X-Com: UFO Defence, or UFO Unknown, is often held up as one of the real ‘classics’ of PC gaming. Released in 1994 it is generally thought to be the archetypal top down, small scale turn based strategy gaming. As those who listened to the last podcast are no doubt aware I, like most of Gaming Daily, never played it at the time (after all I was only eight when it was first released). I’ve made a couple of attempts since, enough to get to grips with it, but never really getting that far. This time I’m in it to win it, or die trying.
X-Com is a game from a time before tutorials, it was released with a huge manual it assumed you’d read and understood by the time you sat down to play the game. It’s hard, it’s confusing, and most new players are likely to give up because it absolutely refuses to meet them half way. So this isn’t just a diary but (especially in the early stages) also a guide, so those of us who never played X-Com the first time round can get the hang of it. Thus at every point during this diary I’ll try my best to explain what I’m doing and why (including helpful links to the UFOpaedia wiki) hopefully helping those who’ve never played before get past the initial intimidation factor. If there are any questions you have, feel free to ask them in the comments below. Similarly if any old hands want to offer me advice, you’re welcome to do the same; you probably know better than I do.
NB: I’m using X-Com Util here, a mod that corrects a few bugs and adds some neat features, chiefly the ability to decide what order you troops line up in their transport.
This first entry is going to be mostly guide because you really get dumped in the deep end when it comes to X-Com. It’s a big info dump, but it should get you familiar with nearly everything on the world screen in preparation for some fighting next week.
This is the first screen you see upon starting X-Com. No, seriously, that’s it – place your base. No hint at where might be a good idea to place it, no explanation of what effect it will have. You can’t click on anything else until you have placed your base. Clicking the world map automatically places the base, no cancel, no undo, the only way to change the placement is to restart the game. Man, they really threw you in at the deep end in the old days didn’t they?
To put things simply, X-Com bases are more able to detect and intercept UFOs in their general area and the better protected an area is from UFOs the more money you’ll get from that country in funding. On this basis it is generally best to protect those nations which donate the most money to X-Com’s cause. You can find a table of funding by country here, but the simple version is that the USA is your single biggest contributor with Europe offering a lot of medium level contributors in a tight cluster, so you should build your starting base in either North America or Europe (Japan is the third best site, but it is best left until you’ve covered the other two). Seeing as I’m a beginner I’ll go with the simple option and begin my endeavours in the heart of the USA.
Placement sorted, we’re now looking inside the base. One of the nicest touches in X-Com is that in the later stages of the game Aliens might start attacking your base in retaliation; these missions will actually take place on a game map defined by the base you build here. One of the less nice things is that the game never warns you about this till it happens. As such it’s wise to keep defence in mind when base building. Aliens usually enter the base through the hangars and access lift, the design above creates a chokepoint between those locations and the base proper. Because I’m using X-Com Util I’ve started with a more secure base, playing vanilla X-Com you’ll get stuck with something much harder to defend, tips on base defence can be found here.
There’s a whole variety of rooms you can install in the base but most of them are pretty self explanatory. The basic types you’ll be using early on are:
Hangars – Each hanger stores one aircraft. If you’ve started with the vanilla base you might want to move your hangars to a more defensible position over the first couple of months.
Living Quarters – House a maximum of 50 personnel (soldiers, scientists and engineers) each, if you want more personnel you’ll need to build more living quarters.
General Stores – House 50 units of storage space, how much stuff this actually lets you store is… complicated, but basically if you run out of storage space either sell something or build more stores.
Laboratories – Provide work space for up to 50 scientists, if you want more you’ll need to build another lab (although more than 100 isn’t really necessary). Scientists research new weapons and technology and so are vital for your progress, especially in the early game.
Workshops – Provide work space for up to 50 engineers, if you want more you’ll need to build another workshop. Engineers build the weapons and technology your scientists research. Early on you’ll want scientists more, but later they’ll be vital in producing items to sell at a profit (more on that in a later entry) keeping your income ticking over.
Small/Large Radar – Helps you detect UFOs, you start with a small radar at your base, it’s often worthwhile to start a large one building right away, you can dismantle the small one later if you need space.
Alien Containment Facility – This is where you store Aliens you’ve captured by stunning them. Captured Aliens can be researched to develop additional technology, some of which is very handy and some of which is needed to finish the game. If you have spare cash early on you can start building one as a quick capture can really help you out.
Right now I’ll start a large radar and a containment facility building. Things take quite some time to build in X-Com, so it’ll be a while before they’re usable.
The research and manufacturing screens are also accessed via the base view. Right now we’ll ignore the latter (because we don’t have anything we can build yet) but we do have a few topics the scientists can research. We’ll get them working on laser weapons, which have a lot more punch than traditional projectiles.
The base screen is also where we look at our soldiers.
Every soldier in X-Com starts with random stats and a randomly generated name (which can, and should, be personalised). There’s a lot of ideas in terms of how to organise them into a squad. Personally I like to give them a role, written into their name to remind me how to equip and use them in battle. The roles are:
Scout – Soldiers with high (35+) reactions, they’re lightly armed with only a pistol for defence, as well as a motion detector (when I build some) and a smoke grenade or two for cover. On the battlefield their role is to move ahead of the main group and spot Aliens for the others to take out.
Sniper – Soldiers with high (60+) firing accuracy, armed with a rifle and a clip or two for reloading. As your best shots, snipers hang back and pick off the targets the scouts have spotted.
Heavy – Soldiers with high (35+) strength in order to carry the biggest and heaviest guns, such as auto cannons, heavy cannons and (my favourite) rocket launchers. Firing accuracy isn’t that essential as these weapon usually explode over an area. Heavy weapons specialists support the main team from the rear, they take out tough enemies, destroy scenery to open up firing opportunities and hit clusters of enemies with their large explosions. When it absolutely, positively has to die, call the heavy weapons guys.
Grenadiers – A rare specialist, the grenadier is a soldier lucky enough to start with good strength and throwing accuracy but unimpressive reactions or firing accuracy. He carries as many grenades as he can, plus a pistol for emergencies. He uses his ability to fire over cover and strike multiple enemies to support the main squad.
Soldiers – Those who have no notable attributes whatsoever; start them with a rifle and a grenade. On the battlefield they work in a similar fashion to snipers, but their lack of accuracy makes them more expendable and they’re more likely to venture forward to get a good shot.
NB – Soldiers with low (<25) bravery should be sacked and rapidly replaced, they’ll start panicking when people die or psionic aliens arrive.
Anyway, using this system I’ve gone through all my soldiers and named them after their roles. I like to use ten soldiers and a tank (more on tanks next time) on my team, so that means ordering a few extras which we do at the buying and selling screens.
Right now I’ll pick up a cannon tank and enough soldiers to take me up to ten (the ones pictured are the final list once these have arrived and the cowards are rooted out). I’ll also pick up enough weapons and ammo to arm everyone, plus some stun rods (in case I have to capture any Aliens) and electro flares (if I’m forced to fight at night). Finally I order twenty scientists to help my research efforts. Things I don’t plan to use (like the heavy/autocannons) get sold.
It takes a few days for deliveries to arrive in X-Com (time can be accelerated by clicking the 1 day button on the right) so it’s very likely that the first UFO will be detected before you have a full compliment of troops and equipment, in which case you can consider ignoring the first one and waiting till your troops arrive.
This all seems like a lot of work, but that’s mostly to get you familiar with the basics of the game. When you’re actually playing you can get this all set up in about five minutes.
Finally we’re all set up and ready to save the god-damn world, just in time too, because our radar has spotted this:
Okay Martians, let’s go.
Next time: Intercepting UFOs and battles