Alien Autopsy: Dissecting the Original X-Com

Back in 1995 when the original X-Com was released, PC gaming was still a fringe hobby for those lucky enough to own a computer. Traditionally PCs were for work or for those who needed to use Microsoft Works, but not for games. I, however, was one of the lucky ones. Sure I had a Super Nintendo, but besides a few exceptions, I found most console titles during that time a little too “cutsie” for my tastes. I was thirteen after all, and way too cool for “kids” games.

There were many great PC titles released during the mid 90s, the three most influential in my opinion, the “big three” if you will, were Doom, Warcraft, and X-Com. While Doom and Warcraft have always received due credit for helping shape the FPS and RTS genres respectively, I’ve always felt that X-Com never really received the credit it deserved. That’s not to say that it wasn’t popular or critically acclaimed, but it never really seemed to get as much hype as other less influential titles. It’s kind of like when one small unknown band influences a bunch of larger more popular bands, and the only way to hear about them is by reading the more popular bands’ liner notes. Maybe this is because there was never a really great sequel or follow-up (I don’t count Terror From the Deep as either), or maybe it’s simply that the turn-based strategy genre isn’t as popular. Either way since Firaxis’ new X-Com reboot, Enemy Unknown, comes out next week I thought it would be a good time to talk about the original.

The original X-Com gave players more freedom in a time when most games were very linear. There was very little, if any, direction given by the game to the player; there were few restrictions, no in-game warnings, and certainly no tutorial to speak of. Every aspect of the game, from the geoscape and the research selected, to the turn-based combat and unit equipment options were all left in the hands of the player. The only barometer for success or failure was a monthly status report of your funding and a debriefing after each mission, there was little else to steer your towards success and away from failure.

The only feedback you’ll get.

X-Com is really two different games; the macro oriented base management and global strategy game and the more micro oriented turn-based combat game. While both were connected through the game’s various systems each was a very different experience. Successful organization and preparedness in the macro game made the combat portion of the game easier, but it didn’t guarantee success, and kicking ass on the combat stage didn’t always translate to a global victory. Success in both wasn’t a happy bonus, but a flat-out requirement if you wanted to win.

Every decision made by the player, no matter how small, could have drastic consequences for the remainder of that play-through. Obviously choices like where to put your base on the globe were important, but so too were research decisions, base facilities, unit equipment, and even which soldier you choose to have enter a building. Everything in the game was connected in some way to everything else. Scientists researched only what was brought back from missions, engineers could build only what was researched, and soldiers could only equip weapons and items that were identified by the science team. Picking up an alien Plasma Rifle was easy, but it took weeks of research and engineering to make sure everyone in the squad had one.

The devil is in the details, right down to how much lab space your scientists have.

Soldiers were equipped and outfitted for battle in the macro game, but it was how they were managed in the turn-based combat portion of the game that truly mattered. It wasn’t just about finding the aliens, or capturing them for interrogation; it was extremely tactical and took a keen eye for detail to execute combat missions effectively. Managing the game’s time unit system wasn’t encouraged, it was mandatory, as were all other aspects of combat right down to whether or not a unit was crouching or standing. Each successful mission helped the overall global management of the campaign in a way that was tangible to the player. Soldiers gained experience, brought back artifacts, and procured alien bodies for autopsy, all in an effort to further research and production for the cause. Failure in these missions could be catastrophic. Playing fast and loose with an important unit on a routine crash site sweep might have been fun, but losing them meant jeopardizing not only the rest of the squad, but the entire global campaign. There’s nothing like losing Earth to the aliens because Hanz shot a gas tank by accident.

This Commander probably won’t last until next turn. 

This was really what made X-Com fun, and sometimes infuriating. Without tutorials the only real way to learn the all of the game’s open and interconnected systems was to learn it the hard way, by failing repeatedly. In more linear titles this would have been an awful chore, but in X-Com starting over and striving to do better was part of the fun. It’s one of those games where the first few failed play-throughs only made you want to start over and do a better job the next time around. It’s not a new concept these days, in games like Civilization V it’s not uncommon to mess around in a few different games before hunkering down to start a “real” game, but back then it was a completely foreign concept.

While all that I’ve mentioned so far makes it a good game, it’s all the little things that tie everything together that make it a great game. All of the audio, from the soundtrack to those iconic alien screeches, keep the game glued together within its dark sci-fi theme. To this day I don’t know if I’ve ever heard music and sounds that fit a game so well. Often games have audio that just works without helping or harming the experience, but when I think back to X-Com I don’t just see the game in my head, I hear it as well. The art style is consistent and creepy; even now I’m impressed by how much was done with so little.


Awesome intro, but those humans weapons were never that effective.

Does the game have flaws? Yes, many. The game can be borderline unfair with combat spawns, starting the aliens right in front of the Skyranger, guns drawn and ready to fire. Sometimes the last alien in a mission will run and hide, forcing you to spend what feels like an eternity searching for it. There are other problems as well, but none of them seem to ruin or even harm the overall experience. To this day the game stands the test of time. Sure I enjoyed it over 15 years ago, but I’ve also enjoyed it as recently as a few months ago.

While X-Com was obviously responsible for the latest Enemy Unknown reboot, I have seen bits and pieces of the game in all sorts of different titles both on the PC and on consoles since it was released all those years ago. Whenever is see a research tree, squad-based combat, or any other type of traditional strategy game elements, X-Com’s influence is always there somewhere in the background, like a musician that never gets enough credit.

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  1. I might put Master of Orion before Warcraft actually but that’s just my opinion.

    I think you hit it on the head. XCOM was a tough but fun game. Terror from the Deep (Sequel) was also really fun. No-one has been able to capture the XCOM spirit exactly again. We’ll see if the new one is any good.

    Thanks for bringing back the old memories. I still have the box sitting next to my PC.

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