X-COM: UFO Defense - US
UFO: Enemy Unknown - European
In terms of popularity and longevity, UFO: Enemy Unknown (commonly refered to as X-COM or UFO, in context) is one of the most successful computer games ever. Any list of top computer games of all time worth its salt will have UFO down somewhere. Today it is still remembered by rabid fans, oldschool gamers and retrogamers alike (I use the term oldschool loosely because the game industry was already old at the time of UFO, but at the time of writing it has evolved even further). Today, nearly a decade since its release in 1994, it continues to distinguish itself against the thousands of games produced since - a considerable feat given the significantly increased funding and experience that now backs the fickle art of game creation.
One of the classics of computer gaming.
It is important to note that UFO was produced by Mythos Games and published by Microprose. Many people think of Microprose as the producers of the game, but their contributions were limited to the art and music (I think?). I believe credit should be given where its due, so this is disappointing. The Mythos logo only appears in one or two places in European version.
UFO was released in 1994 on the DOS-PC and the Amiga (ported by Climax productions). In 1997 it was also released on the PlayStation (ported by Microprose?).
In terms of game evolution, UFO is the direct child of Laser Squad, also produced by Mythos. Although not an official sequel, and storyline wise not particularly similar at all, the concepts and mechanics of the two games are very much alike. UFO is also the first of the X-COM series, a dynasty of games produced and published by various houses that follows the basic storyline of the X-COM organization; the X-COM line has had a very long and turbulent life, with more than a few of the proposed titles being cancelled, and two in production at the time of writing. Although the ones that made it to market (including an arcade game I believe) have been successfull in their own right, none have been as memorable or successful as the original and the best.
It is also interesting to note that X-Com: Terror from the Deep, the direct successor to UFO, was produced by Microprose. After the immense success of UFO, Microprose wanted a sequel within 6 months, which Mythos judged to be inefasible. Microprose then basically licensed the code for UFO and released what is basically a clone of UFO, except it was based underwater. Token improvements were made to graphics and interface; and alien AI was made to do more hiding and waiting as opposed to running out and getting shot (this was more frustrating than anything else). The response to TFTD seems to have been spread evenly between outright love and absolute disgust.
The reasons for the success can be attributed to what was and still is its innovative gameplay. Although it is an exagerration to say UFO defined a new genre, it still does not easily classify into existing categories; and it is often recognised as one of (NOT the) the founding fathers of the squad-based tactical genre.. The game is composed of two modes: managerial strategy and turn based tactical action. If you had to pigeonhole it I guess you could loosely classify it as a strategy game (whatever that means), but in truth it is a hybrid mix of its 2 respective modes.
The basic storyline/premise is thus: In 1999 UFOs start terrorising Earth by abducting civilians, infiltrating governments, invading cities and generally being shits. To combat this, world leaders get together and decide to form and fund a covert organisation that is wholly responsible for investigating and resisting the aliens. This organisation is called the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit - X-COM - and you are their commander. So basically, you get to manage some stuff and you get to kill some stuff. These correspond to the two game modes - the GeoScape and the BattleScape.
In the GeoScape you manage and develop the resources of X-COM the same way you would any other venture capital capitalist pig business that wants to make money and fight off aliens. The main interface in the GeoScape is a (very shitty) 3-D view of Earth as seen from space that you can rotate. From this view, you can see the various top secret X-COM bases deployed around the globe. From there you manage the day-to-day humdrum X-COM existence, zooming in specific bases to manage the resources contained within - fighter and transport aircraft to shoot down and investigate UFOs; soldiers to do the actual grunt work; scientists to research alien technology; engineers to build new resources; equipment for soldiers and craft; material from which you build this equipment. The GeoScape aspect of the game alone goes into a fair amount of detail without getting personal.
In essence the GeoScape is basically a slightly simplified management simulation, sort of a cross between SimCity, Theme Park and Transport Tycoon with a covert military theme. Your basic survival goal is to keep funding nations happy by responding to alien activity, which takes the form of UFO's flying around and terror missions on capital cities. To this end you build bases with radar to track UFO's, equip aircraft to shoot them down, and send out troops to fight the aliens at UFO crash sites, landing sites, terror missions. At the same time you also want to research and manufacture alien technology to develop better aircraft and base facilities and improved equipment for your soldiers; ultimately you also want to find an ultimate solution to the alien problem. Both of these activities takes time, manpower, facilities and equipment. All bases must be self sufficient, and able to contain living quarters for personnel, aircraft hangars, research and manufacture labs, and stores to put all your equipment. You are also constrained by a tight budget, and international funding only goes so far - to make more money you can sell manufactured or captured equipment.
Saving the earth isn't all grunt work.
The other half of the game is what is considered by most the real meat of the game - the actual fighting. It is basically of the squad-based tactical genre. This takes place on the BattleScape, which is an isometric tile-based view with which you direct your squad of soldiers. It is as once much more simple and more complex than GeoScape play - your single objective is generally completed in only one way - kill or capture aliens by shooting them. However, where the GeoScape present an abstracted view, in the BattleScape you control a squad of up to 12 soldiers, right down to all the nitty gritty details. Where the GeoScape is about long-term strategy, the BattleScape is all tactics (If you don't know the difference, see those wu's). The BattleScape is a turn-based system, where each unit has a finite measurement of time units with which to do stuff and kill stuff - maneuvre your troopers through urban, farmland, forest, desert and snow environments, jostle for better tactical positions to give you the edge in skirmishes. Move for cover, ambushes, sniping, shots of opportunity, grenade lobbing.
Playing the BattleScape is not a simple matter of point and click. The interface is point and cilck, but the game is realistic in the sense that your soldiers are not GI-JOE sharpshooter action figures who can snipe enemies from miles with a pistol, and effortlessly dodge enemy fire; nor are the aliens mere Stormtrooper fodder. As a turn-based game it doesn't involve martial skills such as fast reflexes or good coordination, but instead patience and tactics. Play wise it is similar to the Jagged Alliance series and Fallout Tactics. Your troops also start with and develop different strengths as they gain more experience in combat. You can have fashion troops to be snipers, grunts, grenadiers, heavy support, scouts, runners etc.
Overall, UFO is very much a gestalt game - while alone they could be considered simplistic games of their own, together the GeoScape and BattleScape complement and reinforce one another beautifully - you can research and manufacture weapons and equipment for your troops to use in combat, and after combat, bring back artifacts ranging from UFO power supplies to captured aliens to weapons for research, sale or use in manufacture.
By today's standards the graphics leave a lot to be desired. The BattleScape is tile-based and extremely pixellated, but it's functional. The GeoScape graphics are limited to the globe and generic window/button interfaces with backdrop artwork that are of interestingly anime reminiscent. It reminds me of the Batman cartoon. Music is limited to a small number of repetitive midi scores that change depending on whats happening (GeoScape management, UFO interception, combat, base attack etc.), and while its far from a a full orchestral score, it adds greatly to the environment set by the game.
Nowadays UFO is abandonware, so you can get freely (if not completely legally) on the internet from any good archive (try www.the-underdogs.org). While mainlystream genre's such as RTS and FPS have seen significant evolution since their introduction, there are few recent games that can match or build on the highly original combination of squad-based tactical and management strategy offered in UFO. It is a game that surprisingly does not rely on stunningly good graphics or other media, but instead gains distinction through original and enjoyable gameplay. Strongly recommended it to any serious strategic of general gamer of any time.
Marshall Applewhite's writeup
reminds me of an article I read in an Australian
newspaper sometime during August 2001
. Two weeks after the release of the Half-Life: Blue Shift
expansion pack (that lets you play the game through the eyes of a guard) a security guard
for an abortion clinic
was shot dead. In response the Australian Security Industry Association
condemned all versions of Half Life
and demanded they be pulled from store shelves.
I agree that we live in a culture of fear nurtured and fed by the newsmedia. I agree that some video games cause violence, as will any form of media to one extent or another. I believe in a degree of censorship for kids. I disagree, and am reciprocally offended by the assertion that "XCom, and games like it, are manifestations of a very dangerous and unfounded fear of the unknown." Firstly, I very much doubt that the game designers intended UFO (or the X-COM series, for that matter) to be anti-alien propaganda. Secondly, I am one of the blessed (and fortunately not one of the few) who can distinguish the very simple obvious difference between fact and fiction].
People like guns. People like action. People like explosions. You want to sell a movie or game, put this shit in. The love of the Last Action Hero ninja bad ass motherfucker cultural trend is foolish and unrealistic and I enjoy it and support it wholeheartedly. The designers put guns and violence in UFO because guns and violence are cool, and they made the aliens the bad guys because you don't shoot your friends. I am not so biased as to assert that UFO - or any game for that matter - is not totally without some form of influence from the culture of fear, but I do not think it was the primary motivation. The very presumption that some pro-alien cause has deigned not only the antagonism of, but merely the notice of the X-COM designers is an almost laughable arrogance and ego-centrism.
You could take out the guns and super motherfucker elite tactical ninja squad kill killer superkill megakill ultrakillers; I admit unashambedly that I am so shallow that I would probably not have enjoyed UFO: Alien Friends in the Super Barbie Golden Funhouse as much. Guns, gore and violence are a big part of gaming to me, and I live for the giggles of blowing my friends into itty bitty titty pieces in Quake. Telling the difference between what's real and what's not, resisting the obvious and subtle manipulation of the media; these are values that should be instilled into every kid, and is far more effective than wholesale censorship.
Ironicially, people who make such ill informed condemnations - while themselves making only a token effort to understand, tolerate or accept exactly what it is they slag against - only serve the very cause they claim to fight - the "unfounded fear of the unknown" (More ironic still the writeup's seemingly pro-alien/cult slant receives at best a lukewarm reception by the public). Those who so effectively embody the ideals of bigotry, hypocrisy and intolerance earn a very special contempt from me.