A Triumph in Turn-based Strategy
X-COM: UFO Defense
Platform: PC | Genre: Turn-based strategy
Publisher: MicroProse | Developer: Mythos Games | Released: 1994

The original X-COM (known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe) is one of the defining games of the turn-based strategy genre. The premise of X-COM is that you are the commander of a top-secret paramilitary group tasked with protecting Earth from hostile aliens. Sure, the theme was clich�d even back then, but the amazing variety and depth in X-COM's gameplay gives it a unique flavor that still hasn't been matched.

X-COM offers a number of different gameplay types. You begin by building bases to monitor alien activity around Earth and launching fighter missions to shoot down UFOs. After that, you send in your crack team of commandos to assault the downed UFO and neutralize any surviving aliens. In this layer, you also have to manage the finances of your team, taking into account the monthly salaries of your soldiers, scientists, and engineers, as well as your equipment needs. Multiple countries contribute to your budget, and your effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) at combating the alien threat in their territories will impact their spending decisions.

When in combat, X-COM switches into a tactical mode that was surprisingly advanced for its time and even stands up well against today's standards of complexity. While moving your troops, the game engine accounts for line of sight, lighting (X-COM had a built-in clock with true day-night cycles), and initiative. Depending on where the UFOs crash-land, your troops could end up exploring a variety of areas, ranging from wilderness with dense foliage to cities with multilevel buildings, complete with working doors and furniture. The downed UFOs can also be explored, and some of them have multiple levels and entrances. The walls and floors of buildings are destructible, which allows you to create your own entrances and exits. You also have to worry about protecting any civilians from both the aliens and your own weapons fire.

X-COM has a lot of different types of enemies. They differ not only in appearance, but also in function. You start off against stereotypical gray sectoids and then work up to the troublesome ethereals, who can use mind control on your troops and turn them against you in battle. Virulent chryssalids move great distances in one turn, attacking troops and civilians at melee range by impregnating them with an egg that spawns another chryssalid. The ultratough mutons almost always require multiple shots to kill.

Since you're never sure of the number or type of aliens you're up against in X-COM's randomly generated missions, the battles are tense affairs. You start off missions creeping from wall to wall, peeking around corners for recon. The uncertainty forces you to command your men with advanced squad-level tactics like breaking your squad into supporting fire teams and setting up overlapping fields of fire. For example, entering a room without leaving yourself enough movement points to fire a shot at a hidden alien is always a bad idea in X-COM. The smart thing to do is pile a few soldiers at the entrance, wait a turn, and then toss a grenade in before breaching the door, much like a real SWAT team would.

The weapons at your disposal run the gamut from rifles, grenades, and missile launchers to exotic alien technology like plasma guns and robotic tanks. Once the battles are over, your soldiers gain skills and experience, and you automatically collect any alien equipment and artifacts from the battlefield. Captured alien equipment can be sold for cash or reverse-engineered for your own use. If you capture any aliens alive, you can interrogate them for information, like the location of secret alien bases on Earth. Dead alien bodies can even be autopsied to find weaknesses.

With so much gameplay variety, X-COM offers a little something for everyone. Sci-fi fans love its theme, management simulation fans can have a lot of fun with the base building and finance aspects of the game, and tactical strategy fans can lose themselves for hours in the game's combat mode. Though many games are still made today with an alien-busting theme, none of them are quite as much fun or addictive as X-COM.

X-COM was so addictive that I'd keep telling myself "just one more turn," long after my eyes had dried up and my bladder had gone numb from ignoring the urge to pee. More times than I care to remember, I played sessions of 10, 12, or even 16 hours, skipping meal after meal to assault just one more UFO or finish researching that last bit of technology. It's hard to imagine a 16-year-old American boy skipping a meal for anything, but X-COM was just too engaging to put down for something as trivial as nourishment.