Monday, 8 June 2020

Mirror's Edge


Today we're going to have a look at Mirror's Edge(tm) (2008), a real curate's egg of a game. You probably remember the striking box art. Who was that woman, and why was she looking at us?

If you ever visited CEX during the early 2010s you will remember seeing the box sandwiched between multiple copies of Madden and NBA, because it was a classic shelf-warmer. People bought it, played it once, then got rid of it.

No future, they say. But must it be that way?

How come? Back in 2008 it attracted mostly-good reviews, mainly for its striking visuals and excellent soundtrack. It sold a couple of million copies, but it had very little replayability value. Despite a generous promotional push from Electronic Arts it didn't become a "thing", and yet the box art was striking, and it looked good, and you can't fault EA for making a sci-fi parkour adventure instead of yet another sports franchise.

Today Mirror's Edge(tm) remains one of those curious one-offs, like BrĂ¼tal Legend and Alan Wake, that people remember fondly despite its flaws. At the very least it has aged exceptionally well. It was released in 2008 for the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 and a year later for the PC, both as a physical product and via Steam, and latterly Electronic Arts' Origin store; today it's still available for the PC and can be played on the XBox One in backwards compatibility mode. Any modern i5-or-later PC should be able to run it with all the details turned up. I had to set the vertical sync with NVidia's control panel in order to get rid of screen tearing.



Technically there was a sequel, Mirror's Edge Catalyst(tm) (2016), albeit that it was a retelling of the same story with similar characters rather than a continuation. The general consensus seems to be that it was a missed opportunity, but I haven't played it so perhaps it's a hidden masterpiece.



What is Mirror's Edge(tm)? It's a running-jumping first-person platform game with puzzle aspects and a bit of combat. You are Faith Connors, rooftop runner extraordinaire. You illicitly deliver parcels by jumping across rooftops, because the game was developed in 2007 and the developers didn't anticipate the rise of consumer drones. As such Mirror's Edge(tm) feels a bit like those early-2000s cyberpunk adventures where no-one has a mobile phone and computers have an interface less advanced than actual contemporary computer interfaces.

Parcels etc. But before doing that you have to uncover a conspiracy, which you do by jumping across rooftops and crawling through vents and leaping across gaps and shimmying along pipes and falling to your death a lot, but that's not a problem because the game is generous with checkpoints.

I have the impression the reviewers expected an open-world game with lots of rooftop jumping. Grand Theft Auto mixed with a bit of Thief. In reality however Mirror's Edge(tm) is very linear, and although you can divert around obstacles the basic pathway through each map is fixed. That was one of the major criticisms levelled at the game.

The second was that although the parkour sections were fun, the game continually broke them up with fighting sequences and vertical platforming, which are respectively prosaic and fiddly.

A tiny, subtle bit of lens flare

But let's talk about the good stuff first. Mirror's Edge(tm) has aged extremely well. Back in 2008 the fashion was for bloom-smeared greens and browns, as in Fallout 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but Mirror's Edge(tm) is all crisp whites and primary colours. It doesn't have distance fog, instead relying on clever design to block the player's view. It uses visual effects sparingly and is old enough to predate the fad for film grain and dirt on the lens.

Faith has "runner vision", whereby important parts of the environment are highlighted in red. The idea is that Faith is so used to jumping across rooftops that she has a heightened awareness of useful surfaces.

The flappy bits of plastic are among the few physics-enabled elements of the game, but they're animated really well, even by modern standards.

These marks indicate that there's a collectable bag nearby. The game generally doesn't reward exploration otherwise.


About the only technical aspect that has dated is the depth of field effect. Sadly there's no easy way to turn it off, short of editing the configuration files by hand. By modern standards the character models are functional, but they don't look bad, just a bit stiff:


As with Half-Life 2 the developers had the advantage of only needing to animate a handful of models, and one of the major characters only appears in the 2D animated cutscenes.

In some respects Mirror's Edge(tm) has almost anti-aged. The levels have a bunch of baked-in lighting effects that are the spitting image of modern real-time raytracing. Apparently developers DICE fed the maps into a custom-made raytracer called BEAST that took over a day to render each map, but the results are gorgeous, especially given that the game doesn't seem to have any kind of HDR. Note in particular how white surfaces reflect the surrounding colours:








The downside is that the maps are almost entirely static, whereas modern ray-traced games can cope with moving light sources and interactive environments. The paint cans in the image above are immobile and almost nothing moves, beyond some turny wheels and elevator buttons. Of course Mirror's Edge(tm) is a fast-paced running game, not an open-world adventure with a day-night cycle, so it doesn't matter. The player doesn't have time to watch the sun set.

The game has a skittery electronic soundtrack from Solar Fields. The music reminded me of Warp Records' Artificial Intelligence compilations, particularly the warmer and slightly less stiff second volume. The mixture of minimalist electronic beats and random non-English signage put me in mind of the mid-late-1990s Warp Records / Designer's Republic aesthetic, and stylistically Edge(tm) has something of the late 1990s about it; it feels like a spiritual successor of those cel-shaded Sega Dreamcast games, like Jet Set Radio. The characters are all rebellious teenage graffiti artists / DJs / delivery drivers, straight from the mind of Jamie Hewlett.

What else does Mirror's Edge(tm) do right? The game convincingly portrays Faith's body as an object in the real world. Her arms and legs realistically interact with the environment. When she grapples her way onto a balcony it looks as if her hands are really gripping the edge; when she falls on her back her legs sprawl out in front of her, and when she presses a button her hand actually presses the button instead of pointing at a texture. Ledge grabbing and shimmying and vaulting and climbing etc had all been done before, but Mirror's Edge(tm) did all of it, and really well.

Back in 2008 most games rendered the player as a floating camera with a disembodied gun-arm, and even nowadays it's common for games to have scripted interactions that don't line up properly with the environment. Luckily the developers of Mirror's Edge(tm) had the benefit of designing a game with only a small number of interactive objects, and furthermore all the surfaces are flat, so they could concentrate on finessing a limited set of animations.




The reflections of Faith's fingers look odd in static screenshots but are subliminally convincing during the game.


Mirror's Edge(tm) also has Faith breathe heavily while exerting herself, partially for verisimilitude and partially because the game doesn't have a traditional HUD. Instead the player learns about Faith's condition through visual and aural cues, a little bit like the ancient you-vs-dinosaurs physics-fest Trespasser.

That's the technical stuff out of the way. What about the gameplay? As mentioned in the introduction Mirror's Edge(tm) is a curate's egg. The irony is that the developers pulled off the game's most famous aspect - the parkour - more or less perfectly, but perhaps because they felt it would get boring they broke up the running and jumping with combat sequences and puzzles, which aren't nearly as successful.

When it works, it's terrific. There are two action setpieces where Faith has to chase down another character; you don't have to worry about disarming policemen or doing tricky wall-jumps, you just go fast and make blind leaps into empty space. During those sequences the game came alive and I wished there were more of them.

On a couple of occasions I even found myself leaning towards the screen and dodging left and right like a big fat moron, which might explain why so many people remember the game fondly. Fallout: New Vegas aroused my curiosity but didn't move me at all, whereas Mirror's Edge(tm) bypassed my conscious mind and took control of my body. It dug into my subconscious. It gave me a mental tingle, like that time in mixed PE when we were doing press-ups and the girl in front of me had a loose shirt and



I felt slightly absurd walking around with an M249. It just doesn't feel right.


However just like real life Mirror's Edge(tm) isn't non-stop fucking. Periodically you have to stop running and climb through vents instead, which isn't as much fun.


Surprisingly this jump - which is reminiscent of Half-Life - wasn't all that hard.


Mirror's Edge(tm) breaks up the parkour with indoors platforming sections, at which point the game comes to a crashing halt. I've played and mostly finished Ori and the Blind Forest, so even though I'm a throwback to the distant past I like to think that I'm at least familiar with the state of modern platforming.

Very occasionally Edge(tm)'s indoors platforming works and is entertaining, but more frequently it feels like filler and occasionally it doesn't work at all. I found that Faith sometimes missed what felt like obvious grabs, or she clambered onto a narrow ledge and immediately hopped over the other side to her doom.

Worse, the game's mixture of mostly-linear-but-slightly-non-linear puzzles meant that I often found myself confused as to whether I was doing the right thing badly, or if I was wasting my time with the wrong thing. In the golden trench above I at first tried to wall-jump onto the vent in the distance, and with split-second timing I did it, but only once (Faith immediately jumped off the other side of the vent into empty space). Was that how it was supposed to work? It felt much harder than the puzzles surrounding it. After consulting a video walkthrough I realised that I was supposed to do a much simpler wall-bounce onto a swinging beam instead, which I pulled off first time because it was much simpler.

It was particularly galling because that part of the game urges Faith to reach the top floor of the villain's skyscraper, but my progress ground to a halt as I negotiated the puzzle. Whatever momentum the plot build up evaporated. That happened several times when I played through the game, especially towards the end, and judging by the comments on Youtube there are a handful of irritating jumps that fooled lots of people. At its best Mirror's Edge(tm) is a kinetic experience, but even when the vertical platforming sections work they interrupt the game's flow.

One thing that dates the game is the prevalence of 4:3 monitors. But then again this is supposed to be an office, so perhaps they haven't gone widescreen yet. Note the refreshingly understated bloom, which - as with the lens flare - I didn't really notice until looking at the screenshots.

The second element that doesn't work is the combat. The game has an extensive melee system that mostly goes unused, except for a couple of boss battles; with deft timing Faith can knock guns from the hands of the enemy and use them to clear a path, but the use of firearms feels out of character. Initial concepts portrayed Faith as a gun-wielding cyber-hacker in what would presumably have been a less green version of The Matrix, but in the finished product the gunplay feels tacked-on, both technically and thematically - in the cutscenes Faith doesn't come across as a killer. The game ends with Faith shooting a bunch of computers with a machine gun, which again feels as if it belongs in Duke Nukem rather than a stylish game of elevated parkour.

I can see what the developers were going for. There are a couple of action setpieces where it's obvious that they wanted the player to perform a fluid sequence of kung-fu moves against multiple baddies, along the lines of the lobby shootout in The Matrix, but in practice it's often faster to just run past the enemy and escape. If you do engage the enemy in combat it's usually easiest to disarm the first baddy and turn his gun against his teammates, shooting them and picking up their guns one after the other. The only exceptions are the enemy parkour soldiers, who appear briefly towards the end of the game and can't be disarmed, but even then I found that a flurry of sliding kicks knocked them out.

Furthermore - and this is a common criticism from when the game was new - the mere presence of firearms feels wrong. Half-Life 2 sets up its dystopian environment in the first few minutes of gameplay and gives the player a good reason to shoot the security forces. The game shows them brutalising and gunning down innocent civilians. Later on the player learns that they're working for an occupying army that is actively exterminating all life on Earth.

Mirror's Edge(tm) on the other hand merely suggests that life in The City is stifling and dull and that Faith is breaking a few rules, but it never shows any of this. The plot explains why the baddies are eager to kill Faith stone dead, but I just didn't feel it. You'd expect a sequence where one of Faith's friends surrenders to the police but is unexpectedly killed, but the game simply has the security forces attack faith with helicopter gunships from almost the first level.





The plot is something about a corporate conspiracy to replace the police with mercenaries. It's insubstantial. It appears that the developers came up with an interesting main character and a basic scenario, plus some visual designs for other characters, but they didn't have time to flesh anything out. The writing reminded me of Miami Vice, in the sense that the plot and characterisation feel like a child's imitation of hard-boiled crime fiction. Everybody speaks in exaggerated tough-guy cliches - "Ropeburn's got the Blues in his pocket", that kind of thing - and the characterisation is sketchy.

It's interesting to compare it with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which has a jumbled mess of a plot but solid characterisation. The two games introduce a character early on who is obviously a traitor, but HR subverts this whereas Edge(tm) doesn't, and I wasn't at all surprised when one of Faith's friends turned out to be on the take. Both games end with the main character blowing up a computer, but HR's denouement has a tragic element whereas Edge(tm) doesn't have a moral dimension. The two games have downbeat, bitter-sweet endings, but with Edge(tm) it feels accidental, as if the writers had forgotten that Faith's former colleagues were mostly dead and the world was worse off than it was at the beginning of the game.

The developers of Edge(tm) originally planned to have in-engine cutscenes, but were forced by a lack of time to outsource the animation to a third party. The 2D cutscenes tread a fine line between minimalist stylisation and crudeness. The developers also had to cut out an elaborate final battle - the last level has an extensive rooftop arena, but the player doesn't get a chance to fight anybody in it - and as a result the actual final battle is essentially just a quicktime event.

That hasn't stopped modders trying to recreate it.

Faith delivers a little voice-over when she sees this piece of graffiti, which is in a vent near the end of the game. As far as I can tell she doesn't react to anything else in the game in the same way, and I wonder if it's also a remnant of something else that was cut.

Beyond the main plot there's a series of time trial races. There is another world in which Mirror's Edge(tm) was a straightforward parkour game with a storyline that would probably have involved competing gangs of delivery runners trying to deliver sandwiches faster than everybody else. If the developers had added a multiplayer mode - Mirror's Edge(tm) is strictly single-player - the series might have evolved into a competitive future sports franchise. WipeOut but on foot.

This was the approach taken for the DLC levels. They were abstract maps made of geometric blocks floating above an endless ocean, and they are perhaps what Mirror's Edge(tm) might have been if the team had given up on the idea of a plot entirely and instead spend their time developing levels. Perhaps they could have added a plot later, as with e.g. Team Fortress or Portal.

I think the problem is that the plot and gameplay pull away from each other, with the result that Mirror's Edge(tm) is intermittently brilliant, often frustrating, ultimately unsatisfying. At the very least memorable, if only in a might-have-been way. I'm glad it exists but it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Shard, London, in infrared

A couple of things struck me after playing the game. The developers had a laser-like focus on parkour, and so even though Mirror's Edge(tm) has the ideal setup for a stealth game there's no stealth aspect at all. The baddies don't patrol, they're just spawned into the world to shoot Faith. There are two occasions when Faith can conceivably sneak up on a baddy and disarm him, but they're essentially just scripted events rather than a natural part of gameplay.

Furthermore Faith doesn't have an inventory - she can carry one gun, and that's it - and there are no stats, or power-ups, or special potions. To the developers' credit I didn't miss any of this until after I had finished the game, but I suspect that if the game had been a massive success they would have found it very difficult to pull off the same setup twice.

Anything else? The baked-in lightmaps meant that there wasn't an official level editor, but the geometry runs on Unreal Engine 3, so a small modding scene emerged. I haven't tried any of the mods. The game ends in a skyscraper called The Shard, which is used as the headquarters of the city's totalitarian government. There is an actual skyscraper called The Shard, in London. It was in the advanced planning stages when Mirror's Edge(tm) entered development, and was off the top of my head originally called London Bridge Tower ("The Shard" was a nickname). I have no idea if the game's developers intended the fictional shard to be a mirror of the actual Shard.

As with the Walkie-Talkie and the Erotic Gherkin, The Shard was controversial at the time but is now just part of London's background. Is it the site of Britain's secret government? If I was a totalitarian dictator I would want to be based in Senate House, not the bloody Shard. It's south of the river, miles from anywhere.

There's some debate as to where the game is set. The sequel appears to take place in south-eastern Australia, but the original is a mish-mash of Dubai, Singapore, Japan, China, a dash of Hong Kong. I wonder if the team used some of the development money to go on fact-finding trips to those places. Back in the 2000s EA was infamous for its work-hard, work-often corporate culture, so I doubt that the developers had any spare time, but then again DICE is based in Sweden so perhaps employment law is stricter there. Who knows.

Surprisingly EA didn't release a physical version of Faith's shoes. The lack of loot boxes and extensive DLC is another sign that this game came out in 2008.

Monday, 1 June 2020

XCOM: Terror From the Deep


I feel sorry for travel bloggers. They abandoned their lucrative careers in marketing and finance to pursue their passion for demanding that guest houses give them free lodging, but now they're stuck at home with themselves. Imagine the horror of being forced to spend time with a travel blogger.

And also the young men that review first-class airline travel. What will become of them?

Terror From the Deep has a number of problems, but some of the alien portraits are good. Tentaculats hover around and turn your soldiers into zombies.

These guys just shoot you and/or maul you with their pincers. They're almost impervious to conventional firearms. Technically they aren't men - they're robots, they don't have a gender - but Terror From the Deep was developed at a time when performance and strength were automatically associated with maleness and women were "the other". As such I have written to Steam to demand that they remove the game from sale. If I see any copies in real life I will burn them.

And as if by magic we are now looking at Terror From the Deep (1995), second of the XCOM turn-based tactical wargames. It was released a year after the surprisingly successful UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994) but a couple of years before the long-delayed, not-very-good XCOM: Apocalypse (1997). Nowadays it's generally regarded as an aberration in the XCOM canon, although some people have a soft spot for it. This chap makes a valiant attempt to put a positive spin on the game. I admire that.

Before we continue I would like to tell you about my dream. Even though I had not yet finished exploring New York city the train took me to the forests of Europe. I knew it was impossible. I repeatedly dream about being on a train. I am on a train and something is wrong. I wanted to explore New York. The lights, the night-time, the tall buildings illuminated in the fog. But instead I was on a train in Europe.

A Brief Pictorial History of XCOM's Ancestors
XCOM's predecessors were developed here in Britain by Julian Gollop and his brother Nick, plus a bunch of their friends. They cut their teeth in the 1980s with Rebelstar Raiders (1984) (top), Rebelstar (1986) (bottom-left), and Rebelstar 2 (1988) (bottom-right).
Unlike most contemporary computer wargames the Rebelstar series focused on individual soldiers rather than large military formations; the Gollops were inspired by 1970s tabletop wargames such as Commando and StarSoldier.

Their 8-bit apotheosis was Laser Squad (1988), which had a simple load-out system and a bunch of different maps. It was great fun and is generally thought of as one of the best 8-bit games of all time.
UFO: Enemy Unknown was originally going to be a direct sequel, but the publishers wanted something more epic, so the Gollops got to work and added a planetary map and basebuilding.

The result was a classic. Along with its near-contemporary Command and Conquer it made wargames hip for a while.
UFO: Enemy Unknown was difficult but accessible, with enough action and explosions to amuse the influx of gamers who bought a PC to play Doom. Internationally it was sold as XCOM: UFO Defense.

I'm old enough to remember playing UFO when it was new. I always wondered if it was originally intended as an official tie-in with Gerry Anderson's 1960s TV series or not. I also remember completely ignoring Terror From the Deep when it came out. The general consensus was that it was Enemy Unknown with different graphics. It was set underwater, but your soldiers walked around and threw grenades as if they were on dry land. What was the point?

Fast-forward a quarter of a century. The world has been devastated by a killer plague and I am one of the few survivors. My original plans for May have been put on hold because there is a solid wall of rotting corpses between me and Heathrow. However Terror From the Deep is available for £2.99 on Steam, so that might take my mind off the devastation.

It it any good? Was it worth the wait? I don't want to spoil my conclusions but no, it's not, and it wasn't. In places it feels like a beta version of Enemy Unknown, without the same level of polish. A nightmarish alternative universe version of Enemy Unknown in which everything went wrong.

How did Terror From the Deep come about? UFO's developers had big plans for the sequel, but publishers Microprose wanted a new XCOM game in the shops as soon as possible. As a compromise the Gollops handed over the game's code to Microprose's team of in-house developers, who tweaked some of the numbers, changed the graphics, replaced the music, and released the result at full price.

This is Terror From the Deep, a text adventure from 1983 by Kayde Software for the ZX Spectrum. It's written in BASIC and has very little to do with tactical wargaming.

Nonetheless you do have to kill aquatic menaces. The game's protagonist is a much better shot than the drunks and bums XCOM seems to pull off the street. NB if you want to play it, remember to enter commands in CAPITAL LETTERS.

Mission pack sequels are not unusual in the world of wargames. In the 1980s the likes of PSS and CCS churned out essentially the same wargame every few months, with different stats and slightly different graphics, and in the 1990s and 2000s the Close Combat and Combat Mission games took an incremental approach to progress, which is a polite way of saying that they didn't change much.

Nonetheless Terror From the Deep was controversial because it was sold at full-price, and its unambitious nature was depressing. The developers didn't so much add features are rejig things that already existed, and the game was also notoriously and unfairly hard, a design decision that apparently stemmed from a bug in the original game's code.

As with its predecessor Terror From the Deep was popular enough to be ported to the PlayStation a short while later, and although I don't have access to any sales figures it seems to have sold well enough to justify the expense. I imagine it ended up cluttering the shelves in CEX shortly afterwards.

Terror From the Deep closely resembles UFO, but the artwork isn't as evocative. The overall design tries to strike a balance between futuristic tech and Victorian-style Captain Nemo brass machinery, but a lot of the game just looks goofy.
Furthermore the fantastic "press button to continue" screen isn't nearly as good. The original is perfect; the sequel has a mustachieod corporal with a silly helmet who looks mildly wary rather than desperate.
I think the moustache is actually shading, but it still looks like a moustache.

The actual proper UFO sequel, XCOM: Apocalypse, was also a big disappointment, ironically because it was too ambitious. There's a certain type of game developer that has an obsessive desire to give non-player characters independent sleep-commute-work lifestyles. They also love dividing the characters into factions that interact with each other, which causes the QA process to expand exponentially because the testers have to model complex interactions that evolve over time. This happened to XCOM: Apocalypse, and later on STALKER, and the 2013 version of Sim City, and Star Citizen, and before that Shenmue, and further before that The Hobbit, the list is enormous.

After numerous delays Apocalypse was released in a semi-completed state. The result was playable but a big disappointment. It eschewed the charming pixel graphics of its predecessors for a mixture of scanned physical models and shiny CGI - rendered with expensive Silicon Graphics workstations - but the results were hideous. I haven't played it, so I can't comment on the gameplay, but from what I have seen on Youtube it's a messy fusion of real-time and turn-based combat with tiny little soldiers lost against fussy backgrounds.

Terror from the Deep's geoscape is an inverted copy of its predecessor. This time you patrol the seas.

Despite rumours to the contrary there were no more XCOM games for many years, although there was a happy ending; in 2012 the series was rebooted with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which streamlined the basic gameplay in generally sensible ways. As with the original UFO it was a surprise hit that made turn-based wargames fashionable again. I have played it, I liked it.



Modern-day XCOM's major innovations include squad-based enemy AI, context-sensitive cover, an expanded role-playing element, and a generally faster-paced, more compact tactical game.
In some respects the modern games are less flexible than the originals - your soldiers can't pick things up from the battlefield and you only have one base - but they also eliminate a lot of pointless busywork.

EU was followed in 2016 by XCOM 2, which apparently sold less well but still well enough, and again in 2017 by War of the Chosen, an extensive expansion pack that transformed XCOM 2 into a substantially different game. I have played XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen and I also liked them, although the difficulty level is frustrating until you learn to throw flashbangs at everything.

Chosen is a good example of a mission pack sequel done right. It adds a bunch of new mechanics instead of simply rejigging the numbers, and the production values are on a par with the original. Whether by coincidence or design the developers ended up hiring half of the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation to do the voice acting, so if you want to order Marina Sirtis to kill a giant snake with an exploding car - everybody has a fetish - it's the game for you.

XCOM 2 has a sleeker, cleaner look than the chunky cartoonish graphics of EU. It fits the game's more unforgiving difficulty level.

As of this writing the latest XCOM title is Chimera Squad, a budget title that concentrates on tactical combat instead of base management. I haven't played it. It apparently has a lot of bugs, but they'll be ironed out in time. I waited twenty-five years to play Terror From the Deep, I can wait another few months for Chimera Squad to be patched.

Incidentally Enemy Unknown was one of the first Western games to adopt a Japanese look, presumably because the Gollops were massive comics nerds. The readme file even puts the word "manga" in "quotes", because it was so novel. Back in the pre-DVD, pre-graphical internet days it was difficult for kids to get hold of Japanese media, so it had an underground air. Nowadays I associate manga and anime with awful, uncreative fan art, but it was genuinely fashionable at one point. Sadly Terror From the Deep largely abandoned the manga-esque look.

Terror from a Deep has a more varied set of environments than Enemy Unknown. The original game was mostly farms and flat deserts, with the occasional tree, whereas Deep has abandoned ruins and expansive alien colonies.

The levels are randomly generated from clip-together map chunks.

You can blow holes in walls and set fire to things, but in general the environments aren't interactive; you can't turn on machines or blow up key pipelines, or reactivate broken robots (for example). None of the things in the environment do anything.

It's a shame the developers didn't do something with the maps. The modern games have a few setpiece levels where you have to perform special tasks, and they're some of the most memorable parts of the series - the dam level from EW, for example, or the mission with the aliens that come out of a whale carcass.

On with the review. The XCOM games are turn-based tactical wargames in which you control individual soldiers. Before battle you get to equip your troops with weapons and armour, but you have to pay for it, and if you fail to achieve enough mission objectives the secretive financiers who control XCOM cut a deal with the aliens and pull the plug.


This was one of the few new mechanics that appeared in Terror From the Deep. Some alien submarines patrol too deeply to intercept, so you either have to wait for them to surface, or build a better interceptor. I can't say it makes the gameplay any more entertaining.

The strategic level - managing a base and researching alien technology - is the thing that separated UFO: Enemy Unknown from Laser Squad. It's divisive. Some people can't stand it. In XCOM 2 in particular it's possible to win every mission and still lose the game because you didn't make contact with resistance regions quickly enough. In fact it's possible to make the game unwinnable long before you actually lose, which feels unfair. Conversely, without the strategic element XCOM would be just a series of individual battles without any purpose or meaning. It would get boring.

The XCOM games have a number of shared elements. The games take place over a number of months, with the aliens gradually introducing more powerful units as the campaign goes on. On a tactical level the engine uses probability to determine whether shots connect, which is jarring if you've come to think of 80% as a sure thing. In reality 80% means that one in five of your shots will miss.

45% is almost half, isn't it? Fifty-fifty odds aren't that bad. And it feels like a waste if I don't shoot.

Across the course of an entire game even a few 99% shots are likely to miss, but nonetheless there's a stereotype that XCOM's dice are rigged against the player. In reality XCOM 2 apparently rigs things the other way, so that consecutive misses against the same enemy give your soldiers an accuracy boost, but the game is so difficult that it's unnoticeable.

The XCOM games also try to force the rough-and-tumble of real combat into the genteel context of turn-based tabletop warfare, which leads to odd situations where your soldiers miss enemies standing right next to them. This is supposed to represent the fact that your soldiers have just dashed into cover and are being shot at while scared out of their minds, but it looks odd.

Furthermore there's a stereotype that the aliens almost never miss, which is fair criticism; they start off with better stats than your soldiers and they pick easy targets. Even in the modern games the AI is very simple, attacking the soldier with the weakest defence while manoeuvring to maximise their squad's hit potential. In the original games the baddies were essentially mobile turrets that had a very simple decision loop, whereas in the modern games the enemy soldiers operate in three-unit pods that have a basic understanding of cover.

Enemy Unknown and Terror From the Deep gave your soldiers a pool of action points. You could order them to fire a few accurate shots that consumed lots of action points, or several inaccurate snap shots, or you could order them to walk around first before firing. The modern reboot series abandons this in favour of a simpler two-stage move-and-shoot / move-and-move / shoot-and-not-move mechanic. It's less flexible but makes for a faster-paced game.


The XCOM games are also famous for their inverse difficulty curve. At the beginning of the game XCOM's soldiers are weak and poorly-equipped. The games comply with Lanchester's N-Square Law, in the sense that all being equal a small initial numeric advantage has a snowball effect over the course of a battle.

The XCOM games are designed so that the player generally has a numeric advantage, at least on a local level, but at the beginning of the game the aliens compensate for this with a huge qualitative edge, so your soldiers tend to drop like flies. The modern XCOM games downplay the cannon fodder aspect, but in a battle where the player begins with four soldiers vs a series of three-unit enemy squads the player only has to make one bad mistake for things to become very difficult indeed.

The games tend to reach a peak of difficulty when the aliens introduce psionic enemies. In UFO: Enemy Unknown the aliens can conceivably mind control and destroy your entire squad on turn two of the second mission. However once your own soldiers gain some experience and master psionics the games all become easier, until the final missions are a cakewalk.

On a personal level I don't mind the inverse difficulty curve. By the end of the game it's cathartic to finally have the upper hand. The fundamental theme of the games is that the aliens continually underestimate humanity, and it's nice to prove them wrong.


Two examples of Terror From the Deep's mazey, time-consuming maps. Notice in the top screenshot how I had to clear a series of nondescript rooms until I found the last alien. That happens a lot. Your soldiers only have a 45 degree field of view, so they have to turn left and right after they enter a room just in case there's an alien hiding right next to them.

Now, if it was 1995, and you had an ageing 486DX2/66, and you didn't have the internet, and you could afford one brand-new game every couple of months, and perhaps your home life was rotten and it was cold etc, I could see why you might have enjoyed Terror From the Deep.

In those days a lot of PC games were filled with masses of busywork so that they felt substantial, and Deep has that in spades. The aliens establish colonies much faster than in Enemy Unknown, which results in a flurry of alien UFO activity, too many to shoot down, although alternatively you can wait for them to land and capture their loot intact. If you just want to play endless tactical missions Deep is great.


If you want to have fun, natural fun, Deep is a disaster. There are essentially four problems.

The Maps
Terror From the Deep's maps are generally one-third larger than those of Enemy Unknown, and the alien bases are four levels deep, two more than EU. Clearing the outdoors maps quickly becomes a chore, but that's nothing compared to the alien bases and terror missions. EU had a problem whereby occasionally the last enemy on the map got stuck, and you had to waste time hunting it down, but the maps were much smaller and easier to search and/or level with explosives.

UFO's final level took place over two separate maps. The developers of Deep ran with this and made all of the terror missions and colony assaults two-map affairs, with the final battle taking place over the course of three maps. Unfortunately the final battle is an awful dull slog.

The first part of the final level is at least a little bit spooky.

The second much less so.

The final, final map is a giant maze that resembles Wolfenstein 3D. It only has a handful of enemies, so most of the gameplay consists of walking along empty corridors, pausing occasionally so that your soldiers can recover their stamina.

The ultimate suit of armour makes your soldiers look like turtles. Which makes sense given the aquatic environment, so I don't know what to think.


Incidentally Gerard Dujardin has a psi-skill of 86. It's the single most crucial soldier attribute - anything below about 75 makes the soldier vulnerable to mind control and thus a liability in battle. The other attributes can be trained, but psi-skill is fixed, so there comes a point when you have to sack two-thirds of your soldiers.

UFO had a similarly straightforward final level, but it was concise and felt like a proper battle, with lots of the game's toughest enemies packed into one place. It ended with a fun albeit cheesy semi-animated cutscene, whereas Terror From the Deep has charmless mid-1990s CGI instead.

I include this screenshot mainly to prove to the world that I finished Terror From the Deep.

I can't re-iterate how much of a slog Terror From the Deep is to play. Clearing a pair of four-level terror maps is torture, and the alien colony assaults are just as bad; if you try to wipe out all the aliens it takes an hour or more. It's far easier to land and immediately take off again (in the case of the terror missions) or just blow up the alien control centre (in the colony assaults), which raises the question of what was the point wasting developer time generating the maps.

My hunch is that the developers played through each of the large-scale maps once, but didn't account for the fact that the player would have to complete them several times.


The Numbers
At heart wargames are a bunch of mathematical equations, and enemy units are just a collection of attributes. Enemy Unknown had a problem whereby one of the alien weapons - the heavy plasma rifle - had much better numbers than any other weapon, so once you learned how to use it there was no point using anything else.

The developers of Terror From the Deep tackled this in two ways. Firstly they made XCom's weapons less powerful across the board. Deep's heavy plasma rifle carries ten rounds instead of thirty-five, and it can't fire on full-auto. It also uses more of your soldiers' time units; they can only squeeze off two shots per turn rather than six.


Secondly the developers made the standard enemy soldier, the Lobster Man, much tougher than the first game's Mutons, but unfortunately these two changes work against each other. In Deep there's still no point using anything except the heavy plasma analogue because the ubiquitous Lobster Man shrugs off everything else. Conversely your soldiers can only squeeze off one or two shots a turn, so you have to line up a dozen troops and salvo fire at everything, which makes for a slow-paced game.

On the positive side all of the enemies are vulnerable to melee weapons, so you can in theory kill them with your array of underwater drills, but this isn't much help in the outdoors. Lobster Men are also vulnerable to stun weapons, but you can only carry a handful of stun rounds into battle, and the baddies have a nasty habit of waking up and melee-ing your soldiers in the back. For the underground maps it's perfectly viable to make your soldiers duel-wield a drill and a stun launcher, or a guided missile projector, but it still feels as if the developers hadn't playtested the end result extensively.

Also, a few of the maps take place on dry land. Most of your weapons work equally well above or below the water, but your rocket launcher and heavy cannon analogue don't work in the open air. This is unfortunate because the rocket launcher - torpedo launcher, whatever - is the only starting weapon that can reliably take down bio-drone terror units. It's one of those changes that makes a certain amount of logical sense but raises a bunch of questions; why can't XCOM buy rocket launchers on the open market and use them instead? The team can buy hand grenades and rifles, why not rocket launchers? Why not use the laser weapons XCOM developed during the first alien war?

How come cat doesn't need a gas mask when he goes outside? Because cats don't breathe, that's why.


The Research Tree
I got lucky. In an early terror mission I captured a Deep One terrorist alive. You need a live Deep One to research advanced armour and advanced submarine construction. Without advanced submarine construction you can't finish the game.

To complicate matters you have to research a dead Deep One first, then a living Deep One. But the Deep Ones are removed from the pool of enemies early in the game, so unless you capture one in the first few missions you're stuffed. I know all of this because I looked at UFOPaedia, but players in 1993 without access to alt.games.x-com must have been baffled.

You can also break the game by researching certain technologies without a sample of a third technology in your base inventory. If you sell off your captured mind control readers and then research the mind control lab, you can never unlock the mind control disruptor that allows your soldiers to conduct psionic attacks. A similar problem affects the more advanced melee weapons, and researching at least one alien rank causes the research tree to bug out entirely.


Again, it feels as if the developers played through the research tree once, with a guide in front of them, just to see if it worked, but they didn't ask someone outside the team to have a go. In contrast Enemy Unknown had a generally bug-free research tree.

Did I mention a fourth thing? I can't remember now. Terror From the Deep is a frustrating experience. It has a bunch of new aliens that only appear briefly towards the beginning of the game, so you spend most of your time fighting Lobster Men. The new large maps are used too frequently to be entertaining, and the research tree is hideously convoluted. The use of animated textures also makes some of the alien bases resemble early Geocities homepages.

It seems that the developers were going for a horror theme, and something could have been made of that idea. Imagine if you had to hunt through a large map for a single, extremely mobile Chryssalid analogue, and there was a jump-scare cutscene when you found it; or imagine if the final level was half the size and initially empty, but after killing the final boss you had to fight through masses of tough baddies to reach the exit. Instead for the most part I found the game frustrating and boring, and eventually I rushed through the ending just to get rid of it. Just as I am rushing through the end of this blog post, just to get rid of it. When this blog post is older it will wonder why its parents never talked to it; because you're space-filler until the virus subsides, that's why.

In its defence the music is good. Do I regret avoiding Terror From the Deep for twenty-five years? No, I do not. I shudder to think what might have happened if UFO had never existed, and instead Deep had been the first XCOM game. There might never have been an XCOM franchise, and that would be tragic.

Without XCOM, would snakes be sexy? I mention this because XCOM 2 has sexy snakes. One of the alien races you fight are snakes, but they have hips and breasts, just like... unlike real snakes. They look like snakes, but they're sexy. It's confusing. Without XCOM, would snakes be sexy? As always, please write your answers on a postcard and send them to Iain Duncan Smith - that's I A I N - courtesy of Number 10 Downing Street, London. Just write "snakes would not be sexy" and don't leave a return address.

If anyone asks you why you did it, say that you are the captain of your own soul, e.g. don't implicate me. Until we meet again.