For a series that purportedly spans twenty years, the XCOM games actually have a relatively short and chequered history. Before Firaxis came along to do their very respectable reboot of the franchise the last game to carry the XCOM name – the execrable Enforcer – had been released in 2001. Before Enforcer was the similarly-terrible Interceptor, but neither of these were really XCOM games as they’re popularly understood; Enforcer was a third person shooter while Interceptor plumped for a bizarre and awful space combat environment. You have to go all the way back to 1997 to find an XCOM game with tiny men running around on a tactical battlescape map, and so the “true” XCOM games consist of the original trilogy: UFO, Terror From The Deep, and Apocalypse. Everyone knows about UFO, since that’s the game that got the high-profile remake last year. Apocalypse was… interesting, and probably a post for another day. What I’m here to talk about today, though, is Terror From The Deep, a game with a reputation it doesn’t really deserve since it was far, far better than it had any right to be, especially when you consider its origins.
Terror From The Deep started out as a classic attempt to capitalise on an unexpectedly popular game with a hastily-developed sequel. Microprose noted the rapturous reception being given to UFO and decided they wanted a second XCOM game as soon as possible. The Gollop brothers were busy with the ambitious experiment that eventually turned out as Apocalypse, so Microprose’s UK development team was given a brief to produce an XCOM sequel in just six months. UFO had taken years to make and even back in the mid-nineties six months was an absurdly short development window, which is why Terror From The Deep ended up looking like a palette swap of UFO: the development team simply didn’t have the luxury of remaking – or even improving– the UFO engine. Graphically speaking, a palette swap and a few new terrain tilesets was all they had time for.
So Terror bears more than a passing resemblance to UFO. It looks identical and plays identically, barring the setting and some under-the-hood tinkering carried out in response to player feedback on UFO. Usually this is the sort of thing that goes down in history as a soulless cash-in on the original game’s popularity, except for two rather important factors:
1) Making a game that’s almost identical to one of the greatest games of all time means that game is going to be almost as good, cash-in or no.
2) The change of setting and the subtle mechanical tinkering led to Terror From The Deep having a rather sadistic appeal to exactly the sort of person who had played and enjoyed XCOM.
It’s the second one that I find interesting, since it led directly to XCOM – a game already noted for its quite capricious level of difficulty – being made even harder for its second outing. Legend has it that this was somewhat unintentional; the team behind Terror was working from feedback that experienced players of UFO found the game far too easy at higher difficulty levels and shifted Terror’s difficulty to compensate, except there was a very good non-mechanical reason for UFO’s lack of challenge: it was bugged. Starting a game at a high difficulty level worked as intended, but as soon as you got out of the first mission the game would reset the difficulty level back down to Beginner. This meant that nobody had actually played UFO on anything other than the easiest difficulty setting – hence the complaints.
Terror is a very, very difficult game to play. Not only do the difficulty settings actually work this time around, but many of the “advantages” players of UFO had become accustomed to had simply vanished. You thought the starting Earth rifle was bad? Try fighting the undersea menace armed with a harpoon gun that has less relative stopping power and a third as many rounds. The reliable workhorse of the laser weapon tier has been replaced by gauss weaponry, which have a limited ammo count and are only an improvement from harpoon guns because harpoon guns are so bloody terrible. Even the high explosive heavy weapons used to supplement harpoons have the hefty restriction that two out of three of them cannot be used outside of an underwater environment.1 Sonic weapons are awful compared to the versatility of UFO’s heavy plasma guns. Flying suits no longer work on dry land. This is just the changes made to XCOM’s armament, mind; when you look at the aliens and battlescapes you get a much, much longer list, including but not limited to:
- Pointless monuments in seaside resorts with twisty-turny passages inside that go nowhere and invariably have an alien hiding at the end who’ll take a point-blank shot at your guys.
- One-square cyberdiscs that can hide in said corridors, and which explode just as enthusiastically when destroyed.
- Two-stage terror missions.
- Two-stage terror missions on cruise ships, where each individual cabin must be searched for aliens.
- Lobstermen, an alien type that shrugs off ranged weapons fire and which must be eliminated through use of melee weaponry (this being another feature the XCOM playerbase asked for). Needless to say, this necessitates your fragile XCOM troopers getting into melee range in the first place.
- Flying Chryssalids.
All this stuff comes together to make Terror’s Beginner difficulty level approximately as hard as UFO’s Superhuman would have been had it not been bugged. It’s the game the players of UFO thought they wanted, except they didn’t know that UFO had had the kid gloves on the whole time they’d been playing it. This is why Terror is an awful experience for anyone who hasn’t beaten UFO, and why it gets a very bad rap even amongst the XCOM fanbase. If you’re not already intimately familiar with the gameplay mechanics and you haven’t done your research on the tech tree ahead of time2 you don’t stand a chance. Seen from the perspective of a newcomer to the series, Terror From The Deep isn’t a very good game at all.
If you have beaten UFO and you’re looking for a different riff on the same theme, though, the experience of playing Terror carries with it a perverse sort of pleasure. Sure, there’s rather a lot in the game that’s just straight-up unfair or unfun, and I wish the guy who came up with those Easter island monuments had been walled up inside one of his creations to see how he liked it. But there’s no denying that I like Terror From The Deep. I like it in spite of the many mistakes it makes in trying to “improve” the XCOM formula, and I like it precisely because it doesn’t give the player any breathing room compared to UFO. UFO is a bastard to play when you’re still figuring things out, but once you’ve done that – or once you read a strategy guide that tells you how to do that – it all falls into place and you can start to powergame it. You know to beeline to laser weapons and personal armour; you know when to set up your second base; and you know when you should get your heavy plasma production line up and running. There’s an optimum strategy for winning games of UFO, and once you know what it is a lot of the game’s difficulty just evaporates like morning fog.
Terror From The Deep has the same broad strategy, but there’s a big difference in outlook between it and its elder sibling. Knowing the optimum strategy for UFO makes the game winnable. By contrast, knowing the optimum strategy for Terror makes the game survivable. You want to win a game of Terror, you’re going to have to do a bit more than mass-producing sonic weapons and researching stuff in the right order; the proliferation of two-stage missions, the tougher aliens and the crappier guns mean you have to get really, really good at the battlescape missions in order to have any chance of reaching the end of the game. By bringing this grinding element of attrition to the tactical side of things Terror tests your ability to deal with situations that are a little, shall we say, sub-optimal. Everyone’s lost rookies during terror missions, but UFO never put you in the position of having to drag a ragged, half-dead squad of survivors into round two until the very end of the game (at which point it didn’t matter anyway). Missions can now last hours rather than being over in 20-30 minutes, and this means that many stop-gap solutions you often fall back on in XCOM are no longer possible. You can’t just finish a mission before somebody bleeds out. You can’t fire off ammo willy-nilly because you know you’ll be on your way back to base in ten minutes. Often you’re put into a situation where two of your three options will result in certain death, and the third in almost-certain death, and having to pick the right one is only the start of your problems.
By taking away your quick fixes and your easy ways out, Terror pushes you into taking desperate measures you likely never considered doing in UFO. I had a squad get so shot up there were only 3-4 able-bodied troopers left, but that didn’t mean the rest got to twiddle their thumbs back at the Skyranger; instead they had to haul themselves after the battle-ready soldiers on their horribly burnt and cauterised limb-stumps, ready to provide medical aid and what little firepower they could bring to a fight. Whenever somebody got knocked out I had to rather unceremoniously stuff their unconscious body into somebody’s backpack so that they wouldn’t get left behind during a level transition — this saved more than one life when unfortunate troopers collapsed from smoke inhalation and they had to be rescued by the walking wounded. Smoke is rather ubiquitous in Terror thanks to the rather sickening quantity of explosives being thrown around. Indeed, anyone with experience of UFO would consider a Terror player to be almost carelessly trigger-happy during terror missions – that is, until they looked into the Terror player’s eyes and saw their haunted thousand-yard stare. Yes, burning down that house with two innocent civilians inside was totally necessary because it also flushed the alien that was using it for cover out into the open. And even then he took three harpoons to the face before he finally went down. Keeping the civilians alive during terror missions has always been a secondary concern in XCOM games, but in Terror it’s merely a happy coincidence if of them actually manage to get out of there in one piece. Your priorities and methods are different this time around; dictated by brutal necessity and implemented with overwhelming force because that’s the only way for your men and women to survive.3
And sure, you can do all this stuff in UFO too, but you never have to, not even in an unbugged Superhuman game. For all its reputation UFO is a remarkably easy-going game whose generous parameters never really force the player into taking risks. It’s a long time since I’ve had that sense of trying to balance on the edge of the catastrophe curve I get whenever I play Terror; perhaps this is because I haven’t quite mastered Terror in the way I have UFO, but even so it’s a game that pushes me further and harder than its predecessor ever did. It’s also a game that does a far better job of creating a creepy atmosphere, with its dilapidated underwater alien ruins and strange, rusted USOs being infinitely more unsettling to me than UFO’s clean grey hulls and notorious disco anti-grav lifts. The research screens are also a big improvement on UFO, since they’re now action shots of the things in question rather than static, schematic outlines. Even the geoscape music is intended to project an air of menace; compare Terror’s signature track with XCOM’s more upbeat, high-tech theme. The developers knew what they were doing when they made Terror, and if they pitched things a little bit too far towards the impossible I can’t really blame them given their truncated development window.
In fact, Terror might be one of the biggest missed opportunities in gaming history: if they managed to produce this heavily-flawed gem in just six months, then what could they have made if they’d had the resources and time to do a proper job of it? Probably they’d have ended up making something that – for me at least – would have easily eclipsed the original. As it is Terror has to settle for sitting alongside UFO; it may not be the best XCOM game, but it can at least lay claim to being the least-worst of the sequels. And in a series where three out of five titles are arguably all-time classics? That’s far from a shabby result.
- The third is the gas cannon, which is the single break TFTD will cut you; it has a decent clip size for what it is, three different ammo types and far more stopping power than the harpoon gun. The only reason you don’t hand out gas cannons as standard weaponry for the first half of the game is because they’re bloody heavy and not every trooper is up to lugging one around. ↩
- Terror’s tech tree is – or was – quite badly bugged, with several ways of researching your way into a dead end. It’s for this reason as much as any other that you need to look up what your scientists should be looking at before you actually tell them to do it. ↩
- Interestingly you have to take a similar approach with the XCOM update when playing on Classic Ironman, but that’s merely a quirk of the cover/explosives mechanic rather than the conscious scorched earth tactics you adopt in Terror. ↩