Review by Rottenwood

Reviewed: 10/12/00 | Updated: 10/12/00

Just Plain Brilliant

'X-Com: UFO Defense' is one of those little sleeper games (at least, it was upon its release) that you usually pass by on the shelves en route to the latest big-time release. But my friends and I had seen a positive review for the game in a magazine, and thought it sounded kind of cool. With the prospect of a rainy Saturday afternoon ahead, we decided to take a chance and pick up 'X-Com' to play the day away. And within the hour, we were completely and utterly hooked. And as it turns out, I am still playing the game years later, and enjoy it more than most of the hot new titles coming down the pipeline. For while 'X-Com' was not budgeted to have amazing graphics or effects, it features one of the most insidiously gripping game designs that I have ever had the pleasure of playing.
One of the many great aspects of the game is its premise. Alien sightings have increased all across the Earth, and actual abductions and experimentations are being reported. In a rare moment of unity, the world's premiere nations band together to fund a special task force to combat the alien menace. That task force is X-Com, and you are put in charge of this new organization. You control every aspect of the game, from the construction of bases down to arming and controlling each unit on the field of battle. The eerie theme of alien abduction (especially early in the game, when you know very little about the enemy) makes for some great edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Much of the fun of the game is uncovering just what the aliens are up to.
The game has three basic modes: micro-management (building bases and maintaining finances), research (studying and learning to use alien technology), and combat. All three modes are blended together seamlessly. Without going into combat, you can't retrieve alien bodies and weapons to research. Without research, you can't manufacture the powerful alien tools to advance in the game. And without properly managing your finances, you can't give your squad good equipment, which makes them weak in combat... and so on. All in all, it's very fluid design that makes you work evenly on all aspects of the organization.
The micro-management is rather simplistic; some folks will be relieved at this, to get back to the action as quickly as possible. More management-minded gamers might be put off, though, by the game's downscaled financial aspects. For example, X-Com's monthly budget starts at under one million dollars. Now obviously, the designers kept the dollar figures low so that the player wouldn't get lost in ten-digit figures and such. But players looking for realistic global economics have been warned. (C'mon, less than a million for a world-wide funded organization? The United States alone probably spends a million a month to sponsor Army keggers.) Also, players can sell all of their equipment - including alien corpses - for big money. But who the heck is buying plasma rifles and spare UFO parts? Wily players will also soon discover that certain items can be manufactured and sold for a tidy profit. You could sell thousands of laser cannons, and the demand never slows down. Who's purchasing giant laser cannons, though? I can see it now: terrorist groups, attaching the huge jet cannon to the top of a jeep.
The research aspect of the game is a lot more fun than it sounds. After bringing back fancy alien technology from combat missions, you can assign scientists to study whatever you think sounds interesting or useful. Need better weapons? Put the lab boys on laser rifle research. Or perhaps you'd be better off studying a live alien to learn more about them. Each scientific discovery is an exciting moment for your entire campaign, and the game only gets better as new technologies become available and the plot slowly unfolds.
But of course, the combat scenes are the meat-and-potatoes of the game. After shooting down a UFO with an interceptor craft, you can send a squad of ten or so troops down to the crash site to investigate. Naturally, some of the aliens survive the landing, and once your soldiers land, a turn-based battle ensues. Each troop of yours has a set number of movement points each turn, and you can use them to walk around, shoot, duck, or various other actions. Once you're done, the aliens get to move, and so on. The early combats are the most intense, as your troops are rather pitifully equipped when compared to the aliens and their far more advanced weaponry. Watching your men and women die from searing plasma blasts really gets you motivated to kick some alien butt.
The aliens have a wide spectrum of species in their ranks, adding a lot of variety to the action. There are the traditional almond-eyed Martian-men foes, called the Sectoids, who are the first guys you're likely to meet. Later on, you'll encounter the hovering Floaters, the brawny Mutons, and the psionics-packing Ethereals, amongst others. Different foes require different strategies, which keeps the battles interesting as the game goes on.
The best part of combat, though, is the fact that you can name your own troops. This may sound trivial, but trust me, having your friends Tony and Ernie (or whatever your friends are called) shoot their way into a heavily-defended crash site is much more exciting than some randomly-named solider doing the same thing. You can name all of your squad members after your pals, or fellow office workers, or anyone you can think of. Ever wonder how Icelandic pop singer Bjork would do in armed combat with an extra-terrestrial menace? Now you can find out! (As I'm sure that you've been dying of curiousity up to this point in time.)
The graphics in 'X-Com: UFO Defense' are adequate and pleasant enough. Nothing very memorable, visually, but the combat scenes have interesting settings (farmlands, the arctic, the rainforest) and the aliens are very interesting, artistically. More variations in soldier appearance would have been great, though, especially in combat.
The sounds aren't that much to speak of. There are two basic music tracks; one for micro-management and one for combat. The micro-management music is pretty catchy, but the combat music is just an irritating wailing noise with an odd beat. Not horrible, but not particularly easy on the ears, either. The sound effects are suitably creepy.
But this game is all about the playability, and there is where it shines. The combat is fun, the research is fun, and the management is fun, and all three are strung together beautifully for a well-crafted gaming machine. Just wait until your troops record their first victory and bring home a shipload of alien swag... you'll be hooked.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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