Only a few short months separate us from the release of a brand new XCOM game, which means I’ve had to spend the past weeks grinding my teeth while listening to people praise its predecessor as having so much strategic depth and atmosphere, like nothing they’ve seen before. That and occasionally stabbing myself in the thigh with a spoon whenever someone in the press, often in an interview, called it the best in the series and point it out as a glowing example of excellent game design. I do not recommend trying to stab yourself in the thigh with a spoon. It was not made for stabbing, and therefore requires a lot more effort than, say, a fork. But it’s that extra effort that drives the point home, the very blunt point.
Now, I did not loathe the un-hyphenated XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I thought it was a flawed game in many aspects – with a demo version akin to the abysmal Franck Herbert’s Dune action-adventure game to which I one day hope to introduce you to and then apologize for doing so – but it was OK-ish. Not good, not terrible, just OK-ish. Sort of like one of those covers of a classic soft song, made by one of those bands that insists on singing half of it like they just came back from the dentist and haven’t slept that week, and then scream the rest of it like it’s supposed to mean something.
The main reason I hold this opinion (otherwise know as objective observation of reality) is because I’ve played the original UFO: Enemy Unknown (otherwise known as X-Com: UFO Defense, that hyphen is important). And not 20 years ago, once, and then forgot about it. I come back to it regularly, in spite of its cumbersome interface and, what some people would say, dated graphics. I tend to slap those people. Mind you, I am not a fanatic. There are people known to me who have played this game for stretches of time so vast, that when they looked one evening in the mirror, something resembling a Sectoid blinked back with bloodshot eyes.
So, what made this original X-Com so grand, you may ask? I’d say it’s the way it was made, first and foremost, as a natural evolution of an old idea. The current game was created as a reaction to people hating the FPS/Third person shooter reboot of the series. Now, the publisher will tell you that no, XCOM was in development since the get go, but after seeing the end result, I just can’t believe that to be true. It’s like Bethesda saying the Creation Engine is all new tech, when it was obviously Gamebryo with a neat moustache.
Ye old X-Com was the end product of a decade long endeavour of one man to create tactical turn based combat games. His name was Julian Gollop. He started making games when he was still in school, on technology so old it’s now outclassed by any pocket calculator. Julian had a fondness for strategic board games, even designing a few for himself. When the opportunity came to translate the rules and mechanics of those games onto a computer, that would take care of all the hassle normally reserved for the game master, he jumped at it. At first he just designed the games, and had a friend do the programming, for things like Time Lords and Islandia, on an ancient BBC Micro. But then he started learning programming by himself. Remember that this was back in the early, early ’80s. There were was no such thing as a game engine you could get for free or an internet full of tutorials. There wasn’t even a MS Paint, or anything powerful enough to run MS Paint. There was BASIC and the ZX Spectrum. And in that now defunct programming language, on that legendary machine, he made a game called Nebula, one of the first of his games to actually be published. It was a local multiplayer game where you tried to expand a space empire. Think of it as a really primitive Master of Orion, really primitive. That was in 1984, same year he made the first step into turn based tactical combat games.
There was just something about a certain miniature board game called Snipe that resonated with him. It offered the option of using different firing modes, such as quick snap shot, or fine aim, the action point cost increasing with the accuracy. Julian thought this kind of system made for some very interesting decisions, that offered a fine balance between risk and reward. Thus, he had the basic idea for his next game, Rebelstar Raiders. A tactical turn based combat game that let you control a limited group of characters, each having different statistics, through a series of missions, in outer space. In it you could see the first elements of an X-Com game, in a primitive state, surely, yet very familiar. He continued with a game called Chaos, which was not really all that similar, and is now getting a remake. And then game three consecutive games that were only turn based tactical squad combat games. Rebelstar, Rebelstar 2 and Laser Squad. Each iterated upon the idea of the previous one, each refined the gameplay, each added new and better mechanics, and each contributed to the experience of Julian Gollop as a programmer and as a game designer. He had worked on the concepts of this kind of game for over four years. If you tackle anything for that long, you tend to have an insight into how it can be further developed. And he did, he wanted to make Laser Squad 2. So along with his brother, Nick Gollop, Julian created a demonstration of the game, and pitched it to several publishers. One of them was Microprose.
For those not in the know, Microprose was in 1991 know for two things: a large number of simulators, be they air combat, rail road or pirate ones, and the game that changed turn based strategies forever, Civilization. The Gollop brothers met with Pete Moreland, the head of development at Microprose, they showed him the game and explained what the idea was. He then showed it to other people in the company, people that were familiar with Laser Squad, people that liked Laser Squad. So they had a deal, with one hitch. Microprose wanted the game to be bigger, to have a greater scale and scope, to be more akin to Civilization, rather than what Laser Squad 2 currently was, namely, a succession of combat missions stretching across alien planets. Moreland even suggested going for a UFO theme, so they could keep it on earth, but still have really neat SF technology. They agreed, started research on the whole unidentified flying object phenomenon (do doo be-doo-do), drafted a design document and got to work. It was supposed to be a four man job, plus one musician near the end, lasting 18 months.
It took three years.
Why, you may wonder? Because four people made X-Com, and it was meant for the PC, not an Atari ST on which the Laser Squade 2 demo was created. It is not in any way a small game, it has content that dwarfed the 2012 game, depth you could drown in and many, many components. Actually, too many initially. An air combat sim for the interception of the UFOs was dropped and replaced by the simpler (yet more complex than the XCOM one) one in the final version, and they gave up on implementing an extra faction in the game, the Men in Black. They were intended to infiltrate the various nations supporting your effort to stop the alien menace. A neat idea, and the origin of the EXALT in XCOM, yet it was scrapped from the first game, because Microprose was working on an entire game centered around the Men in Black. You may not have heard of that game, since it was canceled.
And then X-Com got cancelled.
The new owners of Microprose, Spectrum Holobyte, weren’t all that impressed with it, so they ordered it to be canned. But it didn’t really take. The people working at Microprose liked X-Com enough to let the developers continue, until there came a time when Spectrum Holobyte needed a game to release in a certain period of time, and it also happened that X-Files was just coming out, and it was a big hit. How fortunate that the UFO themed game, called UFO, and had X in the name in the US, was not cancelled. It had actually earned money. A lot of money.
Again, this was a game made by four people. A large game, made by four people. A large, planet spanning game made by four people that needed battlefields for each and every crash site, each city, each forest, each sleepy farm and desolate wasteland. Creating custom ones was impossible. They simply did not have the resources. So they made a system that allowed the game to grab a set of tiles, grab some assets and make a map. That way, you got a different experience with each combat encounter, and the game succeeded at being as big as Microprose wanted it to be. It also had an unexpected secondary effect, it made X-Com… well, X-Com.
There were no scripted events in this game. There was no introductory sequence that tried (and failed badly) to set up a threatening atmosphere. There were no annoying characters that constantly spouted out B-movie lines that B-movie writers are slapped if they try to write them. It was, how shall I put this, organic. The story evolved by time and research, through your own actions. You had the freedom to make it your own, to build a base near that squiggly line that should represent a river near your home town. You could give your characters any name you wanted, treat them like friends or children, and then weep when they were torn apart by a Sectoid hiding in a bush, near the end of an otherwise successful mission. It also certainly didn’t hurt that the tactical combat was the best of its kind at the time. Oh, sure, it may not have hiding behind cover, but it did have something else, actual functional combat with an actually functional AI.
Picture this scene. You’re a group of aliens crash-landed near a farm. You see a really big transport ship about to land. What do you do?
a) Do you spread around the map in small groups that can be easily picked off, like you’re some kind of MMO random mob?
b) Ambush the primates at their landing spot, and if that fails, run around the map, hiding and picking them off one by one from the shadows.
Which one of these best sounds like something out of an alien horror film? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not the one where the enemy needed a free turn during your turn in order to have any sort of chance. It’s the one that came with a motion sensor, vague as it was, that made you feel like Ripley tracking a Xenomorph. This is why X-Com had atmosphere. It wasn’t enough that the music was foreboding, or that the fog of war revealed itself slowly and otherwise hid everything. It’s both of these and the fact that you were never safe. You never knew what could sneak up on you during the enemy movement phase, or kill your entire squad from the second floor window of a farmhouse. You were being hunted.
X-Com instilled a sense of dread, through its mechanics, that the other one failed to reach through its many cutscenes. But it also offered you all the tools you’d need to survive, that is, if you researched them, and if you knew how to play. One major aspect of this was the destructible terrain. You could aim at anything above ground, and with enough force, it would break. Walls and doors fell under gunfire, allowing you to enter buildings in ways the enemy may not be prepared for. If you were sure there were no civilians in there, and could live without any cover a building could offer you, you could just blow up the place with an assortment of explosive armaments. You could have one soldier dedicated to this. A person carrying so many rockets and grenades, that you could, more or less, destroy the entire map. Sure, little to nothing would be left behind for salvage, but it’s like that scene in Predator when they just start shooting the jungle. Sometimes, you just have to make sure the thing is dead, even if you can’t see the thing. Missiles also tended to be costly.
To this day, the tactical combat of X-Com continues to be first class. Especially since, unlike some of its spiritual successors, it had a working implementation of line of sight and objects you hid behind did not randomly become ethereal when enemies shot at you. The rules also applied the same for everyone, which made it fair. In no way easy, oh dear gods, this game was not easy, but you never felt it cheated you. You add to this the interceptor portion, which had actual interactivity, the economy and the base management, which let you build a large number of bases around the world, and you have an incredible game. Though I’ll give the 2012 game this, it had a much better looking graphical representation of the base. Sadly, it also had those three annoying characters in the base, that never shut up.
UFO Enemy Unknown/X-Com UFO Defense never forced anything upon you, it didn’t push you down a path, it didn’t constrain or change the rules to suit a false sense of depth. It wasn’t a directed experience, it was an emergent one and it was yours. Other games have succeeded in copying the core of this concept, the random playable characters that you get to customize, to make your own, to get attached to. But that’s the easiest thing to do, requiring nothing more than a blank canvas and the imagination of the player. The rest, well that’s where the way X-Com was made matters. This game, released in 1994, was the apex of a decade of developing an idea, combined with the random chance of someone suggesting they make it more like a Civilization game, made by someone at the top of their game. Even Julian Gollop jokes on occasion about everything being down hill after X-Com.
Sequels and spiritual successors are aplenty, you can’t throw a stick without finding one. A few are good, others are just OK-ish, but unless you’ve played the original, you’ll never truly understand why this is a pivotal game for the genre and for the industry. This is a game that managed to spread through word of mouth alone across the entire globe, back when the internet was something people didn’t really have. Piracy helped, without a doubt, especially east of the wall. It may be old, it may be rusty and covered in jagged edges, it may on occasion try to bite you, but it is something to be in awe of. It is a sacred monster. Try it, either in the original version, that’s available just about everywhere, or in the freeware version, as OpenXCom. You won’t regret it, and you’ll have a much better understanding as to why the 2012 game wasn’t all that and a bag of chips. It was only some of that and a mouldy pretzel.
I do hope the makers of XCOM 2 put a bit more effort into understanding why the original was great, and I look forward to it. Even though the E3 demo made me reach for the spoon.
The original X-Com: UFO Defense is still available for purchase on Amazon. If you’re considering adding it to your collection, you can help us out by using our affiliate link.