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It had been quite a while since I had played X-Com. I played quite a bit back in the 90s, as a young and foolish teenager. I died a lot. Sometimes, I didn't make it off the transport. But it was a great and involving way to pass the time, however badly I sucked at it.
The perfect storm of cheap Steam copies and excitement over Xcom: Enemy Unknown's upcoming release pulled me back into the game. I was certain it would still be fun, but I doubted whether the tension and feel would hold up after almost 20 years.
I was foolish.
Moving troops forwards takes concentration and careful planning. Every trooper's position is important. Is a stray shot from a teammate likely to hit them there? Are they packed together, just waiting for an alien grenade to strike? Could someone... some *thing* draw a bead on them through that window?
You learn to take advantage of every piece of high ground, every scrap of cover. You blast holes through walls to make the safest path to your target. You make sure that your troops are covering each other's backs, making sure you have eyes in each direction.
And sometimes, no matter what, it won't be enough.
Halfway through a terror mission, Chrysalids lurking, snake men covering the alleyways, I realized I was forgetting to breathe. Every move was important. Every mistake was a dead soldier. Half my team were dead, shot down in the streets... or worse, converted into more Chrysalids. I fought on, carefully, slowly. Little by little, I took back the city. In the end, only two troops, cracks shots, were left alive, fighting back to back.
Two men left alive out of ten. And I counted it a victory.
It is a testament to the design of the game that X-Com still stands up, and still achieves every one of it's goals, after two decades. As a tactical simulation it is almost without peer, with it's simple systems working brilliantly together to create emergent gameplay. The addition of the basebuilding and pre-planning lets you feel fully in control of the agencies decisions.
All this, of course, goes together to make sure that, when you fail, it's usually your fault.
And you will fail.
And you will love it.
X-Com is a thing of beauty, with all its little bits integrating well together, but here, I'm just going to praise the tactical game because that's where you'll spend most of your time. The controls are fairly simple, but comprehensive enough you will not find their simplicity limiting your options. I first ended up playing an X-Com game (TFTD, in fact) I was without a manual but blundered about very little. This is truly something you can pick up and play quite easily, yet I can't recall ever encountering a situation that the available options did not cover.
But it's not a friendly game, when you get right down to it. X-Com is out for your blood. Enemy Unknown and Terror From The Deep lay in wait to eat hapless squaddies and able seamen usually...but not always. Apocalypse will eagerly hunt you down no matter the situation.
The tactical game is unforgiving as few other games are. One building unchecked, one corner unsearched, one false step, can cost you half a squad. This is the genius of the game. Even on the easiest difficulties, X-Com will unashamedly force you to lay off the Zerg Rush, can the Hollywood Tactics, and start thinking like the most important thing in the world is to see the next sunrise. You will learn patience. You will learn to be methodical. You will learn what Properly Paranoid really means. Or you will, at best, end up repeatedly gutting your squad to win. It is equally likely there will be no survivors.
You will earn your victories, not by overwhelming your opponents with numbers or with firepower, but by being smarter and more careful. Bravery is not required to save the world this time. Brains, however, will be.
And at the end, when you have mastered the tactical game, when you can lead your rookies against their first UFO or USO and lose not a one, you will have learned more about tactics than most squad-based games could ever teach. And you might perhaps smile, remembering your first time around; how badly it abused you and your hapless rookies, how you lost six of them and the tank that time. Revenge is sweet.
Ah, X-Com. Turn based strategy at its finest.
First released in 1993 and now available on Steam for a mere five bucks, you'll get one of the best games of all time.
But I get ahead of myself. Basically, X-com gives you control of earth's elite anti UFO force, prepared to build bases, shoot down UFOS, research human and alien tech, and purchase the best gear money can buy.
Eventually, you send your carefully named and equipped troops to investigate a small UFO. You appreciate the brilliant turn based squad management.
Then your best rookie goes a step too far and gets shot dead by an alien you can't even see.
Welcome to X-Com. Hope you survive the experience.
Of course, there are a few factors that help, should you survive mission one. Your troops get better at their skills, you reverse engineer alien weapons, you buy tanks, (you save in mid combat, on occasion), but every man and woman under your command knows, in his or her digital soul, that one mistake could be the death of them all.
X-com is brutal, brilliant, nightmarish, and vicious.
And it is beautiful.
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