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RETRO MONTH: X-Com: Terror from the Deep Review

With not one but two XCOM games announced the time has come to wade through the nostalgia and dust off the disc to look back at the original franchise. I played X-COM: UFO Defence, the first game of the series, but it was with Terror from the Deep in 1995 that I honed my alien-turn-based-strategy-fighting skills.

You are hired as the overseer, general, architect, chief researcher…well overall head honcho of the X-COM force – an anti-terror unit against alien forces, employed by nations of an invaded earth. But the aliens aren’t coming from outer space as in the predecessor UFO Defence. They have set up residence in our seas and oceans and it’s your job to stop them. But things aren’t that simple, it’s no linear corridor shooter. To save the world you need brains, wit and luck. Although it’s not plot decisions you need to fret about, rather tactical choices that’ll keep you up at night…

There’s no hand holding tutorial, and your first decision is one of the most vital: you’re given a view of  the world map (on the Geoscope view) and asked where will you build your undersea HQ. This is your base of operations and will provide you with your basic needs in countering the alien threat; a handful of soldiers (or Aquanauts), a group of scientists and basic weapon sets. Why is this such a critical decision to get right? At the end of each month your alien fighting skills are reviewed by the nations of the world. Take out ET around the USA and they’ll reward you with increased funding, but doing so may result in alien activity around China being ignored and a budget cut from your communist friends. With meagre funds at the start you’ll soon realise you can’t tackle the whole world’s problems, and instead must focus on one ocean and do your best to protect it while accumulating funds until you can build other bases further afield.

You bases can be equipped with radar systems to detect alien craft (or is that Unidentified Submerged Objects). Alerts notify you to their presence with basic information about size, location and speed of the vessel. The task is to chase and shoot down the intruder with your interceptor submarine. Perhaps the weakest element of the game, this was a lot less exciting than it sounds, with little control over the tactics or combat. Should you down the alien craft you have to explore the crash site and exterminate the remaining threat.

Where as the world map plays out in real time the battlefield is turn based. Once you’ve equipped your troops you set onto the sea-bed and explore the fog of war. It’s a tense affair and once you’ve moved you’re left hoping the enemy doesn’t find you. It’s a game of cat and mouse with the constant dilemma: do I use all of my movement points exploring or should I save some so my soldier can fire off shots if he sees an alien as they move.  And your soldier can feel the tension too; they can panic, retreat or go berserk and start shooting randomly should you suffer too many casualties. Certain enemies can even control their minds. There is no sure fire way to approach these affairs, sometime you’ll just be facing one weak alien, while often within the first turn half of my squad had been turned into fish food. The mission ends if either you retreat, all your men dies or you kill or capture al of the aliens.

The remains from the mission are summarised and taken back to your base for research. Your scientists can dissect alien bodies to learn about alien amour, study live aliens to discover the secrets of mind control or decipher the secrets of alien weaponry so you can turn the tide of battle.

This circle of terror will continue and escalate. Larger ships, terror attacks on capital cities, even attacks on your own base. The game of cat and mouse from the battlefield very much plays out across the world. It was this tension that kept me hooked. Choices about what to research had such weight: do you order every last scientist to spend their waking hour to understand how to control minds or attempt to create a stronger armour? Where you built your next base was vital: can Russia last another month without my aid, or will Australia fall if I don’t act now? When two UFO’s appear and you’ve only got once fully fuelled interceptor which craft do you go for? Even the moments on the battlefield are full of dilemma: do we split up? Who does down the corridor first? Can I afford to move without getting shot?

When every detail is filled with tension there is no need for a scripted story: it’s all there in front of you. After 18 succesful missions, Able Seaman Thomas Rankin had become your crackshot Captain. Seeing him turn against his men via mind control only for his Sergent to shoot him in the head is more dramatic plot twist that most triple A titles offer up.

With two reimagining of XCOM both approaching from different angles, here’s hoping that at least one of them can turn the invasion of earth into the fun it was all those years ago.

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