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“… across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this earth with envious eyes; and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.”

Back in 1984, a new game rocked the home-computer world. It was a simple tactical game called Rebelstar Raiders where bold Space Marines (then a new phenomenon) battled against enemies. The progenitor of this series, Julian Gollop, progressed it through various platforms, giving us Laser Squad.

A young William Gates was then setting up Microsoft, and, as rumors of Windows were first emerging, Gollop took the next big step: alongside the invasion of Windows 3.1, there came X-Com.

15 years later, Steam has bought the rights to these early treasures, and here I don my Spacesuit to check them out.

X-COM : UFO Defense
In the new year of 1999, the Governments of the World ask you, as head of X-Com, to research the increased UFO sightings of the last year. Finding a starting location, you place your base down to defend the World.

Most of X-Com plays with an isometric map. Each character has action points that they spend on moving, shooting and exploring; but it soon becomes apparent that you’re not alone. The first shots from an alien will probably fell one of your little Lego-man figures with an agonizing scream, but then your team open up and the green splat appears in its chest. By caution or extreme violence, you’ll find them and then it’s back to base.

The gameplay runs between base work – researching, building, manufacturing – and these tactical missions. The missions may be slow but each kill these guys get makes them harder, and until you get the decent armor, one shot kills. This makes it tough. REAL tough. This is back when games were made to last and it shows.

Another lovely thing is that the marines have changeable names. Get annoyed with someone on the forums? Recruit a new soldier, name him and send him to check out the Alien Spaceship with no armor and high explosives.

It’s not a dip-in game, but it’s wonderful for those of us that like to plan our moves ahead. Think of it as chess with guns. And aliens.

Towards the end, you’ll be flying spaceships with photon cannons but you’ll still be doing similar missions (this time with psychic attacks and floating aliens) before reaching the alien base.

But no more spoilers because that would ruin the fun.

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X-COM : Terror From The Deep
The alien base is destroyed! The world is saved! So what are these strange submarines doing on radar?

Like the Daleks, the aliens were never destroyed, they just went into hiding. Naturally, it’s up to X-Com to save the world again.

Some people would say that this is just X-Com: UFO Defense 1.1, but underwater. They’d have a point, but there are some excellent additions. Things like “Save AP’s to duck and fire” are great, and there’s something about being underwater that’s that little bit scarier than just walking around buildings.

There is one big flaw though: You’re still stuck to the ground and all the old research has to be re-done. I can see why this has happened, but it’s really annoying when you have to make a ‘floating’ suit instead of just being able to swim.

While UFO Defense is based on the old ITV series UFO, Terror From The Deep steals directly from stories of R’lyeh and Cthulhu; you even get the strange feeling of breathlessness as you step from behind the coral and see a Tentacula bearing down on you.

The real difference here is similar to that between Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back: Whilst the first has originality and charm, the second has a compelling darkness.

X-COM: Interceptor
Just like Star Wars, X-Com has its spinoffs. Interceptor represents the Wing Commander vein, where Microprose took the game from its originators.

Earth has been devastated and new resources are only available at “The Frontier”. Unfortunately, the Aliens are still there, mining for themselves.

Think Tie Fighter. It’s not too bad.

X-COM: Enforcer
The second spinoff. This time it’s into the FPS area. Supposedly one of the original scientists created a Terminator-style robot which is there to fight hordes of enemies.

Perhaps I’m doing it a disfavor, because the game itself isn’t terrible, but it’s far more a console game than a PC game. No COD or Half-Life, but a game you can dip into.

X-COM: Apocalypse
Back to Gollop for the finale, and, like Schubert’s final work, it’s not quite finished. But there’s still a great game here.

We’ve come back to Earth and there’s only one city left, surrounded by a force field. Within it is the Cult of Sirius, who think the Aliens are wonderful.

With turn-based games there was always the problem of running across the ground in slow-motion, and so an element of RTS was added in where the Lego-men (now upgraded to Bionicles) sprint across in real time before dropping to freeze-frame when trouble hits.

With the Gollop games though, like Windows, there are a few things that you will have real trouble working out. The new dogfights across the city have to be carefully controlled or the Cult will be crying for your blood. (Root’s quick tip: Don’t set the guy with an itchy trigger finger and an incendiary auto cannon to go and check out the Police Aircar Depot.)

Bottom Line: These are games you can play on any PC that give you hundreds of hours of play. And that’s a realistic number for once.

Recommendations : Five games at $4.99 each, all five for $14.99 or save up for a new game? I’d plump for all five; at least three are well worth playing and that’s $14.97, so you can spare your two cents for the others. And that’s my two cents. Or at current exchange rates, one penny.

– by Mike Grace (The_root_of_all_evil)

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