Pocket UFO Review

by on 20th Feb 2006

Pocket UFO Review

Developer: SMK Software

Current version: 1.24

Review posted: 20.02.06

Availability: an English language version is free to download as a WinZip file from the developers website. There are localisation add-ons for several other languages.

The developers are continuing to work on Pocket UFO, although this is mostly to improve balance and remove any remaining bugs. The current version is fully working.

The legal status of Pocket UFO is that it is a freeware add-on to X-Com: Enemy Unknown, and you are not supposed to download it unless you own the original game. However, Pocket UFO is a fully working game in its own right, and it does not require any files from the original game to run.

At first, I thought that this was a simple port of X-Com EU, and that all the changes would be down to the problems of converting the game to a different shaped screen. However as I got into the game, I discovered a number of other changes that made the game much harder.

The only user documentation is the information on the developer's website. Unfortunately a lot of it is in Russian, although they do have a small English language section introducing the game. They also have some nice screenshots and a downloadable theme for your Pocket PC.

In addition to downloads of earlier builds, you have a choice of three different versions of Pocket UFO to download.

The first version lets you do the installation work on your PC, and then the game automatically installs the next time you synchronise your PDA.

With the second version, you put all the files on your PDA and then perform the installation operation from there. This is aimed at people who come across Pocket UFO while surfing the net on their PDA.

The third version is designed to work on a PC, which means that people who don't have a modern Pocket PC can still play this version of X-Com: EU. The snag is that it appears in a window with a resolution of 200 x 320 pixels, so you will need to reduce your screen resolution to the lowest possible setting. For Windows XP users, the only realistic option is to go into compatibility mode and select the 640 x 480 screen resolution setting.

Pocket UFO is pretty hefty by the standards of modern PDA games. Including the saved game files, it takes up over fifteen precious megabytes of storage space on your PDA. Once you factor in the RAM you will need to run the game, an SD card looks like a worthwhile investment. The minimum processor speed is 200 mHz.

When you start a new campaign, you are invited to choose where to locate your first base just like in the original game. Unfortunately, you don't get to choose what difficulty level you want and the one difficulty setting makes the superhuman level in the original game feel like a walk in the park. This means that people new to X-Com are likely to struggle.

Where possible, the developers have tried to keep the original graphics. However, some of the graphics, particularly the background graphics for some of the information screens in the Geoscape mode had to be replaced because they were designed for a PC screen. The new graphics are generally high quality and sympathetic to the original game, my favourite is the background to the main menu screen; two soldiers apprehensively entering the dark interior of a UFO.

The music and sound effects have mostly been imported from the PC game, the only exception being the music that plays at the main menu screen. Unfortunately, you can only change the sound settings during a tactical mission.

The Geoscape was originally designed to fit a standard PC screen, so the designers have had to redo it practically from scratch. It works, but cities, regions and national borders aren't marked, you have to guess what the terrain type at a crash site is going to be, and the zoom function is rather limited.

The graphs have been either scrapped or haven't been implemented yet. I think this is a pity because I like using them to control my finances, plan my expansion and work out the approximate location of alien bases.

Funding is a bit different to what you are used to. Instead of being funded by the 16 most powerful nations in the world, you are funded by a mere five power blocs representing most of humanity. Having one of these blocs signing a pact with the aliens is going to be a real blow to your war effort. As with the original game, the sale of captured artefacts is an important source of funds. One thing that I discovered the hard way is that it is a lot easier to become overdrawn at the end of the month because it is harder to compare your running costs and income.

Research is a bit more linear than before. It is no longer possible to research plasma rifles until you have researched plasma pistols. Also, if you have a sectoid soldier and a sectoid navigator in your alien containment facility, your scientists have to interrogate the soldier first.

Manufacturing is unchanged except that an item being manufactured no longer takes up space in your workshop, which means that a single workshop can now house a full fifty engineers even if they are working on multiple projects.

When you return from a tactical mission, alien artefacts and prisoners are now lost if you don't have enough room in your storage rooms and alien containment facilities. I like this change as it seemed unrealistic that you could pile up alien artefacts in the corridors and pack hundreds of captured aliens into a single containment facility as if they were sardines.

Radar range has been reduced, thus making detecting and intercepting UFOs much harder.

Aircraft range has been greatly reduced. It is no longer possible for the skyranger in your opening base to travel to a mission site anywhere on the planet.

The range and ammunition capacity of human aircraft weapons have been reduced, and it is also no longer possible to order two or more interceptors to launch a joint attack against a UFO. These changes make air combat much tougher, particularly in the early months of a campaign. You have less than a 10% chance of winning an air engagement against an Abductor or a Harvester until your engineers start churning out new aircraft and craft weapons. If you go up against any of the larger alien ships in the early months, your fighters will ALWAYS be hacked out of the sky before the UFO is in range of your weapons. This makes you really feel that you are fighting a far more technologically advanced enemy. Also, if a UFO decides to land somewhere, don't expect it to hang around for long.

The advanced races turn up much earlier; the Mutons appear in February and the Ethereals made an unwelcome appearance at the beginning of March.

The aliens are more aggressive about locating and destroying X-Com bases, and they no longer wait for you to provoke them by messing up their missions. As an experiment, I started a new game, placed my first base and then did absolutely nothing, not even any research or interceptions. It was attacked by the Ethereals early in the third month. Your first priority when you build a new base has to be living quarters and storage space so you can house some soldiers to defend the base against the aliens.

The first thing you notice when you start your first tactical mission is that it works the same way as before, and the original graphics, including the terrain, and weapons have been retained. The buttons at the bottom of the screen have been rearranged of necessity, and some of them have been relegated to a couple of menu screens. This was fiddly at first, but I soon got used to it.

At first the aliens seem to be the same as in the original game. However, all aliens except the sectoids are a lot harder to kill now. I saw one floater take six rifle rounds at point blank range before it killed my soldier with a reaction shot. And you will never laugh at snakemen again!

The maximum level a soldier's statistics has been greatly increased. I have one soldier with 161 time units and 103 stamina units after a mediocre record of 10 kills from 39 missions. This feels like a bug as it reverses the trend of making the game harder.

Smoke is now commonplace at a crash site. It gives excellent cover and a soldier or alien can now only see 2-3 spaces ahead.

Medikit function has been greatly simplified. Medikits no longer carry stimulants and painkillers. When used, a medikit automatically heals any fatal wounds a soldier has, regardless of how many there are. A medikit does not replace any of the lost health units; it merely prevents the treated soldier from losing further health units due to his current injuries. The concept of injuries and treatment being applied to a specific area of the body has been dropped. Also, a soldier can now use a medikit on himself. I suspect that this ‘dumbing down' of medikits is partly due to problems with adapting the medikit screens to a 200 by 320 screen.

The tactical mission AI has been improved. In the original game, alien soldiers often stayed more or less where they had been placed on the map at the beginning of the mission. Now, they will usually head towards where the fighting is. In view of how much stronger most aliens are now, I have often had to get most of my soldiers in a defensive position and fend off the alien onslaught.

The AI still does not use any real group tactics, although individual alien soldiers make fairly good tactical decisions, such as when to fall back and when to use grenades instead of plasma rifles. The AI remains far more intelligent than what you get in many modern games, and my only serious criticism of it is that alien soldiers do not always understand that staying in the middle of a fire is going to hurt.

There is a bug that sometimes causes the game to hang when you begin or leave a tactical mission, so save often. Apart from this, tactical missions are pretty bug-free compared with modern PC games. After eighty missions, I only experienced one that was unplayable due to a bug.

Tactical missions retain the same air of suspense as in the original game. You never know when you are going to lose a soldier to reaction fire, and you will have that familiar feeling when a soldier with hardly any time units left turns a corner, comes face to face with an alien, and you just know that one more name is going to be added to X-Com's memorial to the fallen.

CONCLUSION

Pocket UFO retains the spirit of X-Com Enemy Unknown while being hard enough to pose a challenge to experienced players. And the best thing is that it's free!

Screenshots