against. A little while after his debut on the BBC Micro, Julian bought himself a ZX81, followed by a ZX Spectrum – and he got into programming himself, making some games for the platform, the first of which was Nebula.

It’s a galactic strategy game played on a nebula-shaped grid – you’ll notice one recurring theme in his work is science fiction. Again, it’s turn based, with each sector accumulating force points each round – you can spend these on development, or expand to new sectors instead. The winner is the faction with the greatest total of force points at the end. Not all his games were so galactic in scale, however – Rebelstar Raiders was more grounded, featuring skirmish-level squad combat. The game came with 3 scenarios: a moonbase, a starship, and a fortified bunker.

Two sides deploy their forces, and then take turns in attempting to destroy each other. The soldiers have names, and different loadouts – grenades, laser pistols, rifles amongst other more exotic options. Again, there was no AI, so you had to play a human opponent – but in Rebelstar Raiders the foundation of Gollop’s later strategy games was now apparent. The turn based squad action, with movement points, chance to hit – and destructible terrain. None was this was his innovation particularly – it came from tabletop games. SPI’s ‘Sniper’ is cited as a direct influence – but Gollop was one of the first to bring such strategy to the home micro, with all the potential advantage that confers.

No expensive models, or lengthy set-up required – all you had to do was load the tape. By 1985, his publisher Red Shift had lost their main investor and consequently had to close. Julian, along with a few other ex-Red Shift staff, moved on to Games Workshop – the wargaming company best known for their Warhammer tabletop games. Red Shift had a working relationship with them, having previously developed ‘Apocalypse’ under license. When Red Shift closed, a band of former employees who called themselves ‘SLUG’ maintained this relationship, and along with Julian they developed Battlecars – an adaptation of one of Game Workshop’s board games. In 1985, Julian released Chaos under the Games Workshop banner - a tactical fantasy combat game of his own design, in which between 2 and 8 wizards square off in a magical battle royale.

This was a departure from Julian’s normal science fiction theme, but fantasy is a well-trodden setting in strategy – ever since Dungeons and Dragons it’s been staple fare for wargamers. You start with a random selection of spells and can cast once per turn: these spells range from simple creature summoning, to destructive or defensive options. Wizards take turns, through casting and movement phases, and attempt to leverage their magical ability to destroy their opponents. It’s a simple enough game, but the sheer variety of spells keeps things interesting: there’s also alignment to consider, as certain spells will skew the world towards Chaos or Law, which impacts later casting.

Unfortunately, shortly after Chaos’ release, Games Workshop pulled out of software development – presumably to focus on their core business. No matter the reason, Julian was left without a publisher once more. He turned to Firebird, which was a budget label from Telecomsoft – a division of the recently privatised British Telecom – And in 1986, they published the sequel to Rebelstar Raiders which was simply called ‘Rebelstar’. It expanded on the earlier game’s mechanics, and perhaps most importantly added an AI to play against.

It also introduced different firing modes: aimed shots and snap shots, the latter costing fewer action points but with a lower chance to hit – and opportunity fire, which meant you could save your actions for the enemy’s turn, should they emerge from hiding. Your units are affected by morale, and there’s also a rudimentary inventory system: you could pick up items from fallen comrades, and some units could have multiple weapons to choose from. Ammo levels were tracked, and weapons would eventually require reloads – if you had any spare. The graphics were more detailed, too – with a closer view of the battlefield, although this did mean scrolling the view was necessary to remain aware of distant enemies. All in, Rebelstar feels like a very complete single player strategy game, and it’s no wonder it reviewed well – you could experience the thrill of tabletop gaming right on your Spectrum, with no friends required, nor lengthy setup or expensive outlay. The only real downside is there was only a single scenario.

A sequel in 1988 brought a fresh one, however – in Rebelstar 2, the raiders face off against a horde of aliens. The aliens themselves are Giger-esque, clearly inspired by the Alien films – and they scramble to defend their fortress, as you cut through vines and traverse a river delta to reach them. The objective is to survive, kill as many aliens as possible – including the queen, and make off with their eggs in an escape shuttle. It’s tense stuff, and the dense cover and probability-based hits means you can never be sure you’ll make it out alive. The refined strategic action and budget price point meant that the Rebelstar series proved quite popular, garnering critical acclaim and setting the standard for turn-based strategy games on 8-bit machines.

However, by the end of the 80s, 16-bit machines were starting to become dominant – and with their new potential came new opportunity. Julian had been burned quite badly during his experience with Firebird and Rebelstar – despite being a top-selling game, shifting thousands of copies – he had only earned £1,000 for his trouble, a paltry sum for 10 months work. Clearly there wasn’t much room for royalties at the £1.99 price point. So in March 1988 he, along with his brother Nick, decided to set up their own company: Target Games. The idea was to self-publish their own software, cutting out the middleman and reaping greater reward for their work. Target’s first game was Laser Squad, which was released very much in the midst of the transition to 16-bit machines: it came first for the Spectrum and Commodore 64 in 1988; with an Atari ST and Amiga version following in 1989.

Sadly, the intent to self-publish the game fell flat: While Laser Squad was initially offered via mail order direct from Target Games, soon after they realised there were some advantages to delegating manufacturing and distribution. A retail release could reach many more people. So, they signed with Blade Software, a sublabel of generically-named ‘The Software Business’, and soon after Laser Squad saw release through conventional channels.

Laser Squad is definitely cut from the Rebelstar cloth, with its turn-based squad combat. But it’s a far more ambitious game, with multiple scenarios, and with many earlier mechanics expanded upon. One new addition was that of ‘hidden movement’ – enemy turns were now obscured from the players view, so you’d have no idea where they were lurking. This made gameplay quite a bit more suspenseful, as when breaching a room you’d have no idea what was inside. Opportunity fire was streamlined too, automatically enabled if you left enough action points at the end of your turn. This was useful, but it cuts both ways: even passing by a window required caution, as if you wander into the line of enemy fire it can spell quick doom.

Another major change was the control scheme: earlier games had keyboard-led controls, with specific hotkeys for various actions. However, by the late 1980s joysticks were standard issue for gamers, so Laser Squad’s controls were streamlined for a typical 1-button controller. Actions and inventory management were handled through menus – and movement was now based on the direction your character was facing, instead of simply pressing the way you want to go. In fact, ensuring your squad is looking in the right direction is exceedingly important, as now they could only see enemies in front of them. So failure to properly cover a doorway could lead to an unexpected ambush, one an unprepared squad might have no answer for. Both the 8-bit and 16-bit versions of Laser Squad reviewed very well, with many praising the accessibility in a genre that was often left to the die-hard.

A successful implementation of a deeply strategic game that could still charm thrill seekers looking for arcade action. In fact, I’d say Laser Squad is the pinnacle of 8-bit strategy games – perhaps the finest such game available for the Spectrum, Amstrad and C64. For the 16-bit machines, however, it was a starting point. A faithful conversion with a few visual niceties, but there was a feeling that these more powerful machines could do more. By 1990, Target Games was renamed, becoming Mythos Games instead. It’s not clear why, but it may have been to avoid confusion with a similarly named Swedish company.

The publishing deal with Blade Software remained for their next game – a follow-up to the earlier Chaos. Lords of Chaos was released in 1990 - a more ambitious take on the original, with a larger map instead of the single-screen arena. Rather than a straightforward fight to the death, the main goal is to reach a portal that appears in a random location. You can of course use the variety of spells at your disposal to hamper your opponent’s progress, and victory points are awarded for enemy or creature kills and any treasure collected. It’s a more complex game that has a capacity for deep strategy, and it works either as a single-player experience or versus real opponents.

Gollop was always best known for his sci-fi games, but his fantasy offerings are worth a look as well. With the previous success of Laser Squad, a sequel was on the cards – one with enhanced graphics, purely for the benefit of 16-bit systems. Isometric graphics were planned, replacing the earlier top-down views and painting a more realistic battlescape – one with the prospect of verticality. A prototype was made for the Atari ST by late 1991, and it was even listed in mail order adverts around this time.

This was a little premature, however – as the game would be in development for some time yet. Mythos were once again seeking a new publisher – a big name, a worldwide operation, to ensure their newest title would get the distribution it deserved. Three publishers were on the shortlist: Krisalis, Domark, and MicroProse. Krisalis had handled the MSX conversion of Laser Squad, and by 1990 were publishing their own titles such as the Manchester United series of football games. They were relative newcomers but had demonstrated good capability. Domark were bigger, having established themselves with a number of high-profile games for the 16-bit machines: arcade conversions such as Xybots; Toobin’; APB; and Hard Drivin’.

However at the time neither Krisalis nor Domark were particularly known for strategy games – on this front, both pale in the shadow of the mighty MicroProse. MicroProse were a huge name in strategy and simulation. A presence in both the US and UK, and a string of hits: Pirates!; F-19 Stealth Fighter; Railroad Tycoon; Formula One Grand Prix. And the biggest strategy game of all: Sid Meier’s Civilization. When Mythos approached MicroProse with their prototype of Laser Squad 2, MicroProse expressed an interest - but they had a few suggestions. As good as the tactical combat was, they wanted a ‘big game’.

Something much, much broader in scope than a series of skirmishes. In Civilization, you can conquer the world – why not magnify the consequence of each battle, collectively fighting a war for the entire globe? MicroProse wanted a more relatable setting, too – rather than some far-flung space outpost, they wanted it grounded on Earth. Another aspect taken from Civilization was its technology tree: aspects of the game gated behind research progress, so the game would evolve slowly, drip feeding new weapons and equipment as the war progresses. This technology would be collated into something like Civ’s ‘Civiliopedia’. Under MicroProse’s stern guidance, Laser Squad 2 would become a much broader, more ambitious game. And with this change of scope came a new name: UFO.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that much inspiration was drawn from a television show of the same name: A 1970s British science fiction series called Gerry Anderson’s UFO. It features a covert multi-national organisation called SHADO that fights a hidden war against an alien invasion. In the game, you take control of a similar organisation – Extraterrestrial Command, or X-COM. There are similar shades of cold-war era espionage: subterfuge and secrecy. The introduction of an exotic element called Elerium used as a power source by the aliens stems from a book by UFO researcher Timothy Good – in which he postulates that the then-undiscovered element 115 could be used to generate gravitational waves.

The alien designs drew quite heavily from popular science fiction depictions – sectoids are the archetypal ‘grey alien’, Mutons are little green men on steroids, and chrysalids are Giger-esque Xenomorphs with lobster claws. In the concept art, you can see a few that didn’t make into the final game – giant bunnies, terminators – even RoboCop. Some aspects of UFO’s art style takes inspiration from comic books – this is most apparent in the intro, with its manga-like framing, but it bleeds through into other aspects – some of the the ridiculous haircuts, for instance. As the concept solidified, on a fairly modest budget of 115 thousand pounds, Julian and his team got to work.

UFO’s development was far from plain sailing – the original contract spanned 18 months, but it was extended to 30 – with the final few a gruelling crunch. In fact, the game was very nearly cancelled – just barely surviving a cull after the sale of MicroProse to Spectrum Holobyte in late 1993. But finally, by March 1994 the game was finished.

In Europe the game was called ‘UFO: Enemy Unknown’, the subtitle added to distinguish it from the TV series. In North America, the game released as ‘X-COM: UFO Defense’, with completely different cover art. Come to think of it, the European box art doesn’t reflect the game particularly well at all – neither the alien nor the weapons shown resemble anything featured. Still, the game had at long last hit shelves – but it had been five years since Laser Squad, and UFO or X-COM was effectively a new IP.

Turn-based was a tough sell, too – real-time strategy games were gaining traction instead. Gollop’s games had a certain cachet, and he no doubt had the necessary experience to make a great tactical game - but would it be enough? When the game starts, you’re presented with the Geoscape – a view of the entire earth in globe form, and it’s your job to protect it. The first decision you’re presented with is where to build your first base. Exactly where doesn’t matter, but you’ll want to ensure coverage of as many countries as possible – particularly those which offer the greatest funding.

Once your initial base is established, you can purchase supplies, start research projects and change your craft loadouts. But for a little while, nothing really happens. This initial peace is inevitably broken after a short while as you receive an alert – a UFO picked up on radar. A red dot appears on the geoscape, indicating the UFO’s location.

It’s time for action – scramble the interceptors. Air to air combat is fairly simple – designate a target for one of your craft, and it will depart your base and fly towards it. Assuming it’s fast enough to catch it, upon reaching close proximity with the UFO the air to air combat window will display – showing a radar view of the UFO, and a number of buttons to issue commands. Your craft’s weapons and range is indicated on the radar display, and in order to fire the UFO must be within this range. Clicking one of the ‘attack buttons’ will order your interceptor to get within engagement range. Cautious attack will keep the UFO as far away as possible – only firing your longest range weapons (until depleted).

Standard attack will bring the UFO within range of all available weapons, and Aggressive attack will get you as close as possible. The cautious approach is better against larger, better-armed UFOs as you might be able to stay out of range of their fire – but for smaller UFOs you want to get closer to maximise the amount of damage you do before they decide to flee. If you take too long to down the enemy craft, they will accelerate away rapidly – in fact, all UFOs are capable of a higher top speed than your Interceptors, so they can quite easily escape. The first UFOs you encounter are weaker, smaller craft – so they can be downed or destroyed quite easily. Later in the game you’ll be dealing with larger, much more powerful UFOs – and you’ll need to research better ships and weapons to have a hope against them.

It is possible to tackle UFOs with multiple craft at once, so you can tilt the odds when technology is not in your favour – but alien battleships hit hard, and if you don’t disengage quickly enough it’s very easy to lose your interceptor. If you emerge victorious, there are a couple of potential outcomes – if you down the UFO over land, a crash site will appear to which you can send a squad to mop up any survivors. Smaller UFOs hit with the more powerful weapons may be destroyed outright, in which case there’s nothing more to do – although you do lose any opportunity to capture alien equipment. Should the UFO escape, it may later land of its own volition – and in a similar manner to crash sites, you can send a ground team.

As the UFO is undamaged, you will recover more resources – particularly the valuable alien fuel source, Elerium-115. But the aliens will be at full strength, so the mission will be tougher. In any case, once the UFO is on the ground you can despatch your Skyranger and launch yourself into the tactical meat of the game – the Battlescape. UFO is a game split in two: in fact, the geoscape and battlescape are located in different executables, although this is invisible to the player. The game simply passes the scenario to the battlescape, and once the tactical portion has played out the results are relayed back.

The Battlescape portion of the game is essentially equivalent to Laser Squad or Rebelstar: without the broader scope of the Geoscape, their single skirmishes lacked the consequences of poor performance. MicroProse’s vision of a ‘big game’ upped the stakes, and also provided a more dynamic range of missions to play: the alien races you face, and the technology they wield, is governed by your progress in the Geoscape. The map itself also reflects location: if you down a UFO in the desert, you’ll be fighting in sandy terrain; if it’s over jungle, there’ll be dense foliage. The maps themselves are randomly generated – assembled in blocks from a library of prefabricated parts. This means you won’t immediately know where the UFO is relative to your landing craft, nor where there might be buildings or other cover for alien ambush. Eventually, these prefabs will become familiar, but it’s unlikely for two locations to be identical – so there’s always the potential for surprise when you land.

Upon mission start, your troops arrive loaded aboard your Skyranger (or, later, more advanced craft) – and you’re immediately faced with one of the more dangerous procedures: disembarking. As your soldiers emerge, they are exposed to potential threat from multiple angles. Seeing an alien immediately is not uncommon, and they’re primed for reaction fire right from the start. In fact, it’s often best to wait a turn before deploying: at least then the aliens might have expended some of their time units. But you’ll want to secure the landing zone as quickly as possible – with your entire force enclosed in a confined space you don’t want to give the aliens an opportunity to lob a grenade in the midst of your entire squad.

Once your troops are out in the open, the next step is to track down the aliens and eliminate them. It’s best to take a cautious approach, reserving time units for shots in case you need them – otherwise, the idea is to spread your troops out and sweep the map methodically. It’s likely you’ll encounter some aliens before too long – if you’re lucky, you’ll spot them before they see you – and if you’re unlucky, your first warning will be a hail of hot plasma. It’s entirely possible to wander straight into a trap and instantly lose your soldier – without armour, the odds of surviving an accurate shot are slim. If fortune is in your favour, and you survive – you’ll have the opportunity to fire at the aliens (and, hopefully, kill them). When your currently selected unit can see an alien, a red number appears in the bottom-right of the screen.

If there are multiple aliens, there will be multiple numbers – if you click on them, it will recentre the view on the corresponding alien. Once the aliens are in your sights, the next logical step is to destroy them: clicking your soldier’s equipped weapon will bring up the available fire modes. Aimed shots are the most accurate, but cost the most time units: Snap shots sacrifice accuracy for speed; and auto shots fire three rounds, but with much lower accuracy. If ammo isn’t a concern, and there’s no friendlies in your cone of fire, then auto shots tend to be the most effective – with some weapons you can fire 3 bursts of 3 rounds each, for 9 shots (vaguely) on target. Conversely, you can generally only fire one aimed shot per turn – although you might be able to follow up with a snap shot.

Fire modes and time unit requirements vary with each type of weapon – some weapons lack the auto shot ability. But generally speaking, spray and pray tactics work well. The other fire modes do have some situational use: sometimes, the gamble isn’t worth it - it’s wise to aim with single shot weapons such as rocket launchers, for instance.

Once you’ve cleared most of the map and eliminated any aliens in the open, it’s then time to secure the UFO and its occupants. This can be dangerous, as the alien craft interiors call for close-range fighting – and if it crash landed there’s a good chance visibility will be compromised due to smoke. The UFOs also tend to be a major congregation spot for aliens, too – particularly the higher-ranking leaders, who can be a little tougher to deal with. It’s a necessary step, however – and there’s at least some comfort in the metallic clang of the alien alloys underfoot as you’re likely to be approaching the end of the mission. A methodical approach works best, stacking up at doorways and clearing rooms one by one – but the alien turns are always risky, as you never know when an angry sectoid might burst through a door and make their last stand. If all goes well, with minimal losses, you should see the mission debrief screen at the end of your turn.

If not? Well, there’s some mopping up to do – time to play hunt the alien and check every last corner of the map. Once all the aliens are dead the battlescape will wind up, and you’ll see how well you did with your mission score: alien kills, captures, corpses and artefacts boost your score – and X-COM deaths and civilian casualties count against you. If things go really badly and your entire squad is wiped, you’ll also incur a penalty for losing your craft. Coupled with the cost of replacement, it might be wise to consider retreat if such an outcome seems inevitable – as long as you can get one unit aboard the Skyranger, you can abort the mission and avoid the penalty – although your score will never be great in such circumstances. Some of the most dangerous missions are those that take place at night: if your Skyranger arrives at a mission when it is dark, you’ll find the Battlescape reflects this. At night, your visibility is greatly reduced – down to just 9 tiles.

The aliens are entirely unaffected, which means an unseen enemy can pick off your troops while you desperately scramble to spot them. The best thing to do is ensure you have electroflares equipped, which are tossed like grenades and illuminate where they land. This does come at a cost of time units, however – so the safest thing to do might be to defer landing until dawn. This is viable with less time-sensitive missions like crash sites, but terror missions demand immediate action, so sometimes night ops are unavoidable. Every so often, the aliens go out of their way to wreak havoc in cities, slaughtering their inhabitants – and worse, threatening your performance score.

Terror missions are perhaps the most difficult you’ll face in all of UFO: not only are there more aliens than usual, there are terror-specific aliens along for the ride. To make things worse, civilians are present – and the aliens are intent on killing them. So time becomes more of a factor – as the quicker you can secure the area, the more civilians you’re likely to save. They don’t exactly help themselves much – they’re happy to wander into the line of fire, so you’ve got be careful and make sure you don’t shoot them. Civilian deaths at the hands of XCOM come with a particularly steep penalty. Terror missions are always tricky, as they’re an exercise in minimising losses rather than avoiding them entirely – but one alien threat in particular poses a unique challenge.

A few months in, you might be feeling pretty comfortable – perhaps you’ve got upgraded weapons and personal armour. You’re familiar with sectoids and floaters, and have become pretty adept at despatching them. Perhaps by this point you’ll have encountered a UFO or two filled with Snakemen – a reptilian species that slithers about, quite hardy and resistant to fire, but otherwise straightforward to deal with. You will not be prepared for your first Snakeman terror mission. It’s here that you’ll be introduced to the most terrifying alien in the game: the Chryssalid. Chitinous black creatures with huge claws: fast-moving and immensely tough to kill.

As they close in, you realise with some relief that they don’t have a ranged attack – but you might not yet know how dangerous they can be. They can quickly cross open terrain, and shrug off a couple of shots with ease – and if they make it to within melee range, your soldiers are in real trouble. A single swipe of their claws will cut your troops down – but worse still, they’ll be reanimated as a zombie.

Zombies aren’t much of a threat in themselves – but when slain, another chrysalid will emerge! Left unchecked, they can multiply rapidly and overwhelm your squad. They strike fear into even the most seasoned player, and with good reason. UFO is a game full of surprises, but you’ll never forget your first encounter with chryssalids. Causing chaos in cities is just one of the aliens’ agendas, and they engage in less overt action if permitted. Over time, the aliens will attempt to infiltrate countries, coercing governments to pull funding from the X-COM project and starving you of vital cashflow.

You can prevent this by making sure the aliens don’t gain a sufficient foothold, shooting down their infiltration UFOs and keeping participant nations happy. Eventually, the aliens will establish bases on Earth to facilitate their infiltration efforts. The location of these bases is initially hidden, but you can discover them by sending aircraft to patrol nearby. A major clue to the appearance of these bases is an increase in UFO activity nearby – particularly alien supply UFOs, which will make regular runs to the base. These can be a great source of elerium if assaulted on the ground, but it’s wise to locate and destroy alien bases where possible to limit alien activity. Alien Bases are dangerous places – dimly lit and full of high-ranking aliens.

Once their marker appears on the geoscape, you can despatch a craft to assault the alien facility. The bases are constructed of alien alloys, with twisty metallic corridors linking a variety of rooms. Again, a methodical approach is best, clearing rooms one by one to make sure there are no aliens left behind. In every base you’ll find a large control room – normally well-protected, this is where you’ll find the base commander – who will make a valuable prize if you can capture them alive. Be warned, however – the aliens don’t take to your interference too kindly.

Frustrate their efforts too much and they’ll divert attention to you directly – launching retaliation missions against your bases. These attempts can be delayed by shooting down scout UFOs on retaliation missions, as the aliens won’t launch an assault until they know where your base is. Eventually they’ll come at you with full force, launching battleships to assault you. Even if you manage to shoot these down, it won’t be long before they try again – and if they reach your base, it’s a fight to survive. On the plus side, you have the home advantage – and if you’ve designed your base layout well, you can contain the threat efficiently.

The Aliens enter your base through the main access lift and hangars, so it’s possible to design a base that forces them through a single chokepoint, which can simplify things. You’ll have every single soldier stationed in your base at your disposal, which is a double-edged sword: you’ll have plenty of troops, but many of them might be rookies, unarmoured, and equipped with whatever weapon was going spare. If you win, and repel the invaders, your base will be safe and the aliens will leave you alone for a while – but if you lose? You’ll lose everything: all your soldiers, equipment, and aircraft will be lost for good. It’s not a desirable outcome – and if it’s your last base defeat will mean game over. As the game progresses, the missions you face will ramp up in difficulty: your first encounter will be with a small number of sectoids, but the game slowly drip-feeds new aliens and increases the challenge with game progress. Just as you become comfortable with the threat you’re facing, a new alien race appears – each with slightly different abilities, forcing you to fight in new ways.

First is the floaters, with their ability to hover mid-air: then the tough snakemen, with their deadly cohort of chrysalids; then mutons – a heavily armoured soldier race. Rarest of all are the ethereals, frail figures disguised by cloaks – but with terrifying psionic ability. To keep pace with the scale of difficulty, you’ll need to make sure you stay on top of research: new technology not only increases your understanding of the aliens, but will give you new weapons and equipment to use on the battlefield. Laser weapons provide a sizeable upgrade over the initial arsenal, and also benefit from unlimited ammunition – useful if you favour auto shots.

Plasma weapons are even more powerful, and while they use ammunition derived from the rare element Elerium, you can recover the alien’s equipment to use against them. Perhaps the ultimate weapon is the blaster launcher – an alien rocket launcher that fires guided rugby-ball shaped projectiles, capable of following a complex series of waypoints before detonating. It’s immensely powerful, capable of wiping out entire clusters of enemies at once – but the aliens have them, too. Researching advanced armour types will improve your soldier’s life expectancy, giving them a far better chance to survive incoming shots. This can help make your troops far more valuable, as they gain experience and improve their stats – but if anything, this only raises the stakes, and a single heavy plasma shot can still cut them down.

It doesn’t feel fair at times. Even your best soldiers are always vulnerable, and sometimes you can do everything right and still lose. But it’s not about the individual dice rolls, it’s about playing the averages.

Your tactics should minimise your risk, but your overall strategy should compensate for the inevitable losing streaks. It’s the nature of the game: hire some more rookies, and maybe you’ll do better next time. Expanding your base over time is also wise, as the starting arrangements won’t prove sufficient for long: you’ll need extra living quarters and storage space for your soldiers, scientists and engineers – and at some point a second base should be a priority. These facilities come with additional monthly costs, however – everything requires upkeep, so it can be wise to leverage your excess manufacturing capacity for profit.

Churning out advanced weaponry for the global market can prove quite lucrative, and helps to reduce your long-term reliance on government funding in the late game. The ultimate goal of the game is to stop the alien threat entirely, although at first it isn’t exactly clear how to achieve this. The key to understanding the alien’s motives is to interrogate live suspects – if you’re able to stun an enemy (and keep them stunned until the end of the mission), you can keep them in an alien containment facility and they’ll appear as a research project. This yields a more detailed UFOpaedia entry for the species in question – and can also reveal details about alien missions, UFO types – and where the aliens are coming from. To complete the game, you’ll need to capture high-ranking aliens: Alien Leaders and Commanders.

These elite units will reveal the alien’s base of operation – a facility in Cydonia, on Mars. Equipped with this information, and with an Avenger to reach them, you can begin the final assault on the alien’s central command. The mission to Cydonia spans two parts, and poses a significant challenge to your squad. You’ll need your best team, and it’s not likely all will return.

As soon as your craft touches Martian soil, the assault begins – a mad scramble to the access lift as you endure psionic attack and bursts of hot plasma. The sands of Cydonia are studded with alien pyramids, and a mix of alien races stand between you and the exit. You can either make a beeline for the exit, and take what troops you can – or you can methodically eliminate the defending aliens and clear the landing zone. The second phase is the alien base – which plays out in a similar fashion to the alien bases you’ll find on earth. Expect strong resistance, and no reprieve from psionic attack – there are plenty of Ethereals amongst the top-ranked aliens.

The base is home to the Alien brain, and your mission is to destroy it. It’s the central source of alien leadership, and without it their entire campaign will collapse. So all you have to do is locate the central command room, despatch the Ethereal guards – and destroy the brain. If you succeed, you win. The alien’s pathetic attempt to negotiate silenced in a burst of hot plasma. The X-COM project, victory! Ultimately, the interplay between the geoscape and battlescape is quite complex – and to succeed in UFO you’ll need to master both.

I think it’s fair to say that MicroProse’s desire for a ‘big game’ definitely enhances the overall experience, however – transforming Gollop’s core tactical skirmishes into a more complete campaign. One where everything carries consequence, and events knit together into an emergent narrative. It’s a game that stands up to multiple playthroughs, despite a fairly uniform progression each time. It’s the small details: the randomised missions; chance-to-hit; and sheer misfortune that the game can throw at you. All of these factors compound into something which is quite exciting, and where there’s always the prospect of surprise. Critical reception of UFO was good – great, even.

Scores of 89, 90+ almost across the board. Most criticism was levied at the Amiga version – alien turns could take a long time to play out on a larger mission, and playing direct from floppy disk was sub-optimal, but a hard disk and accelerated machine solved both these issues. The PC version benefited from better hardware, and the only real criticism was of the unrelenting difficulty – but that’s X-COM. Surprisingly for a strategy game, it sold quite well: it released right at the start of a PC gaming boom, and a large number of people had freshly bought 486 machines with a thirst for entertainment. The PC version eventually sold 600,000 copies, with little marketing.

Strong performance driven by word of mouth and alignment with the extraterrestrial zeitgeist of the era – The X-Files was rampantly popular, after all. Aside from the Amiga and PC, X-COM was also ported to the PlayStation in 1995. It was largely the same as the PC version, save for some additional graphics, CD audio music, and some concessions for controller input. Perhaps not the best fit for a console, although you could play with the Playstation mouse – but nevertheless this version shifted an additional 60,000 copies. There was also a version for the Amiga CD-32, which added the intro from the PC version - and a cut-down A500 version that supported earlier ECS Amigas.

The reduced number of colours meant that it wasn’t pretty, but at least owners of older Amigas could play the game. Overall, MicroProse must have been fairly happy with UFO’s performance – and they wanted a sequel. There was only one problem: they wanted it within 6 months. This was a big ask – UFO had taken 3 years, and had proven a tough slog towards the end. Julian didn’t think it could be done, at least not properly – and so MicroProse decided to tackle the sequel in-house. In order to fit the timeframe, the new game would have to be heavily based on UFO – some new graphics, new scenarios – effectively taking the core game and reskinning it into something else.

The sequel was called X-COM: Terror From The Deep, and it released in 1995: just one year after UFO. Set four decades after the original, the destruction of the alien brain triggered the awakening of a long-dormant alien threat under Earth’s oceans, and thus begins a new campaign of terror – seaports, cruise ships, and submersible craft on the ocean floor. Most of the new features are cosmetic – new graphics and sound – but the standards are kept high, and there are some new flourishes that elevate it above the original. Animation is noticeably improved, with neat touches that help sell the underwater missions: darkness fades to blue, shots leave lingering trails, and underwater explosions have a different appearance, with muffled sound. There’s a new aesthetic to the whole game, kind of Lovecraftian – the idea of some ancient terror awakening deep beneath the sea is taken straight from the Cthulu mythos.

The new alien designs definitely take this inspiration to heart. Despite the fresh coat of paint, the similarities between UFO and Terror From The Deep are obvious. It could have been sold as an expansion pack, but it works well enough as a standalone game – and if nothing else it’s a pleasant change of scenery. It is significantly harder than UFO, however – everything feels as though it’s geared towards more experienced players. Your starting weapons are much weaker, some of the missions are gruelling in length, the laser-equivalent Gauss weapons now require ammunition, and some alien types are incredibly resistant to most of your arsenal. This perhaps wasn’t helped by a difficulty bug in the original UFO – the first game would revert to the easiest difficulty after a single mission.

Anyone attempting a Superhuman run in Terror From The Deep would be in for a nasty surprise! Critically, Terror From The Deep performed quite well – many welcomed the prospect of more UFO, although there was acknowledgement that it was ‘more of the same’. It sold quite well, at least a couple of hundred thousand copies – by 1997 Terror from The Deep and UFO combined had sold over a million. Another sequel was on the cards – and in fact, while Microprose were producing Terror From The Deep, Mythos Games were working on something entirely new. Something more ambitious – a further evolution of Gollop’s strategy lineage.

It would be called X-COM Apocalypse. By 1997, turn-based games were pretty old school. Real time strategy was hot.

Games like Command and Conquer from Westwood Studios and Warcraft from Blizzard represented the state of the art in strategy. The new X-COM game would feature real-time tactical combat. Set in 2084, with the Earth’s biosphere damaged by the previous alien wars, humanity has taken refuge in megacities.

The geoscape of previous games is replaced with a cityscape, and when a new alien threat appears in the form of dimension gates that appear in the sky overhead, it’s your job to protect the city from alien incursion. The city of Mega Primus is ruled by corporations, and you’ll need to keep them happy to ensure continued funding. This means responding to alien alerts promptly, and minimising collateral damage to their property. The aliens will attempt to infiltrate corporations, depositing troops in buildings with UFOs.

The alarm is raised, and you despatch your squad to tackle them. Before each mission, you’re given the choice of either real-time or turn-based combat. Apocalypse’s development was troubled, much like UFO’s.

The need to support two combat modes proved quite a headache, so the design was scaled back – and some features removed. The inter-corporate espionage was the largest casualty: In the original design, you could tail VIPs, arrest and interrogate them for vital information – and assassinate them if they were causing too much trouble. Multiplayer, a scenario editor, and a procedurally generated alien dimension were also cut.

What remained was functional, but on some fronts half-baked. MicroProse’s insistence on handling the graphics with their in-house team meant that the visuals are a mixed bag – the terrain looks great, but the units (and particularly the aliens) not so much. They were designed as 3D models, with great detail in higher resolutions – but when scaled down for the battlescape and coerced into the 256-colour palette, they looked a bit goofy. Bright pink spitters, blobby blue anthropods and lemon yellow skeletoids. Despite the flaws, the critical reception to X-COM Apocalypse was generally favourable, with review scores in the 80-90 percent range. The new real-time combat was praised, but some of the rough edges hurt its potential, leaving some disappointed.

Still, it sold pretty well – 120 thousand units were shipped in the launch window. Keen to keep the X-COM train rolling, MicroProse released X-COM: Interceptor in 1998. It’s rather a bold departure from the earlier games, as a space combat simulator that puts you in the seat of an interceptor craft versus squadrons of alien UFOs. There is an element of resource management and base building, similar to the previous games – but the geoscape is replaced by a view of The Frontier, a cluster of star systems. UFOs appear on the scanner, to which you can send squadrons of interceptor craft. When in range, you’re dropped into the cockpit of one of your interceptors and the mission begins, playing out in a similar way to Wing Commander.

The combat is robust enough, chasing down UFOs and attempting to either destroy or disable them, but it doesn’t really compare to the tactical section of previous games, nor does it have the same lasting appeal. Review scores were above average, but below par for the franchise – it wasn’t the game most X-COM fans were looking for, but a reasonably welcome extension. It only sold about 30,000 copies, which certainly isn’t spectacular – but it kept the X-COM brand on the shelves while the next mainline entry was in development. The series had a sizeable fanbase, and there was a certain amount of anticipation for the future. A true sequel would likely be a reliable seller, and MicroProse knew this – in fact they had two in development.

But MicroProse were in trouble. They had a great reputation for their simulation and strategy games on the PC, but they struggled to break out of this niche. A failed attempt at marketing arcade games left them with significant debt, and in August 1991 they filed for an initial public offering to raise funds. In 1993, MicroProse merged with Spectrum Holobyte, resulting in the closure of 2 MicroProse UK studios – and the loss of 40 staff at their main branch in Chipping Sodbury. The original X-COM only barely survived this cull, and many of the UK-based artists, designers and programmers joined nearby Psygnosis instead. Studio co-founder Bill Stealey left around this time, too.

In 1996, there were further cost-cutting measures, as Spectrum Holobyte consolidated under the MicroProse banner. At this point, many MicroProse staff – including cofounder Sid Meier - left for greener pastures. By 1997, MicroProse were a shadow of their former glory. A failed buyout by GT Interactive weakened them further, tanking their stock price. MicroProse was eventually acquired by Hasbro in August 1998, and in the inevitable wave of cost-cutting that followed, the offices in Alameda and Chapel Hill were both closed.

One of the casualties of these cuts was an X-COM sequel, titled X-COM Genesis. Unlike Interceptor, Genesis was designed to conform to the classic UFO formula. Tactical, squad based combat – with a new engine, designed to take advantage of modern machines. It was to be a fully 3D game, with pausable real-time combat. The Geoscape returned as well, with Earth rendered in higher detail - stars, moon and sun in the background.

The familiar alien races returned: Sectoids, Mutons, Ethereals, Chryssalids – along with some new threats. The campaign was one of liberation – an all-out war for the survival of Earth, culminating in a final fight onboard the alien mothership. Despite the project showing great promise, and even running ahead of schedule – when Hasbro took over, the studio was closed, and everything written off as restructuring losses. X-COM Genesis would never be released.

Hasbro did publish one X-COM title, at least – although it was a budget sideline rather than a fully-fledged release. Em@il Games: X-COM was a simplified tactical game designed to be played against a human opponent via email: you would take your turn, email your move – and wait for a response. Sadly the servers for the game are long offline, and the slower pace of play-by-mail means its not something you can play for hours – but it does offer up a slice of pure strategy, and the ability to play against a real opponent.

Hasbro’s foray into the video game market wasn’t as successful as they hoped, and the gutting of MicroProse didn’t help. So in 2001, MicroProse were once again sold – this time to Infogrames. By this time MicroProse only had two studios – Hunt Valley in Maryland, and the UK office in Chipping Sodbury. There was one X-COM project that had survived the turmoil, and it had been in development since 1995. It was called X-COM Alliance.

It was originally a project at the Chipping Sodbury studio and was announced in 1998 for release the following year. Under Hasbro’s reign, however, the project was transferred – briefly to Chapel Hill, and then to Hunt Valley in 1999. As they picked up the pieces, the release date slipped further and further back. It was, perhaps controversially, a first person shooter – but very much a tactical one. Based on the Unreal engine, you take control of a squad of 4 soldiers, with a focus on team management. The story is based around a ship, the UGS Patton, on a mission to Cydonia in the wake of the first alien war – but waylaid by wormhole, X-COM finds itself far from home and once again at odds with the aliens.

There is a friendly alien race this time, called the Ascidians – hence, X-COM Alliance. The game was 60-70 percent complete when the plug was finally pulled, and there are some playable early builds out there. The previews looked promising – its appearance at E3 2000 garnered quite a bit of praise. But it wasn’t to be – Alliance was finally cancelled in 2002. From its embers, hewn from recycled assets – there would be one more X-COM game of this era. It wasn’t a very good one.

At some point towards the end of Hasbro’s tenure, a decision was made to salvage whatever value they could from the doomed Alliance project. X-COM Enforcer was the result. It’s a 3D first person shooter, built on the Unreal engine - and without a trace of strategy.

It’s a straightforward alien blaster where you control Enforcer: the ultimate robot warrior. The aliens, weapons, levels are all taken from Alliance and are hastily stapled together into something that could be sold. Unsurprisingly, the reviews were not kind. Infogrames slowly phased out the MicroProse name, with Grand Prix 4 in 2002 being the last to bear the logo. The MicroProse UK studio shut down in September that year, and the founding location in Hunt Valley closed in 2003. This was the end of MicroProse, and for now it was the end of X-COM.

Amidst the misfortune at MicroProse, Mythos Games cut ties with the publisher shortly after the release of X-COM: Apocalypse. They had surrendered the rights to the X-COM IP in exchange for greater royalties. Julian and his studio were still intent on making games however, and in 1998 they released Magic & Mayhem, a follow-up to Chaos and Lords of Chaos. It’s a real-time isometric action RPG, featuring spells and wizard-on-wizard combat. Very much a continuance of the earlier Chaos games, with some very nice Claymation character models. In the single-player campaign you don the robes of the wizard Cornelius, on a quest across the land of 3 realms, each loosely inspired by a different mythology.

Magic & Mayhem reviewed well, but flew under the radar for most – in the shadow of bigger hitters like Baldur’s Gate and Diablo. Gollop’s reputation was still worth something, but by this point he was best known for the X-COM series. His next project would appeal more on that front. The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge was announced in 2000.

It was a 3D turn-based tactical shooter, mooted for both the PlayStation 2 and PC. It was set in the near future, with the Terran Liberation Army taking on an alien threat – the Saurans. It was to be deep, complex – and looked promising. Unfortunately, the project ran out of funding early in 2001, when Virgin Interactive withdrew - and it was put on hold while Mythos Games sought another publisher.

Bethesda expressed an interest, but a fundamental disagreement meant that deal fell through, once again leaving the project in limbo. When Titus Interactive took a controlling interest in Virgin, they cancelled the project outright – and held Mythos to their contract, forcing the liquidation of Mythos Games. So, left once again without a publisher or even a company, Julian and Nick Gollop started again: founding Codo Technologies in 2001. Codo’s first game was Laser Squad Nemesis, a play-by-email revival of their classic tactical shooter.

It’s turn-based, but turns occur simultaneously: you won’t know the outcome until both play out. Instead of time units, you have 10 seconds per turn to play with: issuing movement and fire orders, and setting rules of engagement for any unexpected encounters. It’s a proper strategy game that works well against human opponents, but it’s for a niche audience. Reviews were mixed for this reason, but for fans of slow-paced tactical battles it has quite a lot to offer. Codo’s second game was a little different – a sequel to Rebelstar for the Gameboy Advance, called Rebelstar: Tactical Command. The presentation is radically different to Gollop’s previous games – the cutesy sprites and character portraits make it feel like a JRPG.

But at its core, it’s a turn based strategy game for the handheld, with action points on an isometric grid with different fire modes, overwatch – and even alien enemies that resemble the classic sectoid. It’s slightly simplified to suit the controls and limited resolution, and the storyline takes place over a linear series of missions rather than a broader geoscape, but otherwise it’s pure pocket Gollop. This would be Codo’s last game – a pitch for a sequel to Rebelstar: Tactical Command failed to materialise, and instead Julian moved to Bulgaria and spent the next few years working at Ubisoft Sofia. The demise of MicroProse and X-COM was a disappointment for many – there remained a large body of fans eager for more alien action. There are a number of games created in an attempt to fill this void. Particularly of note is the UFO series, from Czech developer Altar Interactive.

Altar purchased Mythos’ unfinished Dreamland Chronicles game from Virgin Interactive, with the intent of completing it. This proved unworkable, however, so little more than the core concept remained. UFO: Aftermath released in 2003, and the style of gameplay should be familiar to fans of X-COM. The tactical portion plays out in real-time, pausing to allow you to issue orders – and there’s a geoscape, where you can build bases, equip squads and embark on missions.

It plays well enough, but there is a certain amount of jank that limits enjoyment. The combat isn’t particularly engaging, and the missions are anti-climactic. Couple this with a confusing interface and you can see why it didn’t review particularly well. There was a sequel in 2005 - UFO: Aftershock, in which you revisit a ravaged earth via a space station. There were some improvements, some changes, but it handles and plays in quite a similar way to Aftermath.

In 2007 there was another sequel - UFO: Afterlight, this time set on Mars. In all, Altar’s UFO series isn’t really a worthy successor to the original X-COM games. There are some neat ideas, and much of the gameplay is sound – but you have to be willing to forgive the flaws and annoyances to get anything out of them.

There is also the similarly named UFO: Extra Terrestrials, although this isn’t part of Altar’s series – it was developed by Chaos Concept and released in 2007. It’s another game that’s very much inspired by the original UFO, with the tactical portion in particular bearing a very close resemblance. It does a fairly good job of replicating all the essential features, but it suffers from a lack of polish. Shooting manages to be a frustrating affair, with most of your shots going wayward.

All in, it’s in a similar class to Altar’s UFO games, receiving mediocre reviews. Not a great game by any means, but a dose of strategy in a classic mould. For the X-COM starved, there was a glimmer of hope circa 2010, when Xenonauts was first announced. It was a faithful reimagining of the original X-COM games, with classic gameplay but a presentation suited for modern machines.

The game was successfully funded on kickstarter, fuelled by a desire for a ‘true’ X-COM spiritual sequel, and eventually released on Steam in 2014. It’s modelled closely on UFO, with the geoscape and tactical sequences playing out in largely the same way, but there are a few enhancements. Air combat is improved over the original, with support for squadrons of up to 3 craft. You issue commands via a radar display, and this opens up new potential tactics for engagement.

Loadouts are streamlined slightly with the introduction of roles, which makes equipping new soldiers much quicker – and the tactical interface is leaner and slightly easier to understand than the original. Xenonauts feels very much like X-COM, as was the intent – and while it is imitative, essentially a remake, it satisfies on the strategic and tactical fronts, and presents its own novel challenge for fans of the genre. Altar’s UFO series and Xenonauts were both born out of a longing for more X-COM – a long-fermenting sentiment amongst fans of the series.

However there was hidden movement afoot – activity behind the scenes that would lead to an official revival of the X-COM franchise. MicroProse were long gone, their studios shuttered – and while much of the talent there had dispersed, t

2022-10-17 03:24

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