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 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.