Sponsored By: An Amazon bundle three years ago
Time X’d and Com’d: 2 Hours
Welcome, TL;DP Fans! As longtime readers may well recall, I like to do a theme for the month of December. Usually it’s alliterative, or some kind of gregorian pun. This December will be no exception. I’ve decided to go back to gaming’s roots and play some important games that I missed when they first came out. Over the next four Thursdays, I hope you enjoy De-Seminal-Ber!
This week, X-Com: UFO Defense gets a couple hours of my time.
I have no idea if this aged well or not, but the manual is amazing.
Team Wiped Review
X-Com is, according to its creator, a genre unto itself. It’s hard to argue the point when even Mario has appeared in an X-Com-style game at this point. I think having Mario star in a genre is how you know the genre has hit peak market saturation. He’s appeared in driving games, sports games, RPGs, “free”-to-play mobile games and, most recently, an X-Com game. I look forward to twenty years from now, when Mario headlines a Souls game. (It will be called Super Mario Other Castle, and may feature an IP crossover with the minions from Overlord.)
I’ve bounced off of most of the X-Com-likes that I’ve ever played, whether they featured Warhammer’s space marines, steam-powered Abraham Lincoln mechas, or very large drinking glasses. My hope, when I fired up the original, was to find a simplified version of the genre. Perhaps my ignorance of the roots of X-Com combat was the problem, and I was facing an unspoken learning curve problem. After all, most fighting games assume you know how to do a fireball, but you had to learn how to do it somewhere. Maybe I just hadn’t learned to do the thing that made turn-based combat fun for me, and maybe the original X-Com was the place to learn it.
Or, possibly not.
What strikes me about X-Com is how little is different from the games inspired by it. My team members still don’t have enough action points to get to decent cover, I’m still missing shots that I would expect a trained, elite soldier to make, and I’m still waiting five minutes for the computer to finish its turn. The only difference that I can see is that my team is wiping a lot sooner than it does in more modern versions. Seriously, I’ve started five new games during my two hours of play, and I haven’t cleared one encounter. I seem to lose half of my team just moving them off of the drop ship.
So much for easing into things. That’s probably a fault in my expectations. I’m old enough to remember games from prior to 1990, and none of them were easier than anything inspired by them today. The popularity of the Souls genre owes itself in no small part to the backlash against the paradigm shift in design that resulted in games being more geared toward fun than challenge. It was foolish of me to think that X-Com would be a simpler, more forgiving version of the genre that gave us Codename S.T.E.A.M.
I will offer kudos to Steam, though, for making the X-Com manual available as a PDF while you’re playing the game. Before I realized there was a manual, I spent ten minutes staring at a global map wondering why nothing was happening. The manual has a brief set of instructions that walk you through the core mechanics of the game. You whippersnappers out there would understand it to be a kind of analog tutorial, or a walkthrough from before people decided it was too much work to make you feel stupid with text so they just uploaded YouTube videos of themselves rolling their eyes at you for not being able to beat this section of the game.
The manual is exceptional. It’s a prime example of the reason why people like me miss paper manuals. There’s flavor text, and artwork, and excellent advice like “Don’t allow your soldiers to be killed,” which is an actual quote from page 58.
The tutorials in the manual are extensive, and I wish that they actually prepared me for combat, because I want to like this game. Heck, I’ve wanted to like every version of it I’ve played. I love tactical, turn-based strategy board games like Heroscape and the like, but somehow I’ve never been able to translate that love into the digital domain.
I’m beginning to think it’s me.
Will I keep defending the Earth?
For all of my complaining, I’d like to successfully complete at least one encounter before I call it quits. Whether that means redefining my measure of success is another question. I doubt I’d be satisfied with completing a mission with one soldier left, but I don’t need to panic and restart the game after the first death either. This isn’t Fire Emblem, but then again it’s not Advance Wars either.
Is it the Dark Souls of X-Com-likes?
X-Com has a bit of an unfair advantage in the difficulty rating, if only because most of the games from that era were punishing in some way. Then there’s the fact that I’m admittedly terrible at this kind of game.
Given that, I’m going to cheat a bit. X-Com isn’t the Dark Souls of X-Com games. It is, in fact, the Demon Souls of X-Com games. Just as punishing as Dark Souls, but rougher and largely forgotten in the wake of its similarly named reboot.