First things first: the box says 386+, 20Mhz+, 2Mb RAM+ and mouse required; I played it on a 486/33 with 8Mb, mouse and 8-bit Soundblaster. I was impressed! It comes on only 3 disks, and occupies about 8Mb of hard disk. The copy protection is a code at the bottom of each page of the quite well written 90-page manual.
The game places you in charge of X-Com in the year 1999; alien UFO's have been sighted around the globe and your newly set up organization has been charged with intercepting them, recovering any alien artefacts, and finding out where the aliens are coming from and what they are after. A simple idea, but very original, and presented superbly.
After a very good animated cartoon intro sequence (like, very good!) you're placed at the main control screen. This is a full globe of the Earth which you can rotate and zoom in and out of, with the detail going down to the largest cities in each of the 20 or so countries that are funding X-Com. Funding is critical; at the end of each month your success in dealing with UFO incersions in each country will determine how your funding changes, and at worst the governments will sign pacts with the aliens!
With your initial budget of a few million dollars comes a free base, an airborne troop carrier, two fast interceptors, some troops and a few other odds and ends. At least, it does at the beginner level! Initially your choices for spending cash are not that great, but your early decisions can lead to success or disaster later on. Your first target is probably to build a couple of new bases, probably just radar watchposts, but there is a huge variety of options open.
So, you're sat looking at this neat 3d globe. Time ticks by at 5-second intervals, but you can select 1-min, 5-min, 30-min, 1-hour or 1-day time slices as appropriate. Down the right side of the screen are a few menu buttons (the user interface as a whole is very well designed, though in some cases a little more info in some places would help, but no great loss). The most important button is the bases button. This brings up the base screen. Each base is shown with a view from above, showing where all your rooms are. There are many rooms you can add, and new rooms as your research progresses ... storerooms (to hold supplies and captured alien equipment), laboratories (for scientists to research in), workshops (for engineers to make new equipment in), missile defences, hangers, living quarters (for your own people), alien containment rooms (for live captured aliens), radars (to spot the UFOs in flight) and so on. New rooms cost money to build, take time to build, and money to maintain, so you must plan carefully.
For each base you can employ soldiers, scientists and engineers, and their wages form part of the monthly maintenence costs. If you need more cash you can sell off any equipment you have; if you have extra cash you can buy in low tech supplies (eg. rifles, grenades, stingray A-A missiles, cannons, rocket-launcher tanks), or use your engineers to make new tech equipment (eg. lasers, plasma defences, stun bombs, personal armour, ...). You can always use engineers to make and sell new tech equipment for a profit, even if you don't want the equipment for yourself. But to produce a lot of equipment you need a lot of engineers (high wages), a lot of living space at the bases, and a lot of workshop space. Production (and research) at each base is completely independent, but once one base makes equipment it can transfer it to any other base.
Research is vital. Your scientists can work on projects, for which you assign as many scientists as you can afford, to look at captured equipment (once you figure it out you can make it yourself), to dissect dead aliens (to find their weaknesses) and to interrogate alien prisoners (for info on their ships, motives and where they're from ... is the whole game just fought on earth? :) Capture a sectoid engineer and you can get specs on their spaceship (these things are NOT in the manual, you have to find them out). The research aspect makes the game very dynamic, it was a factor in the success of Civ and Moo and is a factor in the surefire success of UFO.
OK, you have your bases, employees, and equipment. At the main screen there is a graph button. One of the graphs shows you where reports of UFO activity are coming from; this could be any area(s) in the world. If you place your radar bases well, you'll soon start getting familiar with the airborne part of the game. When a UFO is detected by radar you can launch your planes to intercept; you hope to shoot the UFO down and ideally force it to crash land ... if it does so you can recover some artefacts and equipment. The airborne combat is very simple, just one pop up window with some simple (but effective) graphics with tactical options for your interceptor. As the game progresses you should research better planes and better weapons to help you nail the really big UFOs. Trouble is the advanced fighter planes use up valuable Elerium which you can only get from captured alian ships or bases.
Assuming you forced a crash landing, you can then launch a troop carrier from one of your bases (assuming you still have one :) to go to the crash site. Before you launch, you use the equip-craft button on the base screen to load up the carrier with up to 14 troops and up to 80 pieces of equipment (with the detail going down to ammo clips, nighttime flares, various grenades, stun guns, medikits, motion scanners, autocannon, troop armour, etc). Once you're happy, you fly to the site. You'll also find yourself flying to other places like alien bases, landed UFOs, and cities being terrorised by aliens (where you have to save the civilians). In place of each 4 troops, you can choose to carry a tank of some sort, so usually 10 troops + 1 tank is a nice combo, depending on the situation. The other main combat type is a defence of one of your own bases, but they are rare on the easy levels.
As you land, you can equip every soldier. The one drawback is the computer arms your troops for you every time. Usually it gets it right, but it can be a *little* irritating to swap things about each time, but that's life. The arming is much like many RPG games; you place weapons and equipment graphically into whatever slot you want (hands, belt, leg pockets, shoulder straps, backpack, etc) with clear full-screen graphics. Very nice. When you're done, click on "OK" and you move to the 3D combat "Battlescape". If you left some kit behind on the carrier, you can always go back and get it later.
The "Battlescape" is much like Ultima7 (or maybe Ultima8, I haven't played it) whereby you look down at an angle from above at a cutaway 3D scene. The view you get is very clear and looks great. You can select any trooper or tank, look from one of 4 altitudes (eg. to see different levels in buildings), see an overall plan view, or scroll around at will. The beauty is that you can only see line of sight from any trooper, and at night this gets very scary and very atmospheric (throw them flares out! :) The line of sight works through windows, stairwells and seems well implemented. The combat is turn based. Each trooper has so many time units (TU's) to spend on moving, turning, kneeling, getting equipment from his belt, shooting, doing first aid, using artefacts, picking stuff up, or whatever). The 3D view has the bottom quarter of the screen used for buttons and info on the soldier you are about to move; at each side you see what he/she has in each hand, and the icons are all quite intuitive (except picking stuff up, where you have to look at the trooper's inventory which also shows stuff on the ground). When all your troopers have used their TUs (or you are happy with their positions) your turn ends and the aliens move/shoot (with hidden movement). Firing can also occur on a sort of "opportunity" basis; aliens shoot at you if they see you moving in the open, and if your trooper's reactions are good enough he can shoot at an alien during its movement phase, but you need to reserve some TU's for this.
The overall feel of the 3D system is very good. After a while you really get to enjoy using rocket launchers and heavy cannons, trying everything out. The landscapes vary beautifully, from arctic wastelands, through farms, villages, forests, jungle, you name it, it's probably there. Sure it does get a little repetitive sometimes, but I've not been deterred yet!
The aliens are many in appearance and tactics; some use psionics to take over your troops or make them panic, some float in the air, some have very nasty area weapons (so you think your autocannon is good?) Maybe the harder difficulty levels are a true nightmare! Later in the game you can develop psionics for your own troops, and use mind probes to get stats on any alien you see (I'll refrain from giving too much away though :). Trooper graphics are great .. though each trooper is only 1" or so high on screen, they appear in the correct armour, with the correct weapon, in all manner of races and in both sexes, with names taken from various different nationalities (but I do seem to have a lot of Olga's in my bases!). When you move troops, it seems they can't have a target to move to that they can't see, but you soon get used to that.
Stats are important; each trooper has a number of stats, including strength, morale, health, bravery, shooting accuracy, throwing accuracy, time units, reactions, "fatal" wounds, armour strengths and energy. All are used very effectively in the game ... watch a trooper's morale fall too low and he or she will panic and shoot off their weapon all over the place! For each trooper you have a count of their missions and kills and a rank (for every 5 or so troops there is one sergeant, for example). As they get more combat experience their stats will raise. TU's are the most valuable stat, though shooting takes a percentage of TUs, not a fixed amount (the percentage varies on the weapon type and type of shot ... aimed, snap, or 3-shot autofire). Yes, autocannon autofire is rather devastating, launch one at a petrol pump in a city .. kaboom!!
By winning the ground battles you gain new equipment, can research new tech, and thus both fight better and get more funding (both from the funding nations and through equipment sales). Your long term goal is to use research to find out where the alians are from and what they want, and thus to eventually put a stop to their invasion. The short term goal is to keep your monthly funding assessments good, so you get vital cash to build new bases and expand with. At the easiest level you can also make sizable cash from seeling alien tech. The continued interest comes from new tech, new challenges (and I'm only playing beginner level!) and the development of your troops from mission to mission (this is very well done ... eg. when you have 30+ men one of them is made overall commander).
What are the negative sides of the game? Well, there are some teeny bugs in the first release, eg. you need to copy one file over another to stop a strange graphic bug occuring sometimes. Other than that bugs seem very low for a Microprose product, and the game has not crashed on me yet! Saving game is very fast and easy (though you can't load game on a ground mission, you must abort first). There is a patch on the way (a friend here has it in the snail mail to him and he will post or upload it asap). It fixes some odd things like stats going over 256, and capping the TU's to 80. Also, the game is not one you can play in one evening (and win!) because the ground missions can take from 5 to about 30 minutes each, but you can happily play through a month of game time in an hour or two of your time, though you are always tempted to think "just one more mission" ... :) The ground combat isn't real-time, it's turn based, but done in a very well thought out way, and it should appeal to most people ("traditional" wargamers have used such methods for years!).
In summary, it's a game with appeal at the tactical and strategic levels, with an apparent scope for variety on each new game. Of course time will tell if it will have that magic long term appeal, but the early signs are very good!! The graphics are superb all-round, with many excellent details, and a lot of clear and original artwork. The music score is very apt (at the globe level there's a tune that's kind of reminiscent of the Terminator movie background music) and on the ground missions there's neat tune that has a hint of the old 50's sci-fi B-movie to it :)
Tonight I'm off to central Africa for a quick jungle recovery mission ...This review is Copyright (C) 1994 by Tim Chown for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.