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Three Moves Ahead Episode 92: Classic Game Analysis – X-Com

November 23rd, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 23 Comments · Design, Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


PCGamer’s Dan Stapleton joins Troy, Rob and Bruce to talk about what made 1994’s X-Com one of the best strategy/tactics games ever made. Tension, atmosphere, UI, level blending, real time v turn baed and indie efforts to bring the magic back.

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Hideous UK Box Art
UFO: The Two Sides
Dan vs Evan in The Two Sides
Tom Chick on X-Com


23 Comments so far ↓

  • krise madsen

    Great podcast on a great game. No, make that a fantastic game. I’m not a strategy gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but X-COM is just a fabulous game, plain and simple.

    Though I agree that the psy-remote-control-the-aliens-to-death thing towards the end was both tedious and silly, I very much like the idea that while you start out with poorly equipped rookies, you end up controlling a powerful and vastly superior killing machine. Somewhat an analogy to WW2 I suppose.

    And I completely agree with Bruce on Terror From The Deep: Nevermind the total lack of innovation or novelty; It was simply more X-COM and therefore good (despite the bug hunt on maps way too big). Contrast this with Apocalypse failing as an X-COM game despite all the innovation (I contend it could have made a great strategy/action/RPG set in, say, the Bladerunner universe).

    I have my fingers crossed for the new indie remakes bringing back the magic.

  • kenny b

    I have extremely fond memories of the game as well. My brother, his friends and I (I think I was about 8, placing him at 11) would make up ridiculous names for all of our soldiers and keep a detailed log of their deaths, including the circumstances that they died in. Much cooler than any narrative a writer could make up. I was much younger then, not as able to find the optimal path of gameplay, so I remember it being not only much harder but the individual soldiers more memorable.

    One thing I think is very important about having the “two games” make sense wasn’t brought up (at least not directly) in the discussion; the granularity of the game. Down to the number of clips used, the tactical game would have a huge number of side-effects that would persist into the management game, and vice-versa. Even though there were two games, this really helped to tie them together, I don’t think it would have worked as well if things weren’t so tightly integrated. Wanting to research an intact UFO power source, for example, influences a host of actions; following a UFO instead of shooting it down (which means a potential night mission versus a full alien crew), avoiding use of grenades or auto fire near the power source, and so on. In effect, you create a mission without the game specifically delineating the objectives for you. Recovering a lot of alien tech and corpses in the tactical mode was an important source of early-game income until you had the funds and time to make a side-business manufacturing and selling laser weapons to … uh… whoever was willing to pay! Simply by relating research, equipment, tactical battles, and base-building to one another, the game created something greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Hell-Mikey

    The good doctor has judged – I am mentally ill. I don’t rename my soldiers (except to append a 3 digit code with TU, accuracy, and strength). The namespace is so small that games are full sibling soldiers, and having your uber-powered sergeant from a previous playthrough reappear in a new game just feels lucky. I’d submit that the story seems better with these exotic folks I don’t know, but begin to appreciate as characters (such as they are). If this game has RPG components, as I agree it does, then they must be other. Bill from accounting is simply too familiar.

    To those who would grapple with remakes and homages (homagenizers?) – please don’t sand away the rough edges of the early equipment. The Skyranger should have only one door, because it was pressed into service, and you were lucky to have a VTOL aircraft with that level to tremendous range. And were it not for that deathtrap, where else would you learn to use smoke grenades? Medikits should be a target of early research, or it’s too easy a choice to start sprinting after laser tech. I’m passing over Dr. Geryk’s entirely correct assertion that historically correct Skyrangers only had the rear loading ramp; similarly historically accurate squad doctrine adapted from the Soviet military compelled troop loading order based on some numerology local commanders were not meant to know. Please do not comprise the simulation nature of the game!

    A great podcast worthy of the game it celebrates. For all that, I would have loved for Mr. Zacny to have answered the question, “Are we besotted gamers fuddy-duddies, lost in the past?” Is there a good game here, that honestly stands against the RUSEs, Civ 4s, and even Valkyria Chronicles of today? Yes, I heard well his frustration with the interface, and the secret delight that the game would happily hand him his own head, but were there interesting decisions for him? Was there simple, destructive joy in mouseholing from one room to another? Did he get the blaster bomb? If so, did he wipe his squad at least once misclicking on the guidance system (and if so, was it fun or frustrating)? His is an especially interesting perspective in this case, and I would have heard more of it.

  • Binh Nguyen

    Hi Troy,

    Thanks for a consistently excellent podcast series. I’ve been listening for a while now and when I saw that you had done an episode on X-Com I jumped on iTunes and wrote what I hope you’ll find is a nice review (I remembered that you asked listeners to do so a while ago and if there is anywhere else I can write a review, please let me know).

    I haven’t listened to the episode yet but I can’t wait to do so. I’ve been listening to your series from the start and I’ve just finished episode 29 with Desslock. I originally started with a random episode, 41, with Vic Davis.

  • Tom Chick

    Cool episode. It was great hearing Dan on the show. Also, I want a sound board that includes Bruce’s excited “Oooh, look, it’s the UFO, it’s the UFO!” I imagine him jumping up and down like a leprechaun.

    However, you guys sound like the musty old PC gamers that you actually are! Many of the crucial elements of X-Com are present in the SRPG genre that’s thriving on console systems. Just as X-Com came to us from across the Atlantic, today we get scads of tactical combat/RPGs that come to us from across the Pacific. And some of them are very good. I can’t help but think that the people who would have played X-Com back in the 90s are playing Disagaea and ZHP in the 00s.

  • Troy

    Good point on Disgaea, Tom. We used to have a guy on the show who knew all about that stuff. ;)

  • Patrick

    Ah, how I loved X-Com; I find myself very happy to hear it discussed at all.

    I agree with the general sentiments of Bruce concerning Terror. I mean, it was a great game, if only because it was almost a complete palette swamp of a great game, and filled the “holy crap I need more of this” feeling a lot of people had with X-Com at the time (still have right now given that nobody has bothered to improve on it). Lord were those Cruise Ships awful though. What, with each “plane” being something like 4x the side of an original X-Com map, plus 7 or 8 vertical levels of tiny, clustered little rooms with a stationary little alien hidden somewhere. Oh, and you could accidentally destroy an elevator or staircase and find yourself incapable of completing the mission because suddenly the baddies are off limits.

    And the colour scheme.. pastel blues and yellows and greens? Gaaah.

    As an aside, Apocalypse was one of my earliest heartbreaks and the title that taught me that just because something is advertised on the game’s website or box, doesn’t mean they’re legally obliged to include it. I recall the promises of the “living” city that would expand on its own, ditto the alien dimension, I remember how each faction was supposed to play a very specific role and do vital things (some did – for instance Diablo was the only source of napalm grenades, but 80% of those factions did not have any affect whatsoever), and promises of being able to kidnap and track operatives and do spying missions and climb in the environment, et cetera. And none of that stuff made it into the title at all. I remember David Ellis even promising that it would all be added in the upcoming patch…. That never came. It was always amusing, to the X-Com community, that for up to a year after the game’s release, the official website still had all the false advertising there.

    Not to mention that ground vehicles were worthless because, no matter how much of armour and shielding you had strapped to your tank, it would die in one hit because anything that could hit it would destroy the road underneath. No road? Dead tank. Sad. The game’s biggest sin, though, was that it had no AI to speak of whatsoever. Aliens would attack things at random, and during the tactical battles every alien on the map would make a beeline straight at your troops, no matter where they are. Which basically meant you could just line up two rows of soldiers, one prone and one crouched, hit “accelerated speed” and go make yourself a coffee. By the time you were back, you had won.

  • Peter S

    Okay, I definitely need to listen to this one when I get back. The original UFO:Enemy Unknown/X-Com really is one of the best PC games ever made.

    Tom is right that many other games, including a bunch of the console TRPGs, offer a satisfying tactical experience (I am currently playing Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions on PSP, and with every turn I take, I am reminded of why this is another one of my all-time favourites). However, the magic of X-Com was the strategic map and how it integrated with the tactical game. And that is why Xenonauts captured my imagination back when it was first released.

    Intellectually, I know there is a 90% chance Xenonauts will turn out to be either vapourware (a la DNF) or a howler like MOO3; however, my heart is fixated on the 10%. Please, don’t disappoint me…

  • frags

    Really good podcast. I think you’ve hit what makes X-COM special and its flaws.

    I’m not sure which is more scary, the early part of the tactical missions(with the music and the tension of not knowing where the aliens are) or those terror mission on liners in Terror From The Deep.

  • Michael A.

    Good to hear Bruce back and going crazy. :D

  • Gooneybird

    One of my all time favorite games, was just starting college when it came out, if I recall correctly MOO was about the same time, kind of remember splitting my time betweeen them.


  • HomiSite

    Nice episode! I never played UFO, but a lot of Terror from the Deep with my best friend. Don’t know why/how I bought the game, but it also had an atmospheric manual. Anyway: TftD was damn thrilling. Usually my buddy was controlling and we discussed our tactics – until hell broke lose and my heart stopped, when suddenyl a damn hummer man appeared :-).

    I remember that I ran very often out of money. But in the last mission, there were not much aliens because of some bugs. Were the X-COM games (esp. the first one?) not known to be bugfests?

    It could had been interessting to hear some of your thoughts of the later X-Com games.

    “The Two Sides” project was unknown to me; I have these ones in my bookmarks but never tried them:
    UFO: Alien Invasion
    X-Force: Fight for Destiny

  • Joshua

    A topic dripping with potential, but not a lot of analysis. You spent good time skirting around X-COM’s finest achievement, which is its psychology. As a strategy game it’s all smoke and mirrors. Costs for tactical equipment and even soldiers are too low to affect the game; scientists, as expensive as they are, should be hired as soon as they can be afforded; additional bases are largely redundant; the tactical AI makes a random walk along a network of invisible nodes; smoke grenades and terrain destruction, used wisely, keep casualties near an average of two per mission. But the game uses everything to build an atmosphere that makes it hard to believe how broken everything is. It feels so real, that if it seems to be broken, it must be the world that’s broken, not the game — like the joke about historical accuracy, that that’s how it really happened. The experience of mastery is just one more jewel in X-COM’s crown, where the received analysis says it should be a flaw.

    That we haven’t replicated its success should be the king of warnings telling us that we don’t understand why we really liked it. Your conversation about the character of soldiers without back-stories cuts the surface, but there’s a lot of room for discussion. (Master of Magic excels at this, too, and is the most broken strategy game you can ever hope to enjoy.)

  • Chris Richardson

    X-Com UFO Defense is based on history. It was well documented in the show UFO. Long before X-Files got it wrong, S.H.A.D.O. served as a covert government operation handling the alien threat attempting to harvest our organs. X-Com only chronicled the early days before the moon base was established and Skydiver operated undersea. In the 80’s, they hit on the idea to use a movie studio as a means to hide the base and explain any odd explosions as just FX for a shoot. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtwCNunncfc&NR=1

  • Jeff Petraska

    I love how Rob is too polite to tell his elders that the Emperor has no clothes. At least not any more.

    That’s been my experience with X-COM UFO Defense as well. I played it back in the day, and loved it. I can still tell you the name of the squad leader (Capt. Hudson) that led the final assault on Mars. And yet, over the years since then I’ve twice started new X-COM campaigns, only to lose interest and quit playing well before reaching the halfway point. I find X-COM is a great game to remember, but not so much to actually play any more.

    However, Rob’s mention of Jagged Alliance 2 has me thinking about restarting a campaign in that game. On Easy difficulty this time, though.

  • HomiSite

    The Story of X-Com, an Eurogamer.net interview with Julian Gollop

  • Shaun

    I really enjoyed this podcast guys. X-Com was a formative experience for me as a game (even though I played it 3 years late). I’m quite disappointed about the new “X-Com” game. I agree with Troy in that is true to the old games in name only. Still play X-Com with friends from time to time, whenever we’re feeling particularly nostalgic.

  • WanderingTaoist

    One tidbit of memory the podcast brought up: the importance of night-day cycle. When flying around the globe to a terror site my very first thought was “Please please please land during the daylight.” It added a nice bit of tension, especially due to the fact that the sites disappeared after a time, so the time window to get it right was narrow.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    I think Joshua has a great point. A clinical analysis will turn up plenty of flaws with the gameplay — the broken-ness of the late game and the grind of slogging through bases and crash sites by that point are only the tip of the iceberg. But they don’t detract from what is still a fantastic storytelling experience.

  • Nils

    There is an Open Scorce Xcom project out. Free, called UFO: Alien Invasion


  • Shaun

    A little late to the party here but…

    Two nights ago myself and 4 of my good friends sat down to have an X-Com night. For all but one of us, X-Com had been one of those formative game experiences in our youth. It was a pretty amazing experience. We downloaded a mod that added a number of graphical changes to help the game “age better”, even though it ages pretty well without them.

    I just think it’s a good sign that even in a world of AAA releases with huge marketing budgets and years of development, people can still sit down with a game thats 15 years old and have 6 hours of fun. Ridiculous names were used (Pope Bonesaw VII) and we got many a Rookie gunned down as he tried to Stun Rod the enemy. It was an altogether wonderful experience.

    Best Operator: Ed Revenue – 24 missions and 24 kills. You will be remembered.

  • Nate

    Never been a fan of alien games, but I did purchase Xcom on Steam.

    I would love to see a WH40K or Priv. Mil. Comp. game styled after Xcom. The global element down to the tactical TB combat (of course with an updated interface).

  • Quinten

    @ Nate:
    Jagged Alliance 2. It is the private military corporation theme, even with a real time tactical map. It is different from X-Com, but mostly in its theme. The game is excellent, and pretty difficult even on the easiest setting. I love it and wish I had more time for it.

    There is also a DS/PSP WH40K tactics game, but it is a linear story, so no strategic layer.