Michael Campagnaro and I sat down to play an hour of X-COM: UFO Defense, the 1994 alien invasion cult classic for PC. The point of it was to kick off a Let’s Try to Understand series with a game that neither of us had played and know little about, but that has many devoted fans. Because X-COM is a unique brand of strategy and because it was designed 18 years ago, it seemed like a good choice. We strapped on our tinfoil hats and settled into our commander’s chairs in an attempt to fumble our way through saving the world, reconvening one hour later to talk out the trauma of intergalactic warfare as conducted by total newcomers.
Reid: That chewed me up pretty hard, but I found myself really liking it as I figured out how to actually do things.
Michael: Yeah, it’s a pretty tough game even on the easiest difficulty.
R: I had to rock Beginner too. Even that whupped me. But I started liking it the more it mistreated me. What does that say about me? Did you find yourself getting into it as it went on?
M: At first yes, but then eventually I started hating it. The worst part is how they don’t have any type of mouse-over text that provides extra info. So after clicking everything, I finally decided I should build something.
R: I did a lot of dumb stuff just because I didn’t know what the icon meant. It was even worse during the turn-based battles. Did you overspend on everything?
M: I didn’t really spend too much at first. I had no idea how to make money so I was a bit cautious. The first thing I did though was build a second base and some facilities. That was pretty damn expensive and totally unnecessary.
R: I still didn’t really have a good idea of how making money worked by the time I was done. I guess a month passes and you get funding from the nations supporting X-COM? I did the exact same thing. The biggest question, I think, is: what did you name your bases? And where did you build them?
M: Home base was in Brazil and I named it FuckYouAliens! 2nd was in China and it was China Town. So creative. Yours?
R: The first one was Toronto because I look after my own and it was called Torontopolis. I thought it seemed like a good idea to put a second base up in North America so I built Alaskania. Alaskania was completely useless!
M: That’s way too close to Toronto! You must hate the world and only want to save North America
R: Typical North American.
M: I figured that I should cover each side but all my fights were in Brazil.
R: I fought somewhere in the American midwest and shot down a UFO over the California coast. Just like everyone else, the aliens were only interested in fucking with the States and ignored Canada.
M: Well it seems like everything in the galaxy hates the States.
R: The American flag on the moon was the last straw.
M: What did you think about the battles in the sky?
R: I didn’t really know what I was doing but one UFO outran me so I was just frantically trying to nail it when I caught it again. Was it a role-playing menu type thing?
M: Yeah, it had a bunch of options for changing your attack style. Honestly though, they all did the same thing. The problem is that they don’t really show what option is more likely to work and how your ship upgrades affect them.
R: Yeah, which is surprising because they have a ton of details for so many other aspects of the game. I don’t know if you’re supposed to know how the UFO reacts to your attacks and memorize your ship’s strengths versus the UFO’s?
M: Well I guess at the start the aliens are weak so you’re pretty much guaranteed a kill unless they flee. Something that was really annoying — I would get this warning saying my ship is almost — or is already — out of ammo. I couldn’t figure out how to buy more.
R: I didn’t even see that. There was an option for buying ammo through the base though so that’s your own damn fault. When you’re dogfighting aliens you best come correct.
M: Well I found the store but they had like five things with the word cannon in it. I needed cannon ammo, but which kind? Ahhhh!
R: How long did it take you to get into a ground battle? I was worried I wouldn’t get into one at all during the hour.
M: About 45 minutes in. I was getting anxious for one. I saw a gameplay video the other day and was expecting that, not a slow and boring “defend Brazil” routine.
R: That’s the type you got into? I flew to Tehran to defend it but only had two troops left so it was a massacre. My other fight was when my base picked up a UFO on radar and I chased it down.
M: Oh, so you can make it land and then you fight it with soldiers?
R: I think it picked up where the UFO was and the troop carrier plane was able to intercept it and start a ground fight. Then I was duking it out in an orchard with little grey aliens.
M: Sounds like a nice place to die. My battle was disastrous! I really fucked my guys over: I land with about nine soldiers but could only figure out how to move the one dude. It wasn’t until my second turn that I found the icon for switch characters. By that point the aliens killed three poor civilians. A few of my soldiers panicked and wouldn’t run around and the others refused to attack. I had no idea how to attack which completely defeats the purpose of a ground battle.
R: It took me until about three turns in before I figured out that you attack by clicking on one of the gun icons on either side of the command box. By then it was too late.
M: Oh of course, that’s so obvious. Fuck’s sakes — I really wanted to kill something!
R: But I thought the battles looked really interesting after I started to get a feel for what did what and how it worked. I liked how my dudes started panicking when the aliens started closing in on them. I had a lot of empathy for them.
M: Wasn’t it hilarious how you get to equip your soldiers before the battle and you can clearly see that they have a unique look — then once the fight starts they all turn into this blonde dude, including the women? It makes me wonder why they settled on that design choice. Maybe the engine couldn’t handle too many different animated sprites.
R: I thought it was probably a technical limitation. The women were a tiny bit different than the men but they all did look pretty much the same.
M: Just to wrap up my fight as it was short and shameful: I eventually aborted the mission but forgot to put my soldiers back in the ship. I left them to die! My poor soldiers. I’m the worst commander.
R: I tried to save one of my two remaining soldier in my first fight but she kept panicking. And then she was shot anyway. The one guy who made it out must have had the worst PTSD ever. But I just put him back in battle next time because I didn’t have anyone else.
M: At least he doesn’t have to suffer anymore.
R: So why do you think so many people love this game so much? I saw some of it. I really liked a lot of aspects of it.
M: I think it deserves more time. It must grow on you. But it’s not for everyone. A lot of people would be turned off by the lack of help. There is no hand holding at all. So the difficulty must appeal to some people.
R: I kind of wished I had a big fat manual next to me while I was playing it. I think that would have gone a long way. The UFOpedia wasn’t cutting it.
M: I clicked through that right away and saw nothing useful. I was really tempted to search the web, but thought it might be more fun to slowly discover how things work. And I’m sure the game becomes a lot more strategic. They have slots for eight or so bases. At that point you would be managing a lot of resources and also fighting.
R: Yeah, I imagine the pace picks up a lot once you have eight bases up and running and actual dough coming in for soldiers and research and so on.
M: It’s definitely nice to stay busy in these type of games. The intro was too slow for my tastes, but I might give it more time some day.
R: Even though it smacked me around so much I really want to get back into it again sometime soon. I’m probably going to force you to do this again. And we’ll keep doing it until we can Mulder and Scully those aliens.
M: Next time I won’t leave everyone behind for probing.
Michael Campagnaro is a man of technology and art. He spends his days in Toronto manipulating computer bits whilst building games, web apps and personal tools to manage his spoon collection. He occasionally puts thoughts down on digital paper, coherent or not. Follow his Twitter toots @mikecampo.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.