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River City Retro Alien Wars 1: UFO Done Properly


A very good day and welcome back to River City Retro. Around this time last month, I discussed a little DOS game called UFO: Enemy Unknown or X-COM: UFO Defence depending on your region. I tried out this gimmick where I explained the game and its mechanics in the shape of a story. It turned out to be a bad idea. Even though I covered the backstory in detail and nudged heavily at how the game is played, these things would only be noticed by people that had actually played the game before. If this was any other game, I would have just left it at that and moved on but for a masterpiece like X-COM, I just can't. I have to bow my head and apologise for the poor coverage I gave it last month.

Starting with this post, I am going to do a mini series in which I will discuss the game properly followed by a look at its legacy which is way larger than anyone would expect at first sight. I am going to tell you all about these games and why I cherish such a perverted love relationship with them. For the first instalment, I'll be discussing the game that started it all: UFO: Enemy Unknown.

This game is a diamond and probably a masterfully polished one at that. Despite its firm cult status and relatively small fandom, it has appeared in the top five of several media outlets' best-game-ever lists on multiple occasions. I really want to call this the best DOS game ever made but I have to admit that there's still a shred of doubt in my mind when I consider titans like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D. One thing I can say for sure though. This is my personal number one favourite strategy game of all time and in that regard, hasn't been topped ever in the history of EVER.

To tell the truth, the reason why I went for such a cheesy story in the first place, is because I find it hard to do this game justice through a blog post. You tend to get attached to your soldiers as you play with the same squad over and over again. You really start to know what each individual unit is and isn't good at. It's really thrilling to navigate your soldiers through cover spots with the constant danger of them being one-shotted by an alien hostile but I found it hard to pour these feelings into a well flowing article. Nevertheless I am going to try my best to illustrate the deep gameplay. Despite the game's age, it has some impressive features like true line of sight, destructible terrain and aliens that will adjust their strategy depending on your actions.

Since I covered the storyline in detail last month, I will keep it brief this time. The X-COM universe starts in the year 1997, exactly 50 years after the Roswell incident. Reports of UFO sightings grow more abundant with each passing day and though it is initially thought to be a silly celebration of the Roswell anniversary, sceptics are soon proven otherwise. As the aliens grow more aggressive and start abducting people and mutilating cows, the governments of major countries take measures. Japan pioneers with their Kiryu-Kai anti-alien force but months and months pass without a single successful UFO interception and the organisation goes bankrupt. As major world leaders realise this isn't a threat they can handle alone, the united nations security counsel gathers in secret. They all agree to form a covert anti-alien organisation. This is the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit or X-COM for short.

One thing that makes this series so great, is its perfect balance of strategy and tactics. In the past, there has been a bit of a debate about how certain games that label themselves as strategy were in fact tactical instead. I looked up where the difference lies and according to Wikipedia, the difference is this: "military strategy refers to the use of a broad arsenal of weapons including diplomatic, informational, military, and economic resources, whereas military tactics is more concerned with short-term goals such as winning an individual battle." These two terms describe exactly how the X-COM games are played.

The strategic section is played from a world map known as the geoscape. The first thing you will do after booting up the game and selecting your difficulty level, is choosing where you'll build your first base of operations. The base is equipped with a small radar system by default which will allow you to detect and intercept UFO activity. Even though you can construct a more powerful radar system, the vision coverage will still be limited to one continent at best. This is where the diplomacy part comes in.

Of course you're not talking directly to the aliens but through the course of the game, it is very important to keep up good relations which each of earth's nations. After all X-COM is an economical organisation just like any other and its funding depends on what individual countries are willing to pay for it. If you respond well to alien activity in a certain territory, the countries there will be inclined to increase your budget while others that you haven't visited so much, are very likely to be displeased and will decrease your funding. If you mess up, some countries will even sign a pact with the aliens that allows them to carry out their will unhindered in exchange for access to their advanced technology. Therefore it is in your best interests to expand and build new bases as soon as you can afford it.

This covers the diplomatic part but what about information and military? The first one is handled through the X-COM research division. Although there are a few initial research options, the real research can't start until your military force has been able to bring back some alien equipment. Whenever you detect a UFO, you can either decide to send fighter aircrafts to gun it down or play it more risky and wait until the alien ship lands. Either way you will eventually be sending a transporter airplane carrying a combat squad to recover the UFO. If you've waited for it to land, you'll be able to recover the alien aircraft completely undamaged but there's a significant risk that it will escape your detection before touching down. In the end, it's a much safer strategy to shoot it down and then recover what's left of it. Once you have brought back some alien artifacts or corpses, it is time to put your scientists to work.

Your base as you originally get it, will be equipped with ten scientists and laboratory space for fifty of them. These are an essential part of the game. The alien weaponry is vastly superior to your own and having scientists research it, will not only allow you to use these yourself but also let you construct brand new weapons based on them. Research of alien corpses will give you insight into their strengths and weaknesses while parts of the UFO will allow you to construct armour or even develop whole new aircrafts. Eventually you'll even be capturing and researching live aliens to uncover their origins.

Finally there's the economic part of military strategy. First of all there's the salary for soldiers, scientists and engineers. Then there's the ammo for both your fighter aircrafts and your foot soldiers. You will constantly be building new bases or expanding current ones with extra living space, more laboratories or even a containment facility for live aliens captured on field missions. All of which require their fair share of funding.

I mentioned how each of earth's nations will contribute to X-COM's budget but in the end, this is never enough. The real way to earn money in this game is to go out onto the black market and sell alien technology to the highest bidder. This part is beautifully illustrated by a shady figure in a trench coat holding open a briefcase full of cash. Several players even use commercial manufacturing where they have their engineers construct advanced equipment just to sell it afterwards.

X-COM's other main gameplay mode is the battlescape. This is the tactical aspect of the game where each battle is fought out. X-COM uses a turn-based system not unlike the original Fallout series. Each soldier has a certain amount of time units that will deplete with every action taken, be it walking, firing, picking up weapons or anything else. Once every soldier's time units are depleted, you can end your turn and the aliens are up next. Even on your own turn though, you are not completely safe. Any unit that didn't use up his full time units in the previous turn, might still fire a shot if you walk into his field of vision. Whether or not he will, depends on a roll of the dice involving yours and your enemy's time units and both of your respective skills in reactions.

The game was quite ahead of its time with a true line of sight. When you arrive and the doors of the aircraft open, most of the map will be pitch black. As you take your first steps out, only the tiles of terrain exactly in your units' field of vision will be revealed and the same goes for spotted enemies. In case you lose sight of an alien, he will disappear from the battlefield at the end of the turn until somebody looks his way again. Battles can either take place during the day or at night, when vision will be limited. Vision is a very important aspect of X-COM. One direct hit is usually lethal so you'll want to keep your squad hidden from the enemy at all times. At night you can throw thermal flares to light up areas where you expect the aliens to be and on the other side of the spectrum, you can use smoke bombs to cover your own position.

Now for another aspect why I still raise X-COM up so high above many other games. It's a common thing in strategy games to spend money on combat units and micro them in battles. X-COM is no different here but when a unit dies, in most games you can immediately pop out another completely identical one. X-COM is different. Here you actually get the feeling that you are handling human lives rather than simple chess pieces. Each soldier has his or her own name (that you can change to whatever you want) and a wide array of skills that range from firing accuracy to bravery and even psionic strength. I'll explain more about that last one later. The level-up system is a bit reminiscent of the Elder Scrolls series as there isn't really an experience counter, but soldiers will simply get better at the skills they use a lot.

Even in the late game where you have access to powerful armoured suits, a single shot from any conventional weapon is still very likely to be lethal. Of course it is a horrible feeling to lose an experienced soldier with high stats but that's not all. As I mentioned, every soldier has a certain amount of bravery. This goes coupled with a morale meter that starts out at 100% on every mission but will deplete whenever an ally dies. If the morale meter drops below 50%, there is a chance for your soldier to either panic or go berserk. Panicked soldiers will drop their weapons and run out into the open where they're basically cannon fodder. Berserk units on the other hand, shoot at anything that moves and some thing that don't, including their allies.

Depending on the size of your army, certain soldiers will get promotions after a mission. Having high ranking officers like a colonel or a commander with you, will be a great boost to morale. It's a bit of a double edged blade though. If this officer dies, the shock to your remaining soldiers will be immense. You'll generally always want to keep your commander somewhat behind the rest of your troops or even leave him in the aircraft altogether. He can still be of help to your team through psionic warfare which I'll get to in a second.

psionic warfare is a skill unique to certain alien species. They actually have the ability to attack your soldiers' minds. They can either attack a soldier's morale by filling his mind with horrifying images or they can even take control of the victim's mind. In case of the latter, they'll get full control over your soldier for one turn. Since they will most likely be traveling in small squads, this is extremely dangerous. The mind controlled unit will be standing right next to the others and is able to take point blank shots.

In the beginning of the game, this is a feat that only higher ranking alien leaders are capable of but eventually, you will encounter the deadly ethereal species of which even the generic foot soldiers are capable of mind control. Once you manage to capture such an alien alive and have your scientists examine it, you will be able to build special psionic laboratories where you can train your own psionic squad. This is easier said than done though, as a standard psionic training takes a whole month and each soldier that dies while in training, cannot be replaced by another one.

In case you haven't noticed yet, in this game, each soldier's life is precious and as a result, the battlescape is a thrilling experience. You will have your soldiers scouring the sides of buildings and peek around the corners, trying to spot aliens. You will often surround the outer door of a UFO or any other building, ready to reaction-fire any aliens that come out and then storm inside at the next turn. Of course this is a DOS game with limited graphics, but with a little imagination you can just see the squad clench their guns as one of them counts down with his fingers before they kick down the door and rush in. Or you could avoid the door altogether and go for a surprise attack by shooting out the back wall and entering through there. Nearly all of the terrain is destructible and even fires will spread as long as they have burnable stuff next to them. The game does show its age a bit here as shooting down supports doesn't make buildings collapse yet.

Even if a soldier is shot but doesn't die, you're not quite out of the water yet. In addition to severe penalties to accuracy and morale, he's very likely to have suffered one or more fatal wounds. These will detract health with every turn until he finally does kick the bucket. If the wound is severe enough, your unit might actually lose consciousness altogether. Other units can carry med-kits to heal these wounds but it's a time consuming process and you'll often find yourself picking up wounded allies to carry them out of hot zones so they can be treated. This again is one of these things that really make me fall in love with X-COM. Even though it's such an ancient game, the battle system is so intense and complex.

Back at the geoscape, it becomes apparent that the aliens comprise multiple species, each with their own characteristics. Lots of these are caricatures of popular sightings like the standard bug eyed grey men. A lot of real-life people have also claimed to have seen floating silhouettes around UFO sightings. As a little parody of this, X-COM has an alien species that have had their asses surgically replaced by hovering devices. They fly all kinds of different UFOs which are all built for a specific purpose too. You can learn more about these by capturing and researching live alien engineers or navigators.

In the beginning of the game, most alien missions are simple things like cattle mutilation and human abduction but later as they become more aware of the X-COM organisation, they grow more bold. The first sign of this will be the terror sites where aliens attack populated cities with the sole purpose of getting the government angry at X-COM. These are much tougher than other missions because they usually have special alien terror species which are much stronger than anything you've encountered before and at the same time, you have to watch out for civilians being caught in the crossfire.

Other alien missions include the construction of their own bases on earth, diplomacy with earth's many governments to establish those pacts I mentioned earlier and if you really manage to get on their nerves, they'll even try to retaliate by locating your base and attacking it directly. Just like in many other games, you can build missile turrets to defend against this but even so, some UFOs are very likely to make it trough and then your soldiers will be your last line of defence as you switch to the battlescape.

In order to finally beat the game, you will have to uncover both where in space the aliens are located and the technology for you to get there. Once this is done, it's an all or nothing mission that will either show you an ending sequence or a game-over screen at the end. Technically you have an infinite amount of time to get to this point but if you keep messing up all the time, it's still possible to lose the game.

I hope I have been able to showcase the feel of this game a bit. Its fanbase might be small when compared to some other games but seriously, I have yet to meet a person who has played this game and didn't totally adore it. This claim is further backed up by a huge amount of projects out there that have attempted or are attempting to revive the game in some form or shape. No matter how much it ages, the fans just won't forget about it. It's exactly this legacy that the remainder of the Alien Wars series will be about. I hope to see you again next time when I'll be discussing the true official sequels.

As always, this has been Metallion and thank you for reading River City Retro!
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About Metallionone of us since 4:11 AM on 10.14.2009

I'm a dude that used to write cblogs regularly but doesn't do that any more.