X-COM: Enforcer

“Crop Circle Surprise.”

“Aliens, prepare to be enforced.”
(North American PC box art)

The return of X-COM in 2012 was certainly one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It had been something like an uncertain decade for the property leading up to the release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown; with rights to the franchise stuck in limbo for a time, the announcement of a first-person shooter side project being met with much skepticism, and a struggled development cycle that dragged on over the course of nearly nine years. None of this is even to mention the tumultuous times for the property leading up to its initial hiatus period — stuck under a publisher facing financial turmoil, struggling to establish a new identity for itself, and seeing the cancellation of several of its intended entries. And so, the comeback story that saw the franchise return to its tactical, turn-based, alien-stomping roots rates as a truly compelling tale.

I could probably sit here and gush for a hundred pages about how great the recent run of Firaxis-developed titles have been, but we’re not really in the business of writing at length about “critical darlings” on this website. And besides; I don’t think the developers really need me stepping up to bat for them at this stage, seeing as they’re already plenty successful and well-loved enough as is. That being said, I reckon there are a pair of X-COM titles that feel better suited for my style of examination. We’ll get to the other in due time, but the subject of today’s article feels like the perfect starting point, seeing as it was the game credited as nearly killing the X-COM brand entirely. Oh, and the fact that it’s another one of our Patreon “pledger requests” is a pretty major motivator as well. (Thanks ruderubik!)

2001’s X-COM: Enforcer represented MicroProse’s last-ditch effort at making the X-COM brand appeal to a broader audience. With Enforcer’s failure marked the end of an era for the franchise, and the beginning of that aforementioned decade-long slumber. It has come to be seen as a game that nobody asked for, eschewing the time-tested traditions that had come to define the series, the likes of which had built up and brought in its audience to begin with. Behind the scenes, it was a project born of utter desperation, cobbled together from the pieces of projects previously cancelled. But having said all that, the questions still remain: Is it really all that bad a game, and was it wholly to blame for the franchise falling off the face of the earth? That’s what this document aims to declassify.

“Initiating Eradication Program.”

It’s worth examining what made X-COM great in the first place, and what trademarks players had come to associate with the property in its early days. The debut entry in 1994’s X-COM: UFO Defense wasted no time establishing the formula and mechanics that would lead the franchise to its greatest successes: Turn-based strategy gameplay with procedurally generated missions, elements of base-building and character progression, and confronting players with the potential for soldier permadeath. Despite an intro cutscene that portrays members of Earth’s Extraterrestrial Combat Unit (or “X-COM” for short) as action movie badasses, the gameplay tells a different story entirely. Humanity’s war begins as a desperate defense, with our titular resistance force struggling to provide its meager military coverage across the whole globe. Only through adapting the alien’s own technology can we hope to advance our own, and piece together something like an offense against the extraterrestrial armies.

But getting there will require sacrifice. The road to victory in X-COM is paved with the bodies of soldiers under your command — the unfortunate victims of your calculated risks. You are almost always outnumbered and outgunned going into a given mission, and the chances of coming out entirely unscathed are slim to none. Sooner or later, you will slip up, and a price must be paid in blood. From the ranks of your fresh-faced rookies to your most battle-hardened veterans, no soldier is safe from the risk of cruel and unexpected death. Naturally, all this is by very deliberate design, with the intent to give weight to every turn you take in battle.

With credit for the creation of the series given primarily to one Julian Gollop, his love of board games (with much credit given specifically to Dungeons & Dragons and Sniper!) would have a major influence on his approach to games development. Having founded his own studio in Mythos Games, Julian and his team would offer their services to acclaimed simulation / strategy games publisher MicroProse, who provided the funds and suggested the alien invasion theming for X-COM. With a decade’s history of turn-based strategy game development behind Julian (including the seminal 1988 title Laser Squad), this game would serve as the culmination of all his past efforts and ideas. Despite a rocky development – which at one point saw the title continue production despite having been canceled by the publisher’s parent company – X-COM: UFO Defense would eventually release to much critical and commercial acclaim.

Naturally, sequels to the successful release were soon to follow. 1995’s X-COM: Terror From the Deep was to be developed in just six month’s time by another team within MicroProse, and largely serves as “more of the same” following UFO Defense (now with underwater theming and further increased difficulty). At the same time, Julian and crew began work on what would eventually become 1997’s X-COM: Apocalypse — but only after much more studio turmoil and strained development. Reportedly, many of the issues stemmed from MicroProse’s decision to handle the development of graphical assets internally, while leaving Mythos to their own devices in programming the game. Due to the nature of this arrangement, the design timeline had to be held up on multiple occasions, as the art MicroProse’s team turned in did not mesh at all with Mythos’ zoomed-out / isometric perspective.

While this clash in creative visions certainly caused some amount of friction, there was a bigger conflict brewing behind the scenes. You see, despite the slew of successful titles released under their label, MicroProse was never actually all that financially stable through the 90s. Between downsizing that saw the likes of Sid Meier exit the company and cancelled acquisition plans on the part of GT Interactive, the pressure was on the publisher to fortify their remaining properties. In negotiations with Mythos, MicroProse attained the intellectual property rights to X-COM in whole; having offered the developer a deal wherein they received an apparently small sum upfront for ownership of the IP, with more substantial royalties tied to the release of Apocalypse. Oh, and one more thing: If Mythos didn’t take the deal, MicroProse threatened to pull the plug on the project entirely, which would thereby force a situation where both sides would subsequently have to go to court to determine who held the rights to X-COM. As Julian would later describe it: “It was a disastrous relationship from the start.”

X-COM: UFO Defense on PC-DOS (MicroProse / Mythos, 1994)

Even if the end result of this development process may well have been another excellent entry in the X-COM series (admittedly dreadful visuals aside), the toll it took on the relationship between the developer and publisher proved untenable. Another choice quote from Julian Gollop would read “After completing this game I know how Francis Coppola felt after filming Apocalypse Now.” Shortly after the release of X-COM: Apocalypse in 1997, Julian and his team split from MicroProse, leaving their lucrative franchise behind in the process. This would ultimately lead Mythos down the path of attempting to recapture the magic of X-COM with a planned new franchise in “The Dreamland Chronicles,” which unfortunately failed to come to fruition with their studio closing in 2001. Time would see developer ALTAR Interactive purchase what assets and code existed for the project, repurposing them for 2003’s UFO: Aftermath, and birthing something like a divergent series of heavily X-COM-inspired titles. But alas, we’re veering off-topic here.

With MicroProse now in full control of X-COM at this stage, they quickly set about attempting to expand its scope, and tread new ground in terms of genre. The first fruit of this labor was 1998’s X-COM: Interceptor: A crossover strategy / space combat game which saw players able to pilot Interceptor-class starfighters from the cockpit perspective. All in all, Interceptor certainly isn’t a terrible entry in the series, managing to retain many of the same elements of depth and resource management present in the turn-based tactics titles. Whether you were already a fan of the X-COM franchise, or something like a Wing Commander fan looking for a new series to get into, there was a lot to love about the game. Unfortunately, this failed to translate into substantial sales numbers, with designer Dave Ellis confessing that the game failed to move more than 30,000 copies. This dismal statistic combined with MicroProse’s recent involvement in a costly lawsuit (in regards to the publishing rights to Civilization) spelled certain doom not just for X-COM, but for its publisher as well.

Just when it seemed as if all hope was lost, along came the Hasbro corporation to save the day. By which I mean, MicroProse were still forced to shutter their Texas studio and lay off yet more of their employees, but the larger company would manage to stay afloat for a while longer. It was during this period under the purview of Hasbro where development began on a slew of new X-COM titles, each of which would see the brand branch off in varying different directions: An entry to be subtitled Genesis would’ve seen the series return again to its squad-based strategy roots — though the matter of whether the combat would be real-time or turn-based was left undetermined. The simply titled X-COM launched as part of Hasbro’s “Em@il Games” line, and brought with it a stripped-down “play-by-mail” multiplayer take on the UFO Defense formula. However, perhaps the most ambitious project as part of this planned resurgence would be developed under the name of X-COM: Alliance, with the series poised to take on the burgeoning first-person shooter genre.

Leveraging the Unreal Engine, Alliance would have seen players controlling soldiers from behind their visor view, with additional HUD elements relaying the perspectives of other soldiers within your squad. In this way, Alliance aimed to be a tactical shooter, where issuing commands and delegating tasks to your teammates (be they AI or other players) would play as much a role as pulling the trigger of your own gun. As wild as the perspective shift may have seemed, it was apparently a concept that had been kicking around within MicroProse since as early as 1995, and developers behind the game took to arguing that they “haven’t really changed the original game model that much.” I would similarly contend that the transition from playing as a tactician in a strategy title to a squad leader in an FPS is a pretty logical progression, and that Alliance certainly had a great deal of potential. But of course – as had become the established pattern for X-COM – there were major issues with development.

X-COM: Alliance on PC (MicroProse, unreleased)

For starters, there was the matter of development duties changing hands. With MicroProse’s Chipping Sodbury studio beginning development in ‘95, they stuck with the project through ‘til ‘99. At this point, their Chapel Hill studio (responsible for the underrated Klingon Honor Guard) was briefly tasked with taking charge, though they too would be relieved of duty before the year’s end. The project finally settled in the hands of the publisher’s Hunt Valley studio, who stuck with it to the bitter end. Between all these transitions, what progress was made on the game saw complete overhauls and sweeping changes made to the presentation — eventually even ditching the multiple on-screen viewpoints of your fellow squadmates. Though MicroProse would parade the game at E3 (sans playable demo) and claim that progress being made on the title was steady, the truth of the matter was that none of their teams could quite shape the game into what it was envisioned to be.

Time passed, milestones failed to be met, and multiple delays were announced as development dragged on. Each time the release date was pushed back, the publisher would provide a new company line. The tune in June rung “hold on to your hats, boys and girls, it’s gonna be a great Christmas season for gamers!” Given a week into the new year of 2001, the word was that “an unnamed ‘key member’ of the development team has left the project.” And somewhere in the middle of all this – as if to see just how far they could push their luck – MicroProse made another shocking announcement: Development had begun on yet another new X-COM title. This was meant to imply that work on Genesis and Alliance was still underway, while introducing a third concurrent title to the production pipeline. To all the world, it seemed as if MicroProse were committed to crushing themselves under the weight of a rapidly-growing workload. However, there was more to this move than met the eye.

XCOM: Enforcer? Well, what happened there was that Microprose or Hasbro as it was by then, they had three Unreal licenses, I think, that they had to somehow use. XCOM: Alliance was using Unreal but because that project was going nowhere, they decided to ‘Well, let’s just put out a straightforward Unreal-style shooter using the assets from XCOM: Alliance. We’ll at least have something there to show for all the effort.’” ~ Julian Gollop

While Julian’s insight there may read as little more than outside speculation – what with him being long gone from MicroProse at this point – it still rings as the most plausible theory behind Enforcer’s announcement and development. Between its initial announcement in early August of 2000 and its release on April 19th, 2001, it seemed to suffer the least number of setbacks or unflattering press. By all accounts, development was largely efficient, thanks in part to a far less ambitious scope. While Alliance may have sought to reinvent the first-person shooter, Enforcer seemed to have no such delusions about the nature of its release. It was there to fill a gap, and provide something like a serviceable little third-person shooter to an audience starved for X-COM. And if its development might benefit from using some abandoned assets from another project that kept tossing them away? Then so be it.

What was most important here to MicroProse wasn’t setting a new standard for tactical strategy within the shooter genre, or even as much as “staying true to X-COM”: It was simply a matter of getting something out there with the X-COM branding on it — if only to demonstrate that they were still capable of such.

“What on Earth Is That Mechanical Monstrosity?”

“New Market Maulers.”
(North American PC back-of-box)

While the game itself does little to convey its story, the accompanying instruction manual provides at least a modicum of much-needed context. With a series of events stemming from the 1947 Roswell incident – wherein an alien spacecraft crash-landed in the New Mexico desert, prompting the US Army to shroud the scene in secrecy – the world would eventually see the foundation of the X-COM organization to combat extraterrestrial invasions. So far, so canon. But in something like a divergence for Enforcer’s timeline, funds and resources for the organization actually begin to evaporate as the alien’s invasion efforts pick up steam — rather than the traditional mechanic of world governments increasing financial support for the program as the threat grows more dire.

And so, rather than seeing X-COM grow to become an effective world-defending force, the organization is portrayed as barely scraping by, and having to cancel several of their R&D programs in order keep the lights on. One such cut is a program referred to as the “Enforcer Project,” along with its lead proponent in Professor Able Standard. Undeterred by his having been let go, Able continues his research in isolation, from within his laboratory in the canyons of Nevada. Despite working alone and without funding, the professor manages to continue making progress on his brainchild; until the day that the aliens discover his facility, and mount an attack on it. Left without any other choice, Able activates the still-unfinished device he has dedicated his life to: The Enforcer — otherwise known as “the ultimate robotic super soldier.” Naturally, you control this powerful automaton, and act on your directive to wipe the alien menace off the face of the Earth.

Now, how precisely is this backstory told in game? Well, jumping into the single player pretty much drops you off right at the beginning of the attack on Able’s laboratory, mere moments before the Enforcer is activated. From there, the professor doesn’t even have enough time to tell you his full name — resulting in his simply being referred to as “Professor” throughout the entirety of the game. With only a short matter of time before the action begins, it does not stop until you reach the very end of the campaign. There are exactly two additional cutscenes past the introductory cinematic, and they both come at the very tail end of the game. Of course, this is all keeping close enough in line with previous X-COM titles not explicitly spelling out plot developments for players, and letting your personal progression tell something like it’s own story.

All that said, Enforcer’s series of events feels largely disjointed; never giving a sense like you’re working towards any specific goal other than the directive to “kill all aliens.” As I’ll elaborate on, there’s little-to-no connective thread between missions, and no obvious end in sight as you progress through the levels. When the game finally decides it’s had enough of itself, it tosses something like a “shocking plot twist” at you, and sends you quickly on your way to a climactic final mission. Enforcer isn’t here to tell you a story, and it’s certainly not concerned with tying itself back into the larger X-COM tapestry: It exists simply as a delivery mechanism for raw, unadulterated, arcade-style shooting action. But how well does that aspect actually fare?

The tutorial mission serves to demonstrate much of what you’ll spend the next roughly four or so hours doing: Killing baddies, destroying their transporter devices (which spawn said baddies into the level), and picking up every item along the way. All this from a centered behind-the-back perspective, and with the most basic of controls. You can run, shoot, jump and double-tap to dodge (as is Unreal tradition). However, one thing you may be surprised to learn that you can’t do is look up or down, with the Enforcer only able to turn left and right. Evidently, Professor forgot to program you with a pivoting neck. As a result of this, your viewing angle is fixed, with the camera affixed slightly overhead and tilted downward so that the horizon line is at least above center screen. It works well enough for dealing with enemies placed on ground level with you, but god help you if a given level implements any degree of verticality.

I spent hours trying to wrap my head around why exactly aiming is implemented in this way — what could have possibly motivated this design. And at the end of the day, my best guess is that the developers approached the game from the mindset of developing a throwback to twin-stick shooters, wherein verticality wouldn’t have even been a concern. In the instances where there are differences in elevation between you and an enemy, the game will automatically take care of adjusting your aiming angle for you, similar to how original Doom appears to scan something like a vertical line down the center of the screen to help place your shots (a programming conceit referred to as “infinitely tall actors”). Of course, given the true 3D rendering and environments provided by the Unreal Engine, this still ends up feeling like an entirely regressive bit of control, rather than some sort of nostalgic throwback as potentially envisioned.

What’s especially frustrating about this is the option for enabling “mouse-look” in the options menu (or being able to bind a toggle to a key, if that’s your preference), which does not behave as you might envision. By enabling mouse-look, you’re able to direct your crosshair vertically in order to manually adjust for angle, but the camera fails to move with it. As if that weren’t enough, firing in this mode disables the game’s auto-aim, rendering the whole function an altogether more difficult way of trying to play the game. Even the instruction manual snidley confides “This is a challenging way to play the game — don’t say we didn’t warn you!” The option basically exists to tease you with the knowledge that the game could just as easily have given you full freedom of mouselook, but also to remind you that you’re not allowed.

Getting back to the idea of Enforcer as an arcade twin-stick shooter: The majority of levels are laid out as tests of endurance against seemingly infinite hordes of enemies, as you weave through them to find and complete your given objectives. Your pick-ups along the way include your arsenal of weapons, temporary power-ups, “data points” acting as EXP for enemies defeated, scattered letters spelling out the word “BONUS,” and hidden research objects tucked away in secret areas. In a sense, all of these pick-ups are interconnected, as you won’t have access to the more powerful weapons and mutators if you’re not also seeking out the research objects (to unlock them) and collecting the data points (to pay for them). This adds something like an additional element of collectathon-style gameplay to the proceedings, as you seek out the necessary keys to the bonus stages and scour stages for secret item caches.

It’s worth getting into a bit more detail as to how this whole upgrade system is laid out. After every mission, your points and collected secret items are tallied up, before being taken to the “R&D Screen” (or to a bonus stage first, if you earned it) where all the upgrades in the game are laid out. The research objects serve to unlock the new items for you to invest data points in and add to the list of items / power-ups that can potentially drop during a level, which makes the decision to search for the hidden objects an incredibly worthwhile pursuit. If you choose to forgo unlocking the progressively more powerful weapons and power-ups, you’ll eventually find yourself at a point in the game where you’ll be feeling woefully ill-equipped to handle the enemies being tossed at you, and likely hit something like a brick wall where progress feels impossible. Without the ability to return to previous levels / grab the research objects you may have missed, there’s a very real possibility here that you may find yourself completely stuck in the endgame without them.

Passive upgrades on the right hand side of the screen will increase your health, jump height, and other such parameters. Power-ups to the left of that serve as your temporary boosts and mutators appearing in mission; including invincibility, invisibility, damage multipliers, and even “option”-esque assist robots just to name a handful. But what you’ll really want to unlock first and foremost are new weapons, and upgrading their firepower with subsequent investments. While you begin the game with a decidedly lackluster array of weapons at your disposal (your default laser weapon is hardly up to the task of crowd control), some of the later weapons you’ll unlock are outright overpowered — allowing you to wipe out hundreds of enemies in mere seconds. Honestly, it’s with giving players access to the endgame arsenal that the game really hits its stride, and you start feeling like a walking weapon of mass destruction. In fact, I’d so far as to say that the game really struggled to engage me up until reaching this point / unlocking some of those guns.

Obviously, you begin the game with the bare minimum in terms of firepower and Enforcer functionality; primarily wielding your stock weapon, with the option for even more pitiful flamethrowers to appear alongside more practical enemy-piercing blade launchers and spread-blasting shotguns. The early levels account for this lack of offensive and defensive capability, tossing only small squads of enemies at you within largely close-quarters levels. You’ll gunsling your way through the Nevada desert on your way to nearby civilization, stopping at a series of towns and trailer parks, and even passing through a shopping mall on your route. The game does well to ground itself in urban settings in its early goings, as it makes for largely straightforward level designs, and establishes the stakes for mankind nice and quickly.

Past a certain point though, the game kind of seems to lose the plot a bit? After trekking through something like the upteenth brick-walled city block, you’ll make a stop at the real-life scenic Getty Museum — complete with hanging banners advertising that fact, and featuring a travelling art exhibition of weird green domes. From here you’ll descend into the sewers, stomp around a cemetery, dash across the rooftops of skyscrapers, and even touch down back on the ground at a football stadium. All this before checking out some crop circles out by some farmsteads, and promptly being whisked away to a series of non-descript “military base” stages that wrap up the traveling portion of the campaign on a decidedly anti-climatic note. By seeing players tour across seemingly all of the country, you never get the sense you’re headed towards any one destination in particular; rather just stumbling into trouble whichever direction you try to go.

It’s also in these missions you are introduced to your other primary type of mission objective, which will see you rescuing hapless bystanders by means of bumping into them and teleporting them instantaneously to safety. Around this point, you may begin to feel like you’re playing something like a 3D take on Robotron: 2084 — which, I reckon there’s already a Robotron X for those looking for that sort of take on the formula? But I’m gonna go out on a limb here and claim that Enforcer actually does have a bit more going for it in terms of depth. There’s also the key difference in not being able to harm civilians in Enforcer, effectively rendering them as another form of stationary pick-up item to be collected in the crossfire. What’s interesting about this are the remnants of unused voiceover lines in the game’s sound files, where the professor seems to berate you for either failing to save or accidentally killing the humans you are meant to rescue.

It’s honestly kind of shocking just how bare this finalized gameplay loop is laid; where the only way to fail a mission is to die, and the only consequence for death is to have to restart said mission. I can picture the developers initially planning for civilians to be very much vulnerable, with each life you’re unable to save deducting from your end-of-mission reward — maybe even forfeiting it entirely, if you score below a given quota. I can also just as easily imagine Hasbro suits stepping in to say “that’s DEFINITELY not happening” over fears of a potential M rating from the ESRB. As such, you are free to bombard hapless bystanders to kingdom come if you find them surrounded by aliens, as they’ll come out entirely unscathed.

Variations on the standard objectives are rare — and surprisingly unwelcome, when they do end up rearing their ugly heads. The few levels that dare to deviate from the formula account for some of the worst in the game: A couple of “on-rails” levels where you’re stuck surviving enemy waves on a small boat and slow-moving elevator, plus a pair of missions that see you having to protect some defenseless humans (civilians in a city and pilots on a plane) until a timer expires. Simply put, these missions are absolutely miserable; forcing you to stand and wait in place for extended lengths of time, playing defensively in a game that is built entirely around the strategy of bringing your most vicious offense to the table at all other times. And again, if you find yourself still trying to rely on the early game arsenal in these stages, you’ll quickly find your progress halted by the proverbial wall. Obviously, it behooves you to unlock some of those better weapons as soon as possible.

If you’re like me and have a compulsive need to collect and unlock everything a video game has on offer, your natural inclination may be to unlock every new weapon as they’re made available to you. Take it from me, though: This is a huge mistake. For starters, it must be noted that the Enforcer can only carry one weapon at a time — beginning each stage with your default laser weapon (and switching back to it if you should expend all your ammo), and relying on randomly-spawning weapons from your pool of unlocked items to materialize in front of you. In effect, this means that with the more weapons and power-ups you choose to unlock, your chances of being able to call which items spawn in over the course of a level become that much slimmer. In a word, this is all very much unintuitive, and can serve to complicate the later game as it continues to provide you with many of the same ineffective armaments from the early stages.

To provide something like a “Buyer Beware” here, there are a few weapons I would suggest you avoid unlocking altogether, perhaps conserving some of your precious data points for later investments. The first and foremost of these weapons is the altogether useless Freeze Gun, which can naturally be used to freeze enemies in place. Unfortunately, it does so in very inefficient manner, with a small splash radius freezing maybe two or three enemies as you fire into a mob of baddies. Furthermore, it takes something like four or five more successive shots if you want to freeze enemies to the point of shattering, which is the only lethal means you’ll have on hand when stuck with this gun. I’d also write off the Flame Thrower on similar grounds, as the amount of time and ammo you have to expend on incinerating just a single enemy simply aren’t worth it.

You may also find yourself tempted by the likes of the Vibroblade XL: A spinning blade-type gadget that works as something like the game’s sole melee weapon. It’s just a bummer that it can’t effectively stun some of the later-game enemies, who will take to tearing you apart while you hopelessly grind against them. I also have to take umbrage with the Psi-Cannon — even as it serves as the sole reference to the efforts of X-COM’s elite Psionic Operatives. It’s actually a decently powerful weapon capable of piercing through walls and other enemies, but at the cost of rendering your field of view completely consumed by the color green. You’ve gotta wonder if some sort of deliberate attempt at discouraging players from spamming the screen-encompassing projectiles, or just a total design oversight?

All this probably begs the question: What guns are actually good to use? Well, as it turns out, most of the rest of them are all pretty fun to fire! Blade, Grenade, and Rocket Launchers all tear up alien mobs in viscerally satisfying ways. An upgraded Lightning Gun will chain baddies together with deathly electric current, stunning them in truly shocking fashion. Even the straightforward Mass Driver – operating like a slow-firing railgun – can prove an entertaining enemy-eliminator as it clears paths through the most dense of crowds. Of course, none of these can so much as touch the Enforcer’s final unlock: The mushroom-cloud laying Nuker, which can literally clear the screen of hundreds of enemies with a single shot. If you’re the sort who goes for seeing numbers and “COMBO” notifications popping up all across your screen as you slay enemies in games, then boy howdy, this might well be the weapon for you!

I’m sorry to say it y’all, but the ability to decimate dozens of enemies per second is an absolute guilty pleasure of mine in games. I’m a sucker for any scenario where I get to wipe the floor with hundreds of no-gooders at a time, and earn totally arbitrary points / experience for doing so. I’m one of those folk who just can’t look away as I watch on-screen numbers getting bigger and herds of abject villains getting smaller. At a certain point in the campaign – so long as you’ve been consistently unlocking and upgrading your potential – Enforcer abandons all pretense of the odds being stacked against you, and lets you roam wild as the killing machine you were built to be. And when it reaches this point, it honestly becomes just a ton of dang fun for the likes of me.

Of course, there are some caveats to all this. For starters, that one-gun-at-a-time mechanic means that touching any other weapon will immediately and irreversibly overwrite your currently held weapon; meaning that you might accidentally drop your coveted Nuker for any other inferior firearm, should you so much as stumble into them in the heat of battle. With nothing like a “weapon priority” list or button to confirm that you want to swap weapons, you may be shocked to discover just how often inopportune weapon switches may occur — especially considering how easily overwhelmed the screen may become by the projectiles and particle effects created by some of those more powerful guns. Sometimes though, it’ll be as simple a having to navigate down a narrow passage with an unwanted gun in the way, and having to either wait it out for the weapon to despawn or attempting to vault over it.

Another issue is that discovering all these better weapons and power-ups is contingent on discovering every secret that every level has in store, which may well lead to additional minutes of backtracking and testing walls for secret breakaways in stages that would otherwise only take just a couple of minutes to complete. Remember that those new upgrades are only unlocked as you track down the often well-hidden research items, and only affordable if you’re seeking out the bonus stages [and being constantly mindful about linking your combos together]. In effect, I found myself stopping short right before completing the final objective of so many missions, so I could take the time to retrace and re-examine every sector in the level for where those pick-ups might be hiding — a task only made more tedious by how rigid and uncooperative the camera is. On occasions where these key items are hidden behind clunky jumping puzzles or otherwise stationed somewhere well above the Enforcer’s eye level, you have to wonder just who signed off on these final stage layouts?

To be totally honest, I’m not a fan of hunting for secrets in the best of games (your Dooms and Zeldas or what have you), and so their major role in Enforcer is a negative mark in my books. It’s not that any of them are all too difficult to find, or particular head-scratchers as to how to actually reach them. Hell, if you were reared on the classic 2.5D FPS games of the mid-90s, you’ll probably agree that their implementation here is pretty accessible. For me though, it’s just a matter of… well, they absolutely kill the momentum for me? I don’t like constantly having to start and stop my alien-smashing sprees so that I can scan the room for some obscured orb that’ll let me get my hands on the more fun weapons. It just feels at complete odds with the high-energy arcade shooter gameplay, where you might well expect to be punished for standing still and taking in your surroundings. And yet, it’s such a vital piece of the gameplay puzzle here, it feels like a major punishment is placed on players who don’t feel like taking pause.

If there’s another positive to taking the time to track down these secrets, it’s in unlocking and playing the post-mission bonus missions. Collecting the five letters that spell out BONUS will whisk you away to one of five minigames, where you get the opportunity to pick up a ton of extra data points. With the particular bonus game picked seemingly at random, there are some you’ll hope for more than others: The two bonus games with the highest yields would seem to be “Muton Tag-Team” (taking place in a caged wrestling ring) and “Warehouse Blowout” (surrounding you with breakable wooden boxes), and as such serve as the most practical picks. The most amusing two, however, are definitely “Enforcer Man” (an entirely shameless Pac-Man homage) and “Highway Madness” (a low-rent Frogger), if only for how audacious their gimmicks are. Oh, and there’s also “Alien Rip-Off,” which plays like a particularly choresome Mario Party minigame or something, and doesn’t even pay out all that well.

Come the later game, you can eventually stop seeking out the bonus stages if you so choose, as you’re able to earn plenty of points over the course of the standard missions alone. As alien mobs begin to total in the dozens being on-screen at once, and with the potential for combos and streaks to net you thousands of additional data points come level’s end, you’re free to forgo playing poor man’s Pac-Man for the upteenth time. The trick to reaping these benefits is to specialize in using weapons with blast or spread damage, which can zap multiple aliens simultaneously, contributing to a combo counter. The game also tracks killstreaks by measuring how many eliminations you’re able to accomplish before taking damage, rewarding you with triple the score of your highest killstreak in data points come the mission tally screen.

At the same time, there’s the additional element of a “Hot Streak” meter on the side of the screen you’ll want to try and build up, by means of building on killstreaks for as long as possible and avoiding damage (as it deducts from the meter). If you can manage to cap off the Hot Streak bar, the game will reward you by tossing tons of bonus points and items at you right in the middle of your mission. Though given how absolutely chaotic the screen can become, and the tendency of enemies to surround you on all sides whenever possible, this is far easier said than done. As a matter of fact, I think I managed to max out the Hot Streak maybe… twice over the course of the campaign? Oh, and the game [and accompanying manual] completely forget to so much as explain the concept of the Hot Streak in all their contents, as far as I can gather? That there’s a great way of incentivizing players to take advantage of it.

Now, there’s also the matter of boss encounters to consider, wherein defeating them should probably net you thousands of points. Slight problem though, in that they totally don’t: You’re lucky to see a couple of the elusive 100-point pick-ups drop while you’re being showered with dozens of 1-pointers. What’s particularly disappointing about this is, the boss battles in Enforcer can actually pose quite the challenge! Boasting bignormous health bars that barely seem to tick down with your best barrages of bullets, and with attacks that can stun and deplete you in a matter of moments, these fights prove to be some of the most difficult in the whole dang game. And even if several of the bosses can admittedly be thwarted by simple circle-strafing, there’s the matter of constantly-spawning mobs set to distract and damage you. Credit where credit is due: The developers made sure these bosses were no joke.

Well, if we’re being honest, there actually are couple of comical qualities to the bosses. For one, the intro animations that play out before you square off against them feature them standing absolutely statuesque as walls crumble around them or any other animations play out. This probably has something to do with how the game handles all AI during cutscenes, where in order to guarantee that you can’t be killed or damaged during cinematics, the game just shuts enemies and their animations down temporarily until control can resume. Of course, there’s also the matter of a handful of bosses who barely move or animate to begin with, which is pretty silly-looking in itself.

Secondarily, there’s the matter of one boss in particular – a pair of large aliens stationed in a cave – whose attacks envelop the Enforcer in a bubble where he is left completely stunned and stationary. And wouldn’t you know it, they can chain this particular attack enough times in a row to see you rendered completely stuck in place until you’re completely dead? Now, I can imagine some folk finding this fight absolutely infuriating, but I just can’t help but laugh at how ill-thought-out the whole encounter is. It’s one of those kinds of design decisions that points again to this whole game being rushed to pass, with barely as much time as for a second or third pass at playtesting. When all is said and done, you may end up forfeiting a few rounds against this duo, but it’s hard for me to get too mad about it what with the total lack of punishment for doing so. At some point, you just have to learn to effectively utilize your dodging capabilities, and get on with the game.

Oh, about that dodging though: Nine times out of ten, it’ll probably end up doing you more harm than good. As made an available function by 1998’s Unreal, quick dodges send you leaping or in whichever direction of movement key you may double-tap. We’re not just talking a stationary bob or weave here, but a full-on jump and lunge. And the thing of it is, the window between double-taps is a bit more lenient than you probably imagine. So now, picture an inadvertent double-tap in the heat of battle that sends you further in one direction than you may well intend — possibly towards a traveling projectile or into a mass of aliens on your flank. Obviously, there’s a potential here to accidentally trigger dodges that actually wind up getting Enforcer injured. Or hey, you know what’s more frustrating? Falling off a platform in one of the game’s ill-advised jumping puzzles, or off of a high-elevation stage to your death down below.

Yes, despite the game leaning deeply into top-down shooter design, it still has the audacity in some missions to stick you on small platforms with deadly drops all around. I mentioned a level earlier that sticks you on a small boat traveling across a river (“Hover Boat Havoc”), which pits you against waves of enemies spanning across a fixed five-minute countdown. While the size of the arena is already not conducive to the design and perspective of the game, the real kicker is the fact that falling off the sides sends you sinking into the sea to your doom. And while the deck is at least surrounded on all sides to keep you from just slipping off, you can clear the hurdles by jumping or – you guessed it – dodging. I lost more lives and failed more attempts at this mission than I care to admit, all on account of accidental trips over the edges and into the watery depths. Whether you fall victim to accidental double-taps, poorly-aimed jumps, or even enemy knockback damage; there’s no way of not feeling cheated by the stage.

Another egregiously-designed mission goes by the name “Rooftop Rumble.” As you may well expect from a name like that, it takes place across a series of rooftops, situated well above the city streets. One such slip similar to any of those present in the boat level results in a similarly fatal free-fall. Of course, the key difference here in this level is that platforming and traversal are now required, with balancing acts across precarious bridges and battles behind billboards. It’s another example of stage design that feels at odds with the gameplay at hand. On the other hand though, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of the more visually striking levels in the campaign, if not one of the more creatively-designed as well? It feels like a decent little level plucked from a better game. And even if the game’s controls are a bit ill-fitting for it, it still ends up being one of the stand-out missions.

Which brings me to another point: While the attempt at variety of level design across Enforcer’s campaign is certainly admirable, it often leaves you feeling like map-making duties were assigned to a dozen different developers — each with their own ideas for how the game should be played / how levels should be designed, and each left to craft their own missions individually. In actuality, there are four credited “Level / Scenario Designers,” and I would guess there was probably plenty of crossover or collaboration between them in building the game’s levels together. That still doesn’t change the fact that levels can vary so wildly from one to the next over the course of the campaign, that it may well leave you feeling whiplash.

One of the most wild examples of this is a mission titled “Parking Garage Mayhem,” which sees you rescuing civilians in and around a multi-story parking garage. Standard enough an objective for the game, but here’s the thing: For this level and this level only, the camera is zoomed wayyy out and above your Enforcer — seriously to the point where you almost feel like you’re playing an entirely different video game! It’s honestly a camera angle that I wish the rest of the game could’ve stuck with, as it gives you far better perspective and peripheral vision than the standard behind-the-back positioning. To top it off, it’s also one of just a few stages (maybe three total?) that you have to manually exit after completing your objectives, whereas other levels start a thirty-second teleport timer on you finishing your duties. Certainly a minor change to the structure, but still indicative of the total lack of consistency.

Throughout all this though, there is at least one constant to the game: The Professor’s constant voiceover playing in your ear. It appears that Mr. Standard can’t seem to go his own thirty seconds without some sort of quip or bit of direction for you, which may well quickly become grating for you as a player. If you should briefly lollygag in heading towards your next objective, the Professor will chirp in to remind you what you’re doing and flash a directional arrow on your screen. If you should approach the outer bounds of the level, you’ll be promptly scolded for “going the wrong way.” Take damage, and your creator will either express his concern for your safety or bemoan you as a bucket of bolts. Whether he’s counting down the number of transporters left to destroy, civilians left to rescue, or congratulating you on an ongoing killing spree, the Professor always seems to have something to say. Oh, and naturally, it is all delivered in an comically nasal “generic nerd” voice. It’s enough to make you wanna blow up the poor bastard’s lab and leave him for dead!

Oh, by the way: That’s the big “plot twist” I alluded to earlier. Preceding the game’s final mission, a cutscene shows Enforcer returning to the laboratory to find it demolished, with the Professor himself laying in a heap and breathing his last breaths. His final words serve to inform you of an incoming alien mothership, congratulate you on serving Earth well, and to send you on “one last mission.” Truly, a touching moment in a game with close to no plot, commiserating the loss of a character who most players will probably consider a nuisance at best. With your final directive initiated, you step into your transporter, and beam up to face your final mission aboard an alien vessel… so long as you’re not playing on “Easy” difficulty, that is.

Yeah, as it turns out, Enforcer is one of those games that locks you out of the final couple of levels if you’re not playing on a difficulty of “Normal” or above. So, if you’re planning to breeze through on Easy, the last thing you’ll see is a cartoony screen telling you to crank up the challenge a bit before you’re allowed to go any further. Obliging the game lets you tackle an apocalyptically-tinted level titled “Helltown” on a burning bit of city street, before watching the Professor croak and proceeding to stage your “Assault on the Mothership.” This mission – meant to represent the most difficult gauntlet in the game – should be easily cleared so long as you’ve been diligent in upgrading your Enforcer and arsenal. With a Nuker in hand, blowing the final boss (the so-called “High Ethereal”) to smithereens ain’t no thing, and your reward is the spectacle of the whole mothership going kaboom along with them. Except, wait a minute: You’re still on-board too!

In a final, downer bit of ending in what has otherwise been a decidedly goofy game, you see your Enforcer blown to pieces; sparking and floating within the debris of the mothership, and left to rust in the depths of space. Our robotic reclaimer recalls the final words of their inventor, before their systems ultimately suffer critical failure and shut down. The only small glimmer of hope after the screen fades to black is the sound of your system attempting to reboot — though what good would that even do at this stage? Roll credits, return to title screen, and appreciate the sacrifice of one Able Standard and his achievement of engineering. The Earth is safe for another day, but at what cost? Who is left to protect it now? Is alien apocalypse still in our future?

Welp, that’s enough of that: It’s time to check out the New Game plus! With your job well done, you’re encouraged to dive right back in again, with a handful of new skins for your player model and all of your research already unlocked [and awaiting you to spend data points to re-activate them]. Now you can replay the campaign looking like some sort of Frankenstein-monster-machine and your trusty Nuker right out the gate, rendering any sense of challenge practically non-existent. And you know what? I totally went ahead and replayed the whole dang thing again shortly after finishing it for the first time. Blowing through the early game with overkill for an arsenal is way more fun than it ought to be, and making record time through the grind ends up being an altogether entertaining excursion. That being said, “one more run” was plenty enough for me, and I doubt I’ll have any desire to challenge again any time in the near future.

Now with the campaign fully squared away, what does that leave you with? Well, not much else really if you’re trying to play the game in modern day, seeing the included online multiplayer module is long-since dead, with seemingly no community interested in reviving it. If you’re willing to mess around with Unreal console commands and server utilities, you can pretty easily get a server for deathmatch up and hosted, but good luck finding other folk interested in dialing into it. I, for one, could not convince anyone I know to join me in this pursuit. Judging from the lack of any multiplayer footage on YouTube, I’m going to assume that not many others have made the attempt either. All that awaits in deathmatch anyhow is no-frills fragging across a selection of repurposed levels from the campaign, plus what seems to be one exclusive arena (named “DM_WetWired”). The only highlight here is an “All Nukers” mutator you can set for your server, which I can only imagine how that would play out.

Oh, but there is one additional multiplayer component to be explored: Cooperative play across the whole campaign! If you can sucker just one buddy into connecting to a session, you can tear your way through the story together. With the option to start the co-op campaign from any level you so choose, there is the additional conceit of having all research items unlocked right off the bat as well — so that you don’t have to worry about maintaining progression between play sessions / have immediate access to all the weapons and upgrades you’d want to have for later in the game. Of course, this also means that you can just start from the top with Nukers in hand as if you’re diving into NG+, but that’s entirely up to your discretion. I honestly believe that a co-op run might well be good fun with a friend, so long as neither player takes the proceedings all too seriously.

And that is well and truly it for the breadth of X-COM: Enforcer’s content. Thirty-something levels took me all of three hours to complete my first time through, and probably less than sixty minutes on replay. Considering the value proposition as proposed back in 2001 – with the game launching at a slightly-above budget price of $30 USD – it’s all certainly a bit light on features. I also have the sneaking suspicion that the deathmatch multiplayer was likely dead on arrival, with players likely quickly realizing that the stripped-down take on Unreal Tournament doesn’t even come close to the genuine article it’s derived from. Leaving players with just a short campaign to chew on and little impetus to improve on timed runs through it (or to chase a non-existent high score), I can’t help but call the whole package “lacking.” And as for the slim pickings that are available to prospective players, it’s not even particularly well-polished.

Graphically, it’s all acceptable enough I reckon, considering the masses of enemies that may appear on-screen simultaneously. If I were looking to be generous here, I’d come up with the excuse on behalf of the developers that adding more detail to the graphics would result in potential slowdowns during gameplay, and that the more simplistic style is a deliberate move to ensure better performance. It’s also got some half-scenic lighting across several levels, and there is a decent variety of designs for the different alien bastards. That being said, the game does inherit the Unreal Engine quirk of occasional “swimming textures”; which are particularly noticeable when seen on the Enforcer itself, with animations that stretch and distort the metallic textures in every which direction. I daresay it can even be a bit distracting at times — especially during the scant few minutes of cutscene in the game.

In the audio department, I would have to write off the sound effects and noises as somewhat irritating. It’s not that any of them are particularly egregious or unfitting for the game at hand. It’s just that, when the game is at its most hectic, there’s just so much going on that it can get to sounding like total cacophony. It’s enough to completely drown out the rather unremarkable electronic soundtrack, consisting of just a small pool of tracks that you’ll hear repeated over and over again over the course of the game. Even when given brief moments of silence to appreciate it, I can’t say any instrumental stems or solos really stood out to me: It’s all very much “in one ear and out the other.” My apologies to composer Roland J. Rizzo, who seems to do fine work for the most part — even continuing to serve as audio designer on the recent run of XCOM titles!

Between the constant noises firing off and unending barrages of enemies, I feel like I could describe Enforcer as something like a “Wall of Booms.” Y’know, like how folk refer to overly-dense musical productions as a “Wall of Sound?” In the case of Enforcer, it’s like your every sensory function is being constantly engaged — damn near assaulted, even. It’s an experience that does not let up until you make the conscious decision to disengage, and one which I can imagine being incredibly exhausting for some. And even for those who can withstand the barrage, it’s hard to claim that the game doesn’t get a bit repetitive in pretty short order. All the beeps, boops, and flashing lights in the world can’t distract from how bare-bones the core of the gameplay is.

Of course, there are plenty of arcade-style games that are able to do more with even less — to take even simpler gameplay loops to an even further and deeper extent. To pick a top-down shooter that feels somewhat mechanically similar to Enforcer, let’s consider something like Alien Breed, and how an experience along those lines manages to stave off the immediate feelings of repetition. For that game in particular – and demonstrating a mechanic entirely lacking in Enforcer – ammo conservation plays a major role in the game, causing you to consider your shots more carefully. For comparison, Enforcer tosses weapons and resources at you faster than you can even pick them up, reinforcing the idea of you as an unstoppable killing machine. And while that idea certainly has its appeal at times, the novelty can wear off awful quick.

Additionally to Alien Breed’s design credit: You’re not constantly engaged with and staving off swarms of enemies. But rather than providing you with a sense of downtime, the game actually manages to remain tense in these moments by implying the threat of incoming aliens, and building on an atmosphere of dread. It gives more weight to your encounters with the enemy, and makes them feel like a more tangible threat. For comparison, Enforcer has no downtime outside of choosing to further explore stages after destroying all the present transporters, and presents its alien menace largely as ineffectual goons to be casually shot at and dispatched. There’s just no risk to any of the action in Enforcer — no long-term consequences for your mistakes, no threat of failure for not sufficiently protecting civilians, and no problems dealing with the bulk of the enemy forces.

Add to all that a progression system that serves to further overpower you against the already pitiful alien army, and you can see how the challenge quickly dissipates and disappears altogether. Rather than a gradual grind towards becoming a more formidable force – to be capped off by turning the tides against a previously overwhelming enemy – you kind of start the game off already well-equipped to deal with the extraterrestrial menace in full. For all my talk earlier of upgrading your arsenal, it’s all for the sake of convenience rather than necessity. Of course, all this serves as something like the complete antithesis to classic X-COM as we like to picture it: Squaring off against insurmountable odds, and barely scraping by through each encounter. The failure of Enforcer as an X-COM title isn’t its drastic shift in genre: It’s in the complete departure from tangible threats and meaningful progression.

So, what could’ve been done to help remedy this? What features from classic X-COM could’ve been re-incorporated in order to give Enforcer some much-needed depth? For one, I’d place a stronger emphasis on the civilians and your attempts to rescue them, with the potential consequences of their deaths weighing more heavily on the Enforcer’s efforts. Rather than data points seemingly growing on trees, have them allocated more sparingly, serving as rewards for exceptional mission performance. And rather than have a constantly supply of power-ups spawning in and keeping your Enforcer in tip-top shape, I’d make the machine a rusty bucket of bolts that has to scrape by to keep from becoming scrap: Scrounging for ammo, limited in repair options mid-mission, and lucky if it should get its hands on even the weakest of weapons. Granted, all this would certainly take away from the light-hearted arcade nature of the game; where that’s kind of the whole point here, isn’t it?

As I admitted earlier, I found ways to have my fun during a tour of destruction, blowing up countless numbers of foes from outer space. Hell, it was fun enough to get me to play the whole campaign a second time, going in even more ridiculously overpowered than before! But that’s not an appealing prospect to all players — especially not to the typical X-COM audience, looking for tactical gameplay and tight resource management. Even for those looking for the sort of full-on power trip that Enforcer provides, the game still can’t realize all of its potential, and there’s so much room for improvement as to make the game feel tiny and insignificant within its presence. Despite its many flaws – and boy, are there many – I may well still have enjoyed my time with Enforcer. But that time is still too short, and that enjoyment quickly fleets. In a word, X-COM: Enforcer is “disposable”: Something to be consumed and discarded shortly thereafter, and hopefully pleasant enough for its short duration.

This concept is explored in something like a more elaborate depth in Firaxis’ XCOM 2, which imagines a scenario where the aliens have won and firmly planted their flag on Earth. In this universe, XCOM truly are a scrappy little resistance force operating without government funding, and forced to loot and scavenge for practically every bit of their supply stock. Honestly, it’s probably the most interesting direction the X-COM narrative has ever gone in — though the timeline envisioned by the likes of X-COM: Apocalypse with dome cities on an otherwise uninhabitable planet is certainly a contender.
I use “option” in the sense of how it’s used in shoot-em-up games: Pick-ups which add an additional barrel or component to your ship / character, and allow you to increase the amount of projectiles you launch with each shot. In Enforcer, this manifests as a small drone that hovers over your shoulder, blasting additional lasers at nearby enemies with every shot you fire from your primary weapon.

“A Fridge Could’ve Done Better!”

Needless to say, X-COM: Enforcer did not set the world on fire or revitalize the X-COM brand. Rather than giving consumers hope for the future of the franchise or serving to distract from the continual delays made to Alliance, it only served to sow further doubts and uncertainty in Hasbro’s handling of the property. It’s not even as if the game was critically savaged on release, either. The sad fact is, its release barely seemed to register with most review outlets to begin with. At the very least, it saw coverage from the major websites and PC publications who could afford to assign reviewers to any and every new release: PC Gamer’s print issue for July 2001 set a low-hanging bar for the game, declaring “This sure ain’t X-COM. But it’s a decent, if mindless, shoot-’em-up backed by the Unreal Tournament engine.”

That does seem to set the tone for the bulk of subsequent critical reviews, with a general consensus that the game is a bit of “dumb fun” — if not still unworthy of the X-COM name. GameSpot’s Greg Kasavin went as far as to open a largely complementary review of the title with a contrastingly critical proclamation: “For die-hard fans of the X-COM strategy games, Enforcer is a travesty: It flagrantly abandons all of the suspenseful, tactical combat that made X-COM popular in the first place. […] This is unfortunate for X-COM fans, and actually, it’s also too bad for X-COM: Enforcer. On its own terms, Enforcer is a fast-paced and rather fun shooter, though it’ll prove too easy for veteran players.” A similar theme seen appearing in other multiple reviews would be writers referencing the still-unreleased Alliance, with IGN being one of the largest outlets crying out the rally call: “Well, it’s not X-COM Alliance and I thought I’d hate it just for that reason, but after a few minutes, I found myself having lots of fun with X-COM Enforcer.”

For those looking to see the game torn to shreds in its own time, the most savage review [notable enough for the likes of Metacritic] came courtesy of the perennial Game Revolution. Author Nebojsa Radakovic certainly doesn’t steer away from hyperbole, likening the title to “a good example of what some teenager could do with the Unreal engine, a Commodore 64 and 2 sticks of chewing gum.” Clarifying their thoughts, they evaluate that “Throngs of enemies are cool, but lame level design, an overly powerful main character, lackluster visuals, ear-wrenching sound and annoying gameplay make for a shooter that is anything but fun. It’s just downhill from the start.” With their review clearly written from the perspective of a long-time X-COM fan, their voice can be seen to echo a portion of the audience growing ever more impatient for a proper new installment in the franchise.

The truth of the matter is even at its height, X-COM was a niche series for a niche market: One which managed to exceed sales expectations in its early days and expand past its projected reach, but still not “fit” for consumption by the mainstream games market. In attempting to make it more accessible to a larger audience, all it served to do was irritate the franchises core demographic, while also completely failing to rope in new consumers in the process. In theory, it’s easy to understand why Hasbro / MicroProse ordered that Enforcer go in this direction and mandated that it all be rushed to pass. But the execution of said order sure didn’t do them any favors. In the end, all their stalling and diversionary tactics would fail to stave off the inevitable: Time ran out for X-COM, as it did for MicroProse at large.

As a matter of fact, the killing blow had been struck on January 30th, 2001, with the sale of Hasbro’s interactive division to Infogrames. As it turned out, Hasbro Interactive had been a money-loser from the start for the corporation, and they were more than happy to rid themselves of it come the turn of the new year. With all associated studios and digital trademarks under that umbrella now in the hands of Infogrames Entertainment, it came time for their new bosses to weigh their worth and make cuts accordingly. In the case of MicroProse, this meant retaining the rights to several of their properties (including the likes of Civilization and Rollercoaster Tycoon), but opting to kill off the label at large. In fact, X-COM: Enforcer’s release marked the final title released under the studio’s name, before its staff were either made redundant or re-assigned to other departments within Infogrames. With the once treasured X-COM rights now in their hands, Infrogrames opted to stick them right under their keisters to simply sit on them.

Both Alliance and Genesis were quietly and unceremoniously shelved. Hope for these titles continued to be held out by some for months even following Enforcer’s release, with consumers and even industry pundits unaware of Infogrames’ plans (or lack thereof). But even as the new management attempted to bury X-COM in the deep, they could not escape the terror of its curse: The Hasbro Interactive acquisition did not bolster the company’s fortunes as initially hoped, with continued losses posted in the hundreds of millions across the next two years. Come 2003, the business plan was enacted to reorganize and rename Infogrames as Atari Inc., leading to years of branding and ownership confusion continuing to this very day. Not that any of this mattered for MicroProse at this point, who had been long-since dismantled and dissolved.

From the ashes, however, came a glimmer in the soot: With the rights to X-COM going unused and continuing to drop in value, the option to purchase them in 2005 was taken up by Take-Two Interactive, who would assign them to their Firaxis Games studio. Of course, the full fruits of this labor would not ripen for close to a decade, and X-COM fans would still need to suffer another series of years-long fiascos before finally being rewarded for their patience. But the story of of that whole debacle is for another time — a future article on the subject of another XCOM game.

Enforcer is a fascinating relic in the history of X-COM. It stood for eleven years as the shoddy tombstone to a dearly-departed franchise, before the series rose from the dead with life and soul anew. How fitting is it that the game itself ended on the dour note of its protagonist and their creator both dead and doomed to lay dormant? That, and that the last bit of hope during the conclusion should come from a robot attempting to reboot itself, and drift its way through silent space, back towards the remnants of a population thankful for its efforts.

An aside here for something I found personally amusing: The page after the review for Enforcer in this issue is a positively brutal review for an incredibly ill-advised conversion of the 1991 arcade laserdisc title Hologram Time Traveler. Netting itself a nifty 7%, Chuck Osborn calls it out as “an exercise in pure greed,” and highlights the absolutely disgusting asking price of $39.95.

[1] Pitts, Russ. “The Making of XCOM’s James Solomon.” Polygon. January 31, 2013. Web.
“Julian Gollop.” Retro Gamer. February 4, 2014. Web.
Mitchell, Richard. “The original X-COM was briefly canceled, boosted by X-Files.” Engadget. March 28, 2013. Web.
“Interview With XCOM Creator Julian Gollop.” NowGamer. August 30, 2011. Web. (Archive)
Bickham, Al. “The Story of X-Com.” Eurogamer. November 28, 2010. Web.
Gollop, Julian. “X-COM: Apocalypse.” MythosGames.com. Circa February 2001? Web. (Archive)
Neill, Gary. “Dave Ellis: Genesis.” The Last Outpost. April 25, 2003. Web.
b Butts, Stephen. “X-COM: Alliance Interview and Movie.” IGN. June 5, 2000. Web.
“X-COM Alliance Delayed… Again.” IGN. January 8, 2001. Web.
Griliopoulos, Dan. “Julian Gollop interview: on X-Coms old and new […]” PC Gamer. April 29, 2013. Web.
Smolka, Rob. “Reviews: X-COM Enforcer.” PC Gamer, Volume 8 Issue 7. July 2001. Print.
Kasavin, Greg. “X-COM: Enforcer Review.” GameSpot. April 23, 2001. Web.
Butts, Steve. “X-COM: Enforcer.” IGN. February 2, 2001. Web.
Radakovic, Nebojsa. “X-Com Enforcer Review.” Game Revolution. May 1, 2001. Web.

Cassidy is the curator of a bad video game hall of fame. Whether you interpret that as "a hall of fame dedicated to bad video games" or as "a sub-par hall of fame for video games" is entirely up to you. Prefers "They / Them" pronouns. Genuine cowpoke.

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1 Comment

  1. The Opponent says:

    When you describe the endgame as blasting huge quantities of enemies with giant weapons and watching numbers tally up rapidly, it just made me think of Earth Defense Force. I assume you’re familiar with it already, since it basically takes the conceit of an alien invasion versus soldiers with infinite ammo and hones it to a degree no one else really has.

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