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Entry updated 13 June 2017. Tagged: Game.

Videogame series (from 1994). Mythos Games (MG). Designed by Julian Gollop.

UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994 MG, CD32, DOS; 1995 Amiga, PS1; 1998 Win; vt X-COM: UFO Defense US) designed by Julian Gollop, the first X-COM game, puts a single player in the position of leading Earth's defence against marauding Aliens. This background is clearly influenced by the UK television series UFO (1970-1971), and probably also by 1970s Doctor Who episodes featuring UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. (X-COM is a similar abbreviation to UNIT, standing for Extraterrestrial Combat Unit.) Much of the game's flavour comes from its use of genuine UFO folklore, such as the appearance of small, big-headed "greys" (referred to as Sectoids within the game) and the significance attributed to the transuranic "Element 115". UFO: Enemy Unknown is played in two modes: the real-time Geoscape, in which players can manage their worldwide network of secret bases, perform research on captured aliens and intercept UFOs, and the Isometric turn-based Battlescape, where teams of X-COM operatives investigate downed alien spacecraft or fight off terror attacks on Earth's cities and ground assaults on X-COM bases. Much of the game's fascination originates in the fear and doubt that haunt the player in the Battlescape, as they move a small team of soldiers through an unexplored landscape occupied by aliens of unknown species and uncertain abilities. As the game progresses, players are able to learn more about the aliens by dissecting captured specimens and salvaging their technology, but they must still fear the future, and the unpredictable new threats it conceals.

X-COM: Terror from the Deep (1995 MicroProse, DOS; 1996 PS1) designed by Paul Hibbard, Pete Morland is the immediate sequel to the first game, written by a different team while the original designers worked on a more innovative successor. Time constraints meant that Terror from the Deep was essentially a slightly improved version of the original work transferred to an underwater setting, with the defeated Sectoids replaced by the Aquatoids (relatives who had been living deep in Earth's oceans for millions of years), UFOs by USOs (unidentified submersible objects), and so on. Rather than the UFO legends used in the first game, Terror from the Deep invokes H P Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. The resulting game plays well, though there are moments when the time pressures show; for example, X-COM soldiers cannot swim above the ocean floor without researching special technology, a restriction which matches the development and use of flying armour in UFO: Enemy Unknown. The next instalment, X-COM: Apocalypse (1997 MG, DOS, Win) designed by Julian Gollop, was intended to be a major development of the franchise. It is set in a domed city, under attack by aliens from another dimension (unrelated to the various species appearing in the first two games). This allowed for a greater variety of Battlescape mission types, and for the introduction of multiple competing organizations which might cooperate with X-COM or oppose it depending on the player's actions. Arguably, not all of these features were implemented ideally in the final work, but it remains a novel and interesting piece of game design. In any case, it failed to sell as well as Terror from the Deep; the next few games in the series were spinoffs, some of which had little in common with the original game other than its name.

The franchise, long dormant after the commercial failure of the somewhat generic action game X-COM: Enforcer (2001), was revived with the release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012 Firaxis Games [FG], PS3, Win, XB360; 2013 iOS) designed by Jacob Solomon, Ananda Gupta, a reimagining of the original Enemy Unknown. While Firaxis' game is also an Isometric turn-based design, two decades of evolution in computer technology allowed it to offer a greatly improved visual representation of the series' core tropes. The aliens of XCOM: Enemy Unknown are essentially the same as those of UFO: Enemy Unknown, but the superiority of their graphic portrayal in the later game makes them seem far more threatening, and more truly Other. These new technical capabilities are also used to interleave brief cinematic sequences into the battles on the ground, fostering the appearance of an emergent Interactive Narrative as players increasingly come to identify with their chosen soldiers and tell their own stories of desperate victory and gruelling defeat. The milieu of the new Enemy Unknown is a place of alien autopsies, Psionic Transcendence, black technologies and secret wars, a vividly drawn world born from Gerry Anderson's UFO and the paranoia engendered by the USAF's Project Blue Book, but one that is still uniquely itself.

Related works: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (2013 2K Marin, PS3, Win, XB360) designed by Morgan Gray, Zak McClendon is the latest spinoff from the main franchise, set in what appears to be an Alternate History of its milieu, in which a similar group of aliens to those encountered in UFO: Enemy Unknown invade America in the 1960s. Where the original game drew upon British television of the 1970s for its inspiration, this work seems more evocative of the US series The X-Files (1993-2002) and Dark Skies (1996-1997), as well as of the alien invasion movies of the 1950s. The Bureau was also the product of a prolonged development process which involved work done by three different studios on several versions of the concept over a seven year period; arguably, the final game still shows signs of this troubled gestation. Its gameplay is reasonably effective, blending the design of a Third Person Shooter with that of a Computer Role Playing Game; players can choose between real-time and effectively turn-based approaches to combat, as in many modern CRPGs. However, while the 1960s setting is highly atmospheric, it never seems to quite make sense, being undermined both by a scattering of unfortunate anachronisms and the contrived interpolation of elements taken from earlier games in the series. Despite an interesting reversal in the game's linear plot and a variety of multilinear endings, The Bureau's narrative ultimately seems less convincing than its gameplay.

X-COM: Interceptor (1998 MicroProse, Win) designed by Dave Ellis is an earlier spinoff set in the period between Terror from the Deep and Apocalypse, in interstellar space, where X-COM's task is to defend human mining ships from aggressive aliens. Gameplay is similar to that of the first two games, except that the Battlescape is replaced by a real-time space combat mode in which the player flies an X-COM interceptor against the aliens (see Space Sims). X-COM: em@il Games (1999 Hasbro Interactive, Win; vt X-COM: First Alien Invasion) is a two-person Play by Email game based on a (perhaps overly simplified) version of the Battlescape combat seen in UFO: Enemy Unknown, while X-COM: Enforcer (2001 MicroProse, Win) is a Third Person Shooter which concentrates on providing intense (though often quite predictable) action sequences. More recently, the Elite Soldier Pack (2012 FG, PS3, Win, XB360) and Slingshot (2012 FG, PS3, Win, XB360) are expansions for XCOM: Enemy Unknown which add visual enhancements and several new missions respectively. There is also a spinoff novel for the first game, X-COM: UFO Defense (1995) by Diane Duane; Duane is clearly writing for X-COM players rather than a general audience. [NT]


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