Free Game: X-Com

By Shamus
on Oct 26, 2007
Filed under:
Game Reviews

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.

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  1. Poet says:

    Damn you, Shamus. I had this out of my system, then you come along and remind me that it’s cool, and free.
    Goodbye, my friends. You shall not see me again in this lifetime.

  2. mark says:

    You have it mirrored WHERE? :P I see no link…

  3. guy says:

    hm, i really should play some more Xcom. I have also played Xcom3, and i hear that if you haven’t played Xcom2 you aren’t missing much. (it’s Xcom1 underwater with stat tweaks)

  4. Seaners says:

    I’ve spent many hours and days on this game. I look forward to many more. Thanks for the link.

    • gamer dude says:

      when i try and play this i hear sound but i dont see anything and idk but when i click on the fix it brings up the actual game but like i said no visual just sound…help?

  5. Downtym says:

    X-Com is where I discovered the term “expendable asset”. I still cringe whenever I think of those damn Chryssalids.

  6. Carra says:

    So much games to play, so little time.

    I’ll first get myself through portal!

  7. Nick says:

    Nooo!!! I have a job now! I couldn’t resist the “ah, just one more mission” pull the game had on me in high school, and I definitely shouldn’t try starting now (especially since I’ve started playing Fallout and Fallout 2 again…).

    There’s a few game projects around that are trying to recapture the feel of this original, like UFO: Alien Invasion for an open-source 3D remake.

    There’s also the UFO series from Altar Games, the latest release being UFO: Afterlight.

    Though some of them are looking good and actually improve on the original X-Com in several ways (The most important to me is the better inventory management where you can assign specific weapons to each soldiers), they still seem lacking in several ways compared to the original.

  8. InThane says:

    Xcom2 was Xcom 1 with stat tweaks, one new (annoying) mission type, and bugs that were never fixed. Don’t bother.

    Also, a hint: The money from the various nations is just there to bootstrap your real economy.

  9. guy says:

    it was once said about storming UFOs that SWAT teams had full body shields for that sort of thing and XCOM had rookies. I find that the worst part of storming UFOs is those damned interior doors and gravlifts. although Apocalypse had EXPLODING fastmovers who charged down those gravlifts. and those mind controlling brainsuckers who moved like chryysailds. I hates them, i does.

  10. Hugo says:

    I thought only “rose-colored glasses” keep this game beautiful for me. I’m glad that newcomers also find this game great.

    Loading times in 1993? I spent minutes between every turn waiting for aliens to make their action. Most of the time this meant staring into dark screen praying aliens won’t appear behind my soldier.

  11. guy says:

    i just started playing this year. i have only recently started playing other games again. that tells you how awesome it is.

  12. Alex says:

    Important things I learned from my first through play-throughs of X-Com:

    -Start the psychic training going as quickly as possible. As soon as you capture a psychic-capable enemy (Navigators, IIRC), put your whole research staff on the job.
    -Don’t be afraid to hire on a job-lot of soldiers, and sack all but the best few. Paying the hiring fee for ten soldiers is worth it if you get two good ones.
    -Grenades are cheap, and throwing one into a suspicious-looking room is FAR cheaper than losing a well-trained trooper.
    -Laser weapons may not be as strong as Plasma, but they have infinite ammo.
    -Armour. To paraphrase Randall Munroe (http://xkcd.com/54/) – Armour. It works, bitches.
    -Shooting down UFOs is difficult, plus it damages them. Capturing them intact when they’ve landed is harder (and scarier) but massively more profitable.

  13. Zyzzyva says:

    What about Mac? Please tell me there’s a version for Mac. Please?

  14. Rich says:

    X-Com has been on every computer that I’ve owned since it came out. If I wasn’t in 2 betas and putting up a POS in Eve Online these days, I’d be playing it right now.

    Hmmmm… I could go to bed a bit later…

  15. Gbyron says:

    “Unlike in the movies, the aliens aren’t just here to conquer New York or LA”

    Hell yeah! I usually let North America to rot, even though they paid handsomely.
    What really paid however was the loot. You got REALLY good money from the stuff (and the aliens) you got from the UFO crash locations (and even more from the bases).

    Additionally, I have played the UFO:Aftershock, where you try to reclaim Earth from the aliens and the mutants. Nice game, but somewhat slow in its progress (lots of alike-looking missions).

  16. guy says:

    indeed. loot makes you filthy rich, and NA is infiltrated by the time i could get around to it, but much money comes from europe as well.

  17. Dev Null says:

    There are a couple of sequels that are mostly just copies with slightly different plots, better graphics, and a more involved skills system. Theyre called UFO Aftershock, and UFO Aftermath, and UFO Aardvark or something, and they may not be free but you can collect the set for about $20.

  18. guy says:

    http://www.ufopaedia.org/index.php?title=Main_Page the wiki for the XCOM series. little light of apocalypse stuff, but good.

  19. James says:

    Dammit. There goes my weekend.

  20. Jimmie says:

    What about Mac? Please tell me there’s a version for Mac. Please?

    I wish I could report good news but I’ve not been able to find one. I would love to. When I had a PC I used to come back to XCom over and over again. It is one of my favorite games (alongside Civ2 and Railroad Tycoon 2). I lament that I won’t be likely to play it ever again.

  21. Roy says:

    Oh, man. X-Com is a total time-sink. I can’t track the hundreds and hundreds of hours I’ve plugged in there.

    I totally agree with Alex at 13: Hire more soldiers than you need, and sack the total bums. Generally, I’d suggest sacking anyone with a bravery of 20 or less- they’re just too cowardly to take a chance on- they’ll panic and shoot your own soldiers, and that’s no good.

    Another suggestion: if you’re building a new base, but the hanger in the very corner, and the elevator next to it, then build everything else off of the side of the elevator farthest from the hanger. If/when aliens invade your base, they always come from the hangers and elevator. If you arrange your base so that the main part of your base is connected to the hangers and elevator by only one door, it’s much easier to defend.

    I really like that you can rename troops- if I had particularly good soldiers, I made sure to rename them as someone I knew or would recognize, so that I knew who to give the best armor and weapons to, and, if a shot was really important, I knew who had to make it. The drawback is that I felt personally attached to those soldiers, and would have to battle my sense of wanting to protect soldiers I knew against my need to send my best units to do the dirty work.

    I think that there are a few fan-mods out there that add new weapon types and alien types to the game, which is pretty awesome. Good times, X-Com.

  22. 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. It was always amazing to me that a turn-based game could be so terrifying. The first time I tried to invade an enemy base I thought I was going to die of heart failure, I was so scared.

  23. Cadamer says:

    Best game ever.
    I’ve also been playing UFO:Alien Invasion. Very similar game play with a few small differences. But the original is still the best. I’ll be downloading this when I get home…

  24. Vegedus says:

    My story is much the same. I played it for the first time… 4 years ago, actually, and loved it. Some deleted save games after I had gotten halfway through the game discouraged me and I abandoned it. Recently, I felt like picking it up again, and so I did… Except, I can’t get it to run under Vista. Major bummer.

  25. JohnW says:

    Best. Game. Ever. And like Roy said, that base layout is all dorked up.

  26. guy says:

    deal. base assults are rare, and it is possible to restructure the base to be easier to defend

  27. Trevor says:

    My wife and I sunk so much time into this game… Although equipping the electroflares for each night mission got tiresome.

    As for running it on a Mac, DOSBOX is the preferred way to run it for PC, and that should run pretty good on a Mac.

    Easily in the top 3 games of the 90’s, edged out by “Star Control 2” (Now also freeware/open source/on sourceforge under the name “Ur-Quan Masters”) and “The Longest Journey” (Ragnar Tornquist is my master now)

  28. nilus says:

    Man I love X-com, but I agree Star Control 2 has to be my single most favorite PC game. It’s sad that Star Control 3 was such a disappointment.

  29. evilmrhenry says:

    Hate to rain on your parade, but I don’t see anything about XCom being free here. The Underdogs is an “abandonware” site, so unless you got it from their freeware section, XCom still isn’t free.

  30. bkw says:

    Ah, the sweet words “Laser Rifle Economy” still bring back memories.

  31. krellen says:

    Mr. Henry:

    Abandonware is free. The copyright has expired and/or the holder has ceased to exist, passing the product into the public domain. Espousing anything else is simply dishonest.

  32. evilmrhenry says:

    The copyright has not expired, nor will it for at least another fifty years or so. If the maker wanted to put it in the public domain, they would have made an announcement. If the maker has ceased to exist, the rights to the software passes to another party, not to the public. Home of the Underdogs hosts a large amount of software that they do not have the right to distribute, which makes this legally the same as downloading Bioshock off bittorrent. (Morally? Not the same. Chance of being noticed? Not the same. Legally? The same.)

  33. Gnagn says:

    There’s also UFO: Extraterrestrials which is by a totally different company than the UFO: Aftershock/Aftermath/Afterlight folks. Extraterrestrials is so close to a XCom clone that I’m surprised they weren’t sued. It even uses the same sound effects.

    I haven’t had time enough to really get deep into it yet, but I can feel it getting ready to suck all the time out of my life.

    http://www.ufo-extraterrestrials.com/

  34. krellen says:

    Such pedantry is the same as claiming the various “blue laws” – and other old, obscure and unenforced laws throughout the nation and the world – are still legal. The law is more than what is written; in fact, most of the law is what is practised. For most abandonware products, no one – not even the people that originally wrote them – knows who the “legal” copyright owner is. In practise, no copyright exists; there is no court in the world that could enforce them, even if they wanted to.

  35. Hanov3r says:

    Krellen,

    In a word, “no”. Copyright, in the US, expires 70 years after the death of the author. Items created as a work for hire (for example, items created by corporations) don’t have their copyright expire until 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever comes first.

    Copyrights are tangible assets. Copyrights to programs created by MicroProse were acquired by Spectrum Holobyte, then by Hasbro, and ultimately by Infogrames. Those copyrights, including the one for X-Com, are still in force.

    Creating a word like “abandonware” in an effort to make “copying and distributing copyrighted material” seem legitimate is just a new version of doublespeak.

  36. kdorian says:

    Oh god. X-Com.

    I used to have it, but the disks got damaged somehow, so I had to stop playing. And now I can download it? And play without emulators?

    There goes all my free time…

  37. evilmrhenry says:

    I find it difficult to believe that the copyright system is unenforced. In any case, the issue I have is that Shamus is referring to the game as free, in the same manner as C&C, when that is plainly not the case. This is presumably due to a misunderstanding regarding the nature of the Home of the Underdogs.

  38. krellen says:

    Okay, so X-Com might have a traceable copyright. That doesn’t mean that the hundreds or thousands of other titles out there labelled as “abandonware” do actually have traceable (and thus existent) copyrights. The works of MECC (Oregan Trail, et al.) stand as a prime example thereof.

    But Shamus’s post wasn’t about copyright law, so I’m not sure we should continue delving into the legalities, realities and moralities of copyright law. Until Infogrames comes along and tells people to stop distributing Micropose software, the issue is entirely moot. Absent a victim, as far as our legal system is concerned, there can be no crime. /Someone/ has to press charges.

  39. MintSkittle says:

    I’m sure if someone wanted to enforce the copyright on the games at underdogs, they would have been hit with a lawsuit or a cease & desist or something along those lines by now.

  40. Phlux says:

    I haven’t used Underdogs for a while, but don’t they generally have a policy such that if the game is available for sale through official channels (used-copy sales generally don’t count) then they will pull the game from distribution?

    Supposedly they had some actual legal grounds for being able to exist as they do. They’re far too big an operation to have gone unchallenged.

    At any rate, I’m hoping to give this game a look. I’m generally terrible at strategy games, but maybe since this is one of the granddaddies of the genre, perhaps it will give me a greater appreciation for more modern games. I’m not at all opposed to having a new genre to sink my teeth into.

  41. Jeff says:

    HotU does indeed have the policy that if a game can be purchased, a link will be made to that and the file won’t be hosted.
    In addition, if the IDSA requests it, it’ll also be taken off with a note to that effect, even if a place can’t be found that sells it.
    Companies who don’t even bother sending them an e-mail are presumed to not care.

  42. Jeff says:

    I also haven’t used it since, oh, 2006, when she stopped updating. :P

    The ‘related games’ link introduced me to a lot of things I’d never heard of, though.

  43. guy says:

    given that the game is no longer in publication and i already paid for an original copy, i care very little. terror from the deep, as it is currently in print, i feel differently about.

  44. guy says:

    basicly, i, like shamus, care about not pirating games which are in print, but don’t think the same about dead, unsupported games. if infogames puts it back in print, i will pay them the 25 bucks this is worth. or buy the remake.

  45. captain says:

    So many thrilling evenings of my childhood. Fond memories of storming ufos, alien-bases and fending off their attacks. Ufo and X-com are still excellent games. The new remakes are good, but not as challenging as the originals. Whoever doesn´t know those time-killers: Give them a try. You won´t regret.
    UFO was probably the first game where you could max your character-stats by exercising. I used to open every door with aimed shots and demolish the room with a satchel charge… :) Exception: Terror attacks – killing the civvies is a no go. Oooh yes!

  46. scragar says:

    I actualy had this on the origional playstation, the loading times were not too bad, proberly around a min or so at max(when loading save files of large maps like inside your base with loads of units and items).

  47. Myxx says:

    Fantastic! I sunk more nights (and days) into X-Com with my college roommates, and missed more classes, than I’ll ever admit. This was, and is, one of my all time favorite PC games.

  48. Jeff says:

    Is it just me, or did Terror from the Deep suck?
    It could be that I played them back to back, but the second one was just… annoying.

  49. xbolt says:

    An ancient strategy game, eh? My brother is big on strategy games. And so am I, to an extent. I’ll have to check this out…

  50. DKellis says:

    Weirdly, my first X-Com game was the third one (Apocalypse), and since then, I’ve found myself pretty much incapable of playing the earlier games, since turn-based goes way too slow for me.

    Also, I pretty much had to unlearn everything about X-Com 3 in order to play X-Com 1, so I put it off until… well, never.

  51. James says:

    I am ashamed to say that I have never played this.
    And that I have Vista (it came installed on my laptop), and it apparently doesn’t run on it D:
    And Dosbox doesn’t seem to be working either . . .
    So unless anyone has any ideas I’m just going to have to take you guys’ word on it.

  52. Shamus says:

    To clear up the copyright issue:

    The game was “given away” by the copyright holders in the same way C&C was a few weeks ago. Underdogs is indeed an abandonware site, but for the tenth anniversary PC Gamer included the full version of this game on their monthly “demo disc”. Which is how I came to play it originally.

  53. HeroForge says:

    I can give you a prime example of abandonware: the ’91 CRPG “The Dark Heart of Uukrul”.

    If you haven’t tried this game, you really need to. Nice thing about it is, you don’t have to worry about compatibility, as it has no sound (it doesn’t need it) and the animations are software-driven; it runs just as fast and smoothly on today’s computers as it did when there was only DOS.

    The publishing company, Broderbund, hasn’t listed the game on their website for over a decade. I’ve searched their entire site, and there is no mention of it whatsoever. I once sent them an e-mail asking about the program, and where I could acquire a copy of it, and got no response at all. For all purposes that I could come up with, they’re acting as if it doesn’t even exist.

    This title vanished from stores over ten years ago; you might be able to find a physical copy on eBay, but I don’t think it’s listed in major software stores like EB Games, which basically means that you can’t buy it commercially. And if you can’t buy it from a retailer, and the manufacturer doesn’t acknowledge its existence, there’s no way they can make money off it — which also means there’s no reason for them to forbid it becoming available online.

    This title isn’t one of those that the company made Public Domain or released for free (like what’s been done with Elder Scrolls: Arena or Ultima IV), it’s quite literally been abandoned by the company. I even told them I found it on a website, and they didn’t lift a finger.

    Hanov3r, given these circumstances, would you consider it stealing from the company to download this?

  54. Hanov3r says:

    HeroForge,

    Yep, I would. “Did not answer your emails” is not the same as “denied the ownership of”. Whether they acknowledged it to you or not, they are still the copyright owners and *could* prosecute people distributing their software.

    Something to remember: a copyright is not a trademark. If a company does not defend a trademark against every infraction, they can lose the right to defend it against *any* infraction. The same cannot be said for copyright – failing to defend a copyright (or prosecute a copyright infringer) does not invalidate the copyright or place the work in public domain.

  55. John says:

    Thank You. I prostrate at your feet. I used to play this when i was younger, and have been looking for it ever since that computer was lost. Before now I only had a vague idea of the storyline, but now….. youve improved my life, yet also dammed it to never going further

  56. Allan says:

    I really want to try this game but it crashes everytime I start a mission, is there a way to resolve this?

  57. guy says:

    you need to install it where it is allowed to create files. otherwise it can’t find GEODATA.bat. had the same problem when i grabbed it off the original disk.

  58. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Ah,X-com..One of my favourite games.I played terror from the deep first,but I never replayed it.As for the first one,I still do play it.A lot!

    And it has one of the best sound effects and atmosphere,which is quite an acomplishment,considering that its basically just *dun-dun-dun-dun*.

    UFO:Afterlight is a decent sequel to the game.Not as scary as the original.Ok,running into a bunch of beastmen and finding your rear is being cut of by spiders and rollers can be scary,but not nearly as scary as having a crysalid jumping you from the back.But still,it is worth playing.

  59. Palette says:

    I must be doing something wrong, because it’s not installing.

    The instructions tell me to run xcom1fix.exe, which I do — at which point my screen goes black, and my monitor declares “Out of Range,” whatever that may be.

    Please help me to fix this problem, and explain as if you were talking to a small child….

  60. Steve C says:

    PSI the way to go in that game. My squad would be all PSI guys with 2-4 good gunners. I’d keep everyone in (or very close to) my ship except the gunners who would explore slowly. When the gunners spotted an alien, I’d use the action units of the PSI guys to take over the aliens then explore a little more before walking them into the open and eventually to my ship. (Gives new definition to alien probing.) I’d toss their weapons away and make sure to use up all the alien action points.

    Eventually the aliens would walk up to my guys and get stun-sticked. No danger. Well 1 time they fired a lucky explosive shot *into* my ship and killed everyone… but a load screen fixed that.

    Getting all the aliens with no casualties (on either side) and no damage to the alien ship = lots of cash.

  61. guy says:

    I liked to have a group of normal troops and a group of PSI troop\s (who i like to call PSI Corps Troopers, but whatever) because it takes a game mouth to test for psi, before which you can’t use it, and sometimes ethereals can massacre your troops with psi attacks when they see anything of yours.

  62. Smileyfax says:

    Ah, X-Com. I’m rather fond of blowing the heck out of farmhouses (and watching with amusement as the second floor hovers over the ruins of the first floor).

    Star Control II…that was a fun game as well. I made sure to visit every star to see what was worth seeing.

    A strategy which exploded in my face when I realized the game had a time limit. So yeah, Star Control II loses.

  63. Allan says:

    Thanks guy, it works now. Only thing now is, first mission I got everyone killed.

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