X-COM: UFO Defense - The World's Best Alien Invasion Game?

X-COM: UFO Defense - The World's Best Alien Invasion Game?

X-COM: UFO Defense may be over 20 years old, but it still features tactical gameplay the modern XCOM series hasn't matched.

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A review of the original X-COM talking about what the new one lacks and no mention of Xenonauts? What?

I still go back to UFO Defense often. The game itself is legendary and addicting. An over 20 year addiction now... and it still feels relevant today to me, not just nostalgia talking. RNGesus hates me and has definitely tried to discourage me from playing, but I persevere and have conquered the invaders many times.

yup, definitely. The only thing indeed that was bad in that game was the UI but overall it's on the top 5 of all time

My first experience with this franchise was with Terror From the Deep, which makes the original look like a walk in the park thanks to a bug that automatically resets the difficulty to "Impossible," that and bugs in the research tree make it a great deal harder to complete. Not to mention that in the early game you have weapons that don't work on land, only underwater, which can make early terror missions much more difficult.

I played the original years later and enjoyed it, but TFtD is still my personal favourite.
Though I will say that I enjoyed the reboot, despite it's many simplifications.

Here it comes, here it comes.

Why yes, I am required by law to post this vid whenever xcom is mentioned.

I remember trying forever to get xcom to work on my old 386, at most I could just get the intro working and it was the most awesome thing that ever awesomed a thing.

Eventually I got a 486 and it ran it fine. Never managed to beat it though, but I did get close. I just got tired of it and moved to something else. I think of the original xcom games the one I came closest to beating was apocalypse. The only reason I didn't finish that one was all my save files got corrupted.

I played this (and Xenonauts) both, and Xcom:EW on my iPhone. And...EW is the only one I've managed to beat. Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I just don't think that the original has aged all that gracefully. But I totally understand and respect everyone who loves it to death. Just...not quite that good for me.

Azhrarn-101:
My first experience with this franchise was with Terror From the Deep, which makes the original look like a walk in the park thanks to a bug that automatically resets the difficulty to "Impossible," that and bugs in the research tree make it a great deal harder to complete. Not to mention that in the early game you have weapons that don't work on land, only underwater, which can make early terror missions much more difficult.

I played the original years later and enjoyed it, but TFtD is still my personal favourite.
Though I will say that I enjoyed the reboot, despite it's many simplifications.

Same here. I started with TFtD and loved it so much, I could never play the original. The atmosphere and the aliens are so much creepier in TFtD, and the lovecraftian setting was just way more interesting than the cliche aliens in the original version.

Yes, it had more bugs. I actually ran into the research bug that prevented you from researching the better ships the first couple of times I played, but still managed to finish the game. It required 3 or 4 Barracudas hunting the larger alien vessels in packs to bring them down, but it worked. :)

Tiamat666:

Same here. I started with TFtD and loved it so much, I could never play the original. The atmosphere and the aliens are so much creepier in TFtD, and the lovecraftian setting was just way more interesting than the cliche aliens in the original version.

Yes, it had more bugs. I actually ran into the research bug that prevented you from researching the better ships the first couple of times I played, but still managed to finish the game. It required 3 or 4 Barracudas hunting the larger alien vessels in packs to bring them down, but it worked. :)

The two biggest bugs I ran into on the research front was the one skipping Ion Armour, meaning you were stuck with Aqua Plastic until you got Magnetic Ion Armour, and the bug that prevents you from researching Vibro-blades (and their successors), which makes Lobstermen and Tassoths much harder to deal with.
I don't think I ever completed the final mission. Having that final base-assault be a 2-parter was a complete nightmare.

I never had the courage to play TftD :D it may probably be the most brutally difficult game ever

Azhrarn-101:

The two biggest bugs I ran into on the research front was the one skipping Ion Armour, meaning you were stuck with Aqua Plastic until you got Magnetic Ion Armour, and the bug that prevents you from researching Vibro-blades (and their successors), which makes Lobstermen and Tassoths much harder to deal with.
I don't think I ever completed the final mission. Having that final base-assault be a 2-parter was a complete nightmare.

It's not so hard actually, once you have a couple of PSI dudes and Disruptor Pulse Launchers. The game changes drastically from that point on, you might actually say it gets almost boring. You start taking over aliens, which you use to scout more aliens, which you might also take over. Then when you have identified a nice cluster of them, or just moved them closer to each other yourself, you fire your disruptors into them, blasting them into dust.
Or if you have enough disruptor ammo, you might even skip the Molecular Control and just level everything to the ground. Or, if you're short on disruptor ammo, you just park the aliens right in front of your gunsights and take them out with conventional weapons.

MC Control and Disruptors are way overpowered in the hands of a human player. Once you get them, any careful tactical planning you might have developed becomes obsolete and the game just becomes a matter of controlling aliens and blowing shit up.

Tiamat666:

Yes, it had more bugs. I actually ran into the research bug that prevented you from researching the better ships the first couple of times I played, but still managed to finish the game. It required 3 or 4 Barracudas hunting the larger alien vessels in packs to bring them down, but it worked. :)

Quoting my own post. LoL. :)

Actually, come to think of it. The game was more exciting when I played it like this. I would frequently lose ships to the alien UFO's, that needed to be replaced, so it felt more like there was a real war going on. And there was this sense of urgency as I could feel the enemy getting stronger whereas my strength was stalling. Also, UFO's could go much faster than my Barracudas, which reinforced the feeling that the aliens where technologically superior and sneaky, and that I might not be able to stop them.

When I played the game much later and realized that you can research these awesome ships that can take on the most powerful aliens vessels on their own and even land your troops on the fly, it wasn't quite as satisfying because it seemed way too easy. Almost like cheating.
So I guess this particular research bug actually improved my enjoyment of the game when I first played it. :D

But yes, there are also the really nasty bugs. Like crashes 2 hours into a mission and of course you forgot to save. Or persistent crashes that would reoccur even after reloading...
A game must be good if you voluntarily suffer through bugs like that.

I played the original and the reboot, and enjoyed them both. I particularly like the addition of Ironman option, to remove the temptation of save-scumming.

One thing that bugged me about the 90's X-Com and the reboot was the limited resources. I understand it as a game mechanic, but as a world-wide funded military organization, should I be able to get HUNDREDS of highly trained soliders? DOZENS, at least, fighter jets? Grenades and guns by the crate-load?

X-Com 2, where you run a resistance movement, makes limited money much more plausible.

I tried the original once, but yeah, that UI was a nightmare. I quit immediately. I played Xenonauts too, which was a lot smoother but I didn't finish it. After unlocking the Rail gun weaponry, and reading that that's what you get instead of Psi powers in this game, I was too bored. The problem is that you keep fighting the same battles over and over again. There's a fun balance of shotgun, AR, shield & pistol, Sniper rifle, Machine gun and rocket launcher. But it's the same balance for every tech level, from regular, laser, plasma through railgun, with only the damage increasing, not any of the other weapon stats. After dozens of hours I had had enough of that battle.

So yeah, I prefer the reboot. It does have the same problem of the weapon classes staying the same, but the skills, armor abilities and tools you can collect as the game goes on keep things interesting. Although Xenonauts had the superior interceptor-minigame by far.

I liked both the original and the reboot by Firaxis. The original had me glued to my seat for almost weeks until a few hours after I trained my psi-soldiers. After that it became really tedious. TFTD was about the same. I liked it, but it was so close to the original that I was in a bigger hurry to end it once my psi-sol err.. Molecular control soldiers were strong enough. Mysterious loss of country finding didn't help in TFTD, either.

I have no regrets about buying the Firaxis reboot, I thoroughly enjoyed the content. But I haven't gone back to play it since I finished it.

MARSHALL LEMON:
It's the horribly confusing interface which does a terrible job of explaining its rules to players. You'll need the manual to figure out what most UI button do, and even then navigating elevation levels is awkward. During four entire missions of my first campaign, I couldn't even figure out how to fire guns during my turn - you have to actually click a weapon image which I assumed was just an equipment display.

I had prepared a rather detailed response to this article, but then I read this bit and had it click into place just how much the target audience has changed.

Behind my monitor is the quick-reference chart from my copy of Virgin's Shuttle simulator. It measures two by three feet. And that's not a manual replacement, mind; it's just a quick-reference chart. Flying a space shuttle, it turns out, is complicated. As is managing an international organization to fight off an interplanetary invasion. Why wouldn't it be? To that end, why wouldn't you read the manual? Even if you didn't know this was a complex game going in, wouldn't it become immediately apparent? And wouldn't you THEN go back and read it?

I realize that I'm part of an older gaming generation. And I realize that Firaxis, along with most of the rest of the industry, is gearing itself more towards simpler, faster, more smartphone-and-table type gaming (and in a way, it's hard to blame them; that audience is a lot bigger and a LOT less picky), but is that really what you want? It may be nothing to you to exile the old guard to the realm of Paradox, where we'll while away the hours calling Shia jihads for Norway to avenge the daughters the Vikings have forcibly concubined, but what would you leave for yourself- a future full of Farmvilles? If you relegate any game that requires reading a manual to the status of "outdated", that's where you're headed.

The X-Com: UFO Defense manual was less than 200 pages long. Is complexity really that scary?

I did play the original and while it was fun, it hasn't aged well, mechanically.
I found a lot of busywork, the base-building itself was rather pointless into planning out as you could just build whatever-and-whereever when you kept the hangars seperate from the rest of the base, the controls were either overly complicated or slightly counterintuitive, you lacked A LOT of information that was actually important (like, you know, tooltips for buttons or how much Timeunits you had left if you moved somewhere). Throw in a lot of needless busywork by having to buy tons of ammo all the time (basically the reason I went to laser ASAP and stuck with them for ages all the damn time - no need to worry about ammo) and a huge squad didn't mean jack to me as I ran out with the first four to six guys anyway. Maybe eight in bases.
And my own bases also usually ran only with the most barebones staff: One interceptor, one skyranger (with squadmembers I either never bothered to name or just gave a code number like Charlie [position]-<version>, causing me to have, say a Charlie 3-4, which would be my fourth Charlie 3 in that base), two storage rooms and enough bunks to have two engineerings running that would do nothing but pump out Laser Cannons to instantly sell them again.
Doing all that usually meant that I could stop Cydionia with nothing but stolen Heavy Plasma Rifles (including ammo), never having produced one myself, and never having researched Psyonics.

OpenXCom thankfully did fix a lot of these things and removed a good bunch of the limitations (e.g. you CAN actually arm everyone you bring to Cydonia, you CAN sort the order in which people are within your craft, you CAN save and load at any time, you CAN sort peoples inventory while in a base and can even do so automatically if you wish). It still has some flaws - again: buying ammo, 14 people when I only ever need like six, ect. - but it at least solved the problems in terms of information.

Still, I rather take Enemy Unknown over UFO Defense if given the choice and most people that say that UFO Defense is surperior strike me more of nostalgia-blinded. It had a few advantages over Enemy Unknown, but only in a few points.

Thurston:
I played the original and the reboot, and enjoyed them both. I particularly like the addition of Ironman option, to remove the temptation of save-scumming.

One thing that bugged me about the 90's X-Com and the reboot was the limited resources. I understand it as a game mechanic, but as a world-wide funded military organization, should I be able to get HUNDREDS of highly trained soliders? DOZENS, at least, fighter jets? Grenades and guns by the crate-load?

Well, in Enemy Unknown - you do. You can get up to 99 (or 75 with Enemy Within) of "Earth Best Soldiers" (finding and giving them a crash course training is why you can't just have every average-joe in your team - unlike UFO Defense where those were apparently the guys. But you also had limited space in your base as every single guy wants his own bunk), you get INFINITE base weapons (Laser and Plasma you're inventing and producing yourself, that's why you can't just buy them) and why do you need 100 jets when you have a hangar that can only take 4 of them?

Recusant:
snip

X-COM's complexity isn't out-of-date or scary. In fact, I'd argue X-COM's core systems are fairly similar to Enemy Unknown, outside of managing multiple bases on the Geoscape. And of course, there's nothing wrong with reading a manual - for many games, I quite enjoy it.

The issue isn't complexitity, it's design. UFO Defense and Enemy Unknown are comparable on a mechanical level, but Enemy Unknown takes a 150+ page manual and condenses it into a 15-20 minute tutorial. Practically everything from that manual can be taught to players in the moment. Any elements that aren't a concern until later missions (like psychic soldiers) aren't addressed until you actually need to pay attention to them. That's incredibly efficient design, which has nothing to do with how complex the mechanics are.

Speaking of efficiency, Enemy Unknown has an interface that streamlines many of your actions, explaining what they do along with extra details like how far you can move in a turn. This makes them easier to grasp for new players while still keeping the challenge of gameplay.

You mentioned space shuttle simulators. If someone designed a shuttle interface that captured their complexity, but routes everything through a simple and intuitive control scheme, what objective reason is there for using the old model? We might prefer the older version aesthetically, but if it accomplishes the same thing in practical terms, why should we proclaim them as superior? Now we can do the same thing with fewer buttons, and that's progress! Today, there are Navy warships with targeting systems that are operated using knockoff Xbox controllers. Should we make them go back to older targeting systems if it's just as effective? And if we don't demand that of trained officers, why should we demand the same of entertaining video games?

That's what's out of date about UFO Defense. The gameplay itself is still rich and complex, but the interface design had room for improvement. Firaxis did that for Enemy Unknown, and it proved hugely successful. That's not to say Enemy Unknown couldn't be more like UFO Defense - managing multiple bases would've been wonderful. But it still got a lot right while carrying over the core experience of the original. That's a good thing.

Recusant:

The X-Com: UFO Defense manual was less than 200 pages long. Is complexity really that scary?

The interface is really bad. I had to alt tab to the manual three times to throw a grenade. Real grenades are easy to throw. Even infantry can do it and most of them can't read.

In fairness a lot of games are over simplified for mass market appeal but there needs to be some sort of balance. It's okay for really complicated games to hold a players hand a little at the start. The total war franchise for example does a good job of slowly dialing up complexity to avoid overwhelming the player.

Fanghawk:

Recusant:
snip

The issue isn't complexitity, it's design. UFO Defense and Enemy Unknown are comparable on a mechanical level, but Enemy Unknown takes a 150+ page manual and condenses it into a 15-20 minute tutorial. Practically everything from that manual can be taught to players in the moment. Any elements that aren't a concern until later missions (like psychic soldiers) aren't addressed until you actually need to pay attention to them. That's incredibly efficient design, which has nothing to do with how complex the mechanics are.

But it doesn't. Enemy Unknown's manual, isn't 150+ pages long; it isn't even 50 pages long. It's five. Five pages. And one and a half of those are legalese. Open up your Steam interface and check if you don't believe me. Of course that's not really a fair comparison; that manual isn't supposed to be a manual. How long would it be if it was? Probably about thirty pages; Enemy Unknown is a much simpler game. You don't have to worry about whether a given soldier's armor will stop enough of an incoming plasma bolt to allow him to survive with only a few fatal wounds anymore, so he only collapses and can be carried onto the Skyranger for evacuation; armor doesn't stop damage, fatal wounds don't exist, and people can't be carried at all anymore (so no more base raids for needed alien personnel, either). As a caveat, you can't send in low psi-strength soldiers in equipped with flying armor and explosive-round laden autocannons, confident that even if they do get mind controlled, those rounds can't pierce flying armor- but then, psi-strength doesn't exist anymore, either. A tutorial that covered only the bare-minimum-of-what-you-need-to-play-the-game of UFO Defense would've taken hours, and turned a lot of people off; even broken into chunks, few would've stuck with it. By comparison, having a manual means you can read at your own pace, skip around from section to section if you're just looking for a specific piece of information, and if it's digital, you even have a search function. Manuals are a far more efficient way to convey information in a game of UFO Defense's complexity- so no, it's really not about efficiency. Not directly, anyway.

Fanghawk:
You mentioned space shuttle simulators. If someone designed a shuttle interface that captured their complexity, but routes everything through a simple and intuitive control scheme, what objective reason is there for using the old model? We might prefer the older version aesthetically, but if it accomplishes the same thing in practical terms, why should we proclaim them as superior? Now we can do the same thing with fewer buttons, and that's progress! Today, there are Navy warships with targeting systems that are operated using knockoff Xbox controllers. Should we make them go back to older targeting systems if it's just as effective? And if we don't demand that of trained officers, why should we demand the same of entertaining video games?

Because you CAN'T route everything through a simple, intuitive control scheme. A shuttle simulator routed through a control mechanism with (let's say) eleven buttons would require each of them to either A: fulfill dozens of functions through some combination of number of presses, speed of presses, length of presses, etc. or B: merely be the navigation tools that moved you between menus. The latter is the approach that the Virgin game took; you had ten times that many keys, and still most of them just moved you between different control stations. You can only make that efficient if you cut out the vast majority of the complexity.

Aiming a gun, even on a moving boat on a moving ocean, is significantly simpler than steering a metal school bus in three dimensions at mach 20 in microgravity- and that's just steering. The aiming mechanisms on modern ship guns are, I'm sure, much more sophisticated than they were a century ago (we had Pollen to show us the way on that, and look at how well it ended for him!), but the end result there is the goal. It's not with video games. The goal of an aimed and fired shot from a ship's gun is a target hit. The goal of a game of X-Com, or XCom, is not an alien invasion driven off, it's a fun and satisfying experience had by the person playing it. If that's your comparison, I'd ask why you don't take it farther and just make a movie? That doesn't require any controller input at all for the person watching it. You can't get more streamlined than that.

Fanghawk:
That's what's out of date about UFO Defense. The gameplay itself is still rich and complex, but the interface design had room for improvement. Firaxis did that for Enemy Unknown, and it proved hugely successful. That's not to say Enemy Unknown couldn't be more like UFO Defense - managing multiple bases would've been wonderful. But it still got a lot right while carrying over the core experience of the original. That's a good thing.

UFO Defense wasn't just Enemy Unknown with multiple bases; it was a game with more, and more complex, underlying systems. I don't think we disagree on that. But, though learning them may have been inconvenient, they contributed to a much larger variety of tactical options, which in turn lead to a much larger variety of strategic options.

I don't dispute that the interface of Enemy Unknown could've been clearer; that a remake couldn't've improved it. But that's not what Firaxis did. They didn't give us mouseover tooltips, or an ingame Civilopedia equivalent, or a system that told us how far we'd be able to move and still have the action points to fire a snap, aimed, or burst shot. They didn't improve the UI; they changed the game: cutting options out until what was left fit into a much smaller and prettier box. You say they carried over the core experience, and I think you're more right than you know, but that only proves my point. They may have saved the heart, but a heart without the rest of the circulatory system won't do you much good.

In one game, I had lost my primary base due to bad planning (more specifically, blaster bombs wiping out the only passageway between the attackers and my remaining soldiers), and faced a second attack at my backup before I was able to regroup and rebuild. I'd had the foresight to ship off vulnerable personnel and equipment to this second base, but I had nowhere to send it all now- and in the panic of raising a defense force, I forgot to sell it off. This was a problem, because you could only bring eighty items into a mission- and while I had plenty of guns, I'd hit the 80-item mark before any clips came up. A heavy plasma cannon is an intimidating weapon, but pointing it at the invaders and yelling "BANG" or "FWOOSH" doesn't actually hurt them. My only offensive capability came from the four stun rods that made it in. Making liberal use of the smoke grenades I had, I'd stun the aliens and take their ammo, and managed to narrowly win the day. It's a moment that stuck with me (demonstrably so; I'm telling a story about it more than two decades later), but I'm not exactly sad that the in the new version, that can't happen. After all, there's no eighty-item limit.

It's just that I don't think a thirty-item limit is an improvement.

 

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