The year is 1998, and Earth is threatened by a wide-scale alien invasion. Funded by a coalition of nations and controlled by you, the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit (X-COM) is the only hope for humankind.
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I’ve recently been revisiting my formative years playing X-COM: UFO Defense (a.k.a. UFO Enemy Unknown) online, available on Steam. UFO Defense and its sequel, X-COM: Terror from the Deep, are still among some of my favorite computer/video games of all time. While it may not have the sleek graphics of the new millennium, I’ve been finding UFO Defense to be just as much fun as it was in the 90s.
Maybe that says more about my antiquated tastes than the quality of the game that, or it might just be one of those things, like the original Oreo, that is so well articulated that it’s almost impossible to improve on. While the original XCOM games had a strong cult following, fans have been less enthusiastic about the later titles in the franchise (including the upcoming XCOM, a first-person shooter set for a Spring 2012 release), which have wandered quite a bit from the turn-based strategy format. There have been a variety of attempts to recreate UFO Defense and Terror from the Deep outside the official X-COM line (see Incubation: Time is Running Out, UFO: Aftermath, UFO: Extraterrestrials, and UFO: Alien Invasion, among others); the latest of these, Xenonauts, is still in development, and may very well provide the satisfaction fans have been craving for over fifteen years. In the meantime, though, don’t turn your nose up at the rudimentary graphics, because for now it doesn’t get any better than this:
What makes UFO Defense so great? I won’t pretend that I completely understand the answer to that question, but I do like the level of customization in the game, for one: being able to build your bases where and how you like, being able to choose the names of your soldiers, things like that. I like being able to decide on the weapons and gear your soldiers carry and how they carry it, and then seeing the consequences of these decisions play out on your missions.
While video games these days seem pretty committed to real-time combat and strategy, I like the fact that UFO Defense is a turn-based experience. Somehow, in spite controlling potentially dozens of soldiers, making deliberate person-by-person choices helps you feel the person-by-person significance of each death or injury in your squad. A dead soldier is not just another casualty; no, it’s Abe Lincoln, or Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate, or whatever you’ve named him or her, someone who has, perhaps, survived dozens of missions, who has endured mind control attacks and put down zombified teammates during unexpected encounters with Chryssalids; someone, in short, who has an actual history, who, if pixels could talk, might have a real story to tell.
Anyway, I wish there were more games like UFO Defense and Terror from the Deep, games that are more about thinking things through, and elicit emotions more diverse than just a frenetic adrenaline rush.
My grade: A