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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.