UFO: Enemy Unknown Review

by on 5th Sep 2008

It's the year 1999, and the worst has happened - Yup, the aliens have made contact, by way of invading. Time to lock up the wife and children and hide out in the old basement, eh? No such luck, you've just been put in command of the main extraterrestrial combat unit (X-Com for short), meaning you're point man in sending the other worlders packing.

With nothing but a few million dollars, a top secret underground base, a couple of fighter craft and a bunch of heavily armed soldiers under your command, things look pretty good from the outset. Unfortunately, you soon discover that everything has been purchased from the lowest bidder, and the aliens have got plasma guns. Most of your funding gets dumped directly into upgrading what you've already got and there's quite a list of things to organise - Extra facilities for your base, tanks to accompany your ground forces, research into new weapons, and so on and so forth.

After a healthy session of squandering tax payers money, it's time to do some real work and hunt down the aliens. This is done via the geoscape, which is a military dictators dream come true - A display of the entire world, and it's all "your territory". Catch is you can only see activity as far as your radar goes so saving up for extra bases is another entry on your to-do list. Once you spot your first alien invader, the jets are scrambled and it's a race to shoot it down.

Aerial combat is displayed by way of a radar view. You can see your craft at the bottom of the window, and a blip above indicates the relative location of the UFO. Each craft procedes to unload it's weapons into the other, while the display informs you as to who's taking the most hits. A variety of orders can be triggered by buttons to the side - You can attempt to stay out of range of the UFO (which works well if your weapons can fire further), or go full throttle and attack from point blank range (making it more difficult for the ETs to escape). Or, you can back of and just trail the enemy around the globe - Shooting it down while over water doesn't leave much for you to recover.

Once your flyboys have done the business it's time to send the ground forces in. A special dropship known as the SkyRanger is reserved for transportation, which is pretty much all it's good for - It has no weapon hardpoints and is a lot slower the your Interceptor fighter craft. Nevertheless, it can carry an impressive amount of gear quite a distance, and soon enough your team of armed killers will be ready for action.

Ground combat takes place in turn based mode. Each unit in play has a set amount of "time units" (TUs for short) to use, and each action chews these up in varying amounts. Moving around is a simple point and click affair, and units are bright enough to stop if they see an enemy. There are quite a few ways of dispatching your opponents, and you'll have to use strategy to make sure you take fewer hits then they do. Especially because they've got plasma guns - Much more dangerous then those rifles that you thought were so cool back when you were safe in your oversized basement.

When you've made your moves, your turn ends and the aliens get to have a go. You can observe their units (assuming your soldiers have a clear line of sight), and if you've left enough time units over, your men will even fire at the enemy should one jump out around a corner or something equally silly. Placing your units behind cover with a good supply of TUs is essential if you don't want them to be sitting ducks.

Each isometric battlescape you arrive at is randomly generated out of smaller, prebuilt maps. The terrain is deformable in that you can damage or destroy it, though it does have a layered feel: If you blow up the lower story of a building, the explosion won't harm the upper floor. It'll even remain floating in the air unsupported if you do enough damage. Nevertheless, the ability to shoot through an irritating wall to get at a hiden target is most gratifying, as is setting fire to farmer Joe's crops with incendiary rounds.

Speaking of munitions, dispite the aliens initial supremacy in the tech department, there's still quite an array of kit on the market you can shell out for. Grenades come in the explosive, smoking, or proximity varities, while some weapons (such as the rocket launcher) accept multiple types of ammunition. Heavy guns slow your units down, but explosions are a good way of compensating for those units who can't fire straight. Flares can be thrown to increase visibility and you can even use a sort of elongated tazer to stun aliens and take them home alive.

As you advance throughout the game, you'll encounter different types of missions. They can all be solved by eliminating all alien opposition on the map, but they do have their differences: You have to be careful to protect civilians if they're around (well, at least not blow too many of them up), or make sure you don't damage the engine of a UFO while inside the craft. Capturing live aliens also becomes important, and so you have to find ways of accomplishing that other then walking right up to them with the zap-o-stick.

To that end (and others), you'll be spending a healthy amount of time managing your legions of scientists and engineers. As you capture stuff from the aliens, you need to work out what it is so you can start using it against them, and perhaps even earn a little extra money on the side manufactoring the stuff for sale. Once you've learned enough about a certain type of technology, you can start designing entirely new projects - Such as faster fighter jets and flying tanks. Extra body armor for your soliders is high on the list of wants, and so you have to make sure you capture materials off the aliens to make it with (unless you want to invest money in building those, too).

Progression also leads to changes in the alien strike force. To start out with, you'll be fighting the stereotypical Sectoid race (little grey men), sometimes supported by the miniture flying saucers known as Cyberdiscs (which are prone to exploding when destroyed). Soon the Floater race joins in, and then the tougher Snakemen and Mutons. Snakemen are sometimes accompanied by the Chrysallid race - These creatures have characteriscs not unfamiliar to fans of the Aliens movie series. Ultra fast, and able to convert humans (for eg your soldiers) into zombies, out of which later burst more Chrysallids for you to take down. When a town gets infested with these creatures, especially at night time, you'll find that turn based combat has a surprising edge of suspense.

The aliens are of course trying to further their own project of world domination, and just flying their saucers around the sky isn't going to accomplish that. Along with the occasional abduction or terrorism incident, they'll be trying to set up shop with their own underground bases. Hence your craft have more uses then combat and transport - They're also essential in patroling the globe in an attempt to spot these alien strongholds from the air. If you find one, you can then send in your soldiers to raid, destroy, or even capture the entire facility.

This sort of thing annoys the visiters of course, and if the aliens own patrols reveal the presence of your own bases you'll find them returning the favour. If you're very successful in fighting against the incursion the alien leaders themselves will come to try and squash you. Apart from their fire power and support units, these creatures have mastered the art of psionics - Meaning they can turn your dependable rocket launcher toting backup into a serious threat to you, especially after he's wiped out half the squad he was supposed to be covering. This makes IQ tests an important part of your screening process for fresh recruits.

Fighting the aliens cost money, and lots of it. Although they shouldn't be relied upon to cover more then a small fraction of your bills, your paymasters (that the goverements of the world in laymans speak) will help cover some of your running costs - So long as you keep them happy. Standing by idly while their citizens are getting slaughtered does not accomplish this, and if you're particulary negligent of a certain country they'll make a private deal with the aliens and stop paying you. If you really aren't doing your job you might even get shut down altogether, and we all know what that means - The end of the human race. So, time to pull your socks up and work out where the aliens are coming from, so you can shut them down at their source.

All up, UFO is a somewhat addicting strategy and management game that doesn't lose it's shine the second time you play through. The graphics are nice to look at, if somewhat simplistic, and the tactical combat is satisfying despite the lack of audio variety (the tune played during a mission is basically a repeated, low tone "bom-bom-bom-bom" noise). There are a few glitches present in the game, but none of them prevent you finishing it (in fact, most of them make things easier - So I'll leave finding the list to you).

While older versions of the game are near impossible to play on a modern PC, a later release runs quite happily even on Windows XP. As a benchmark of turn based gaming, it's well worth the experience. If you want to look into the game further, browse around this site - There are some mods in our files section, and discussions and tips in our forums. If play against humans is your thing, try out the UFO2000 project.


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Azrael Strife\
12 Feb 2011 - 1:50am
Azrael Strife
The guys behind Ufopaedia.org are natives of these forums ;)

Guest, on 11th February 2011, 9:19pm, said:

Anyone else who likes this game, you MUST check this out:


Fan mods to fix over 100 *serious* bugs, better music (from the PSX version), and all kinds of gameplay customization.

The X-Com series will always be one of my very favorites, right next to the ZZT and Zork games. Wanna know why? I used to love playing it in school! While my dimwitted peers were still trying to learn how to use Powerpoint and Word I was blowing aliens into chunky salsa and saving the world...when I wasn't busy running circles around the Internet filters or checking out all the machines left open on the network.  ;) Good times.
11 Feb 2011 - 8:19pm
Anyone else who likes this game, you MUST check this out:


Fan mods to fix over 100 *serious* bugs, better music (from the PSX version), and all kinds of gameplay customization.

The X-Com series will always be one of my very favorites, right next to the ZZT and Zork games. Wanna know why? I used to love playing it in school! While my dimwitted peers were still trying to learn how to use Powerpoint and Word I was blowing aliens into chunky salsa and saving the world...when I wasn't busy running circles around the Internet filters or checking out all the machines left open on the network.  ;) Good times.
Space Voyager\
10 Jan 2011 - 8:18am
Space Voyager
Welcome to the boards, Francois! I wholeheartedly agree!
8 Jan 2011 - 4:45am
Easily one of the best game I played at the time... No, to think of it, beside odd follow-ups, nothing quite like it ever saw the day.  It's just pure, unrestricted fun as you defend your planet, Cities, and marines against unrelenting hordes of aliens.  A must play if you never did, even if you have to run it in dosbox.
Space Voyager\
18 Jul 2006 - 9:56am
Space Voyager
AI or numbers, X-COM didn't let you keep all the soldiers alive unless you used the time displacement system (save/load). Even in best armour rookies were killed occasionally because of their low HP.
Bomb Bloke\
18 Jul 2006 - 7:48am
Bomb Bloke
Well, actually, it turns out that unit size is taken into account... Which is why kneeling is such a good idea, and why you can fire shots under Floaters! (And civilians, for some unknown reason...  :drink: )

In fact, the entire map is a 3D space. You can shoot through windows or shoot at the sills.

Body parts are also considered though that only goes so far as to work out which armor class is used in the damage calcs, or which limb to apply fatal wounds to.
17 Jul 2006 - 6:07pm
Hehe, it's not so much AI as statistics. On harder enemies or harder settings it's just a matter of numbers.

Now... if it took into account unit size an body parts when applied to a 3d model of each character the aliens wouldn't be half as accurate :drink:
17 Jul 2006 - 2:05pm
Great, now you have playing the game all over again... *grumbles* :drink:


It never ceases to amaze me how confoundingly well the aliens' AI performs. Not once, but repeatedly. I'm thinking, a decade-plus hence, quite a few developers should have been taking notes.

*New game. Tactical mission 1*
*Tank/Rocket Launcher gingerly rolls down the Skyranger's ramp.*
*A shot streaks across the netherland parting the darkness*
*Direct hit*
*Tank falls neatly apart*

*Quick tally: $400.000+ worth of equipment to the scrapyard. Eight previously cocky, high-browed XCom operatives respectfully demand sick leave...*

Space Voyager\
17 Jul 2006 - 11:38am
Space Voyager
Man, does that bring back memories... Years of memories. Even weird ones, like thinking "How can my brother move if it's clearly my move - since I'm moving?". I stopped playing for a couple of days after that...


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