[Retrospective] The Psychological Terror of ‘X-COM: UFO Defence’ at 30

Fear of the unknown is always a reliable go-to when it comes to horror. And throwing something even more mysterious like aliens into the mix only adds to it. Admittedly, MicroProse’s classic 1994 PC turn-based strategy game X-COM: UFO Defence (or UFO: Enemy Unknown for you fans in the UK) isn’t pure horror, but it definitely did have that psychological terror and that “just one more turn” addictiveness that kept you coming back for more during your playthrough. At the same time, it also held a sense of dread from the very real potential that you could lose it all from an unseen alien threat that was hiding in the shadows (or right behind you). After all, that dread kept the series going for multiple entries, and even led to the series’ rebirth by 2K in 2012.

Originally planned by Julian Gollop as a sequel to to his original 1988 game Laser Squad, X-COM: UFO Defence (or UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe) grew into something far deeper and ambitious. Set in the then-near future of 1998, increased reports of UFO sightings, coupled with stories of abductions and attacks by extraterrestrials, has led Earth’s nations to establish a defence and research organization known as Extraterrestrial Combat (X-COM). X-COM’s role is to protect Earth from invading UFOs, including monitoring for covert alien bases and cleaning up after alien encounters.

If you’ve never played the original X-COM before, the concept is relatively straightforward. There are two main views in the game: the Geoscape and the Battlescape. From the beginning in the Geoscape view, players pick a starting location on Earth for your base, begin building up your crew/fleet/weaponry/base network, research new tech, and go around shooting down UFOs, and travelling to crash sites and defending cities from alien attacks. As you progress in the game, the aliens grow in difficulty, shady government dealings happen, and a twist in just what’s going on with all of the sightings leads you to confront the real foe in a final showdown.

While the Geoscape portion might not seem terrifying at first when compared to the meat of the game in the Battlescape, all of the little bits that Gollop and his team added to the former create some of the most tension-inducing moments you’ll find in a strategy game. As author David Craddock states in his book on the making of X-COM, Monsters in the Dark: The Making of X-COM: UFO Defence, terror, unlike horror, is psychological and a slow burn.

Composer John Broomhall‘s score was the key to inducing this terror for players. “I wanted the music to fill [the player] with a sense of unease and foreboding. A perpetual gloominess that the next UFO threat was inevitable and the world now had to live in this atmosphere of dread, anticipation, and grimly determined resistance.” Broomhall took what initially sounded like an upbeat but subdued action piece that slowly morphed into something far more sinister and slowed down.

Coupled with the now-minimalist (and now primitive) look of the Geoscape, and the eventual alert you receive regarding an alien craft being detected, the urgency to scramble your Interceptors to shoot it down builds that feeling of terror. It only increases once your Interceptor encounters the UFO, and you have to shoot it down. Air-to-air combat is simplistic, but that lack of direct control to jump in and pilot your craft, and instead being forced to rely on button commands that tell your craft to engage the UFO from a certain distance, does give a feeling of helplessness. It’s really not unlike many real-time strategy games, but here, that dread seems that much more present.

Not to mention that you have to factor in your Interceptor’s ammo and condition when engaging with the UFO. You can obviously send more Interceptors to assist, but time is always a factor. That, and the fact that you could potentially lose your Interceptor in battle, especially later on when the UFOs are tougher to take down. If you do manage to shoot down the UFO over land, you can send in a Skyranger and a team to mop up, similar to when a UFO landing is detected. From there, X-COM: UFO Defence shifts from the Geoscape to the Battlescape view. And with the shift, the terror really gets going.

Once you arrive at the site, you outfit your team with weapons and supplies. It’s here from the start that Broomhall’s score is put to good use once again. The steady pulse of the score immediately conjures up that scene from Aliens where the marines are barricaded in medical, with the Xenomorphs closing in as the motion tracker beeps and pulses as the aliens close in. Or, for you John Carpenter fans, the theme resembles Ennio Morricone‘s main theme from The Thing. Either way, the music does the job of getting your nerves rattled as you prepare to step out of the Skyranger and onto the site.

Unlike the rebooted version of the series in 2012 that had you moving in SWAT-style, the battles in X-COM are more of the hide-and-seek variety of individuals. Your squad take turns emptying out of the craft to start spreading out to cover ground, after which is the aliens’ turn to move. That aspect of having to seek out the aliens to kill them is terror-inducing by itself, but is compounded by a couple of things. For one, each encounter is randomly-generated, meaning that you won’t know the terrain (other than its environment), and you won’t know where the UFO is located on the map. These prefabs do get familiar, but the odds that you’ll get the same ones in successive order are pretty low, keeping the suspense high.

Another factor in the tension these battles induce is their field of vision. Immediately jumping out of the craft, it’s not uncommon to spot an alien, or more likely, to be fired upon from some obscured foe. X-COM: UFO Defence has its fog of war mechanic set up so that not only do doors obscure the contents of a house or UFO (obviously), but environmental things like smoke and even members of your squad facing the opposite direction will obscure potential threats. Since you’re having to establish your squad’s footprint before spreading out, you’re at a bit of a disadvantage from the start. You could wait a turn for the aliens to expend their time units, but they could also lie in wait just as you could.

Once you do spot an alien, you’ll need to engage. As you’d expect, you have to balance your time units with your movement and the ability to get off a shot, which depending on which one you choose, will use up more time units for more accuracy. You of course have to deal with the previously-mentioned obstructions, but also you’ll need to keep an eye out for civilians and your own squadmates from getting caught in the crossfire. Depending on the situation, the tension of hoping for the right outcome is palpable. You’d also better have enough spare ammo on each of your squad members, since once you have your loadout, you can’t head back to the ship for resupplies/rearming.

If all of that’s not enough to leave you jumpy, you’re probably assuming that your battles all take place during the day. On the contrary, if you encounter a site during the night, then the tension just gets cranked up even more. During night battles, your team’s individual visibility is reduced to just nine tiles. The aliens, on the other hand, are completely unaffected, and could technically waltz up and fire at you before you even see them. You can utilize electroflares that you toss like grenades to illuminate an area, but doing so uses up precious time units. Or, you could delay the mission until dawn, but as always, timing is critical, especially when it comes to the terror missions where aliens have invaded a city centre.

If you do need to retreat, as long as you get one squad member aboard the ship, you can abort the mission, which is probably preferable to losing not only your squad, but also your ship. And those don’t come cheap.

Ultimately, the real terror for X-COM (as one might expect) are the aliens themselves. At the start of the game, you’ll face off against the typical grey aliens (called Sectoids in the game), which lean towards being more of a pushover if you have the right firepower. That changes quickly, as you’ll also encounter different species of aliens, each increasing in difficulty. You’ll encounter Floaters, whose main ability is to fly to avoid your shots, the reptilian-like Snakemen, the muscle-bound Mutons, and the mysterious Ethereal. But there’s one species in particular that’s a cause for alarm if you’re unprepared: the insectoid Chryssalid.

Chryssalids are probably the alien that closest resembles the Xenomorph in X-COM. They’re fast, tough (though vulnerable to explosive ammunitions), rely on melee attacks, and have an ability that’s as disturbing as it is frustrating. Chryssalid attacks can cause instantaneous death to civilians and soldiers, but instead of outright killing its victims, the Chryssalid will instead inject an egg into its victim, which causes the victim to rise up as a zombie. Zombies in turn when shot will have the egg mature and slough off the zombie skin, resulting in a new Chryssalid emerging. As you might expect, if you don’t have the proper equipment, the Chryssalids will overwhelm your squad, resulting in a potentially devastating end to your mission.

Suffice to say, X-COM: UFO Defence was and still is for many fans who grew up on it a terrifying experience. It’s not the full-on horror game that some are looking for, but that’s not X-COM‘s aim. It walks that line of slow-building terror that gives you just enough control that you feel you can persevere without outright scaring you, which it turn feeds into its addictive gameplay. All of the elements, from its interface to its soundtrack and its mechanics created something that at the time had you feeling like you could save the world, or die trying. It’s definitely worth a playthrough today, especially if your only experience in the series is from the 2012 reboot.

Originally Published Here.

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