Free Game: X-Com

 By Shamus Oct 26, 2007 117 comments

Widely regarded as one of the greatest strategy games ever, X-Com is a game with compelling gameplay and generous depth even by today’s standards, and was an amazing achievement given the technology available in 1993. IGN calls it the #1 PC game of all time.

The world map is astounding.  It's a real 3d world you can spin and view in real time, like Google Earth.  No, you can't zoom in and see things in detail, but you can see national borders and major cities.
The world map is astounding. It's a real 3d world you can spin and view in real time, like Google Earth. No, you can't zoom in and see things in detail, but you can see national borders and major cities.
You can Google around and read tales from fans who lost huge blocks of their lives to this thing when it came out, and who would forego sleep and food in lieu of playing more XCOM. They talk about games lasting weeks, although on modern machines I think a decent run-through of the game clocks in at about 20 hours or so. (Those 1993 loading screens and unit movements must have been killers. Today, both are more or less instant.)

Unlike in the movies, the aliens aren't just here to conquer New York or LA.
Unlike in the movies, the aliens aren't just here to conquer New York or LA.
I discovered the game late. I didn’t play it until the title hit its tenth anniversary. I came into it cold, without any sort of rose-colored glasses or nostalgia, and without much of an idea of what the game was all about. (Also without reading the directions, and I do not recommend doing this.) After a rough start I managed to get what the game was all about and how it worked. I have to agree with longtime fans: This is an amazing game with a lot to offer.

Here one of my units has entered a room with a couple of filthy alien scum.  You can tell they're evil by how purple their funiture is.
Here one of my units has entered a room with a couple of filthy alien scum. You can tell they're evil by how purple their funiture is.
The game takes place in the distant future of… 1999. The premise is that you are in charge of the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit (X-Com) which has been created to counter a dangerous and growing threat from a race of aliens in flying saucers. Your job is to shoot down alien craft when you can, and then send in a squad of specially trained soldiers to engage them in a a little turn-based, hide-and-seek gunplay. The force you lead is multinational, and individual nations will adjust their monthly contributions to your coffers based on how well you protect them. You can try to protect clusters of small countries if you like, or you can put all your eggs in one basket and suck up to one of the big, rich countries. You’ll probably want control of the whole globe at some point, but it will take you a while before you have the budget and technology to pull that off.

The game begins with the geoscape, a map of the Earth where you can see your bases and order your forces to move against any enemies you’ve managed to detect. There is a running day / night cycle, and you can plan missions to take place at day or night, depending on your preference. (Super-secret expert hint: It is dark at night.)

The base view screen.  You can have up to eight bases anywhere on the globe. All of them are belong to us.
The base view screen. You can have up to eight bases anywhere on the globe. All of them are belong to us.
From the Geoscape you can go to the base view, where you can design the layout of your individual bases and decide what facilities to build. You’ll need labs for doing research. Workshops for manufacturing new gear. Radar for detecting alien craft. Housing for your personnel. Containment for holding captured aliens. Hangars for your interception craft and troop transporters. Storage space for holding all of your sweet alien swag. Note that all of this cool stuff costs a lot of money, both to build and to maintain on a monthly basis. You’ll have a budget in the tens of millions, but it’s easy to go broke if you bite off more than you can chew.

Your soldiers gain experience and improve with each mission, assuming they survive.  You can hire more soldiers whenever you like, but constantly marching into battle with a collection of pants-wetting noobs is not recommended.
Your soldiers gain experience and improve with each mission, assuming they survive. You can hire more soldiers whenever you like, but constantly marching into battle with a collection of pants-wetting noobs is not recommended.
The aliens, for their part, will be doing classic flying saucer alien stuff like abductions, cattle mutilations, infiltrations, and good old-fashioned city invasions.

There is a lot here, and I’ve only scratched the surface. I can’t believe this game even fit into memory back then. (It only requires 2MB.) There are two or three strategy games layered together here, and all of them are compelling and fun. I went through the game last weekend in preparation for this post, and it was just as fun now as it was four years ago. The patched version is also easy to get running, without needing to fiddle with DOS emulators or slowing down your CPU. The graphics, while old, are still nice to look at.

If you’re running Windows, you can get a working version of the game from The Underdogs. It’s just a 3MB download, although that site is throtled back so much that it took me 15 minutes to get the file. If that site is too slow or you can’t get to it from where you are (I’m talking to YOU, people surfing the ‘net from work) then I have the file mirrored here. Just run the installer and then run xcom1fix.exe for Win 2000/ME/XP.


A Hundred!17117 comments. Quick! Add another to see if this message changes!


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  1. guy says:

    Yeah, first mission is tough, your guys all have >40 HP, poor stats, and no armor. the plasma guns can one-shot tanks.

  2. guy says:

    actually, all the missions until you have personal armor are like that but they get easier if you keep your good guys at the rear and have them snipe instead of fighting directly. it is also recommended that you keep hiring new guys to replace your losses.

  3. Rich says:

    Early on I suggest using 2 rocket tanks in every mission. Send them out first as scouts. Blast anything that moves, then use your squishy, unarmored troops to mop up.

    Rule Number One: Save often. Unless you are one of those types that consider savegames immoral or whatever. :p You have been warned.

  4. guy says:

    i usually just use one tank. by the time i start using two tanks, i’ll be using plasma hovertanks or laser tanks, depending on my elerium supply. stock up on elerium, you’ll need it. you can get 150 units easy from hitting supply ships. And stay away from those chryysailds. they are found in snakemen bases, snakemen terror ships, and somtimes snakemen battleships. they are also at cydonia.

  5. Jeff says:

    Hanov3r:
    Actually, the concern is less about copyright specifically than intellectual property in general. Anything a company or individual invents is owned by them, and they have exclusive rights to control its use and availability. Further, if you don’t enforce your legal rights, you lose them. A copyright grants exclusive rights on copying/reproducing the protected item. If a company doesn’t bother to even try to control the distribution of their intellectual property, their case (should it come to court) would become weaker and weaker. That’s the only reason for the ESA to target old software no longer supported or distributed by its members. They have to at least try to control distribution, or they effectively lose the right to do so.

  6. If the game has been abandoned by its owners (whether they be the original authors or some other entity who inherited it), I don’t give two figs for the morality of the issue. If I want to play it, and nobody is willing to sell me a copy, then by gum, I am gonna play it anyways. This whole “70 years after death” crap the US Copyright Office holds to is utter bollocks anyways, but aside from that, there’s literally millions of abandoned software titles out there that still have intrinsic worth to people who enjoyed them at one time, just like out-of-print books- but nobody complains that you can still read an out-of-print book at your local library, do they?

    Anyhow, it’s a moot point, since like Shamus said, they sent out the full version on a promo CD. Ergo, they have given it away. Free, as in beer, but not as in speech.

  7. DGM says:

    @ Steven Den Beste

    “X-Com 2 was totally stupid. “Neutral boyancy” was a technology you had to capture from the aliens; you weren’t permitted to just attach styrofoam to your suit so you could float.

    But the original X-Com — a masterpiece.”

    This strikes me as a bit contradictory, as the original X-Com required you to research med-kits! Not to mention other silliness like getting an endless stream of rookies instead of the best of the best.

    That said, I do agree that the original was fun. Still is, actually, despite showing a lot of age.

  8. DGM says:

    “Anyhow, it’s a moot point, since like Shamus said, they sent out the full version on a promo CD. Ergo, they have given it away. Free, as in beer, but not as in speech.

    Actually, if that promo CD only comes with a purchased copy of PC Gamer, then that’s not free. That sounds more like a deal that PC Gamer cut to sell extra magazines. If so, then downloading it from HOTU without buying a copy of the magazine (or the original disk) would qualify as stealing.

  9. guy says:

    med kits are special. and you get the stream of rookies because your baseline is the special forces.

  10. Takkelmaggot says:

    Curse you, Shamus! You destroyed my plans for the weekend!
    Very few games have the cocktail of ingredients which are required to keep me entertained for hours and replaying for years. Civ II. Panzer General. Operation Flashpoint. And then there’s… XCOM. Perfect and everlasting, dated graphics included.

  11. Miral says:

    A webcomic I used to read a lot frequently posted little XCOM excerpts as filler (mostly screenshots with added humourous captions), which were quite fun. Unfortunately my brain is refusing to tell me which webcomic it was.

    The game looked interesting then and it looks interesting now, but I’m carefully avoiding it because I don’t have enough spare time as it is :)

  12. Phlux says:

    I don’t know what the really adds, but for what it’s worth I have two computers with Vista. It won’t work on my desktop, I get the same “black screen” problem someone described above, but it works fine on my desktop.

    Difference off the top of my head:

    chipsets: both are dualcore, but the laptop is obviously a mobile version

    graphics: Desktop has an nvidia 8800GTS and the laptop has some sort of nvidia Quadro (which I’ve learned is modeled after the same series as the 8800). I used the manufacturer drivers for the laptop and some nvidia beta drivers for the desktop.

    OS: Vista Ultimate on my desktop. Vista Enterprise on my laptop.

    Display: 1280×1024 on the desktop and 1680×1050 widescreen on my laptop

    So it’s not a lost cause: it DOES work on vista. I read that the patch included with this version is basically a loader that fixed some sort of directdraw problem with the game. It might be that it needs to load at a lower resolution than I am able to force onto my desktop monitor, but somehow my laptop can handle it.

    That could be a display issue, a graphics card issue, a driver issue or an OS issue. Hard to pin down.

  13. Phlux says:

    Oh, and curse these developers for their lousy, no-tooltip-having interface, and for their badly implemented “fog of war” system which sometimes reveals an entire acre of field, and sometimes leaves the square immediately adjacent to me pitch black even with no apparent viewing obstruction

    Also…have they ever heard of a tutorial level?

    I can tell this is going to be a fun game…but the learning curve is atrociously steep.

  14. ArchU says:

    I only played X-Com 2 (and wasn’t very good at it but it was fun). I had no idea how similar the two games are. Thanks for the pointers by earlier posters that it is a bit sucky in comparison!

  15. Dank says:

    I have always loved this game, it was truly incredible in terms of what you could do when it first came out, and I remember many nights of quaking in fear as my poorly equipped soldiers lobbed grenades into the unknown and invariably got sniped from the second story of some barn…

    I never managed to complete the whole game of the original UFO, and always intended to. I always had trouble about the time snakemen hit the scene!

    I just completed UFO:Afterlight (which I’d rate – pick it up cheaply if you can! – the terraforming is awesome and the game very much catches the feel of UFO) – but now the thought of playing X-Com again is making me excited :) I miss classic turn based strategy.

  16. Miako says:

    The plot for ‘Star Control 3′ was supposed to be SO COOL.
    A lot of games die like that (the end of Anachronox was gonna be great, too).

    Yes, the starcontrol3 got made, but they didn’t put the plot in.

    at least bioshock got plot!

  17. Deoxy says:

    Master of Orion 3 killed that franchise as well… the first was great, the second is still king of turn-based strategy, and the third… was beyond micromanagement. Very sad. :-(

    I’d like to play X-Com (never got around to it then)… but I surely don’t have time now! :-(

  18. James says:

    Good lord, all these posts and nobody’s mentioned Steam yet? You lot bickering over copyright, if you want to assuage your conscience, go install Steam (like you don’t have it already…), and I think X-Com 2 TFTTD is something like 5 bucks, on sale for 4. You can make sure *somebody* gets the money for it, and as several people have pointed out, 2 is basically 1 with “hover” tanks replaced by swimming tanks, and the added constraint that some guns work better underwater while some work better on land. Some didn’t like it as much, I guess, but I don’t feel like that much changed. So there’s your “buy it now” option.

    I got Apocalypse on release day (I think), having been a huge fan of the previous games. Somehow, I don’t think I liked it as much, but looking back, I can’t really put my finger on why. So, uh, take my very vague word of warning….

  19. James says:

    Brief follow-up: apparently, GameTap has the original Xcom, so if you *must* pay somebody for it, you can always subscribe there. If I had nothing to do all day but play video games, I’m pretty sure I’d be signed up — the Free games alone are enough to cripple the social life of an unemployed nerd; the Full version is like having instant access to the entire Underdogs catalog plus half the contents of the PC shelf at EB.

    Oh, and SC2 rocked (even held up swimmingly when I replayed Ur-Quan Masters last year!). SC3 was a lot of fun in its own right, it lives in SC2′s shadow. I’ll have to dig it out one of these days and give it another shot…

  20. kellandros says:

    XCom 2 was the equivalent of a modern mission pack- the publisher wanted a sequel, the authors were busy with a brand new game, so they got someone else to make it.

    XCom 2 took basically the exact same engine and tweaked the gameplay. Part of the process is to make the game much harder than the original(read – CHALLENGE) until you fully understand all the changes.

    The basic tricks differences are:
    Melee weapons are awesome if you can live long enough to use them. Lobstermen are far too armored(and show up far earlier in the game) for anything else to be very effective.

    Researching alien corpses is REQUIRED to get several tech advances(Aqua plastics and then all the body armors).

    The best gun types from the previous game are gone. No weapon with infinite ammo. No “heavy” guns with automatic fire. No 20-30 shot clips.

    The alien base missions are twice as big, visibility is much worse.

    I’ve learned how to survive both these. Unfortunately, I haven’t spent the time necessary to get the third game working yet.

    I’m probably going back through the links to the remakes/clones later; I had heard of some of them but never saw them in a playable state.

  21. Takkelmaggot says:

    This last weekend I split my game time between XCOM and Oblivion. In a sad commentary on the gaming industry, Oblivion crashed every ten minutes (no guessing why, perhaps driver bugs) and was slightly frustrating. XCOM crashed once and was a joy.

  22. Mark Caliber says:

    Good news Vista Users. Microsoft now offers an upgrade for Vista to XP.

    IIRC, I believe I still have my original CD for X-Com and I’ve been waiting for the XP patch for YEARS.

    Thanks for the Link, Shamus!

  23. Kujaku says:

    I keep getting an error while in the middle of a mission that kicks me from the game. Any way to fix it?

  24. guy says:

    what OS are you running? does the screen say anything? anything happen in the game a bit before each incident?

  25. rosignol says:

    Has anyone on a Mac had any luck getting it to work under Bootcamp/Parallels/etc?

    ps: concur re MoO3.

  26. Author says:

    I loved the game, but was unable to complete it. It starts crashing and crashes more and more often after every save, until it becomes unplayable. This was years back, under Win95, I believe. I wonder if anything has changed.

  27. guy says:

    yes, at least for me. the old version had a crash when renaming soldiers, but the collectors edition is fine with that.

  28. This game and the two Fallouts are the most engaging I’ve ever played. It’s rare to have a computer game literally make my heart race.

  29. RL says:

    I’m a Vista user, not having any luck getting this thing to run. I get music immediately, but nothing on the screen. I’ve tried giving the program permission as an administrator, and running in compatability modes for XP/98/95 … nothing works. Are there any Vista users who’ve been able to fix this?

  30. guy says:

    Look for a dos edition and find the dosbox emulator.

  31. AussieFella says:

    Abandon ware, an article of software of which the Legal Copyrighted owner, has Abandoned the development distribution, Update and Support. This means that they have no Future or current intention or plans to ever re-use the title, they remain the owner of the software and no individuals are allowed to alter or use the software in any other means than originally intended.

    All that it does mean is that the original and current owners relinquish the title to Public Domain Distribution and NOTHING else, if in doubt as to the legality of the acquisition of the software, delete it and contact the copyright owner,
    example – X-Tree Gold, abandoned by the owner, not released for open distribution, makers of Z-Tree -Bold, legally required to attain permission to recreate this File manager for Windows/OS2 Freeware/Abandon ware are the same thing only freeware is MADE to be free, Abandon ware was commercial.

  32. AussieFella says:

    if one bothers to look at Home of the Underdogs properly they will see that the site hosts only the titles they have confirmed are legally released for Public Domain Distribution
    ALL other titles they link to commercial links where the user of the site may buy the title.

    in some cases unreleased titles have been hosted and the Underdogs Site have taken action to remove the title from PDD.
    as soon as advised by the owner.

    if you have a problem with this method of distibution perhaps you should sell your modem and stay offline, and leave this stuff to those of us that lawfully follow the trend.

  33. Depravity says:

    Gnagn (34), regarding the sound effects, pay attention the next time you’re watching a horror or science fiction movie. Most of the alien noises seem to have found their ways into many many sound crews’ toolkits. It’s hard to pay attention to a movie when the noises make you want go loot that grey’s corpse.

  34. Oh man, X-COM. So much love.

    and not

    I have a sort of a love/hate relationship with X-COM. The game rules in all sorts of ways, but I suck at it. I’m just not very smart. And don’t know how fast to expand.

    Basically all my games whittle down to frantic global guerilla warfare with no real progress, because the aliens have set up shop all over the world once I get to seriously expanding.

    Power armour rules.

  35. sir_toast says:

    i can’t figure this out. is it me, or is it vista?
    i’ve tried running that file under every edition vista offers.
    do i have to have the original game? is this just a patch?
    oh thanks guy. where do i find that stuff?

    p.s. aussiefella is a weenie. if i can find it free, it’s freeware

  36. Johan says:

    *resurrect?*
    Shamus (or anyone), did you have problems with the game scrolling too fast to play in battlescape? I would nudge the edge of the screen and my view would go flying off into a void. If you did have the problem, did you find a way to fix it?

  37. Silfir says:

    Click the “?” button in the battlescape and set scroll speed to minimum. (While you’re at it, do the same for all the other stuff.) That should make it bearable unless your machine is absolutely godly fast. (Maybe you’ve got an old one around?)

    On my desktop, I’ve set all the stuff on minimum and the game is a little fast, but very much playable – I have to pay close attention to the alien movement phase so I can properly make out from where they just brutally murdered my captain and two sergeants though.

    My laptop (2,6 celeron, ATI RADEON 9000 – good thing I love old games so much!) is slow enough that I actually use medium settings.

    By the way, I played X-COM first about ten years ago, when it was only a demo I had on some crappy demo CD. (At that point, I wasn’t too good at English and I didn’t really get how to play properly, besides I was only ten and had no idea where to get it.) I decided on trying to find this game when people kept mentioning it in the comments here as an awesome turn-based strategy. Six days ago I downloaded it, and I am absolutely hooked. Even the constant crashing has not taken me away (guess I’ll have to save more often).

    One time I finished a terror mission with two survivors out of fourteen, and those two survived only because they had shit their pants and run away earlier – I had to loot corpses of fallen soldiers so they could get weapons. That feeling of being on the line between miserable failure and success… That heart-racing excitement… That feeling of satisfaction when you win after already having though to yourself “That’s it – but I’ll not go down without a fight, alien scum!”… This game is made of win and awesome.

  38. joe says:

    I really loved this game when it came out. Unfortunately, I cannot get this to run on XP. I followed Shamus’ directions and when I run xcom1fix I simply get a black screen and have to alt-tab out and kill the process manually – no sound, no graphics anything.

    I even tried right clicking and editing the properties but that did not work. Any ideas/solutions? What am I doing wrong?

    Thanks in advance for any help.

  39. Vadimirin says:

    I don’t know if you get an e-mail or a note for every post made to these old topics, but I hope you do. I found an incredibly interesting story about a crossover between the SGC (Star Gate Command, alla SG-1) and X-Com, it’s quite interesting, and there’s notes at the bottom that make even a lay person to the X-Com world understand it quite well.

    here’s a link: http://www.tthfanfic.org/Story-16092/Hotpoint+XSGCOM+Goa+uld+Defence.htm hope you find it as awesome as I do.

  40. Ted says:

    The X-Com link is broken.

  41. Volatar says:

    I also hope you somehow get notification of these comments.

    The Underdogs has gone under forever as of this week, so that link is now gone, and we must use yours.

    However, X-Com is now available on Steam. Most abandonware sites have taken X-Com off the download lists because of this. You may consider removing your own link, in favor of promoting the sale of the game.

    Or you could spite Steam and keep the link (which is now much more clearly illegal).

  42. Lonti says:

    I played these game long time ago. When my CPU broke (hdd death cos of short), i lost these game. After years playing many game, i found playing xcom still challenging. Very very amazing game …

  43. Manji022 says:

    I am trying my best to get this thing working in windows 7 ultimate 32 or whatever it is called. Anyone have any Ideas?

  44. Brutal Bob says:

    Ah X-Com, welcome back old friend, now if only I can get you to work on the new laptop with Windows 7…….

  45. [...] from the guys making a modern iteration of the X-COM IP.  (In finest literary form, they dropped the hyphen from the original, since that’s so BOLD and EDGY!)  Apparently, it’s supposed to be a shooter/strategy [...]

  46. Silfir says:

    There is a fix (the file is called “Xcom Vista Patch.exe” and is sized 138 KB, hell, if you write me an email I’ll send it to you) that will disable hardware acceleration just for X-COM, after which the Collector’s Edition will actually run on Windows 7. As a bonus, the bug that makes interceptions still impossible under Vista is not present in Windows 7 anymore – as if we needed another reason to know Windows 7 improved on Vista in basically every way, huh?

    If the colors are still wonky, you should check a couple of the compatibility settings in the desktop link properties, like “run in 640×480″ and “run in 256 colors” and the one about disabling desktop styles or something (German menus here) and try again. Even then, I still occasionally switch to wonky colors all of a sudden, which an Alt+Tab might fix.

  47. [...] (of the now-superseded DM of the Rings comic) has a post up about the joy of X-Com, a still-excellent game that you can now play for free on a $5 [...]

  48. [...] Vaderish “NoOoOoOOO!”, but it was pretty close.  I had to go and play the original (conveniently free, though I went ahead and bought the whole bunch of them on sale over at Direct2Drive, also [...]

  49. marc says:

    Hey, i got out of pcs along time ago. My wife checks my e-mails now but this game i played and liked it alot. Can you give an old timer the least complicated way to put
    X-com on windows 7? thanks and the best to all.

  50. “A few stars shone out of a black sky; a low cloud layer hovered in the west. The lack of these critical attributes of war fighter functions could be viewed as a culminating variable to the loss at Arnhem. MG Urquhart did not expect this heavy resistance and was surprised by the presence of the SS Panzer Corps.

1 2

3 Trackbacks

  1. By XCOMeOn « Tish Tosh Tesh on August 18, 2010 at 7:50 am

    [...] from the guys making a modern iteration of the X-COM IP.  (In finest literary form, they dropped the hyphen from the original, since that’s so BOLD and EDGY!)  Apparently, it’s supposed to be a shooter/strategy [...]

  2. [...] (of the now-superseded DM of the Rings comic) has a post up about the joy of X-Com, a still-excellent game that you can now play for free on a $5 [...]

  3. [...] Vaderish “NoOoOoOOO!”, but it was pretty close.  I had to go and play the original (conveniently free, though I went ahead and bought the whole bunch of them on sale over at Direct2Drive, also [...]

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