When Zone First Caught A Glimpse Of X-COM Interceptor at the beginning of the year, no one could believe what they saw. What would diehard X-COM fans think? It looked more like X-Wing than the X-COM that so many know and love.
So why the big change of direction? "We wanted to broaden the appeal of the X-COM brand and take it to a much broader audience," explains game designer Dave Ellis, "and at the same time give existing X-COM fans a chance to try something new."
It certainly is very different, though at the same time spookily familiar. The emphasis is still very much on strategy and research, it's just that this time around you get to kick some alien arse in real-time, 3D combat. While some of the ships, units and aliens will be familiar to those of you who've played any of the existing three X-COM games, the designers are desperate to point out that there will be loads of new additions to get to grips with, as well as a new 3D game engine. "Interceptor takes place in 2067, about 17 years after the events in Terror From The Deep, five years after the events in the upcoming X-COM 5, and a full 17 years prior to the events in Apocalypse," explains Dave. "Even though the game style is very different, we want to make fans of the genre feel at home with the interface, the units, the way the game works. Essentially you'll have to follow the same processes - send out probes, develop technology and defend your base - but this time around you actually get to fly about in space and engage in combat. You control one ship and instruct your wingmen what to do. That way you get to co-ordinate the attack as well as lead it."
Three ships will be available in all and each will be fully customisable with numerous different weapons (some of which will be only too familiar to X-COM fans), tractor beams, cloaking devices and all other manner of futuristic weaponry and paraphernalia. It won't be a case of just steaming on in, guns blazing, however. You'll have the facility to attack certain modules and disable different parts of an enemy's base, and you'll have to adopt different techniques and strategies to succeed. This means you'll have to think long and hard about how you're going to take an alien base out, and in particular whether it's worth risking some of your resources in order to further your research. You'll also be able to practise your combat manouevres and hone your skills playing against human pilots over a LAN and there's also talk of internet play.
Even if you've previously shied away from the X-COM games you'll be forced to admit that this new strategy/space combat hybrid has great potential. Whether MicroProse will be able to please existing fans and newcomers alike, however, is still open to question. From what we've seen so far, it looks like they might just pull it off.
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It began five years ago with UFO: Enemy Unknown, then moved underwater with the release of X-COM 2: Terror From the Deep and last summer, erupted in a blaze of alien blood and gore with the release of X-COM 3: Apocalypse. Its cult-classic status now guaranteed, the fourth title in the X-COM saga is now very eagerly awaited.
So what exactly is X-COM? Put bluntly, it's mankind's last hope, a planet-wide organisation tasked by the world's governments with keeping any and all alien scum off our luscious green planet. Despite a xenophobic bias against aliens, X-COM is, of course, an equal opportunity employer...
Game On X-Com 1
The first game in the X-COM series, UFO: Enemy Unknown, was launched in 1994 and put you in the role of X-COM boss. Your first job was to set up bases around the globe, equip them with the latest aircraft, strap on the sharpest and deadliest weapons your technology allowed and intercept any attempts by the aliens to put their slimy suckers on the surface of mother earth.
If the aliens shot down your interceptors, the next step was to send in squads of troops and armoured vehicles to hunt down the slimy scum. There was limited funding too, so in between alienbashing sessions, you had to allocate time and effort researching new weapons, constructing bigger and better craft and hiring the best recruits to fight your corner. You also got attached to your pilots too, especially the ones with big biceps and lots of skills. Or big busts and lots of skills - equal opportunities, remember? Look after them and they did the business for you until the day they wound up as brain chowder. Meanwhile, any scraps of alien (dead or alive) or alien technology you found aided the cause.
Putting your boffins to work could build a better picture of the aliens, their weakness and their overall plan. In the meantime, you could also use their captured high tech weapons against them. Most of your game time was spent squinting at the Geoscape, a rotating globe that allowed you to pinpoint your bases, plot alien sightings and landings, and control the movement of fleets, waypoints and so on. You could also zoom in and out at any time and swap instantly from screen to screen to check on your funds, production schedules, weapon stocks and training. Nobody ever said that being the boss of X-COM was easy...
Waterworks... X-Com 2
It didn't take long for MicroProse to realise they were on to a winner with UFO. In time-honoured gaming tradition, the company grabbed the basic code, revamped the graphics and churned out a second game, Terror From The Deep.
This time the aliens were at the bottom of the sea but otherwise the game was much the same - if a damned sight harder this time around, with the play balance leaning heavily towards the aliens. Despite the different flavour, X-COM 2 Is virtually X-COM 1 underwater, even down to the same Geoscape. You build your bases on the blue bits rather than the green bits but you'll find that almost every weapon and vehicle has a direct counterpart from the first game. This kind of thing was fine for most of the X-COM buffs - they wanted more of the same - but it was never likely to open up the X-COM world to any new gamers. For that, a completely new approach was needed - and X-COM3: Apocalypse was bom.
The thinking behind Apocalypse was simple - take the proven gameplay but utilise the rapid advances in PC hardware to create a better Al, better graphics and more depth. Set in the earth's only remaining city, Mega Primus, Apocalypse swapped the Geoscape tor the living, breathing Cityscape, a highly detailed conglomeration ol buildings with resulting unpopularity...
Your only interaction with the world in the first two games was the funding levels which fluctuated according to your success at protecting a particular country from the aliens. Winning at Apocalypse means sticking to the original X-COM gameplan -recruit agents, research weapons and technology, recover aliens and artifacts and finally rearrange the alien base into its constituent parts - but you've got to do it by keeping the people and all of the powerful corporations on your side. A superb game, it sold twice as many copies as Terror From The Deep...
X-COM 4: Interceptor's designer is David Ellis and at the grand old age of 33, it's his first game as lead designer. Previous credits include Civilisation 2, CivNet, Fleet Defender Gold and the story and scripts for the forthcoming, Klingon Honour Guard. He's also written the official strategy guides for all three current X-COM titles. So what inspired the radical departure from the more traditional X-COM mould?
"I used to love playing the old MicroProse favourite Gunship," he recalls, " so when X-Wing came out, I thought that it would be cool to put X-Wing and X-COM together. We tossed the idea around for a while and then about 18 months ago, we finally got the go ahead."
David's idea was to keep the strategic portion of the game the same, a bit less complex than Apocalypse, but to make the combat side a real-time space combat sim like Wing Commander or X-Wing.
"It's our own 3D engine created from scratch and we reckon it's the best so far with much more depth and some stupendous explosions." David is especially fond of the graphics. "The X-COM and alien bases and the mining platforms are beautifully modelled and the asteroid belts have to be seen to be believed. And if you want a truly weird experience, you could try combat near the edge of a black hole - it sucks in missiles and damaged ships just as you'd expect it to!"
True Sim Or Not True Sim?
So how did they come up with the space combat simulation? "It's not a true sim," explained David. "A real space combat engine would take hours to master - Interceptor has much more of an aircraft feel with a bit of inertia here and there to make it more space-like. There are some neat features though - a special device that lets you slide left or right, for example and there's even a reverse gear that's great for turning the tables on aliens that are right up your ass." David is enthusiastic about the game's Artificial Intelligence too. "Wingman AI is excellent - the more experienced pilots are quite capable of carrying out the missions with or without you, so they're good to have around. If you lose a wingman, you'll see a two million dollar craft and a well-trained buddy go up in smoke. That pilot will take ages to replace too. Unfortunately for you, the alien AI is equally good regarding it's pilots, so you can't afford to mess up too much. "Your wingmen will improve with experience and they'll always look after you. They don't shoot through you to get to their targets either, unlike some games I could mention!"
The game's producer is Mike Denman. He assures X-COM fans that the most important quality of the X-COM series is a combination of strategy and resource management - and action. "In the first three games the action element was tactical combat but in Interceptor it's 3D space combat. In future games it'll be something else entirely, though at some point I expect that we'll return to tactical combat." 'The game was designed from scratch by a team that are all X-COMfans. We wanted to take it in a completely different direction but with all the in-depth gameplay X-COM fans love and respect and we have delivered."
It might be the fourth in a long line of alien-bashing combat games but X-COM 4: Interceptor is like no other game you've ever seen. Imagine, if you can, a cracking visual extravaganza like Wing Commander crossed with a down-to-earth productivity and resource management-based game like Stars! or even Civilisation. Yeah? Well, you're probably not even close.
It's the way the two separate elements of flight combat and strategic planning are combined that really gives X-COM 4 its huge appeal. Every decision you make in terms of what research to carry out, what you produce and where you position your various craft will reflect on what happens in combat You can afford to make one or two mistakes but that's about all.
But let's start at the beginning. As X-COM commander, you're provided with a single star base in an area known as the Frontier, right on the edge of the known galaxy. Your goals are to explore space, protect the dozens of existing earth outposts owned by mining companies, keep the aliens at bay by fighting back wherever possible and to boost your knowledge through research and technical development and discover just what it is that the aliens are up to.
All these goals are well and truly linked and that's always been what makes an X-COM game an X-COM game. The mining outposts are your main source of income and they'll pay you according to how well you've defended them.
Defend them well and the corporations will set up more outposts, making you even more money to invest in weapons and space craft. It is also worth remembering that your pilots are also recruited from the outposts, so the more the merrier.
You can set up extra bases to provide better cover for clusters of outposts or to push forward the Frontier - deeper into alien-held or unknown territory. Bases can also be upgraded with better and better detectors and their own missile and beam weapon defences.
Deep Space Three
From a combat view, you start with just three space craft - the small, fast and highly manoeuvrable Lightning II interceptors but with very basic weapons and defences. That's not a lot to go around, so you can bunch them together as a fire brigade type force or parcel them out on patrol to defend other outposts and bases.
Once the money starts rolling in and research has started to kick in, the Lightnings can begin to add some punchier weapons. In the meantime you can purchase a few more and look towards saving up tor a Firestar or even an Avenger or two when you're ready to take the battle to the bad guys. The X-winder missiles you start out with will undoubtedly kill aliens - if you're good - but you'll find that newer models like the permeator, doppelganger and fusion 'base buster' missiles and elerium torpedoes will all give you measurably better attack capabilities all round. Your standard laser beam weapon is particularly poor when up against the alien ships so rapid laser research is a must With heavy and Gatling lasers, tracer, phase and plasma pulse cannons, you'll walk all over them. Or at least go down fighting...
So how does the space combat work? Well, every time an alien fleet is spotted or a settlement attacked, you can either ignore it or send some units to its defence. Ignore it at your peril. At best, aliens will take out someone's outpost leaving one less source of revenue.
Let's Hear It For The Csd
If you go for gold, so to speak, the game switches from the CSD, or Campaign Strategic Display (which is the equivalent to the Geoscape from the first two games), to one which is instantly recognisable as a spacecraft cockpit. Anyone who's seen Wing Commander or X-Wing in action will recognise it instantly but there's the same kind of retro look about the cockpits as there is about all the game controls.
Directly in front is your multifunction display which can be changed to display everything from the species of alien in the ship to your current damage and system readouts. On the left is your forward-looking sensor screen and to the right the rear view screen. The difference between the cockpits of the three different X-COM ships is minimal and this not only helps to make the game cruise along, but measures your abilities and not your memory for where you left a particular button. Three different sets of keyboard shortcuts would have made life hell but you can put in your own anyway.
The graphics really are superb, especially if you have a 30fx card installed, but even if you don't, they cannot fail to impress. On a 233 MHz machine the action is fast and furious and, surprisingly, it's not that bad on a 120MHz machine. There are three levels of object detail and the configuration options even let you set screen sizes right up to 1280 by 1024. In the preview version the only screen size I could manage was 640 by 480 but the 3D objects are still well-detailed and mesmerisingly watchable. Flying around an outpost or an alien base is certainly a memorable experience and the explosions are earth-shatteringly good.
If you drive off the aliens or knock them down, you'll earn yourself a breather as well as the undying gratitude of whichever corporation you've saved from destruction. Don't waste a minute - switch to the production and base upgrade screens and get right back to work. They won't leave you alone for too long.
You're limited to taking a maximum of five ships on each mission so you can't rely on swamping the aliens with firepower to win your battles. This can be awkward on attack missions as you've only room for one or two heavy bombers and an escort flight of three but presumably more ships would slow the game down too much. There is no scripted mission structure to s peak of as you decide whether each engagement will take place or not. That said, you start on the detensive and then as research gets going, and the firepower and knowledge increases, you can start to hit back where it hurts. When and how is up to you but once you discover fragments of alien transmissions alerting you to the aliens' hidden agenda, the missions you fly will begin to have real purpose.
Ai On The Ball
The artificial intelligence is already looking good and the aliens will certainly try to outmanoeuvre you when it comes to overall strategy as well as dogfights. They're certainly good at hanging on your tail and staying there...
When and where they strike next is always a surprise. You can send out unmanned probes though to help you keep an eye out, or even launch reconnaissance flights just for the hell of it, provided you watch your fuel. It also helps here if you've got several bases up and running - but remember to make sure that they're all protected, and notjustwith fighters but with defensive systems, missiles and laser turrets.
The interface isn't the easiest to get to grips with but the look and feel is great. You won't get anywhere on your first few games, thanks to a lack of funds and a sense of bewilderment at all the tasks you've got to keep an eye on. An option to automate one or two things would be useful but X-COMfans demand total control - you can control just about everything - from manufacturing priorities of each individual item to the numbers of missiles you store on board a base.
There's a strong element of the 50s sci-fi look mixed in with some cleverly designed dials and buttons but MicroProse has probably gone over the top with confirmation dialogues, There are too many and they can get tedious. Music and sound effects are AI with appropriate beeps and squawks backed up by some atmospheric but non-intrusive use of digitised speech - pilot messages, computer alerts and so on. The fact -that MicroProse has moved X-COM on from isometric tactical battles to a full-blooded space combat sim shows its level commitment to the game and its universe. With the fifth and sixth games already on the drawing board, X-COM 4: Interceptor looks set to pul I in not just the hardcore X-COM followers but gamers with more interest in space combat and flight simulators.
Perhaps most surprisingly, especially in view of its massive strategic element, X-COM4: Interceptoris probably the bestlooking and most satisfying space combat sim I've seen so far and it makes you wonder why the developers of games like X-Wing did n't ditch some of their sexy FMV sections tor some decent behind-the-scenes strategy.
Existing tC-COM fanatics will tell within minutes that this is first and foremost an X-COM game -it's just that the real-time action, first tasted in Apocalypse, adds a whole new dimension in terms of gameplay. In Interceptor, hand-eye co-ordination is just as important as a good strategic brain. All the resources and production in the world won't help if you can't fly a Straighter straight or hit an alien Wraith interceptor at a couple of thousand yards with a laser - and that is the reason that X-COM Interceptoris currently in a league of its own...
How to learn to stop worrying and love the X-COM bomb!
The sophisticated nature of the XCOM Interceptor experience dictates that full-blown network play is unfortunately not feasible. However, XCOM fans with a penchant for multi-player frag-fests will be appeased with the inclusion of a two player head-to-head option which gives you the opportunity to blow each other to bits using any of the ships available in the full game. In this sense it's not entirely dissimilar to the multiplayer options found in games like X-Wing and Wing Commander. The ships can be customised in the same way as in the full game, bringing a tactical element to multi-player shoot-outs.
What a prospect: an all-action space combat sim tagged on to the traditional X-COM resource management and research engine. With this concept in mind, the creators of Interceptor have set out to capture the hearts of strategy and action fans alike. For this they must surely be commended.
But, being the evil rotters that we are, we shall set Interceptor the highest of all challenges for this review. We shall put the resource management and research side of Interceptor up against X-COM:Apocalypse, the most recent (and best) episode in the X-COM saga, which sports a technically impressive and highly addictive resource management and research model. The space combat portion of Interceptor we shall judge against (sharp intake of breath) Privateer 2: The Darkening, which we reckon to be the greatest space combat game of all time. Thus begins our three-way mini-shoot-out: Interceptor versus a formidable doubles team of Privateer 2 and X-COM:Apocalypse. May the best team win. Or something.
Research has always played a major role in the X-COM series, and Interceptor proves no exception to the rule. At the beginning of the game, your ships will have weak laser weapons and unreliable missile systems. This is not such a problem early in the game as the battles are fairly easy to win. But as the game progresses and your opponents get better (and increase in number), you'll need advanced weapons to keep ahead of the game. This means research, and the good news is you'll find this a lot less complicated in Interceptor than you may have done in Apocalypse. There is no longer any need to recruit large numbers of scientists and build living quarters for the extra personnel (all the time keeping an eye on the skill level of the individual scientists). Researching in Interceptor is a simple case of building data downlink modules at your bases and choosing which subject to research at each base. Up to three downlink modules can be installed at each base (the more modules you have, the faster your research is carried out), and you'd be well advised to build a couple of bases as soon as you can afford it, simply for research purposes, or your research will be carried out at a snail's pace.
There's still just as much stuff to research in Interceptor as there was in Apocalypse, but it's a far less painful and laborious exercise. Some of you may appreciate this, which is why we're going to give Interceptor the benefit of the doubt over Apocalypse for the research and management side of the game. Round 1 to Interceptor.
Very difficult one to judge, this. MicroProse have taken a bit of a gamble by losing the tactical combat section of the game (which largely contributed to the success of the series in the first place) and replacing it with a space combat sim. We've got to be honest here and say that, visually at least, the combat section of Interceptor is not going to win any friends. It's certainly no match for the drop-dead gorgeous graphics in The Darkening. Even with 3D acceleration enabled, Interceptor's graphics look flat and unconvincing, the dark unwelcome void of open space coming across as, er, a flat black thing with white dots on it. The actual combat isn't particularly exciting either, lacking the intensity of The Darkening or X-Wing, and displaying a distinct lack of imagination in the way the missions have been designed (defend outposts, attack stray aliens, base-defence etc).
It's difficult to identify with your soldiers, too. In the first three X-COM games, you really concentrated hard on keeping your soldiers alive so they could gain experience and perform better in the next battle, and felt a real sense of loss when one of your favourite units kicked the bucket. In Interceptor; the soldiers do get better with experience, but you get the feeling it's all going on in the background. When one of them dies, the normal reaction tends to be 'sod it, I'll get another one', thus taking away the feeling of kinship with units you've kept alive for some time. On the plus side, there's a genuine feeling of excitement when you've researched a particularly neat piece of kit and know you're going to be using it in the next battle. Bigger and better lasers and missiles are the order of the day, and getting hold of these in Interceptor is a much more satisfying experience than in The Darkening because of all the work you've done to get them. Oh. and the explosions are nice. Round 2 goes to The Darkening, then, by quite a long shot.
The most important round of all, in which we assess Interceptor1 s merits as an all-round gaming experience against those of Apocalypse and The Darkening. In fairness, Interceptor's developers have handled the transition of the X-COM universe from fully-fledged strategy to action-strategy hybrid competently and with much attention to detail. There's much more to do in Interceptor than in The Darkening, and the switch to space combat will make a refreshing change for those who have played the previous games in the series. Admittedly, Interceptor is slightly flawed as an action game, and hardened X-Wing and Wing Commander aficionados will scoff at the simplicity of it all, but as an allround experience, the feeling you're living in a real universe with composite parts that all complement each other is still as strong as it's ever been. The ultimate test of any game has to be whether or not the reviewer goes back to the game after the review. I'll hold up my hand and admit that I won't stop playing Interceptor until I've finished it - however long it takes - and I can't give it a stronger recommendation than that. Who wins the shoot-out? I've changed my mind about all that. I mean, it's not really fair to pitch two games against one, is it?
You've got pilots, you've got scientists, you've got a database. Use them properly and everything will fall into place
Newcomers to the X-COM experience may find the whole thing a bit daunting at first. But it's not as complex as it sounds, honest Think of yourself as a government agent who's been asked to save the world from an alien threat and given lots of money to achieve those goals. You've got pilots at your disposal to counter the alien threat in the air. You've got scientists to research advanced weapons for your ships. You've got a database at hand to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the alien threat In common with all the X-COM games, you'll find that the more you ieam about the game universe, the more you'll want to learn about everything in the game. If you're not particularly good at space shoot 'em ups, and find yourself overwhelmed in battle, go and hide - the rest of your team will most likely do your job for you (especially at beginner level). As long as you spend plenty of time (and money) on researching new technologies, the rest of the game will fall in to place and you can learn its intricacies at your own pace.