The original X-COM combined excellent tactical turn-based combat with detailed facility and personnel management, effectively making a game that was much more than the sum of its parts. Like its namesake, X-COM: Interceptor (the fourth in the series) blends two distinct genres into a satisfying whole. This time, though, the tactical combat is gone. You still have to manage bases and hire personnel, but the squad-level strategy has been replaced with deep space dogfighting. It's an interesting premise; imagine Wing Commander with a dynamic campaign, and you'll have a good idea of what the designers set out to achieve.
As in previous X-COM games, you must lead a military force to eliminate an alien menace. This time out, however, the region you are defending is not Earth (as in UFO Defense or Terror from the Deep), nor is it a single city (as in Apocalypse). Instead, you must defend a group of star systems undergoing commercialization by humans. As in Apocalypse, your supporters are businesses who have set up outposts within the region. Defend them well, and your monthly income will increase. Let a few fall to alien raids, and you'll watch your funds slowly dwindle.
With your money, you build bases and equip them with the needed facilities and interceptors. You must also hire pilots to fly your craft. Unlike the previous installments in the series, however, you needn't worry about hiring workers to manufacture new equipment or scientists to research alien artifacts. Research is automatically done when you recover a new artifact, and your bases are equipped with communications links that allow you to download research results. This process, depending on your technology level and the sophistication of the information you are downloading, can take anywhere from a few days to several months of game time. On the manufacturing side, you simply place orders, and the local businesses will deliver shipments after the manufacturing is complete.
This allows you to spend your time sending out interceptors and probes to explore the galaxy, and engage the enemy when necessary. Unfortunately, the space combat isn't particularly innovative, and it grows repetitive over the course of the game. There are two problems with the combat. First, the engine isn't as sleek as more recent entries in the genre, such as Wing Commander Prophecy or Decent: Freespace. Second, the dynamic nature of the campaign becomes monotonous. It's interesting at first; if you don't intercept an incoming enemy fleet, it will attack one of your outposts or bases, and a routine dogfight will turn into a more urgent base defense mission. But after a while it becomes apparent that there are really only four types of missions: attacking the enemy in deep space, attacking an enemy base or outpost, defending an X-COM base or outpost, and attacking the enemy supply lines. The only deviation from these four types is the final battle, the only scripted mission in the game and by far the most exciting. After a few dozen of each, you really start wishing there were an option to automate combat - especially when your fleet is attacking an inferior enemy force or an undefended alien probe. Unfortunately, you must fly every mission. Interceptor also includes a multiplayer mode, which allows up to eight players to dogfight over a network or Internet connection. The multiplayer games allow for team play, but in dogfights only - there's no means of playing cooperatively against the aliens.
The strategic side of things is much better, but it has its own problems. The most glaring problem is the research tree, which gives you most of the really powerful ship upgrades near the beginning of the game. This causes the pacing of the game to be quite erratic. Research has always been X-COM's carrot-on-a-stick, the thing that drives you to keep playing long into the evening. In Interceptor there are dozens of research options at the beginning, but hardly any near the end. There are also very few X-COM ship types available and only a few more alien ships. On the other hand, there are dozens of weapon types - and apart from one extremely powerful beam weapon (the tracer cannon) each weapon type has its own strengths and usefulness. The quick pace of the upgrades does overcome one problem: Interceptor's difficulty level. Your first combat encounter is likely to send you into fits of frustration; it's almost impossible to target the far more maneuverable alien craft. As your technology level improves, though, combat becomes much more manageable.
The second problem with the strategic portion is the limited number of bases you are allowed to build. You can have eight in all, but you must place them within a certain range of other bases. This makes it almost impossible to effectively cover the majority of the territory, and it seems like an artificial constraint to keep you from completely eliminating the enemy before the endgame.
Graphically, X-COM is inconsistent. The alien ships look good, as do the bases and explosions - and 3D acceleration is provided via Direct3D, which improves things quite bit. But this is not Wing Commander Prophecy. Much of the game is somewhat dull looking; the hyperspace jump at the end of each mission - a simple, blue star-shaped burst - is a particularly good example. The ships follow Apocalypse's futuristic-retro look, with side-view mirrors and stickers that say things like "I Brake for Sectoids." It's cute, but those who liked the somber, scary tone of the original will find elements like this out of place. This humoristic approach continues into your wingmen's comments, including statements like "That's for abducting Cartman!" Sure, some will find it funny - but will military personnel really be making references to South Park in the 21st century? The rest of the sounds follow the X-COM tradition, and veterans of the series will appreciate the use of the original sound scheme for navigating through the interface.
Because of the lackluster space combat, Interceptor is the first X-COM game where the micromanagement and research portion is the more satisfying of the two halves. If the pacing of research and ship upgrades were a little better, this would more than compensate for the somewhat monotonous missions. X-COM fans will likely enjoy the game because it does stay true to the series' formula. But those coming at the game hoping for exciting space combat will likely be disappointed.