Category Archives: Games

Nostalgia Gaming: X-COM and its Clones

I just posted about my technical experiences with the Steam re-release of the X-COM series, so let me tell you about X-COM.  It’s a game where you are in control of a planetary anti-UFO force during an era when a bunch of different alien races seem intent on attacking the planet.  The gameplay has several combined elements that made it unique in its time, as far as I know.

The strategic element is sim-like and lets you manage your bases.  You can hire researchers, soldiers, and scientists, build new equipment and base components, and decide what to do when aliens are spotted.  You will have to decide how to spend limited resources to go fight the aliens, since they will often land in more places than you have vehicles.  A country will angrily pull its funding if you don’t fight the aliens that attack it.

When I first played this game, the most fascinating aspect was what we now call a tech tree.  Unlike usual tech trees, the tech tree in X-COM only reveals itself as you retrieve more alien beings and technology.  Your scientists study what you retrieve, and while they can learn some things about alien corpses, they can learn even more from live specimens, which are tougher to collect.  With the right research, your soldiers could eventually acquire beam weapons and flying power armor.  The best part about this is that what you discover varies from game to game, adding to replay value.

The RPG element is small but significant.  Each of your soldiers has a name, attributes, and skills.  Initially, you’ll want to assign weapons to them based on their skills with different weapon types, maximum movement rate, etc.  After each alien encounter, they gain experience which is auto-allocated toward their attributes.  Deaths in the field can impact morale, which can lead your soldiers to panic and run or leave them susceptible to alien mind control, turning them into enemy soldiers.  A soldier who stays alive through several missions will be promoted in rank, and the presence of high-ranking people in the field improves morale.  Likewise, the death of a high-ranking soldier hurts morale more than the death of a low-ranking soldier.

The tactical element is what you do when you go find the aliens.  Sometimes the aliens land a fully intact ship and go rampaging.  Sometimes they crash after you shoot them down.  Regardless, you find them in a state where they’d prefer not to talk and would rather exterminate you, so you need to be careful.  The earlier games are turn-based, and you have to carefully decide whether to save movement for automatic actions (such as defensive weapons fire) or use it up.  If you just move as far as you can, on the aliens’ turn, an alien could stumble upon you and shoot you.  If you had saved enough time to fire your weapon, when you see the alien, you’ll fire reflexively before they have a chance.  The aliens can make the same decisions, so be careful.

The game concept was innovative, and unfortunately never developed by Microprose into a successful franchise.  I think that they failed to capture what was great about the original in their two in-genre followups.  It was clear that they had given up when they released a space flight shooter and a first-person shooter under the X-COM name.

People often misunderstand the expression, “You can never go home again.”  While you can go back to the house where you grew up, it does not reproduce the experience and the feeling of being a kid again, living under your parents’ roof and guidance.  Even if the house hasn’t changed, you have.  The same can be said about beloved old video games.  In the course of playing the original DOS version of X-COM, I soon realized how quirky the controls were and how randomly malicious the game could be, such as invading your base on your first game day and wiping you out.

I also realized that these games are firmly from the era where you needed a manual to learn how to play them.  After trying the only in-genre X-COM title that I hadn’t played before, X-COM Apocalypse, I saw all these unfamiliar controls and had little idea what to do.  A modern game would never be so cruel, but this is how pirates used to be punished, kids; they didn’t care if you copied the game because they knew you’d never figure it out without the hard-to-copy black-on-gray manual.  GUIs and game design have come a long way since X-COM debuted, and I soon itched for a game that played just like X-COM that would take advantage of modern game design.

After some searching, I found that a European company called Altar Games had developed some recent titles that could be considered X-COM clones: UFO Aftermath, UFO Aftershock, and UFO Afterlight.  All of them have demos, and two of them run in wine, although they have invisible mouse cursors, making gameplay hard.  Despite that, I like what I see so far, but I need to play more extensively to see if they retained all the core elements of the original X-COM, or if they just expanded on the tactics and set aside the rest.  After some more testing, I’ll report what I find.