Ever since it first crept up on gamers and whacked them upside the head with its engaging gameplay, MicroProse’s excellent strategy game X-COM: UFO Defense has screamed to be a franchise. MicroProse has been smart enough to recognize this and already obliged with one adequate sequel (Terror from the Deep) and one very good one (Apocalypse). Moving the franchise into 3D action territory was a logical next step, and on this front, MicroProse is taking a two-pronged approach. The first title out of the chute is Interceptor (space combat) and the next in line is Alliance (ground combat). On playing the first of the two, all I can say is… let’s hope they fare better on the ground than they do in space.
It’s not that Interceptor is a bad game. Many of its elements are strong in isolation, but when taken together over hours or days of continuous play, they become numbing. It’s a reverse gestalt: The sum is less than the parts. Many of the classic X-COM elements (tactical combat, research, and manufacturing) are either missing or pared down and impotent. In place of turn-based tactical combat against alien foes, the focus has shifted to fast-paced space combat punctuated by long stretches of galactic management. (Or, taken from the other direction, it’s a strategy game punctuated by bursts of action.) The idea is rock solid on the surface: You manage the strategic element, and then hop in the cockpit to fight the battles, creating and participating in a dynamic campaign. In practice, however, the idea doesn’t hold together.
The problems with Interceptor aren’t obvious at the outset, but they become painfully clear over time. When you start up a new campaign game, you are plopped in the middle of a galaxy being infiltrated by UFOs. Various corporations are in control of planets in this galaxy, and these corporations provide your operating budget in exchange for protection from alien incursion. Fail to protect a company and they don’t pay, leaving you without the ability to get new supplies.
X-COM operations are run from orbiting bases spread throughout a star map, and here we have the first of several problems. There is an eight base limit, and bases must be placed a certain distance from each other. This means you can’t cover the whole galaxy. These limitations are here to prevent the player from overwhelming the aliens with wide base coverage and bringing on the endgame too soon. This is an artificial solution to a problem that could have been handled with different techniques of money management or a more aggressive enemy artificial intelligence (i.e., build too many bases and trigger a full scale alien assault).
Base management is the core of the strategic game. You can add new modules for training, housing, and defense; manage supplies, crews, and weapon loadouts; and handle research. All of this is greatly simplified from other X-COM games, and logically so, since the focus is on the action. You only hire pilots, not technicians or scientists. You don’t build supplies, you order them. You don’t conduct research, you download it from Earth. Scavenged supplies are immediately sent to Earth (how is not explained), and you get the research back from them by downloading it through
a special communication array. This is a rather dry approach to gaining new equipment and technology, but it suffices as a gameplay element, and it works well within the fiction of the game. The problem, however, is that the research "tree" is paced wrong, giving you many of the prime weapons in the first quarter of the game and leaving only a few choice items for later. This has an unbalancing effect that directly impacts the core of the game: the action sequences.
You respond to alien incursions by sending out ships. When these ships are ready to engage the enemy, you must hop in the cockpit and start firing. As a pure 3D action shooter, Interceptor has its high and low points. The weird retro look of the ships and the clever and detailed modeling of the UFOs are both strong elements, but overall, the graphics are weak and repetitive. There are a few space stations and a few different UFOs, but the cut scenes and deep-space emptiness leave the game with a bland, uninteresting feel. The optional 3D acceleration smoothes out the graphics and adds some effective shading and lighting, but it’s a far cry from Wing Commander: Prophecy or Descent: Freespace.
In terms of original gameplay in the cockpit -- there’s none. Controls are the familiar stock we’ve seen in any other space shooter: weapon cycling, energy and shield settings, afterburners, taunts, and targeting options. The cockpit art is too large and not all that interesting, even though it’s spiced up with humorous touches like alien head kill-boards and "I Brake For Sectoids" stickers.
You can send some rudimentary orders to wingmen, but the smart ones pretty much do the job on their own. A good crew can clean out a few UFOs in a minute or two, leaving you with little to do but pull your joystick.
However, the main problem isn’t with the action engine itself, it’s with the narrow mission parameters that quickly become repetitive and boring. When a blip shows up on your main strategic map, you send out a wing of ships to investigate. If they encounter the enemy, you drop into a dogfight with three or more UFOs. These dogfights are all exactly the same, and they come every day or two, meaning you fight dozens of tiny, small scale incursions. Interceptor cries out for an option to skip these battles, but you cannot: you must fight every last one.
When you get more powerful weapons, these little dogfights become like swatting skeeters -- it often takes longer to load the mission that it does to fight. This is partly a fault of the compressed research tree and partly because there is no option to automate the outcome of an encounter. But the entire structure of the campaign game is also a large share of the problem. Even with a strong offensive strategy, there will only ever be a few types of action encounters: interception, base defense, and base attack. Period. That’s it. You can patrol zones to keep an eye out for convoys and UFOs, and probe for enemy bases, but almost every combat sequence is identical, varied only by the types of ships encountered. Sometimes there are more or better ships, or maybe something large that needs to either be attacked or protected, but none of this dispels the essential sameness of the encounters.
This is a game stuck in a loop. Its own innovative strategic campaign element is the undoing of its action element, and vice versa. One element of Interceptor negates the other. As a strategy game, the other X-COMs are deeper and more satisfying. As a 3D space combat game, it is easily eclipsed by the re-released Star Wars space combat games or Wing Commander: Prophecy and Descent: Freespace. Interceptor wants to be too many things at once, and only succeeds for a short time at being any of them before the monotony sets in.
--T. Liam McDonald