X-COM: That which kills us makes us very dead

With the new XCOM game around the corner, it’s time to reflect on the fallen. The First and Second Alien Wars had horrific death tolls. Tens, hundreds, thousands of little pixel-dudes rotated on the spot to face the player, screamed, and fell down to never rise again. Always those brave men and women turned to face the player. We looked them in the tiny pixel-eye as they expired. It was the least we owed them. Heroes, every one.


What were the main causes of death in these brutal, bloody conflicts? Read on…


The First Alien War is UFO: Enemy Unknown, aka X-COM: UFO Defence for the non-Europeans. The Second War is known by the codename Terror from the Deep. The Third Alien War, dubbed Apocalypse, will not feature here as I sat that one out.

One Skyranger, one X-COM operative, and a lot of corpses. Which idiot let the redneck psi-weakling get hold of a grenade?!




Ok, not really. Landing is always safe. I’m sure if it were possible to crash-land, then the Skyranger would do that at least twice per game.


Getting out of the shuttle.

The Skyranger offers limited visibility. Granted, you can have some of your little pixel-dudes turn around and look out of the windows to give some vision off to the sides. That still leaves massive blind patches. What does limited visibility mean in X-COM? Surprise reaction fire from concealed aliens, that’s what! Even if you can see the aliens, there’s still only one way out of the ‘ranger. Furthermore, there’s seldom much in the way of cover at the landing zone. Your little pixel-dudes will be reduced to cowering behind the landing gear. Deploying a smoke grenade helps reduce casualties from alien fire – and introduces a whole new Element of Death (see “Smoke” below). That’s not all, folks! The Skyranger is so bottled up that a shot missing a pixel-dude at the ramp is all but guaranteed to hit some poor sap inside the ‘ranger. Now imagine the effects of an alien lobbing a grenade or missile at the ‘ranger…


Night time.

Your parents were right – it’s not safe to be out on the streets after 9PM. Aliens can see in the dark. X-COM operatives can’t. If you’re not wasting time units lobbing flares everywhere (and getting shot at whilst doing so, naturally), you’re stumbling around being massacred by beings which can see you long before you can see them.



“Eat rocket and die, Xenos scum!” Click. Click! Click-click-click! “Uh oh! I forgot to pack rockets again! What to do?! Maybe if I throw the rocket launcher it will do some damage? Nope, it bounced right off the alien’s head and it’s still standing. Oh dear.”


Walking around corners.

Corners. There could be anything concealed around there. Anything! Said anything typically comes armed with a gun and the time units to reaction fire at you. The only way to find out if there is an anything is to step out and look.


Some corners don’t have a concealed anything. Most corners don’t. This makes it worse. Eventually you get so used to a big, safe nothing that when the plasma bolts fly it’s a “Nearly spilled my tea!” shock. Note: spilling tea across your desk impairs command ability. Don’t do it.


Doors. The opening thereof.

Open door, get killed by reaction fire from the alien lurking within. Repeat until someone survives long enough to shoot whatever’s lurking within. Next turn, open door, hope you don’t get killed by reaction fire, then walk inside – and hope you don’t get killed by reaction fire from some Xenos scum lurking beside the door. There’s a reason why “Official door opener” ranks below “Guy who holds a primed grenade and runs into a close-packed horde of aliens.”



There’s always that one guy. The one who cannot throw straight. The one who misses so badly that the alien is outside the blast radius. The one who ‘accidentally’ drops the live pineapple at the feet of his ‘favourite’ squadmate. The one who gets the grenade stuck on a roof somewhere instead of in front of the door. That guy.


Explosions have relative power. When you get comfortable with the idea that a standard grenade will kill any alien it explodes near, the aliens get tougher. Lobersterman? Boom, it’s still alive. Boom, still alive. Boom, still alive!? So then you need to get better grenades. Then the cycle repeats itself.


Aliens get grenades too. Their grenades are better than yours. Enough said?



“No! I didn’t mean to click there! Darn it, now you’re out in the middle of nowhere with three aliens able to see you. Can you walk back? No. Can you at least duck? No, not enough points left for that either. Well, it’s been nice knowing you, MostlyDecent. Maybe you’ll get really lucky and all the incoming shots will miss. Whoops! Guess not.”



Who’d have guessed that carrying one rocket launcher, three rockets, a laser rifle, a plasma pistol, and a stun rod would slow a soldier down to the point where he can hardly drag his over-laden body along one square per turn?


Amnesiac grenade chains.

Oh no! There’s a nasty alien over there! Shooting it won’t kill it before it has chance to take down one of our precious little pixel-dudes! Quick – grenade it! MrScout is the pixel-dude closest, so he’ll have to make the throw. Problem: he’s not got a grenade. No problem: it’s possible to prime one and toss it along the fire team like a hot potato. BadHairDay primes his grenade and throws it to DeadWalking, who throws it to GenerallyUseless, who throws it to MrScout. It lands on the ground nearby because GenerallyUseless was given that moniker for a reason. No biggie, MrScout can walk one square over, pick it up, and throw it, and probably not get shot to pieces by enemy reaction fire. Except then the phone rings. Fun fact: grenades are effectively invisible on the ground in X-COM 1. So when the player returns 10 minutes later and forgets what had been happening, and hits “End Turn”…



Lightning-fast, stacks of health, and a one-hit kill attack which turns your poor pixel-dude into a zombie. What’s not to hate?



If a pixel-dude is killed by a Chryssalid, they will turn into a zombie. If a zombie is killed, it will turn into a new Chryssalid. Think that’s bad? Zombies used to be parts of your fire-team. That means they are nice and close to the surviving squaddies. Meaning chain-zombies. Chain-zombies!



The name makes it sound like a Pokémon. Terror is lulling you into a false sense of security. This is Terror‘s version of the Chryssalid. Which means it’s the same thing but nastier. HELP!!


Knocking holes in walls.

Because sometimes there’s an alien there. Waiting. With a plasma gun. Sometimes there are two aliens. And they’re both Chryssalids.



“That’s right, LittleMissCrackshot. Snipe the alien with a burst shot. Nooooo! Don’t aim randomly off to the side! No! Stop doing that! Stop shooting! Please! Oh, now look at that – you shot RedShirt57 in the back! And missed the alien completely with every bullet! Again!”


Leaving before ‘Mission Complete’.

Sing along with John Denver:


All my bags are packed I’m ready to go

I’m standing here inside the cockpit

I hate to com you to say goodbye

But the aliens are swarming, it’s certain death

Psychic attacks, plasma bolts, Sectopods

Already I’m so lonesome I could die


So slay aliens and smile for me

Tell me that you’ll forgive me

You’ll all die for sure when I blast off

‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane,

Don’t know when I’ll be back again

Oh baby, I hate to go…


Cyberdisc apocalypse.

The on-death explosive radius is how big!?



“Yes, that’s right, wander around like a headless chicken right in the middle of a combat zone. Idiot! Get yourself killed so my score ends up lower. Jerk! No – wait – stop! Argh! You just drew reaction fire from an alien, which missed you and blew away my little pixel-dude! Damn you to the fifth circle of hell, and may lemon juice get in your eyes so that they sting for all eternity!”


High explosive ammo.

It’s like having a machine gun which fires miniature grenades. What could possibly go wrong? Shooting at close range. Shooting in a narrow space. Shooting down an alleyway and having a round go astray, clipping a nearby wall. Shooting anywhere vaguely near an ally. Shooting near something else which will explode, setting off a chain reaction. Shooting something which would have dropped cool loot if weren’t reduced to smouldering ashes. Pretty much anything involving shooting, really. The only thing worse would be not shooting, and getting over-run by slobbering Xenos scum!



We understand that your organisation is struggling against a strange and overwhelming threat. We appreciate that you are under-funded, behind in research, and are barely keeping your head above water. We are aware that you have killed more aliens than any other organisation on the planet, and that it’s rare for a terror event to slip by your net. Regardless, we are withdrawing all funding from your organisation. We will still cry and generally spoil your life if you do not protect us.


Yours faithfully, Joe T Politician


PS: Please send more of those snazzy laser guns. My kids love those things. We use them to provide light shows at party political rallies and prove that we’re down hip with the youth. I know you cats use them to zap aliens with and all, but needs of the state and all that.



Smoke grenades provide a degree of cover from aliens. Little pixel-dudes slowly suffocate when standing in smoke (if they’re not wearing power armour). Stand where you are and smother your way to unconsciousness, or make a break for fresh air and get shot down? Decisions, decisions.



Hello, pitiful flesh-bag. I am speaking to you from inside your mind whilst hiding safely on the opposite side of the map. I am the mighty Zlargbag’keth! But you may call me Albert. Or master. I like the sound of master. Let’s go with that. Puny Earthling, draw your weapon and aim it at those bags of meat you call your comrades …



Who ordered the lobster Thermidore?



The game’s backstory is wrong. Lobstermen were in fact created by a well-meaning vegetarian militant-pacifist mad-scientist. True story! This gentle, vengeful soul walked past a fish restaurant one day and decided to put an end to the cruelty of live lobster boiling. Having considered solutions such as armed raids on places serving lobster, and attaching miniature gatling guns to the shell of each lobster, the fellow hit on the ideal solution: making lobsters immune to heat. He created a serum, and injected it into his first test subjects. The good news is that it worked: lobsters are now practically heat-proof. The bad news is that they mutated into 6 foot high, virtually indestructible, intelligent monsters with claws for hands, the ability to fire guns, and a certain sense of pique over the whole ‘consumed as a delicacy’ thing that their ancestors experienced.


Having a good name.

“Hey – your stats are pretty darn good for a rookie! You shall henceforth be known as SuperDeathAlienKillerHero. Congratulations, soldier.”


Ten minutes later: “Oh. So that’s where the final alien was hiding. Right behind my lines. Next to my safe sniper nest. I see that the aliens have advanced far enough to use blaster bombs now. Oh well, I guess all of my expendable pixel-dudes survived. That’s something, right? Sausage has been promoted to captain too. Joy.”


Taking an underwater gun to a land-battle.

Fun fact: some of Terror‘s weapons only work underwater. Try to use one on land and the best you can hope for is that the aliens die laughing.


Shipping missions.

What makes Terror‘s shipping missions so bad? Everything. Shipping missions are a microcosm of X-COM death causes. They feature the nastiest alien types. There’s about sixty-bajillion aliens on the map. They are packed full of doors to open and corners to look around. There’s scenery which blows up, typically packed into some small room to ensure the unlucky shooter is caught in the blast radius. There are civilians running about like idiots. As multi-level maps, there’s plenty of spots for aliens to snipe you. They’re land-based, so some of your weapons won’t work. And there’s two parts to each mission. Yes, that’s right. Survive the brutal first map, and your ‘reward’ is a second map which is just as difficult. You get no chance to replenish your stores or call in reinforcements, so you’ll be tackling that second map with whatever you have left from the first one.


Storming UFOs/subs.

You can virtually guarantee that there will be aliens inside. To get inside you have to open doors. Then, corridors. Lots of corridors. Those corridors have more doors. Also blind spots. Stray shots will trash computer systems and other Mysterious Alien Gubbins. If you are lucky nothing will explode and kill your pixel-dudes.


Never tell me the odds!

Terry Pratchett wrote in one of his Discworld books that million to one chances happen nine times out of ten. I reckon he played X-COM.


After years of saving her pay and hazard bonuses, Geraldine bought the farm planning for a quiet retirement. Then a UFO landed and she bought the farm in different sense.



“Hey, this isn’t so bad. Those new guns put aliens down like puppies, and that body armour means my pixel-dudes don’t die in a single shot any more. Maybe I don’t need to be quite so paranoid. I’ll just – oh dear God! The blood! The horror! The needless death!”


Blaster bombs.

A blaster bomb is a remote-controlled rocket/missile. It’s got a huge blast radius, and does huge amounts of damage. You can fly it down stairs, and do all kinds of neat tricks with it. Some X-COM bases hold blaster bomb trick flying events as part of their R&R schedule. The snag? Aliens get them first, and they don’t have quite the same ammo issues as you…


Series name-changing.

Once upon a time, the Sphinx baffled travellers with a riddle about legs, time, and … stuff. Anyone failing to answer correctly got eaten. Thanks to some blabbermouth everyone but everyone knows the answer is “Man”. So the Sphinx changed questions. Nowadays she asks about X-COM games. UFO, X-COM, or XCOM? Which Enemy Unknown is which? Is XCOM a single forthcoming game, or a series? And what about those UFO: After[word] look-alike games? Many travellers have since been devoured. Next time you play, ponder this question. Then watch the death-toll spiral as little pixel-dudes pay the price of your inattention.


Using the starting base layout.

The Gollop brothers decided to teach the player about building a good base by giving them a horrific death-trap of a design to start out with. If you are fool enough to use the default layout you will find aliens spawning from all directions, and running about with nothing to funnel them in predictable routes. This is bad because there will be rather a lot of them. Aliens here. Aliens there. Aliens everywhere. Your cup shall runneth over with aliens.


Base defence missions. Full stop.

Like double glazing salesmen, aliens always pick the worst possible time to ring the doorbell. How do you feel about entering a tough battle with the bunch of rookies you left at home to feed the cat whilst your real team’s off killing aliens?


Not to forget the equipment bug which means you do not get access to your best weapons – or indeed any weapons – if your base’s stores are too full. Too full is defined as more than 80 items. Grenades and ammo clips are counted individually. The game chooses which items to give you; you don’t get to choose from a list. Forgot to keep your stores clean and tidy by selling off everything you do not need on a regular basis? Please enjoy defending your base with 40 plasma clips, 20 flares, 19 smoke grenades, and that pistol you forgot to sell at the beginning of the game.


Unconscious aliens.

They wake up. When they wake up, they start running around. If you removed their weapons then at least they can’t start blasting your unsuspecting pixel-dudes in the back. If, on the other hand, they have built-in weapons like gigantic claws…


The starfighter exploded.

The Great Space War, aka Interceptor, features a lot of this. Whether caused by missiles, plasma blasts, lasers, collisions, mind control, or other factors, death in space always came down to this one understated line. Damn those exploding starfighters!


Sometimes it’s hard to think of a good name. Sometimes those operatives go on to become legends. All hail Sausage, alien slayer extraordinaire!


And finally, the number 1 cause of death in the X-COM series:


The X-COM 1 difficulty bug.

The original X-COM shipped with a bug that caused its difficulty level to reset to beginner after the first mission. Unsurprisingly, many players found the game far too easy. The development team for Terror from the Deep heard their cries, and upped the difficulty in the sequel. Terror is hard. It’s harder than bricks. It’s harder than your best friend’s pro-wrestler Dad. It’s harder than Arnie. Terror‘s difficulty is responsible for countless little pixelated, bubbly deaths.

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