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Metallion avatar 9:39 AM on 05.07.2010
River City Retro Alien Wars 4: How to make a proper X-COM Sequel


Good morning, Destructoid! Two weeks ago I rounded up all of the silly spin-offs and horrible design choices that took the once great X-COM series to its grave. Just as I was finishing up that article, 2k announced yet another X-COM spin-off as if god was laughing in my face. Whether or not that first person shooter is going to be worth it remains to be seen but one thing is for sure, it's not going to be the tactical wonderland that me and a lot of fellow X-COM fans are craving.

In this final installment of Alien Wars, I am going to provide a guide to which titles we can turn to for our global strategy and small squad tactics fixes. Surprisingly, some of the finest examples come from where I'd least expect them to: open source software.

UFO: Alien Invasion



I'm going to start by talking about the one that I personally enjoyed most. UFO: Alien Invasion is a project that's doing a lot of things right. First of all I like the developers' attitude. They've got a strong grasp of what made the first X-COM so great but at the same time, they're not trying to be the first X-COM. Instead their goal is to expand upon it's formula and try to surpass what it did. Sounds familiar? Yes, it does. It sounds exactly like a proper sequel and even though they're explicitly denying this on their about page, they're not fooling anyone. Alien Invasion is a true spiritual sequel to Enemy Unknown.

It's got nearly everything that Enemy Unknown had. You've got both the strategic geoscape with all of its base building, researching and UFO intercepting intact and then there's the fully turn-based tactical battlescape. Graphics are handled by a heavily modified Quake 2 engine. This might sound terribly dated but don't turn your back on it just yet. After all this engine was originally made for a first person shooter and this isn't one. For an overhead view with tiny characters, it does just fine. Things aren't looking like Starcraft 2 but they're in no way ugly.

It's a really awesome game but I've got one small gripe. Why did they have to call the organization Phalanx? X-COM had such a catchy sound to it. If I think X-COM, I think some hardcore party poopers. You show up at their party and they will shoot you in the face if you're an alien. When I think Phalanx I just think kind of ... meh.

I know they can't use the name X-COM without getting their balls sued through their asses but why not allow the player to choose the name of the organization? Three guesses what I'd call it. :p Anyway if you're a fan of the first X-COM games, you owe it to yourself to give this a try. After all it's 100% free and legal to download. The game is still in development but it's already fully playable.

Project Xenocide



Project Xenocide is a bit like Alien Invasion's little brother. It's another Open Source project trying to fill the shoes of UFO Enemy Unknown. Unlike Alien Invasion though, it's goal is simply to recreate the Enemy Unknown's with modern graphics and coding technologies.

Unfortunately Xenoside doesn't seem to offer anything that Invasion doesn't and it's nowhere near its state of completion either. While I'd normally absolutely respect a project like this, I can't help but feel that it's unnecessary and the developers' efforts would be better spent contributing to Alien Invasion.

UFO 2000



Here's a little open source project that teen Metallion would have gone apeshit over, had it been available back in the day. After hours and hours of playing both Enemy Unknown and Terror From The Deep, me and my friends were craving for one thing: multiplayer! It would be so awesome to take our battlescape matches on LAN and duke it out together. Although there was an official play-by-mail multiplayer spin-off, I never figured out how to use it when I was a teen and frankly, it doesn't look interesting enough for me to bother figuring it out now.

UFO 2000 however is everything I used to want. A full-featured and balanced multiplayer X-COM battlescape. I also like how this game is not trying to be anything it's not. It's a multiplayer battlescape and that's it. No single player and no geoscape.

Just like the previous two titles, you can download this 100% for free and legally. By default it comes with a fan created set of graphics but if you own Enemy Unknown, it's possible to import its content and graphics into UFO 2000 for the most faithful multiplayer experience you'll ever see.

UFO: The Two Sides



This is the final Open Source project I will discuss in this blog. This one in turn, is a more ambitious version of UFO 2000. As they say themselves on their website: "Although numerous other attempts have been made to recreate X-COM [UFO] defense, there is no (known to us) multiplayer game that lets you play full campaigns (that is both geoscape and battlescape)."

Although a playable demo is available, the game has only been in development for a little over one year and is not completed yet but so far, things are looking promising. Right now the game still uses graphics from the original X-COM and thus can't be downloaded stand-alone legally. The team is working hard on redoing all those graphics though and the results are exquisite.

If there's anything I can really say about this game, it's that it looks like it will be UFO: Enemy Unknown HD Remix. I love what Alien Invasion's trying to do in terms of surpassing the original but if these guys can make the original X-COM look this beautiful, I can't wait for it to finish! After all, if the Street Fighter series has taught us anything, it's that a true sequel and a HD remake can perfectly co-exist!

Now that we've covered some open source efforts, let's take a look at the commercial offspring that our series has had over the years. I had originally planned to provide a deeper look at these but unfortunately, I just don't have the time to play them all at this moment. On the other hand, reviews of these are already widely available. While I am going to provide overviews for the different titles you could be checking out, I suggest you look up some of the larger game websites out there for full-scale reviews.

The UFO trilogy



When people think about a semi-modern-day take on the X-COM series, a game called UFO: Aftermath and it's two sequels, Aftershock and Afterlight are usually the first works to show up. This is not without reason as the project that would eventually become Aftermath, was started by none other than lead Enemy Unknown/Apocalypse designer Julian Gollop. After losing the X-COM rights to Hasbro Interactive, he and his team got started on an unofficial remake titled The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge. Failing to find a publisher for it however, both the game and its developing studio went out of business.

After the intellectual property had been tossed around a bit, it eventually settled in the hands of Altar Interactive. Development was restarted and in 2003, the release of UFO: Aftermath was a fact although the developers admitted that very little of Gollop's original work remained. I've seen this game take flack for all kinds of stuff but I have to say I kind of like the direction that the story is taking.

Rather than the all open alien assault we've seen in X-COM, the aliens now deposit a kind of spores in earth's atmosphere that eventually rain down on the surface and kill everyone that wasn't lucky enough to be in the basement fetching mom a carton of milk. From what I've read, you actually start off by gathering whatever survivors you can find and then head on to figure out the aliens' motives and defend what's left of earth.

While I do applaud this game for trying to deviate from the original X-COM games and find its own identity, it seems to take some wrong turns. For instance the strategic part of the game is overly simplified and core elements like base building seem to be completely absent. Another one that I leave in the middle is the pause based real-time system that lets you fight battles much like you would do in the old Baldur's Gate series. You had the option to do this in Apocalypse as well and it usually meant my team would die real quickly but I'm still willing to give the UFO trilogy's system a chance.

The next two games in the series did bring back several strategic parts missing from Aftermath but reviewers kept calling them "E for effort" titles at best. I'm still looking forward to play them myself though. Spoiler warning! I heard it has some devilish plot twists where the aliens make you an offer to surrender earth and leave most of its inhabitants to die in exchange for the guaranteed survival of humanity on deep space colonies.

Rebelstar: Tactical Command



Rebelstar is actually a somewhat forgotten turn-based series that Julian Gollop worked on before X-COM. Along with a few other works of his like Chaos and Laser Squad, this is really the ancestor of Enemy Unknown. Although it has never had any research trees or strategic world maps, most of the battlescape mechanics were already there including snap/aimed shots and reaction fire. The latest installment or revival of the series rather, takes place on the Game Boy Advance and frankly, looks more like X-COM than any of the official X-COM games in my previous blog did.

Once again earth has been taken over by aliens and all people get a mind-reading chip planted into their brains at birth. When they reach age thirty, all humans are dragged off by the aliens and never heard of again. You take the role of a lad named Jorel whose high psionic strength enabled him to reject the chip. He joins a group of rebels trying to fight off their alien captors and from here on, the game is basically a bunch of X-COM battlescapes stringed together with some cut scenes here and there to further the story. There might not be a geoscape but hey ... The original developer worked on this one from start to finish. It's probably the closest we'll ever get to a true sequel since Apocalypse.

UFO: Extraterrestrials



Despite the title, this one has no relation to the UFO Trilogy. If anything, it's a much closer remake of Enemy Unknown or at least, it's trying to be. It comes with everything you'd expect. There's a strategic geoscape, a fleshed out research tree, a tactical turn-based battlescape and fully destructible terrain. Plus it adds a very well done artificial intelligence for the aliens. At first sight, it looks like this is the perfect re-imagining of Enemy Unknown. Unfortunately there just had to be a different side to the coin again. The game has got some fundamental flaws.

For instance most of the strategic management systems like recruitment and rearming are done automatically for you regardless of the amount of cash you have. A thing that can really get on your nerves when times are tough, according to multiple reviewers. This is still nothing compared to another design choice they made in the battlescape: Your soldier simply never die! Even if they're hit right in the face with a high explosive, your men will just fall unconscious, spend a couple of weeks in the hospital and be good to go again. I really wonder how they came up with this stuff. "So we're remaking a game that relies heavily on the suspense of micromanaging your hand picked team in extreme situations where they could be killed by a single shot. How can we improve upon this concept?" "Oh I know! Let's make the soldiers invincible! Yeah this is genius!"

Don't throw the game away just yet though as there appears to be a cure for this. Bman's Ease of Use Mod is a compilation of several other mods that is supposed to iron out all these flaws and make the game feel much more like the original X-COM games. As I haven't played it yet myself, I can't offer my opinion but thanks to Wikipedia, I can offer you Finnish game journalist, Niko Nirvi's: "UFO Extraterrestrials with Bman's mod is the true successor of UFO: Enemy Unknown that genuinely achieves some of its predecessor's magic." After a line like that ... If I had a shady lady with a crystal ball sitting on the other side of my table, an image of this game is what she would see.

This concludes the Alien Wars mini series. As much as I enjoyed writing about X-COM, I'm kind of relieved that it's done so I can focus on other stuff for River City Retro again. Thank you very much for reading and hope to see you again next time.

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