Monday, 21 January 2013

UFO: Enemy Unknown (Amiga)

UFO Enemy Unknown Amiga title screen
It took me way too long to get around to this one. UFO: Enemy Unknown is the original XCOM game, a genuine classic, renamed to X-COM: UFO Defence in North America presumably because they wanted to sell it to the X-Files audience, which was huge at the time.

It was originally released for DOS, then ported across to Amiga, CD32 and PlayStation. As far as I can tell, the PC version runs fastest and looks the best, though they're all basically the same thing with similar graphics and music. But I'm playing the Amiga AGA version instead, because sometimes I do crazy things for no reason!

UFO X-Com amiga geoscape screenshot
Alright, first thing I get to do is spin the globe around on the Geoscape screen and choose where I want to place my base. I think the smart thing to do would be to put it somewhere with the most wealthy countries packed closely together, so I'll stick it in Europe.

Well actually to be pedantically honest, the very first thing I had to do was choose my difficulty. Usually I'll go with the medium difficulty on games, so I can compare the difficulty fairly, but this time I'm going with 'Beginner' for two reasons: 1. I don't want to get wiped out on my first mission. 2. The DOS version of the game always resets to Beginner difficulty anyway because of a bug.

Anyway now that my base has been built I'm going to start clicking buttons. UFOpaedia sounds cool, I'll check that out.

UFO X-Com Amiga interceptor UFOpaedia screenshot
Nice plane. It looks like some kind of cross between an F-16 and a MiG 29 maybe, and I want it. I'd have thought we'd be starting off with real world tech though, seeing as the game's only set 5 years into the future. Well, 14 years ago in the past now.

X-COM: UFO Defence (PlayStation)
The PlayStation port looks almost identical to the PC and Amiga versions for the most part, but they've replaced the cool UFOpaedia art with spinning 3D models. Honestly, I don't think it's an improvement.

Well as much as I'd like to sit here and click through tedious lists of stats, I've got a world to save!

UFO X-Com Amiga base screen
This is my secret underground home, filled with modern conveniences like a research lab, a manufacturing workshop, and VTOL aircraft hangers. Hopefully time is paused (or close enough to paused) while I'm on this screen, because figuring out what I'm doing here might take a while.

Doesn't seem like I have anything to manufacture yet, so I'll check research next.

Not much here to research at the moment either, so I'll go with laser weapons. Nations across the globe have been trying to figure these things out for decades, but I'm sure these 10 scientists of mine can develop a functional gun in... say a month or so.

UFO X-Com Amiga Purchase Hire Personnel screen
I've got a considerable amount of wealth and no clue what I should spend it on, so I'm going to recruit some soldiers and scientists. The tank sounds tempting as well, but half a million dollars is a little too pricey for me right now. Unfortunately I'm limited by the amount of living space in my base, so I can't hire many people until I fix that. When I get back to the base screen I'll get construction started on a new living quarters block, because I can see this being a problem in the future.

And now I guess I'll go back to the Geoscape and accelerate time until my new employees arrive.


THREE SECONDS OF WAITING LATER.


Oh, I thought the 'soldiers' screen might show me pictures of my guys. I can live with bar charts though. They're very... practical.

My Skyranger transport can only carry a certain number of troops, so my plan is to keep eight or so soldiers with the best stats, then drop the others to make room for more scientists. Only problem is I don't know which are the best stats to have. Well I suppose firing accuracy's gotta be the most important, as a soldier that can't shoot straight is entirely useless to me.

I was accelerating time again waiting for my lasers research to finish, when my radar picked up a UFO. So I sent an Interceptor over to welcome him to Earth, with the traditional human gifts of Stingray air to air missiles and Gatling cannon fire.

Air combat comes with its own badass action music (with a different yet equally badass tune on the PC version) and seems pretty straightforward as I've only got six buttons to press, and one of them just shows me a picture of the UFO I'm chasing. I can do a cautious attack, a standard attack, an aggressive attack, sit and do nothing, or run away. Well I'd like the thing to explode if possible, so I'll click 'aggressive'.

By the way, the Geoscape globe looks much better on the other versions of the game. They had to take the textures off it for the Amiga ports because the poor machines struggle enough without them.

Once the UFO was shot down, I sent a Skyranger team over to bury the survivors, and the game switched to turn based isometric tactical combat with a whole lot of cryptic buttons. To be fair though they're mostly pretty simple to figure out just by clicking them and seeing what they do.

Well I can either sit here in the van all day, or I can start moving my team out onto the field. I get to move my entire group before the aliens get a turn, but I think it makes more tactical sense to send out just a couple of scouts first.

Actually to be honest I tried moving them all out, but the pathfinding's a little screwy and a couple of them just turned around and walked right back into the transport, blocking the way out and trapping the rest of them inside for a turn.

Who knows what those sneaky aliens are up to now.

The average spec PC had really started to leave the humble (but much cheaper) Amigas behind by 1994, and on slower machines like the A500 waiting for the next turn can apparently take forever.

Fortunately I'm playing it on something a little more powerful, so I get reasonable graphics and slick gameplay. Well, reasonably slick. I don't have to wait half an hour between turns for sure.

Shit, it's an alien in the cornfield and he's seen me! Which of these buttons is 'attack'? Damn, how can they have so many bloody icons and not one of them shoots the gun?

Oh duh, I have click on the picture of the gun to attack.

Decisions decisions... Each character only has a certain number of time units available each turn, and they're burned up with ever single move they make, even just turning around. I can keep using any of my characters in any order until their units are used up, then they're done for the round.

The thing is, if I start shooting now I'll use up units I could spend running for cover, and I'm pretty exposed right now. I've got 43 time units, and I wouldn't bet my dude's life that I can hit and kill an alien even with three shots, so for now I'm going to cower behind a wall until I can bring some extra firepower into the field.


SOON.


Haha, you dumb alien. You can't shoot me with that green shit, I'm behind a brick wall!

Oh crap, he just killed my soldier with a single hit, behind cover. Some of my soldiers had time units left so they should be able to spend them now by automatically firing back during the alien's turn, but they can't... because there's a brick wall in the way.

Basically it seems that I've placed the alien behind cover and all my units out in the open.


A BIT OF GUNFIRE LATER.


Okay, I may have lost a soldier but I can still salvage this mission. Those grey dots seem to either mark dropped equipment or dead units, and right now two of those dots are pointing at the two aliens I just managed to kill. Plus that seems like the outline of the crashed alien ship at the bottom.

I love the look of XCOM tech (yeah despite the game's US title, the organisation is actually called XCOM without a dash in this game). Not only did they make this map device needlessly overcomplicated, but they even threw in a little skull on the bottom middle edge.

My new strategy is to move in a group and steamroll any enemies I find with my superior numbers. Seems to be working out so far, though I don't want to enter the ship until I'm sure I've cleared the fields.

Fuck, my poor soldier got shot while walking across a doorway! Seems that the aliens get to take automatic shots during my turn if they have time units left over too. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do about that really, as I can't just hide in cover here. I have to get into a position with a clear line of sight before I can fire at them.


A FAIR FEW FUCK UPS LATER.


I'm getting slaughtered out there! I'm down to my last two soldiers, so I'm going to have each of them grab an alien corpse and raygun, stick them in their backpacks, and make a run for the Skyranger so I can at least come out of this with something new to research.

Well I lost my eight best soldiers, my guns, all my captured alien tech, and my one and only Skyranger transport. Obviously there's some aspect to the gameplay that I've entirely failed to grasp here.

Right okay, I'll call this a game over and just start again from the beginning. Set up a new base, hire some new soldiers, set up the laser research again etc. It's fine, I haven't lost a whole lot of progress.


BUT THEN, ON MY FIRST MISSION OUT.


Oh come on! Shooting four of my troops as they're LEAVING THE FUCKING PLANE just isn't cool you guys! It might be more than four actually, I started to lose count as the bodies started stacking up on the same floor tile. R.I.P. half my team.

Well it seems that I'm not likely to win a straight shooting match, as stepping out of cover to shoot just gets me shot. Plus if I hold back and wait for them to move first they just blow up the cover and shoot me anyway. So I'm going to have to reach into my bag and see what other options I have.

AHAHAHA! How do you like that, huh? I've always liked it when video game explosions form the shape of a skull, especially when the skullplosion takes out a room full of aliens who have been harassing me.

I actually finished this mission with two survivors and went back home triumphant with a bag full of stuff to examine. Then on the next mission my new team were all shot in the back by one of my own guys under alien mind control in one turn. ONE TURN. And then I lost the Skyranger again.

It's hard for me to complain about the difficulty really, because I know it's my own fault somehow, I know these aren't insurmountable odds, and I know people love the game precisely because it can be harsh. But there is one little thing I can whine about, one little crack in UFO's design I can channel the full force of my frustration at, and that is that I AM PLAYING ON BEGINNER MODE but it still wiped me out on my very first mission and came bloody close to doing it a second time as well. I get that some games should be challenging, I've even been brought around to the argument that the occasional game like Dark Souls should not have an easy mode at all, because the joy in them comes from overcoming a serious challenge that is universal for all players, with no way to wimp out and take an easier path. But UFO does have difficulty modes, it isn't one of those games, so why is it being so mean to me, huh?


A SHORT WHILE INTO MY THIRD TRY.


UFO X-Com Amiga inventory Guile haircut screenshot
Hey, I've finally got a guy with a Guile haircut. Now I can't lose!

This time around I had an epiphany: My dudes keep getting shot on missions, right? So all I have to do is stop sending them on missions and I'll be fine. I mean I don't HAVE to send out my team to every alien crash site, or anything else for that matter. Of course I've still been shooting UFOs down whenever they fly into radar range, but I've been leaving the wreckage alone.

Instead I've been focusing on research, developing better weapons, and manufacturing them to sell at a profit. Lets see how those alien bastards like it when I finally do turn up, and I'm shooting at them with some serious sci-fi guns of my own.


A FEW MISSIONS LATER.


It seems that having better guns was the advantage I needed to start making progress, as I've actually completed a couple of missions this time around. Also, uh, saving the game every now and again, that kind of helps a lot too.

I've been recovering a lot of dead bodies and plasma rifles from alien terror sites, but I can't seem to get one of the bastards to crash anymore. They always fly off and outrun me whenever I send an Interceptor after them. Plasma rifles are nice but I'm going to end up hopelessly out manoeuvred unless I start capturing some UFOs and getting my hands on some alien hardware.


LATER.


Another terror site mission: lots of aliens running around and scaring civilians, but a complete absence of any alien ships for me to borrow.

I thought I was doing alright here, but then I noticed that one of my team was actually a turn or two away from dying of a fatal wound. The game doesn't do a great job of informing you of imminent death, annoyingly. I have no idea if this Medi-kit he's carrying can save him, but it's worth a shot.

Uh what? He can't use it on himself? Crap, okay I'll use his remaining TUs to throw it to a friend, who can then pick it up themselves, rush over, and save him. Unless they don't have the TUs spare. In which case he's fucked. 

UFO X-Com Amiga medi-kit screenshot
Pain killer, stimulant and heal? There doesn't seem to be any indication of which one's needed here, so I guess I'll just select on the wounded arm and click heal a few times.

Hmm, that seems to have worked. His arm's turned green at least, in a good way. I'll give him a turn or two, and if his arm falls off then I'll know I clicked the wrong button.

One thing I've learned, is that being in cover isn't necessarily as important as having units in a position where they can cover all the angles. I could permanently remove that black fog of war up there in that house by just a single glance through the window, but once my guy's turned around an enemy could sneak in there on his next turn and I wouldn't have a clue.

But these three alleyways are covered and I've left my soldiers enough TUs to take a couple of shots at anything that pops its head up. You know, considering how much trouble I've had with the game, it's funny how quickly I got used to the time units. There's buttons that restrict my movement to keep a few in reserve for later, but I've never had to use them, as I always seem to move the right number of squares anyway.


LATER, ON ANOTHER MISSION.


YES! I've finally got myself my very own tiny UFO and it's even intact! Sure it's mostly just office chairs on the inside, but imagine how much cash I could make manufacturing and selling advanced alien swivel chairs to the world.

Of course there's the small issue of it being filled with the previous owners and me having only one shot. Fortunately it's a stun grenade launcher so this should be as good as won.

OH SHIT, NO! NOOOO!

Wait, that's just an awesome looking stun grenade. All is well, the ship is mine and the seating is intact.

I didn't get to keep the ship. Those assholes in the labs cut it up for science. Maybe I can at least get them to give me the chairs for my office. Actually, looking at the base plan, I don't think I even have an office.

Anyway it turns out that actually bringing soldiers home from missions alive is a good thing, as their stats improve. For example Liam here can now get 10% more things done every minute.

Oh by the way if you've been wondering why half the band Oasis is killing aliens in my elite squad, blame the game. I started off this time with two soldiers at my base called Gallagher and couldn't resist tweaking the names a little.


LATER, DEEP WITHIN AN ALIEN BASE.


I found an alien base... and it totally sucks! Actually I just don't have the patience to deal with a level this huge. It's taking forever to for me to cautiously make my way around all these rooms one turn at a time. Can't rush ahead as that would use up all my time units and I'd be defenceless during the alien's turn.

Though I'm really getting tempted now.

Oh come on, I don't need this shit now. Alright, which of these aliens has the psychic powers? I want to remove their head and send it back to the boys at the lab. Not because I'm that bothered about unlocking the secrets of the mind, I just really want his head removed right now.

Well it could be worse. A panicking soldier just drops his weapon and runs around. If he was actually mind controlled I may have had to shoot him myself, because I don't know what else to do about that.

Finally! I've reached the very last room in this damn base, and I've brought my stun grenade. So... where are the aliens then?

Oh no. The last alien must be hiding somewhere else inside the base, somewhere I've already been. I can't just scan the map myself and look for him though, aliens only show up when a soldier is looking directly at them. So I get to go all the way back through and send my team to check all the rooms a second time!

This is one thing the new XCOM game gets right. It occasionally tells you the general direction some of the aliens are hiding in, so you're not left clueless for long.

Finally the shadowy representatives of nations of the world are happy with something I did for once! I'm actually kind of surprised that my scheme to ignore saving the world until I had the right equipment is actually paying off now. I thought they might have all abandoned me months ago due to my deliberately abysmal performance.

You know, you guys don't have to keep coming down here with your big suits, small heads and awesome shoulder pads to line up and present me with this money personally, I actually have a bank account for this kind of thing. Can't argue with a free briefcase though.

And so my brave team continued to patrol the world in their own semi-inept way, failing to shoot down UFOs but arriving at the scene just after they've offloaded aliens to terrorise people. That's the aliens terrorising people I mean, not XCOM. Though if they keep wandering in my way I might rethink that policy.

The civilians really are the worst thing about these terror sites so far. For one thing I have to sit through this bloody montage every time I finish my turn. Do I really need an update on the actions of every single civilian every single time when all they're doing is pacing back and forth?

Wait, I've just noticed that these are all the same guy. They even dress alike. Some kind of insidious alien cloning scheme perhaps? Mindless replicants designed to confuse me? They're definitely not showing any signs of intelligence or self preservation.

Meanwhile back at base, I've been working diligently to basically turn the place into a munitions factory. I click 'manufacture', choose 'laser cannon', assign every engineer I have (which must take around 20 seconds of holding the button down, it's ridiculous) request 40 units, then click ok. Then I accelerate time, sell them all when they're done, and start the production line up again.

It's a tedious grind, but I need the money to afford more engineers, living quarters and workshops so I can expand my laser cannon production. My end goal is to have eight bases scattered across the globe, each with 200 engineers making guns, and I'm already developing site B.

Also I put a bit of spare cash into building a tiny little laser tank, and outfitting my squad with jetpacks and power armour. Now I can actually survive being shot as I come out of the Skyranger! I'm so badass I make the aliens panic. But I think I'm done with this for now.


UFO: Enemy Unknown and I didn't always get on, but that's partly because it's not really my style of game. I mean you can get clear victories in short term missions, but you can never be sure if you're doing okay in the long term. Maybe I've been researching gear too slowly or not shooting down enough UFOs to keep the world happy, or perhaps I'm only a month away from a battleship dropping by with a team of telepathic aliens ready to wipe out my veteran troops without firing a shot. I can't stand that uncertainty, the possibility that all my victories are leading straight to defeat. I tend to prefer games where I can always recover from a setback, where I have endless chances to dig myself out of my hole.

Honestly though, I did enjoy it when I got some momentum going, and kept playing it way long than I'd planned to. It's got that Civilization 'I'll just play one more turn' thing going on for it, which makes sense as it's a similar game by design. Though if I was forced to chose between this and the new XCOM, I gotta go with the newer game. Because I feel much more comfortable defending the Earth from the terrible invaders from space when I can do it while hiding behind a good solid tree.

If you want to yell at me for my ignorant views, share any awesome thoughts about the UFO or XCOM games, express your opinion of my site, or comment on anything else halfway relevant, you're welcome to use the comment box below.

8 comments:

  1. If you're talking about Amiga interception music then you can link to this: http://youtu.be/ojWd_8C3f6E

    As for getting shot after leaving craft I agree that it's annoying. I recommend to always have a tank so it can collect enemy fire.

    I chuckled when I saw screenshot after "Soon" because I remember that I used to place soldiers like that on the beginning. I do not recommend doing this because it's an invitation for enemy grenades.

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    1. AMIGA interception music? Wait, you mean that... oh shit how did I not notice that it wasn't the same song? Well I'm an idiot.

      Thanks, I think I will make use of your youtube video.

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  2. My recollection of Laser Squad - the game's predecessor - was that you could take a grenade out of your backpack and prime it, but if you didn't have enough action points to actually throw it at the baddies you were stuffed. You either had to drop it and walk away or let it go off in your hands. It was hilarious! In hindsight.

    In UFO they fixed it so that you could keep holding the grenade and it wouldn't blow up. But then half-way through the game you found out that most of your troops were mentally vulnerable to psionic attacks, so you had to sack them. Even though they were dead-accurate superpeople who could run across half the map. Damn.

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    1. And if your soldier is stunned while holding a primed grenade, it falls to the ground and explodes. High explosives are just a laugh a minute.

      I have no idea what happens if a soldier panics with a primed grenade.

      But what's this about sacking you psi-weenies? No, they go to your second base, on the second Skyranger, to take care of those pesky Chryssalid and Muton problems! At the least they can be the person with the stun launcher who's the first through the UFO door. There's always a call for people who're the first through the UFO door, they save others' lives.

      ...Yeah, I wouldn't be able to do that to my veterans.

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  3. It's so moving to see Noel and Liam Gallagher put aside their differences to save mankind from aliens.

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  4. The difficulty levels make a difference, but it can be hard to appreciate when they start off as murderous and go up from there.

    I've been throwing myself against this game for long enough to move up to the hardest difficulty, and that screenshot of your guys setting up reaction shots kinda makes me want to shudder. Not as an insult to your abilities, but when difficulty increases the game becomes more about creeping from cover to cover and not letting the aliens spot an X-COM soldier and live. (For values of "creeping" that include running forward in a cloud of smoke while firing rocket launchers, as long as the soldiers stay concealed.)

    You might be glad to know that there are terror sites where shooting the civilians is the sensible thing to do.

    The game started looking a lot more dated after the new X-COM came out. It's kind of heartening to see how smoothly you work out the interface in this post, including things like medi-kits.

    Tweaking the names is an awful lot of fun for something so simple, and even outside of let's plays people seem to like signing up and being informed of their horrible deaths. It's also dead useful to add a couple of letters meaning "expendable" to the names of soldiers with low stats and bring a couple of them along on each mission.

    Was that line about a battleship dropping by a reference to the way battleships do tend to drop by in the game? Base defense missions in the first month or two can destroy games.

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    1. I don't want to shoot the poor civilians! I like civilians! I just don't want to see what they're up to every turn, because their lives are dull and meaningless.

      Also base defence missions could destroy my game at any month. I'd be much happier if battleships would just mind their own business and wait for me to come to them when I'm in the mood to shoot some aliens and steal their gear. One thing I appreciated about the new XCOM (amongst all the other things I appreciate about it), is that the aliens were too scared (or polite) to come down to my office every few weeks to wreck all of my stuff.

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    2. I like to rescue civilians, but when there are Chryssalids on the ground, a plasma bolt to the head is better for all concerned.

      Base defense missions are such a compelling part of the fight against the aliens for me that I have to admire them, even through gritted teeth. The third game improves on them by having base defense rooms that no longer plink at incoming ships, but instead sport big, heavy, automatic turrets.

      Those menu background images deserve praised. Why don't more games use them? They're such a great way to do characterization and atmosphere - in fact, they're most of the characterization the whole organization ever gets!

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