X-COM: UFO Defense (1994), XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012) dual review

UFO Defense Rated: 5 / 5

When it comes to the original X-COM: UFO Defense game, I am terrified of playing it ever again.  Not because the game is too tense for me (though it does get tense as hell).  It’s because when I finally sat down one morning at about 9am or so, I went through the tutorial the game manual comes with, and made an honest effort to learn how to play the game.  I successfully learned it, and continued to play it.  Then the next thing I knew when I look away from the computer screen and out the window, I saw that the sun was setting.  I quit the game and looked at the time, it said it was after 6pm.  9 hours went by like it was nothing, and I went through the whole day thinking I had only been playing for 3 hours.  I shut the computer off and stayed way the hell away from it.  Something that addicting cannot be right.  I don’t think I had ever played a game that made me lose track of time that badly.  That was what scared the shit out of me.  And I still get that feeling whenever I boot the game back up, and I hear the terror music from that intro video which perfectly captures the tension you’re about to subject yourself to.

This was a major improvement (I guess) over my first attempt at playing the game, which was on the PSOne copy a friend of mine lent me.  While it is an adequate enough port (I mean, this is a turn-based game, it shouldn’t be THAT hard to port it), it doesn’t come with a manual to teach you how to play, or for you to figure out what the hell is going on.  This is a game with an old-school layout that requires a good amount of effort when you first start out.  But after a few hours, just about everything falls into place, and it’s a decent learning experience from then on (not just learning other bits about objects, control schemes, buildings, etc; I’m also talking strategies and what to expect in the battles).  Didn’t have that luxury, or patience, with my first attempt, so I basically ignored the game for a long while after that, until I tried it out on PC.

Eventually, I did make my way back to the game, and swore to myself I would only do one, and only one, mission.  I taught myself to pace myself.  And it became one of the most rewarding game experiences I’ve ever had.

This isn’t a game where you just pick a squad of guys, and then go out blasting aliens, and trying to win one battle after another until you liberate the planet.  Oh no, there’s another layer to it.  You have to deal with the economics of it all.  Keeping your bases and troops maintained costs money.  And money comes from the governments who fund you, internationally.  The more you protect their countries and citizens from UFO invasions, the more they’re willing to keep funding you (or even give you a raise).  But the more you ignore their cries for help, or are unable to answer their cries for help, the less they will fund you.  In fact, they may reach the point where they stop funding you altogether and side with the alien menace that threatens the planet.  If this happens enough times, you are S.O.L.  So you need to pick your starting base wisely.  And once you gain enough funds, you could build a 2nd base anywhere else on Earth, on any continent.  But some are more worthwhile than others.  For instance, countries in the African continent aren’t going to fund you as much as the U.S., China, and Russia would, so you can afford to let some of those stragglers eat alien shit while you help the more financially prosperous countries out.  Because money is everything.  Greed is good.  Without it, you wouldn’t be able to protect anyone, not even the more poor third world countries.

But like I said, bases and their maintenance cost money.  So you can’t just build a base without being able to afford maintaining it.  You need enough of an income to sustain it, and later on upgrade it.  Upgrading bases gives you extra capacity for more troops, more powerful radars which can track UFO’s from a greater distance, more alien experimentation labs, more hangars for your ships to fly out and shoot down aliens, and for transportation ships so you can send troops to UFO sites (whether they crash-landed, or just landed).  And you gotta have your troops equipped with the best armor and weapons money can buy, otherwise you’re just sending them to the slaughter.

And when you get to a UFO site, when you reach the Battlescape, that’s when the tension hits like a laser blast to the head insta-killing one of your guys.  Because that’s how it’s going to begin.  Your troops don’t have the advanced technological equipment capable of having an edge over the alien invaders.  They can see farther than you, shoot farther than you, shoot faster than you, shoot with more powerful guns than you, and utilize mind control or mental attacks against your men.  You will be at a major disadvantage from the get-go.  You will take losses.  The question you gotta ask yourself is how many losses are acceptable?  Because you can assess that they are unacceptable, pack up your troops and gear, and leave the site.  You may have taken one loss due to lasers, explosives, mental attacks, friendly fire too many.

And it’s not always a bad thing to take your losses and run.  You don’t have to kill every single alien that is at the UFO site.  If you manage to kill just one, and bring its body back along with any alien tech he might be carrying (guns, grenades, ship parts, etc), then you can have your research team (who you’re paying for) study them, and start developing superior technology for your troops to try out next time they get sent out to do battle.  And the troops will remember their battles.  Each individual soldier can get better with experience, becoming more effective at taking down hostiles and assisting other troops.  But, you guessed it, this new technology costs money.  You don’t just get it for free.  You gotta pay for their development.  Or if you researched something well enough, you can take it off the next dead alien you come across, increasing your alien tech equipment that way.  Just make sure your research team figured out how to use it, because until they’ve learned how it works, it’s no good in your hands.

And if you get excess alien tech (or even human tech), and if you want some extra cash, then you can sell it off (I’m assuming on the black market).  Yet another way to earn an income.  In a manner directly linked to you going after aliens, rather than just relying on government handouts.

It eventually got the the point where I was getting comfortable with how I was adapting to the aliens.  Eventually I had enough soldiers staffed and weapon/armor supplies to go to each landing site I learned about (and began to increase the effectiveness of radar, and started up another base or two to reach more and more sites around the globe).  No longer was a picking and choosing my battles.  I was going head-first into every battle, eager to show these grey fuckers how much I improved since the first few encounters.  I was unstoppable.  And like a drug, I wanted more and more of them.  Their bodies, their resources, everything.  I could even capture them dead or alive with the right weaponry and tactics.  Soon I was even developing soldiers with mental abilities similar to that of the aliens.  The potential with all that, and how well I was doing, Earth was about to get back under control, with the aliens being no threat whatsoever.

Then, all of a sudden, when I reach another UFO landing site (I was at the point where I didn’t need to shoot them down, I would wait until they landed and take them on then, acquiring an intact spacecraft with everything else), I was in for a surprise.  Those grey men and flying discs, those were just scouts.  Once they figured out I was fighting back and successfully fending them off, they sent in the real alien troops.  All of a sudden, I was faced with creatures of various shapes and sizes, who could soak up more damage, move faster, and utilize weaponry and mental attacks far stronger than anything I had yet seen.  All of a sudden these guys who weathered many battles were getting killed, as were the new green recruits who were training up to be just as good.  And I had to deal with these vicious fucks that would impregnate the soldiers, who would explode and give birth to another one of these creatures that would keep the cycle going.

Once again, I became terrified of this alien invasion.  I had become too comfortable with my position, not realizing I should’ve taken into account they would wise up and bring out something bigger and badder.  So once again, I had to play things carefully, until I got the tech and the bodies all researched up, boosting my troops yet again.  But I wasn’t sure what else would come.  What other surprises would be waiting for me.  Until I learned how to end this whole thing.  Take the fight to them, on Mars.  Well, knowing that was a goal to strive for, I did several more missions, just to make sure I had all the tech and troops I felt necessary to complete this seemingly one-way mission.  And when I did, off to Mars I went, with the spacecraft tech that we researched advanced enough to get us there in no time.

The last stage of the game, this assault on Mars, is done in several levels.  Had some struggles getting below the surface, and going lower still, but it was all manageable.  Then, in the last stage, the shit started to hit the fan.  The mental attacks became overwhelming.  My men started turning on each other.  On top of that, they were getting surrounded.  Everything started to fall apart.  They started dying left and right.  I underestimated how much of a problem the mental attacks would be.  An almost fatal mistake.  I couldn’t see, or precisely locate, where the source of these attacks were coming from, but I knew my men weren’t going to last much longer unless I did something drastic.  So I launched a guided missile, which went down an unexplored hallway, turned to the right, went down a corridor and into a room, and eventually came upon a few of these mental freaks holed up in this room, avoiding line of sight with my men.  Then BOOM!  The guided missile slaughtered the shit out of them.  But I only had about 3 men left to complete the mission.  Slowly but surely, step by step, inch by inch, they made their way through, until they finally reached the last area they just had to blow up.  And by the skin of their teeth, they managed.  I had won, barely.

And this was on the Easiest difficulty, out of 5 different difficulty settings.

A part of me was ready to do it all over again on the next higher difficulty setting, knowing what mistakes to avoid, and what general strategies to utilize next time around.  But it was such an exhausting and taxing experience.  Having to build bases, engage in these turn-based squad battles, keep the X-COM economy running.  It’s a fantastic but demanding experience.  One of the best games I ever played, yet one I’m always hesitant to start out on.  Because of the journey that lies ahead.  A game that will grab you buy the balls, never let go, and will squeeze them a little harder with each increase in difficulty you dare to try.



Enemy Unknown/Within Rated: 3 / 5

How could a reboot hope to be as great as that experience?  Well, they start by releasing a game that isn’t fully complete, then release some DLC that re-titles it from Enemy Unknown to Enemy Within.  And they streamline the whole experience, offering less customization, giving the player a less control.

For starters, let’s talk about the Battlescape (when you’re actually doing the squad battles against the aliens).  It’s no longer based on an action point (AP) system, where each soldier has a certain number of action points that can be spent to do just about anything.  Turning 45 degrees, moving, firing, crouching, readying a grenade, throwing a grenade, swapping weapons, utilizing some gadget, doing a reflex shot, using a med kit on himself or another soldier, etc.  Each action cost a certain number of AP, and it would cost more or less (and your soldier would have more or less AP) depending on the experience of your soldier (not all soldiers are the same, some are better than others when it comes to handling certain types of weaponry, or moving, or just being decent in general).  Each mission, you would get to know your soldiers intimately, as you had to know who was the best at doing what, painstakingly determine which AP should be utilized for what.  Every step mattered.  Every turn mattered.  The line of sight would be effected by just about everything you did.  You could blow through walls (if you had the right equipment or weapons), use smoke grenades, get a good location on the roof of a building (and wonder if there would be an alien up there who had the same idea as you).  And each battle was different because the maps were randomly generated.

That AP system is done away with in Enemy Unknown/Within.  You just get 2 action points for each soldier.  They can shoot and move, move and shoot, shoot and do something else, or move and do something else.  And that was it.  Line of sight was more area-based than direction-based.  Less tactical tricks you could pull off, all things considered (less depth and tension as a result of all this).  Considerably streamlined compared to UFO Defense.  Now, I didn’t mind this too much, but it wasn’t something that was going to win me over into thinking this was superior to the original.  But it worked well enough for this game.  For a streamlined X-COM experience, you could do much worse.

And then it did attempt to do worse.  Now, both games show a percentage when it comes to the odds of success with hitting an opponent, based on the experience of the soldiers, the distance, the weapon, the cover of the enemy, if you’re crouching, etc.  The percentage shows the odds to hit.  Now, in UFO Defense, it all seemed well and good.  Sure there were those 90% to hit occasions where I missed, but that was very few and far between.  In Enemy Unknown/Within, fuck that game up its cheating bitch-ass.  I swear to God, I made notes about how often I missed when it said I had a 90-95% chance to hit, and it would miss so often that it rendered those statistics to be completely unreliable.  Granted, you could say that’s the nature of randomness, that sometimes that 5-10% chance to miss could happen more often than you would hope.  You could say it’s just a perception issue, that I’m only remembering the misses, which makes them seem to occur more often than they actually are.  And to that I say, “Fuck you!  This game fucking cheats!”  Granted, it didn’t happen often enough to make me stop playing completely, which I guess means it could just be my perception fucking with me.  It could just be that I had worse luck with the shooting in this game than I did with UFO Defense.  And if that’s the case, then this game can kiss my unlucky ass.  If it’s bad luck for me to play it, then I’m not going to enjoy it as much.  That’s just the way it is.

Base construction has been streamlined too, but I had less of a problem with that compared to the streamlined battlescape.  But streamlining that also takes away some strategic elements, such as if you want to risk having less soldiers and more scientists to get this one bit of tech researched so you can upgrade all your current troops, making them more likely to survive missions and therefore reducing the supposed need of having more replacements.  Same thing with research and funding and stuff (you only get one scientist and one technician in this version, as opposed to the older game where you could purchase a certain number of techies and scientists to boost the speed of researching something).  It was streamlined, but I didn’t mind too much.  It was still fun, but a downgrade to the amount of control the original gave.  But there were two other things they streamlined which was a bigger irritation.  You only get one base, and only 1 Interceptor (spacecraft), which makes it too simple with tracking down UFOs (no longer do you need to wrack your head trying to decide where bases should go, and how many aircraft you need (or what kind); it’s just one and done for this game) other thing they streamlined is the map layout in combat.  No longer are there randomly generated maps to fight on.  They’re more limited, and you can memorize them.  It seems like the primary element that was streamlined for the worse was the battlescape.  Did Enemy Unknown/Within bring anything new to the table amidst this streamlining?  Actually, it did.

Enemy Within, the mandatory expansion pack, adds in these extra missions where you will be fighting other humans.  A sort of shadow organization that is going on.  It’s sort of a side story that nets its own rewards.  And I have to admit, it mixes things up enough and adds in another interesting dimension to combat (in who you are fighting and how they attack/maneuver) to round out the entire experience.  That’s not the only thing it adds (also has more maps, aliens, units, tech, classes), but it is the most significant.  As for the expansion and the base game itself, many seem to enjoy the “classes” in the game (a soldier could become a sniper, or assault, etc).

The most egregious element to the game though is how scripted it all is.  In the original game, the mounting dread came naturally.  Overtime, the number of UFOs that would arrive on Earth would increase; you had to worry about alien bases being established in spots you weren’t defending; and you discover how much more difficult aliens are getting by running into new ones on some random mission that you initially treat like any other.  In this game, things are more set.  There’s a set number of UFOs that invade each month, a set number of mission types, and a set time limit for completing that game.  And whenever something new happens, or some story element comes into play, rather than having it happen subtly, there’s some form of cinematic that plays to bluntly showcase how things have developed or changed, and what you should do to deal with it.  Even the most minor of the scripted elements, when your soldier runs into an alien’s line of sight, which instigates a brief cutscene of several aliens running for cover.  I mean, for fuck’s sake, can’t the aliens just be there, without a cutscene showing them scurrying about.  It loses that element of surprise when you turn a corner, or walk a step too far, and you get blasted by an alien, or you see one standing with its back to you and giving you a free shot.  Scripted sequences are bullshit!

It’s at this point I realized what the biggest difference is between the two games.  The original game is a simulation game dressed up as a squad-based turn-based action RPG.  The new game is a squad-based-turn based action RPG that doesn’t put much effort into providing an illusion that you’re playing a simulation (which you aren’t).  The original game is more sim-based in nature with how you have to run and manage an economy to fund your bases, crafts, and troops (let alone tech being researched and developed), complete freedom in determining what you’re researching and how many scientists you can afford to throw at it, developing your base(s) to accommodate such researches (hell, you could create a base that primarily exists just for research), and with how the alien invasion proceeds and how it reacts to your presence (based on how often you shoot down their own ships, or how often you capture them).  Making it less sim-based means less freedom, and less freedom isn’t really a good thing in this case.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my playthrough of this game, and had fun with it.  But I had very little desire to go back to it.  At least, not without mods.

Other recommended review:


reverse curl



Mods (for UFO Defense)


Ok, the main thing you need to know is that you should get the OpenXcom modification.  It’s not a mod so much as something that makes the game run smoothly on modern PC engines.  It also comes with some bug fixes, and optional additions (such as having aliens pick up a weapon if it is dropped from their hands as opposed to running away like a wussy, having psi attacks only work within line of site, and other stuff).  This is the only mod I’ve really utilized, because, really, the core game has enough content to last a long long long time for me.  And I’ve only done one complete playthrough of this intimidating game.  There are other mods and other engines, but there is one in particular worth mentioning that I haven’t tried yet.


Now this is one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen in my life.  This is built upon the x-com engine, but it’s given a complete facelift and a bit of an overhaul mechanically.  This is no longer about present day forces taking on alien invaders.  Instead, it is assumed you lost the X-Com game, spent hundreds of years under alien enslavement and pillaging, until the aliens were satisfied they had gotten all they wanted from Earth and then left.  Now you command a group of pirate babes who survive by raiding and looting others on Earth, trying to survive in this post-apocalyptic environment.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about this unbelievable fan-made content.  And, oh yes, there are titties.



Mods (for Enemy Unknown/Within)

Will just mention the one big one.  Much of the complaints some have regarding Enemy Unknown being shallow compared to UFO Defense become addressed with a little mod known as the Long War mod.

Long War

Now there are 8 classes instead of 4 (base game only had 3, Enemy Within added another).  More soldiers can be placed in battle.  The campaign is significantly longer.  More tech to research, and more weaponry.  You can fight more than just one alien base.  While all this stuff is great and all for those who want more out of the Enemy Unknown game, the underlying issues become more apparent with this mod.  That’s not to say the mod is bad, far from it.  But the game becomes more tedious as a result of its extended length and more grinding aspects, which demonstrates why the more complex aspects of UFO Defense are more appreciated.  The micromanaging in UFO Defense makes the grinding aspects more fun, as does the sense of mystery and discovery.  Plus having more freedom.  At the very least, the Long War mod offers a small taste of that sort of freedom.  And the creators of the Enemy Unknown game have gone on record stating that this mod is the definitive way to play the game.

the hills are alive with the sound of gunfire

One thought on “X-COM: UFO Defense (1994), XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012) dual review

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