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Review: X-Com Apocalypse (1997, PC)

Sunday, 20 November 2011

X-Com Apocalypse was third instalment in this known strategy game franchise. It was released for PC in 1997 by Microprose/Atari and was developed by Culture Brain. To review and rate this game honestly, I'm going to totally ignore comparison to earlier X-Com games and review this as it's own game.  It has same classic elements, but it shouldn't be ignored just because it doesn't present same globe-view of the whole world than two earlier predecessors did, but rather only one big city (you can still get multiple bases).

I can still quite understand why some people totally don't remember this game or ignored it back when it was released because it made some changes to the game's very core elements. X-Com franchise was always about turn-based strategy and world protection against aliens, while Apocalypse turned the game into real-time/turn-based hybrid with change to choose either, but area to defend was just one city. Now that's not so bad otherwise, but in Apocalypse the turn-based action (franchises original trademark) was actually a bit flawed while real-time worked very nicely - some people might have overlooked Apocalypse because of that. Now enough about comparison.

X-Com Apocalypse is a strategy game, where you lead an organization called X-Com to defend city called Mega-Primus against alien invasion. The game can be divided to three major sequences: city view (real-time vehicle combat), base view (build and research), and in-building view (turn/real-time combat of your choice). You are in charge of an independent organization funded by Government with weekly salary of which amount depends of how well you performed on previous week, and how much damages you caused to the city in your missions (shooting down skyscraper while intending to hit an UFO doesn't please Government of the owner company of the building too much!). Other than the Government, there are several other organizations in the city who own rest of the buildings around the city-map view. Some organizations have different jobs around town too: for example Megapol is the city police, who sells you some basic equipment and keeps the city gangs and thugs under control.

If certain organization falls under alien influence or hostile towards you for some reason, then the sale prices for you in markets go up, no more cheap grenades for you, and they may even attack you randomly when they see your vehicles or aircraft on the move to a mission. Government is the last one you want to see getting under alien influence, because you see, they are the ones funding your organizations work against alience. What do you think will happen if their lead falls under the influence?

Communication and relations between computer led organizations and player are very superficial though and don't provide many options and choices to make. It's rather based on simple tasks who attacks you and who is friendly, or even keen to help out if battle takes place inside the city. Relations also define partly market prices, but that's pretty much it. One of the rare actions organizations may take is to treathen you demanding a tribute if you have bad relationships with them, yet you two are not in war currently (disagreeing would lead into war though). Not much diplomacy options are available in Apocalypse. It feels like Culture Brain left this part of X-Com Apocalypse bit unifinished, which is a shame since it could had made the game true classic and had a lot of extra potential. Better interaction could have had huge boost in the game's interactivity and scheming withing the city. Only thing really means anything with organizations is who dislikes or likes you, some are more important allies than the others, too.

(City-view of Mega-Primus is quite well detailed but graphics still look bland)

Apocalypse gives pretty varying choices to fool around with your weekly salary. The main heart for things take place within your own home base (or several, you can buy more than one). From there you can micro-manage your organizations needs starting with buying and arming warfare: vehicles like Valkyrie Interceptor (battle aircraft), tanks, assault bikes, and the soldiers as well. The base consist of limited space presented in grids, which on the beginning is only partly built up. You can spend cash building up research laboratories and workshops (to create own weaponry), alien containers to capture live alien forms for research, defending system, and other cool stuff. Yes, in start of every new game you will be arranged a home base, which position within the city varies on each game play (but isn't big factor on your success). The base is home for your soldiers in reserve waiting for an alien encounter missions, scientists researching any alien technology you have captured, or live alien forms you which may have retrieved successfully from your missions.

Researching alien technology in your home base's science laboratories is a huge part of the game, and teaches you how to make a new equipment such as more effective weaponry, which is made in your base's workshops. The base at very beginning has only minimal amount of workshops, vehicle bays, and alien labs, but you can expand it later with necessary funds, and it's not only recommended but crucial, because researching is key to your victory in X-Com Apocalypse. Retrieving some alien artifacts from combat to your home base is always rewarding experience as is finishing up research for an important artifact granting you some special technology. You may also buy additional new bases around the city when you get a bit more rich.

So now you most likely ask, what about the action and combat? Other than the micromanagement with organization relationships, buying and arming equipment, soldiers and vehicles, building base and doing research, there's the real action waiting in X-Com Apocalypse. Combat is split in two different sequences. First form of combat takes place in the isometric city screen, where you can view the whole city and it's buildings. The city feels nicely alive: it has vehicles of different organizations on their own missions or patrolling 24/7, and some random encounters between police and local gangs do also take place time to time. City is also fully destroyable which is cool feature. During firefight buildings will collapse and roads blow up preventing tanks to move (never rely on road warfare!). It has little drawback though, hitting a wall of a skyscraper with one shot of laser might bring down the whole house (bit over-the-top perhaps?). And you know from who's gonna pay for that from his budget - right? Also organizations will dislike you easily after such accident and turn hostile. It's nice addition in all but misfire will cause sometimes extravagant damage, which can be a bit annoying.

The UFO invasions also take place in the city screen. There are several portals across the city, from where the UFOs will enter time to time and take against Mega-Primus and you. To take them out you will have to use your armed vehicles and lead to them battle quick before they disappear back to the gates. This part of the game is nothing special, not awesomely executed, but not bad either. And there's always that "tension" in the air when you hear sound of teleportation and read the text "UFO spotted" in game interface x5, hoping nothing too bad came you from the gates. UFO invasions in city-view are sort of nice mini-games, and encounters will most often be quite quickly over. You basically just give command to your fleet to attack certain UFO and they fight automatically. You can give some superficial attack orders to your vehicles such as flight altitude (low-med-high) but nothing too tactical unfortunately (but hey it UFO encounters were not much more tactical in original X-Com either). The outcome very much depends on your weapon arsenal attached to your vehicles versus how big UFOs come out of the gates. It's still very cool and rewarding experience to get shoot down actual UFOs though, since Apocalypse is relatively hard difficulty game with no much extra bucks to spend on expensive vehicles. This way you're always happy when you succeed, but always afraid what will you face this time with your puny warfare.

(Equipping your fleet - Valkyrie Interceptor)

But the soul of X-Com Apocalypse is the in-building-battles between your infantry and aliens, which happens inside several different buildings around Mega-Primus like: factories, government buildings, hydrofarms, police stations and even inside U.F.Os if you managed to take one down nicely without blowing them up. Usually battles trigger by you getting an alarm of aliens invading certain building and therefore you're called for help. Regularity of alien missions depends how many organizations are currently influenced by aliens, which depends how many successful / unsuccessful anti-alien missions you've done in the past. That is totally cool too. The game keeps track which organizations aliens have taken over and by how big percentage. Alert missions often take place after UFOs have successfully invaded a building in city-view UFO-invasion sequence.

You may also freely invade and attack to any building in city screen yourself without any alert at all if that's what you wish. Raise some hell? It's cool feature, you may actually raid any organization's building you wish, although that will most likely make them hostile towards you (no reason for them not to be angry for you raiding them). There's a cult called "Cult of Silius" that are alien worshippers and usually highly probable to be under alien influence -- I love to raid those bastards time to time, and steal their equipment. Another cool feature is that when ever UFOs attack the town, they may occasionally come and invade your own base! Every time that happens, it's time for a base-defend mission. A cool feature about this is that you can actually see the base you've build up such as it is. Your scientists are included realistically in the base and you better get them to in a single room behind soldiers fast. A feature that causes chaos in base invasion is that starting positions are quite randomized for each group of scientists and soldiers as well as aliens, so you never know where they lurk. These battles can grant you very valuable alien artifacts and items if you do it right. 

(Many objects are fragile -- when you cause damages during a mission, be prepared to pay up)

The infantry combat ("in-building-view") can be done, in exception to the previous X-Com games, in either real-time or turn-based strategy mode. I think they succeeded to make both of these working ones and combat engine is pretty nice, but I do prefer real-time in this game and feel it's more perfected in Apocalypse than slightly slowly working turn-based combat with slightly stupid AI. Aliens will run back and forth behind a corner when you spot them, making battles a bit clumsy, thus lacking a final kick. The AI problem arises especially in turn-based, but works better in real-time. In addition, in real-time combat the game's atmosphere is more hectic and immersion is better than in turn-based. At first when you enter the battle, there an anxious wait and eerie silence, you never know what you're facing this time. You can feel the tension each time and that's what makes Apocalypse (as well as it's predecessors) a great game. You may hear alien growling somewhere around, but cannot see it. When your squad finally face aliens, all hell breaks loose, and things get hectic - it's just fully enjoyable experience. Luckily Real-Time strategy mode allows pausing game for giving additional orders for your soldiers which works perfectly.

Combat engine all in all works great, you either have action-points to spend each turn in turn-based mode, or are dependant of your agent's reflexes in real-time mode to make first strike. Your agents have various stats affecting how well they perform in battlefield and yes, they will develop into better soldiers over time, if you're able to keep them alive that is. The stats bring nice rpg-like element to Apocalypse, and it's always a joy to see your own soldiers progress. They also have military type of ranks which they gain after successful battles. They have mental attributes which affect their mental state in combat and resistance against mind-control. For example someone with poor bravery is tends to panic in battlefield and run uncontrollably around like a chicken being practically target practise for those aliens out there. 

(Varying stats bring personality to your different agents)

Weaponry in this game is very nice and varying. It's quite not sci-fi brother of Jagged Alliance 2, but there's a lot of weaponry to buy. And what's best, when the game progresses, you eventually get better weaponry by either researching alien tech or waiting for new ones to come available for market. For infantry you have anything ranging from plasma rifles to laser guns, from regular mini guns to alien weaponry. There are several bullet types to load for your weapons from regular to exploding bullets and ones that will set anything on fire raising hell and make walls eventually collapse within the heat of a battle (hectic!). Other than that you have wide range of explosives, grenades (regular, smoke, gas) and Psi-Gun which will aim to control the mind of aliens. Medikits are there to heal bleeding wounds, and are extremely crucial!

If buildings are totally destructible in city-view, it's almost the same in in-building-view. When really kicking it up and shooting like a maniac, walls and pillars will go down intentionally or unintentionally. Very cool element to the game indeed and nice feature in 1997 game engine. Aliens themselves are interesting in X-Com Apocalypse and it's always nice to enter a new mission not knowing what you'll face. Especially brainsuckers are a pain in the ass. They are almost a flashback to original Alien movies reminding of those little things attaching to your face. In Apocalypse they attack to your skull and suck your agent's brains out replacing the organism with their own, making your unit basically a braindead shooting anything in range, basically killing your soldier in the moment of successful brain invasion.

One negative thing of X-Com Apocalypse is it's graphics. While the pictures of aliens in research lab and so on look great, they don't look so good as in-game models in the battlefield. They look like cartoon'ish low detail sprites and fail to impress. The city view, other than having quite much different buildings, looks quite bland. But I think one should be easily to overcome the problem of unimpressive graphics, for many other areas in this game shine. Another thing lacking is amount of different types of building-maps available. There's decent amount, but after playing a while one would certainly hope more of them, since after playing a while you've seen them all and basically are going to do same building-maps over and over again.

Bottom line

X-Com Apocalypse is quite complex and large scale game all-in-all with reasonably high difficulty level providing fine challenge for long time to come. It also does have some fine replay value if you give it a break once in a while. The game has various pleasant areas like micromanagement of organization relationships (although superficial), and micromanagement within your home base: building it up, researching alien tech, training your own agents and seeing their stats to raise (which is a real treat). It also features decent mini-game combat in world map (vehicles) and more intense fine combat within buildings (infantry).

While X-Com Apocalypse is not perfect in several areas, it offers so much to play that in my opinion any strategy-game fan should definitely try it out, and not to compare it too hardly to previous too X-Com titles -- you may enjoy this game a lot! If you don't care for little poor graphics and AI some issues, the game is great overall experience which manages to keep things interesting very long towards the end with always new equipment to acquire, new UFOs and new alien technology to research, and eventually when you research enough you'll also figure out how to enter behind the gates aliens come from, but I don't want to spoil more. Oh, the ambient musical score by Richard Wells is also very cool: totally mysterious and sinister mood-setter for Apocalypse.

The game may come very close to it's predecessors in quality. Despite being flawed diamond that in several areas, overall experience Apocalypse offers is much better than how press originally rated it. I used to love this game, and I still think it's very good today if you get it to work under Win 7 or XP that is.

The Good

  • Great combat engine (Real-Time)
  • Destructible buildings in map and combat mode
  • Alien race is fascinating to fight and inspect
  • Lots of customization and equipment
  • Character stats, making each agent individual
  • Dynamic gameworld events
  • Very lengthy game
  • Great musical score and atmosphere
The Bad

  • Unpolished feeling in some aspects (interaction with organizations)
  • Turn-based game-mode doesn't impress
  • Quite ugly graphics
  • Slight repetition especially with in-building combat, especially with maps


Buy X-Com Apocalypse from | Amazon |

System requirements
80486 100+ MHz, 8 MB RAM, 20 MB HDD

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