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Video Game / X-COM: UFO Defense

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Okay! So you shoot down the UFO and then land and take out the surviving aliens. I think I got thi— HOLY CRAP!!!!

X-COM: UFO Defense (known as UFO: Enemy Unknown if you're in Europe) is the first in the X-COM series of Turn-Based Tactics games.

The year is 1998. Strange things are afoot in our solar system. UFO sightings, previously dismissed as an urban legend, have become commonplace in the night sky. Reports of abductions and cattle mutilation spread terror throughout the population. At first, the global powers attempt to deal with this threat independently. However, after 5 fruitless months of trying to capture an alien craft, a deal is struck to merge these agencies into a global defense force: EXtraterrestrial COMbat Unit. On January 1, 1999, the U.N. council in Geneva rubber-stamps the budget for the first X-COM base, with the proviso that future appropriations will be cut if the council doesn't see results—and soon. Meanwhile, members of the ruling body, skeptical of X-COM's ability to fend off the invaders, are secretly putting out feelers for peace...


It all started with Laser Squad, the first turn-based tactics game by Julian Gollop. X-COM was going to be Laser Squad 2 until Microprose suggested that an alien invasion scenario would be more exciting. The box art for the Firaxis remake, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, was designed in such a way to pay homage to the series' roots.

The original X-COM had a (barely) two-year development time, an AI programmed with a few Kb, and was designed to run on an 80386 PC. (To this day, Gollop is not sure how they did it.) The aliens progress according to their own agenda, constantly threatening funding, introducing new types of missions and ultimately building bases. The AI is designed to make the player uncertain of what's around the next corner. Worse, the game does not set any victory goals or narrative at the start. By contrast, the aliens have clearly-stated goals: destroy all X-COM bases, bankrupt X-COM, or make a number of countries leave the X-COM project. Thus, at the beginning of the game the player is fighting a losing war. It's only at the depths of the research tree that the player discovers the tools needed to turn the tide and achieve victory.


Spiritual successors and fan remakes

X-COM spawned a number of mods and remake attempts, such as UFO: Alien Invasion and UFO: Extraterrestrials, both of which are exact copies of the original. Another, Rebelstar: Tactical Command, came out on the Game Boy Advance along with Laser Squad: Nemesis (in and of itself a sequel to X-COM's own predecessor Laser Squad).

In addition, fans have produced their own X-COM-flavored games, most notably Xenonauts, UFO: Aftermath and its sequels Aftershock and Afterlight.

In 2014, an open source clone of UFO Defense (and later X-COM: Terror from the Deep) was released for playtesting. OpenXcom itself has enabled total conversions like the Warhammer 40K mod, The XCOM Files and Piratez.


  • Abusive Precursors: The Alien Brain in UFO Defense claims that the aliens created humanity.
  • The Aesthetics of Technology: The alien technology is sleek, shiny and spotless.
  • Alien Abduction: Floaters and Sectoids practice this. They even have a specialised UFO called the "Abductor".
  • Alien Lunch: The "Alien Food" is a nutrient soup made from body parts extracted from cattle and humans. You can even sell it on the market.
  • Aliens Steal Cattle: One of the few straight but completely non-comedic examples. Several missions involve "Harvester" UFOs sent to meet the aliens' carnivorous needs. They are, of course, equipped with Cow Tools.
  • All There in the Manual:
    • The opening cutscene is laughably inaccurate (chainguns cutting down Mutons with ease? You wish), but the manual sheds a bit more light on X-COM and the nature of their job.
    • The instruction book suggests that the Interceptor is based on Japanese design. See "Tokyo is the Center of the Universe" below.
  • Animesque: The intro of the UFO Defense is proto-animesque (with a 90's comic book aesthetic), and the demo's list of features mentions a "popular 'Manga' look and feel to graphics." The background images for base functions and Hidden Movement retain the art style of the intro. Otherwise, the graphics are about as realistic as can be expected from a game of its age.
  • Apocalypse How — Planetary: If you fail to stop the aliens, they take over the world, destroy human civilization completely, and humanity ends up as a race of semi-intelligent mutants at best. Also, the sky burns.
  • Armless Biped: The Reapers.
  • Artificial Brilliance: This game features some of the best AI of its era, and still holds up very well by modern standards. For the most part, enemy units will not mindlessly wander into your fire. They hide in dark corners waiting to ambush you, shoot from behind cover, pop out of doorways to take a shot and the duck back out. Melee units like the Chryssalid will usually not advance in your direction unless they can make it all the way to their intended target and strike in a single turn. (One hit is all they need.)
    Julian Gollup: "Yeah, obviously when I was programming XCOM stuff we were faking intelligent. We had some very simple tricks to fake it. I talked a bit about the randomness element in XCOM and how we put it in the AI. But in actual fact, being unpredictable is a way of intelligently countering someone who's predictable. If you play poker, for example."
  • Artificial Stupidity:
    • The civilians in Terror Sites. They will run through a door, back through it, then back again! That is if they are not running into the middle of fire fights, because the natural place to stand in a military operation is directly in front of the man with the laser rifle. At best the civilians in Terror missions just wander around aimlessly and pay no heed to the numerous aliens in the process of mowing them down. Just do yourself a favor and stun-rod any civilian you come across. They can't wander in front of your gun muzzle, and they can't get impregnated by space bugs; just zap them in the butthole and be done.
    • It's also not uncommon to see aliens blowing themselves up with their own blaster launchers or grenades. Of course, this can easily happen to your troops as well, especially if you forget where you placed your proximity mines.
    • Sometimes a Chryssalid might run past one of your soldiers and just end its turn. This is because they prefer to perform their insta-kill attack on your soldiers from behind, even though they could easily hit your soldier in the face with no chance of failure. As a result, they run out of Time Units to actually perform the attack in that turn and end up a sitting duck for your troops.
    • Why storm the UFO when you can just clean up the area outside the UFO and then camp out at the entrance until around turn 20? Then the AI logic guiding behavior of alien characters causes them to go on the offensive... right into your firing squad. For best results, throw a smoke grenade to prevent the aliens from shooting your guys.
  • Astral Finale: You fly to Mars to assault the Aliens' HQ, the Cydonia base.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking:
    • Blaster Launchers, a.k.a. the portable airstrike, are usually carried by Commanders, Leaders and Engineers. They have no qualms about firing them indoors, or even at point-blank range. This makes them very difficult to capture. Leaders/Commanders tend also to have better armor, speed, and reactions than your troops; in a quick-draw duel, a Commander can plug two agents and still have time to duck out through the door.
    • Sectoid leaders, but only in the first two games. Apart from selling their carcasses, most rank-and-file soldiers aren't particularly useful; the higher up the command structure you go, the more valuable the intel. Of particular note is the Sectoid navigator, who can help you construct a better radar system. A Sectoid leader can teach you psionics.
    • Not necessarily true with human soldiers, depending on whether the player has the officers on the battlefield getting exercise along with the other soldiers or leaves their muscles to atrophy in the back of the Skyranger.
  • Big "NO!": A rare written example. The alien brain tries to talk you out of killing it via a computer screen at its base. The screen displays an enormous-font "NO" as the brain is incinerated.
  • Boring, but Practical:
    • Laser Weapons: They are significantly outclassed by alien weaponry, but they still have moderate stats and most importantly they don't require ammunition to use. This makes them useful throughout the entire game.
    • Interceptors: While not as durable or fast as alien fighters, they run on conventional fuel, enabling you to save your precious elerium that would be burned up by the more advanced alien craft. Their high fuel capacity enables them to track alien ships for a long time so you can see where they land, and their damage is repaired at a much faster rate than your ships built with alien technology. Furthermore, once you equip them with plasma cannons, they will be able to easily shoot down all alien craft other than a battleship. As such, Interceptors never become obsolete.
    • Skyranger: While it's unarmed and has a much lower capacity than the Avenger, it still has some advantages that make it worthwhile till the end. It runs on conventional fuel rather then elerium, and its massive fuel capacity gives it a very long range. Unlike the Avenger, it can track a target for a long time waiting for it to land or hover in place waiting for daylight to start a mission.
  • Brain Monster: The first game also features the Alien Brain on Mars as the Big Bad.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: A picture of a high-ranking X-COM agent with one of these and silhouettes of obviously armed guards behind him is the background on the screens for the buying/selling of armaments and hiring/sacking of personnel. Merchants of death don't accept charge cards, it seems.
  • Commanding Coolness: Commander is the highest rank that can be attained within X-COM. A Commander accompanying your troops on a mission will provide some hefty morale boosts, but it also incurs a severe morale penalty when he/she is killed. Fortunately, the Commander's morale bonus applies to all soldiers no matter where he is on the map, meaning it's a perfectly viable strategy to simply leave him safely in the skyranger and let the other troops reap the benefit of his passive morale bonus while they carry out the mission. When you have thirty soldiers or more (combined from all bases), and a vacant position, then the best eligible Colonel is promoted. There Can Be Only One....commander at a time.
  • The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard: Most prevalent in UFO Defense, where aliens don't suffer from Fatal Wounds unless they were inflicted under previous mind control, magically know the entire map (and your soldiers' positions) after Turn 20, and can target any of your soldiers as soon as just one is in visual range (particularly rage-inducing with Ethereals' psi-spamming). Even so, it's possible to fool them by bringing a psi-decoy with low mental defences and no weapons to suck up all their psychic powers, as they are always going to target the people wth the weakest minds.
  • Covers Always Lie: The European cover art depicts insect-like aliens which do not appear in the actual game.
  • Cutscene Power to the Max: Inverted. The opening animation of UFO Defense features troops facing down Mutons with Personal Armor, a couple of the beginning rifles, and an Auto-Cannon. By the time you normally face Mutons, however, you'll be trampling them with Powered and Flying Suit-equipped soldiers packing any combination of Psi-Amps, Laser Rifles, Heavy Plasmas, or Blaster Launchers. Played straight in that you will get your ass kicked. Also, amusingly, in that you will never see a red-suited Muton in the game; the Muton Commander seen in the opening does not exist ingame. Mutons have no commanders.
  • Drone of Dread: The battlescape soundtrack is a constant, low, pulsing drone.
  • Dummied Out:
    • Certain enemy types (such as the bug alien from the original box cover) were removed during development, as were The Men in Black, who went unused due to MicroProse's (aborted) plans for a MIB-themed standalone game.
    • One of the many unused artifacts is the "Alien Reproduction" item and research line. Funny considering the resultant Half-Human Hybrids wound up playing a key part in Apocalypse.
  • Early Game Hell: The opening stages of the game are absolutely brutal- you only have a single base, giving you minimal global coverage, meaning it can be many in-game days or even weeks till you spot a UFO. Research and production are painfully slow until you invest in more scientists and engineers, the average rookie literally could not hit the broad side of a barn if they were inside the barn, and the fact that they go to battle wearing a pair of natty overalls while even the Sectoids that function as the starter enemies are toting heavy plasma guns means that any hit will 9 times out of 10 be an instant kill, making training them up into an effective fighting force akin to trying to paddle a kayak up a waterfall. Furthermore, new players will not know which research to prioritize or the most efficient means to fight each specific enemy type. Once you get higher-ranked soldiers with better accuracy, powered armour, and can use heavy plasma yourself, things start getting a bit easier.
  • Enemy Scan: The Mind Probe. Comes in handy to find Leaders or Commanders.
  • Faceless Goons: What your soldiers become when wearing power armor. A mod exists which makes it that they are holding their helmets in their hand in the inventory screen, like in TFTD.
  • Fantastic Drug: Sort of. Some UFOs have weird rooms with walls that look like they're covered by shifting blue or orange clouds and have strange silver orbs with red cores. These rooms are revealed to be a form of alien entertainment that stimulate certain sensory regions of the brain. They are described as being similar to hallucinogenic drugs.
  • Fighter-Launching Sequence: Seen in the Intro movie.
  • Flying Saucer
    • One of the smaller alien craft in the first game take this form, as does the first two X-COM-built craft.
    • The Cyberdisc is essentially a miniaturized flying saucer with a powerful plasma cannon and self-destruct mechanism.
    • The hovertanks appear to be based off the Cyberdisc design. As in, they just look like repainted Cyberdiscs with a tank cannon mounted on top.
    • Essentially every UFO is a variation of a Flying Saucer.
  • Form-Fitting Wardrobe: Personal "Armor" looks suspiciously like purple superhero attire. Mutons also get emerald-tinged armor which fits them like a glove.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: The PSX version has a K-A rating from the ESRB for the censored versions of its Game Over and Mission Abort cutscenes, both of which are present on the disc, but neither of which is actually shown: the versions that are shown are quite violent.
  • Giant Mook: Reapers and Sectopods are the size of XCOM battle tanks, and just as deadly if you are not careful.
  • Gotta Kill Them All: Missions don't end until every martian is on the floor. Annoying when you've stunned one inadvertently: they'll get up and go for a wander after a while, leaving you to wonder why the mission's not ended after clearing out the UFO.
  • Guide Dang It!: A misprint in the Encyclopedia Exposita entry for Sectopods means their primary weapon counts as a laser attack (which they're weak to) rather than a plasma attack. Combine that with the fact that 2x2 enemies have to be mind-controlled one block at a time and that blocks controlled by opposing sides can fire on one another... Controlling part of a Cyberdisk or Sectopod is, in fact, the easiest way to destroy one.
  • Gunboat Diplomacy: Supposedly why Alien Infiltration missions are carried out by Battleships.
  • Heavily Armored Mook: Mutons are extremely well armored and durable. Even with heavy Plasma, it often takes multiple shots to kill them.
  • Hold the Line: The entire game is essentially a fight to hold the line against the aliens. Every UFO you ground and every base you raid serves only to delay the aliens' eventual victory, buying you time to research a way to launch an invasion of the aliens' homeworld. Otherwise, you will only be fighting a war of attrition, and the aliens have time on their side.
  • "Instant Death" Radius: Alien blaster launchers have enough explosive power to wipe out a city block, and will usually kill anyone anywhere within its blast zone, no matter how well armored they are. If you see an alien armed with one, pretty much your only hope for survival is being able to kill him before the end of the turn.
  • It's a Wonderful Failure: The aliens agree to a cease-fire, ram a treaty down the U.N.'s throat, then cap the President in the head before the ink is even dry — at least in the PSOne game. The PC version recounts the genocide of Earth's culture and people as it becomes a colony of an ancient space empire, while all of your discoveries—and, thus, any hope of future resistance—are lost forever.
  • Master of None: The Lightning. It can intercept and carry troops, but is a worse fighter than the Firestorm and a worse troop bus than the Skyranger. Contrast the Avenger, a true Jack-of-All-Stats.
  • Mind Rape: Psychic aliens, such as Sectoids, can wreak havoc on your troops' morale. Expect to see rookies suffer panic attacks or even come under alien control at times.
  • Mini-Mecha: The Sectopods, the heavily armored bipedal chicken-legged robot that serves as the terrorist unit for Ethereals.
  • Misidentified Weapons: The in-game ufopedia calls the Rifle a "sniper rifle". Between its relatively low damage and autofire capability it's obviously meant to be some kind of assault rifle or carbine.
  • Mook Lieutenant: Enemy leaders will show up on certain missions. They are quite a pain to deal with, as they are often equipped with blaster launchers, and sectoid leaders have the ability to use mind control. Capturing one alive is necessary to unlock the last level.
  • Mook Commander: Enemy Commanders are well armored, highly durable, and armed with blaster launchers that can easily wipe out your whole team with a single shot. To make matters worse, unlocking the last level requires capturing one of them alive.
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: Alien threat? No sweat — Russia is the only nation in the game that can never be subjugated by the aliens, no matter how bad things get. They'll fight until the last man falls.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The original game was released in 1993 and set in 1999.
  • Nintendo Hard:
    • X-COM: UFO Defense and X-COM: Terror From the Deep are infamously difficult even on the beginner difficulty level, as the game system is very complex, and almost every random variable in the game has a high variance in either direction. No punches are pulled early in the game, with most every enemy type capable of appearing in missions from the get-go, and at no point does a soldier ever become safe from being instantly killed by a stray shot. Even the safest move is a gamble for both sides, although the aliens aren't bothered by losses. In Terror From the Deep, because the (then unknown) bug in UFO Defense locking the difficulty to Beginner prompted the fans to complain about it being too easy, the developers made the Beginner setting of Terror from the Deep as hard as the Superhuman of UFO. There's a common rumour that TFTD had the original's bug backwards, locking difficulty to Superhuman. It doesn't; it's just a lot harder.
    • The way the game generates missions and is also utterly unforgiving. A far cry from today's games that insist on giving you a shallow learning curves and holding your hand through the most simple of tasks, X-COM has no scruples against sending you on a terror mission with nearly bullet-proof Cyberdisks or Chryssalids in the early game, or positioning aliens in a half-circle around your Skyranger's disembarking ramp, ready to mow down whoever tries to disembark. Know when to fight and when to attempt a frantic Tactical Withdrawal.
    • Since they couldn't replicate the original Alien AI with the modern code, OpenXcom developers had to make it smarter than in the original just so it would not be curbstomped, and there is a Sneaky AI option that makes it even harder.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The combination of Night-time Missions and the Battlescape music is one of the perfect recipes for fear.
  • Novelization: Has had at least two: One by Diane Duane and one by Russian sci-fi author Vladimir Vasilyev.
  • Player Nudge: Capturing any live Ethereal, regardless of rank, will bequeath a psionic research discovery. On Easy mode, at least, Ethereals start appearing as ground troops in June. You might even spot a Very Small Scout piloted by only one(!) Ethereal, making them that easier to catch. The other way to learn Psi was to snatch a Sectoid Leader, which was hardly guaranteed given that they rarely appear. By Autumn, the game is telling the player that they'd better hustle and learn psionics if they want to survive Cydonia.
  • Point of No Continues: "Cydonia Or Bust!" You only get one shot at the Mars Offensive. If you lose, it's an automatic game over, regardless of whether you have the resources to build another ship. Perhaps the U.N. pulls the plug on X-COM at that point.
  • Power Floats: Unlike Floaters, whose bodies are 50% comprised of levitation technology, Ethereals seem to float by their own power.
  • Power Pincers: The Chrysallids have them, used to hold their victims for zombification.
  • Psychic Powers: High-Level Sectoids and all Ethereals possess these, typically used for Mind Rape. With some research, you can do the same.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Retroactively added in the Apocalypse manual, which stated that soon after the victory on Cydonia, the world goes into a political and economical chaos while X-COM is all but disgracefully disbanded.
  • Random Number God:
    • Being able to place effective fire when you need it and not getting hit by the aliens really adds to the difficulty of the game.
    • Recruitment is another issue that you have to gamble with as soldier stats are randomly generated. A good word of advice: Soldiers that don't have at least 40 bravery will go berserk and panic much sooner when the situation gets bad.
  • Rare Random Drop: Technically, every alien UFO that you assault runs on a supply of Elerium, with each power source containing a stack of 50, which means that you should, in theory, get all kinds of Elerium from all the UFOs you're shooting down. But then Reality Ensues: you are firing explosive weapons at a ship that then crashes, meaning that nine times out of ten, the power source, and its associated Elerium, will be destroyed long before you touch down. Even if they aren't, a stray bullet from the weakest weapon in the game can destroy the power source in battle, taking the Elerium with it. Landed UFOs are therefore highly sought, and should be carefully attacked, in order to maximize your Elerium theft.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The Snakemen.
  • Robo Teching: The blaster launcher is a missile launcher that sends it payload to a series of player defined waypoints, making any absurd trajectory possible. However, since the missile can't hit its waypoints with perfect accuracy, the most effective way to use it is to set a waypoint twenty feet above an enemy's head, then another waypoint directly on the enemy, causing the missile to arc over the target, then slam down, ensuring it will explode even if it misses.
  • Saffron Cloak: The Ethereals. A brown cloak and hood is the last thing a number of poor saps will ever see.
  • Shout-Out: The leader of the aliens is a huge Alien Brain that controls their Hive Mind, not so different from Metroid's Mother Brain.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: UFO Defense's ending.
  • Sinister Silhouettes: The bodyguards in the Buy/Sell, Hire/Sack screen.
  • Slasher Smile
    • The Chryssalids have one permanently. Fitting, really.
    • Snakemen have a big toothy grin as well, but then again, they don't have any visible lips.
  • Slippy-Slidey Ice World: Arctic and Antarctic missions, thankfully without the slippy slidey part.
  • Squishy Wizard: Ethereals' bodies have atrophied so much that their self-sustaining functions have to be governed by their immense Psychic Powers. Which does not prevent them from having the best armour values and second best hit point totals among the non-terror unit aliens. Their huge cloaks present a considerably larger profile than their actual bodies... hitting the cloak is not necessarily hitting the Ethereal. Plus, there isn't much to damage in their bodies. However, their brains still need an ample supply of blood, and if they lose too much blood because of serious injuries, they die.
  • Tokyo Is the Center of the Universe: In the MicroProse continuity, Japan was the first country to assemble an anti-UFO force, dubbed the "Kiryu-Kai". It was eventually folded into the other agencies controlled by member nations.
  • Trailers Always Lie: There are four details that make the Intro very misleading.
    1. You will never see that cool-looking Dropship in the game.
    2. You will never see that that Red Muton commander in the game.
    3. You don't get Personal Armor right away.
    4. Rifles and Auto-Cannons are hopelessly useless against Mutons
  • The Very Definitely Final Dungeon: The aliens' Martian base located in the Cydonia region.
  • War Was Beginning: The opening cinematic — though the game properly starts before the war has escalated to that level.
  • We Can Rule Together: The brain offers this in the ending cutscene, but you shoot it.
  • We Have Reserves: Players are encouraged to take this approach when it comes to their soldiers. Recruits are the cheapest personnel to hire in comparison to engineers and scientists ($40,000 with a $20K monthly salary), and the average lifespan of a freshly minted soldier means you can expect a lot of turnover.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: Chryssalids are a complete terror in the earliest parts of the game, with 120+ action points and the ability to shred your soldiers in a few attacks and use the corpses to spawn more Chryssalids... and then you get Flying Armor. Suddenly, the dread Chryssalids and their claws are reduced to targets, as your troops can hover outside their range and pelt them with plasma.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Any Snakeman terror mission can turn into this if not properly managed, due to those damned Chryssalids. Every civilian or trooper is a potential zombie, and zombies are the larval stage of new Chryssalids.

Alternative Title(s): UFO Enemy Unknown


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