Sometime in the 1990’s after I’d recently acquired a new 486DX2 personal computer, I began the hunt for games. Back then you were spoilt for choice in numerous electrical stores. Rows upon rows of large boxes contained its share of either a floppy disc or cd-rom and a paper manual. One game caught my eye and it was something I’d seen a while before I obtained my computer. On the back of the box, it showed detailed screenshots of mobilising an army against invading aquatic aliens. Low resolution perhaps, but vibrant and colourful nevertheless.
X-Com Terror from the deep would be my foray into turn based strategy and I would spend a few years playing this and it’s predecessor. It would be a while until I sampled the RTS likes of Command and Conquer. But for now, I was more than content with these turn based games. They were not forgiving and often required multiple attempts to make valuable progress. Multiple save files were a must and back then, there was no quick fix game guide or a YouTube video to consult.
But I ploughed on and with dogged pursuit of E.T and friends, I finally beat both games. They were almost perfect, requiring no more or less and certainly no more sequels. Adapting a different altogether style, Apocalypse didn’t hit the nail as hard as the original two. Yet over ten years later, we would see a remake of the first one.
For the uninitiated, X-Com simply stands for ‘eXtra-terrestrial Combat Unit’ and the story goes a little bit like this.
At the end of the twentieth century, reports became more and more frequent of UFO sightings, complete with human abduction and cattle mutilations. Nations all over the world attempt to deal with the menace. Japan spearheads this effort with an organisation called the ‘Kiryu-Kai’ complete with the latest in aerial defence technology. However, months into the program and they fail to make a single dent in the alien’s plans.
Ultimately, the world finally comes together in a collective effort during December 1998. Representatives of the worlds most powerful economic nations meet in secret to discuss plans for a single agency with multi-national funding. These would include the world’s finest soldiers, technicians and scientists joining together under one banner called X-Com
Playing the game
The game is split between Geoscape and Battlescape. In Geoscape mode, you’re presented with a map of the globe and have numerous options on the right. This menu consists of launching fighters, examining your base close up and accessing an encyclopedia of knowledge on X-Com and alien equipment/ships/lifeforms. Via the map, you’re able to see the locations of UFOs as they appear, plus the markers that denote your bases and that of the aliens too.
Your primary objective is to keep the skies clear of UFOs by intercepting them and recovering valuable technology at the respective crash site. However, most of the time you will be landing in a combat zone, as the aliens who survive in the crash will defend their technology to the death. Upon victory, you’ll haul back the captured ufo, including its deceased crew and return to the Geoscape screen.Their weapons, equipment and even the deceased aliens themselves are available for study. Later on, you’ll be able to equip your troops with non-lethal weapons, allowing you to capture live aliens.
While you study your newfound artefacts, you’ll be occasionally called upon to defend cities from attack. Or sometimes take the initiative and assault an alien outpost itself. Success in accomplishing these objectives curries favour with those funding your operation. Do well enough to defend the populace both on the ground and air will grant you bonus cash. Lose too many battles or UFOs and you’ll have support withdrawn. If enough nations cancel their commitment to Xcom, the game is over as the aliens finalise their conquest.
But with capturing high ranked individuals, you can learn enough to turn the tide of war and face them on equal footing, even within their own bases.
After the final assault on Mars, a lone tachyon beam is sent to Earth to awaken an alien base beneath the waves. This alien construct had landed sixty-five million years ago and has lain dormant until now. Following the call from its space brethren, it begins to reanimate its crew and starts reclaiming the Earth from the seabed.
Ships, islands and ports are under attack from a new collective of aliens. Some are similar to their cosmic brethren but most are a new breed altogether. Civilian ships above and below deck become your battleground too in new two-part missions. Their underwater strongholds are larger and contain top-tier alien creatures within. Their UFOs now have the ability to fly underwater as well as over land, but can only be recovered from the water.
The aliens encountered later in the year are much more resilient to conventional weapons. So your research has to be much more thorough, hoping you can develop your own armour and craft in time to match the enemy. Their weapons are much more dangerous, even glancing blows cause fatal blows 99% of the time. And their night vision is that much better than yours, plus they will remember your location too.
Undersea locations are much more varied, consisting of shipwrecks, crashed aircraft and even ancient cities. These provide plenty of hiding spot for the aliens to take you by surprise.
Playing the sequel
What you’ve learned in the first game will go a long way to understanding the second game. The game is still largely split between Geoscape and battlescape. However as mentioned earlier the aliens weapons are more potent. Even researching the first armour tier doesn’t provide any more protection, save for guarding against smoke inhalation. Your initial choice of mainstay weapons become obsolete come July when facing more armoured foes.
And to make it worse, your initial weapon loadout has reduced magazines. Rifles in the first game contain twenty rounds, whereas a harpoon rifle is limited to ten. Your autocannon in the first game is now a Hydro-Jet cannon but its only operable underwater. And now colony/ artefact/ship sites are two-part operations! Whoever survives the first assault will now have to explore the second level, until they’re all dead or the enemy base has its control centre destroyed.
Biological alien weapons systems from the first game, such as the Horta inspired Silacoid, are now much larger. Huge nautilus and jellyfish creatures fill out the alien ranks, both containing deadly weaponry regardless of what armour you’re carrying. However, you’ll only find these two underwater, never on land missions. But to counter this, they’ve developed a smaller cyberdisk that appears mostly during ship missions. Furthermore, during mixed alien crew missions, you’ll likely come across a monster called a Triscene. This is essentially a large two-legged dinosaur with a weapon pack grafted onto its back.
Devising an assault on an alien base or artefact site requires your top people. Ideally, you’ll need individuals resistant to mind control and preferably a tank too. Alien creatures that can turn humans into zombies are only prevalent underwater but carry much more health and armour. They will act as diligent watchdogs to these undersea bases, especially around its central core.
Playing them today. How well do they hold up?
Shooting down ufos and stealing their technology to use against them is a lot of fun. Capturing live aliens to interrogate is more difficult but ultimately more rewarding. You’re free to develop and manufacture what you want during your role as commander of the entire organisation. You’ll be discovering and learning numerous tactics against the aggressors over and over again and no two missions are the same. Searching the map for that final alien can be sometimes tedious but there is a lasting satisfaction of finding the last creature. Using the terrain and buildings to your advantage proves the best way to progress through each mission.
The research in TFTD seems to require much more time and resources to complete. Rifles and gas cannons in the first game can still take down aliens met during the summer months. But as soon as you meet Lobster men and Tasoth creatures in TFTD, harpoon guns may as well equate to rubber bands and paperclips. In the first X-Com game, you could research laser weapons that had infinite ammo. These were a more than adequate stopgap between your regular rifles and alien plasma technology. And you could hold onto laser technology well into autumn months, even when going against tougher Muton opponents.
But in TFTD, you’ve only mediocre Gauss technology, which derives from the previous plasma guns in the first game. These are slightly more powerful than regular harpoon guns. But they are soon rendered obsolete against tougher enemies.
Graphically both titles are as you’d expect to be of this era. Maps are of a decent design with numerous houses and resorts making up the civilian battlescape. UFO recovery maps tend to have more variety, such as deserts, farms and arctic locations in the first X-Com. The design of the aliens in both games is unique too. You have your basic grey humanoids with large black eyes, telepathic figured draped in orange cloaked and even miniature flying saucers.
The sequel has creatures consisting of little green men, large jellyfish and even large brains that sense you with ease in the murky underwater levels. Humans and aliens go down with more gore when struck by weapon fire. People seemingly imploded into piles of gore when hit and mechanised beings explode with volatile force. Explosions in either game seem to be that of fiery skulls rising up, their size depending on the force of the explosive used.
The music and sound effects are almost spot on to boot. Aliens in the first game either moan or squeal when dying, whereas in TFTD they all each have their own individual sound effects. The accompanying MIDI format music in either title is the right punch of moody and menacing. In the sequel, it feels a little more ethereal and menacing especially when exploring deep ocean trenches at night. Plus the explosions feel more vicious and punchy, as in the first game they either felt like a dull crack or a weak ‘poof!’ sound effect.
Aliens are fairly straight forward to locate in both games, as they generally don’t have the AI to take cover. Enemy movement is much better in the second game, as it’ll make better use of the surrounding environment to ambush your team. Again, it also seems to be deadlier during night missions; having remembered your location and then shooting with ease from the shadows. The two-part missions are a typical complaint from most fans, having a larger map to explore complete with more critters. However, they will shoot civilians first and then your own people later, giving you valuable time to prepare.
But there are aliens that are determined to stay hidden, thus luring you out into the open in an attempt to find them. This is especially problematic in Terror from the Deep, where almost every battlescape map has dozens of hiding spots.
You can build multiple bases if you so desire, to your own unique specifications. Some can be simple bases for aircraft, while others geared primarily to research and development. You’ve ample funds in both games to experiment with what works best. But all are at risk of attack if you become too successful in defeating the aliens.
X-Com in and of itself is fairly straightforward to get into; there’s a lingering sense of tough but fair gameplay throughout. While there are no tutorials as such, each game has a simple user interface that’s pretty much idiot proof. However, they do originate from an era when boxed PC games contained half-inch manuals. But saying that, it’s simple enough to arrange troops into a transport, equip them and dispatch to a crash or terror site. You’ll find through multiple playthroughs of when it’s best to save, what research to pursue and what weaponry works best against varying opponents.
You’re the commander of X-Com. You alone make the shots, accept the sacrifices and determine what course of action to take during the next turn.