Thursday, July 17, 2008

X-Com: The Legend

At Greg's Stag Party the weekend before last, my good friend Glen delivered a delicious present that he had picked up for me some time before: X-Com: UFO Defense the Novel. I can't in good faith say it was a good book, but that doesn't mean it wasn't enjoyable. As an aspiring writer, the value of books that comfort my self-conscious worries cannot be underestimated. If this book can get the green light then I should be okay.

Regardless of the caliber of writing, there is something to be desired in a book where one can switch off all active parts of the intellect and simply enjoy, free of judgment and analysis. James Clemen's Banned and the Banished series is a great example of this type of intellectual freedom.

The best part of the book, however, is that it got me playing X-Com again. I absolutely, unforgivingly, unabashedly love X-Com. When you learn that the first two games we had when we bought our first computer were X-Com and Daggerfall it is not hard to see why I am still primarily a computer gamer.

But what is it that makes X-Com so good? I challenge you to pinpoint it. In today's game reviewing sphere we tear apart games for flawed ai, poor story, poor interface, bland graphics and flawed gameplay, but it is much more difficult to define exactly what a game does right, and that is the skill that seperates the best game journalists from the crowd. Julian "Rabbit" Murdoch, Shawn "Certis" Andrich and Sean "Elysium" Sands over at Gamers with Jobs, Shawn Elliott and Jeff Green at 1UP (formerly of CGW and GFW) and the folks over at PC Gamer are all journalists that can be positive about a game without the hype, can be negative without the hate, and can explain the reasons for every opinion.

So let's put on our reviewer hats and take a good hard look at this classic, ubiquitous top ten resident and nostalgia target.

X-Com: UFO Defense is a squad based tactical game with an overarching logistical management aspect. As the manager of the secret international anti-alien organization X-Com, you tasked with building, staffing and overseeing bases, research, manufacturing, finances and combat in order to put an end to the ever accelerating alien invasion. Perhaps the most striking thing about the beginning of the game is the vast gap between your soldiers and the aliens. Most games start the player off at a disadvantage, at level 1 with the most basic equipment, but most games also start off with weaker enemies so that the two can ramp up together, keeping pace with each other. From the very first fight it is clear that X-Com takes a different tack. Your unarmored, underskilled and underequipped squads are put up against aliens wielding terrifying plasma weaponry and mind control. They can see farther than you can in the dark, shoot faster than you can in the light and whenever you land they are already there, waiting. You are always assaulting a fortified position, always fighting at a disadvantage. One of the standout qualities of X-Com is that it is unforgivingly difficult at times. The computer doesn't coddle you through the first terror mission, when your terrified and harried squads are trying to take down a cyberdisc with only their rifles, or forced to gun down a teammate under alien control. And they never get much easier, even when working with a veteran squad, armored and equipped with heavy plasma, the aliens still always have the upperhand, constantly introducing new and more dangerous species into the mix. The battles are challenging and stressful, but because of that they are immeasurably more satisfying when your squad survives with a cargo hold full of alien goodies.

Completing a battle reveals one of the strongest elements of X-Com: pacing. Regardless of how tense and difficult the combat is, the world map is slow paced and thoughtful, allowing the player to sit back and relax a bit, to pick what research is most pressing and what manufacturing needs to be done. The steady pulse of the action in the game keeps everything fresh and welcome. The tech tree advances at a perfect pace, with enough different paths that there are always new things to discover and integrate. Each new technology is exciting, pushing for further innovation. It is something akin to the "One more turn" emotion of the Civ franchise, there is always a new horizon to aim for, whether it's a shiny new base in Asia or adding missle defences to you base in Europe, building your first Firestorm or equipping a Plasma Cannon on one of the beat up old Interceptors. And every advancement gives real, tangible rewards, whether it's increasing your squad's mobility with flying suits or shooting down that first large ufo and preventing a terror strike in New Delhi. There are no artificially retreating horizons here, each goal reached is a verifiable accomplishment that changes the way you interact with the game and the game interacts with you.

The few bothersome quirks with the game rarely get in the way, but there are some niggling issues. It would be great to be able to equip particular squad members from the base screen, rather than having to rearrange equipment before every fight. To the same end it would be immensely useful to be able to arrange your squad in the transport and choose who comes out first and who is stuck in the back. In fact, the way the game treats soldiers in general is almost as if they are never meant to survive. They are just names and numbers, sometimes a skin or hair color. One good shot will end them forever, with no notifier, no eulogy, no second chance, just a number in the mission summary and an open spot in the skyranger. Despite this murderous disinterest in your squads that the game displays, they will still move beyond the randomly generated name and numbers that the game presents you with, especially if you have a single squad that you work with through the entire game. You invest such a tremendous amount of emotion into each member simply to survive through each encounter that you cannot but see them as an individual. By the end of my first playthrough I had assembled, out of these fragments of names, numbers, battlefield pairs and performances, an entire back story for my team complete with sibling rivalries and romances, assigning character archetypes and histories to each.

X-Com: UFO Defense stands among the greatest games ever made primarily because it is challenging and cold. It will not guide you through to victory, and because of that each tiny victory is all the more gratifying. Every encounter is crucial, every technology valuable and every inch gained is fought for and died for. X-Com does not care if you fail, but it will reward you tremendously if you succeed. No one will help you climb the mountain, but when you get to the top and the cool breeze flows over you and the view opens up before you you will know that it was all made sweeter by virtue of the effort spent.

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