I've been a gamer for a long time. My first PC was an AT, and I fondly remember when I got my shiny (and oh so expensive) 10 megabyte hard disk. I also remember the wonder of games that represented the birth of a genre. Blitzkrieg, my first strategy game, King's Quest, which introduced colour to my PC, and Castle Wolfenstein, that opened my eyes to the possibility of 3D worlds. But above them all, there was UFO: Enemy Unknown.
From the first time I purchased the game from Freetime Software in Auckland (the pioneer of Computer Game shops in NZ), and the following day when I went back to pick up the patch (there was no internet then, not as we know it now, but the friendly shop owner had it on a 3.5" floppy), this game completely captivated me.
Not only that, it all also entranced my girl friend at the time, so much so that, to save arguments, I went out and bought her a copy of her own, and the PC to go with it (forever consigning her Amiga to the back cupboard).
So began my relationship with UFO, and also my marriage. Eighteen wonderful years on, with a beautiful son, and a family that plays games together, I still fondly remember the time when we both fell in love killing aliens together. No surprise, then, that when I heard the game was being revisited by none other than Firaxis (the Civilization guys), I just had to get it.
What explains the magnet-like attraction of this game? And let's be clear, this attraction is not limited to just me, or my missile blasting wife (who was never satisfied until all of the aliens, spacecraft, and any buildings were reduced to rubble); there are lots of fans across the globe who love the franchise. It's hard to define. There have been a few attempts to emulate or improve on the game's formula, but none could achieve that wonder and challenge of the original.
When I first heard Firaxis were involved, I knew the game was in good hands. I have been eagerly following the development diaries and it is clear that they, too, are long-time fans. They've kept the fundamental ingredients of the game unchanged, with all its turn-based tactical combat, base building and management, and the wider strategic game, all of which is delivered with a tight story about alien invasion and the lone organisation that's trying to save the Earth.
Like the original, you start with limited funds, a small team of soldiers, the technology of today, and a small base. By combating the aliens on the ground, you gather alien equipment that your scientists can research. Through this and the engineers you hire, you can start building weapons based on alien technology. All while unravelling the story behind the invasion.
Basically, Firaxis have taken all the good bits of the original game that made it so compelling and lightly applied the gaming technology of today. They've improved the formula where they thought it needed tweaking, but they have done so without destroying the game.
So for those too young to know, the game story is based around a sudden alien invasion of Earth. You have taken charge of an elite response team that is funded by governments across the world, each of which pay you for protecting their citizens. Fail to respond to emergencies in their country and eventually they will withdraw their funding.
Your team is small, and initially you lack the radar coverage and interceptors to respond to every incident. Accordingly, the strategic meta-game is all about deciding which threat to deal with, considering things like which country is likely to withdraw their funding, and generally making hard decisions about who to ignore.
Combat, like the original, is turn-based and takes place on an isometric map with multiple levels. In the original game you had action points that you could consume for both moving and shooting. This has been changed to a phased approach that allows you to move a short distance and shoot, or move a larger distance but not shoot (or some variant thereof, depending on the situation and weapons loadout.)
Old school players may not like this change, however I found - once I got the hang of it - that the game was a lot faster to play, and the change took nothing away from the experience.
The wonderful array of weapons fans might remember from the original are still a feature of the game, with the added addition of designated roles for each squad member. You can choose from assault, heavy weapons, sniper, and basic rifleman roles, each of which have a different set of weapons available to them, and as they advance (based on alien kills), they get new abilities specific to their specialization.
The sectoids (or the greys) are back, and so are the alien grunts. Other familiar aliens make a return but with new abilities, while more still are entirely new. As the game advances, so do the enemies you face. The AI controlling them is good, but at times it can be predictable (with obvious zones of advance where you can ambush them). Overall, though, it's challenging and if you are rash you can easily lose your team (it was disheartening on one map to have the AI toss a grenade into the back of a truck where I had half my squad.)
Your team often takes damage. Temporary first aid can be given in the field, however you will find they will need to be hospitalised back at base on your return. Take too much damage and the team members dies; there's no magic resurrection here, death is permanent. Your favorite ranking squad member can - and often does - get killed. In fact, this is a game you can actually lose. If too many squad members die, you run out of money, or you lose too much support, it might be game over time. It's a refreshing change from the "certificate of participation" nature of a lot of modern games.
The combat terrain is varied, and includes industrial areas, suburban, woodlands, arid desert, and even a railway station. The graphics are good. Not state of the art, which points to the limited budget for the game, however they are functional. I especially liked the new base layout. Gone is the top down view, replaced by a side-on look at your center of operations, where you need to dig down and clear new areas for more facilities.
One aspect of the game that is entirely new is the addition of multiplayer. Now I will be honest, I am not a fan of it in the context of this in this game, however I can appreciate the need to widen the appeal with its addition. Having the ability to play both human and alien, with time based turns, means games are quick and intense. Fill your boots if this is your idea of fun; me, I like the step by step tactical game where I can ponder each move.
It is hard to be impartial in judging a game that you love. In this instance though, you can believe me when I say that because of this I am far more critical. I had high expectations for this game and in this I have not been disappointed. It is as I remembered, and a lot more. The story is lot more polished and the introduction of story based missions have added more depth.
It's not perfect. There are a few graphical glitches (squad members not appearing in the load out screen, that sort of thing), the video sequences give evidence to the limited development budget, and the sound effects could have done with a bit more punch. But all of that is forgiven, as it is the first true successor to a favourite game.
If you played the original, then this is a no brainer purchase; if you haven’t, then you are in for a lot of gameplay hours that will both challenge and enthrall you.