Review of "UFO: Alien Invasion"
Developer: UFO: Alien Invasion Team
Genre: Turn-based strategy; real-time strategy
Platforms: PC, Mac OS X, Linux, AmigaOS, Android
Released: December 2003 (original); April 2012 (v 2.4 – version reviewed)
I haven’t really had the pleasure of playing the original X-Com games—the series that inspired this freeware open-source title. But from what I’ve gathered after doing a bit of research is that UFO: Enemy Unknown (marketed as X-Com: UFO Defense in the USA) is a much-loved cult classic from back in the day (the early 90’s) where you defend the earth from an alien invasion. UFO is much like that, hence the subtitle of “alien invasion”.
You start off at the main menu like most games, and will have to start a new campaign. You can try a simple campaign, but I wasn’t taking any shortcuts, so I opted for the full campaign. However, I did settle for one of the easier difficulty levels seeing as this was my first time. Difficulty levels determine how much in the way of starting credits you get, how many staff you start with, and how easy it is to mess up.
Then you progress to the Geoscape, which has the earth in all its splendour in front of you, with different territories, including United America, Russia, and the Asian Republic among others. It’s all changed a bit in the year 2084, you’ll find.
Your First Base
You are the director of Phalanx, a top-secret organisation whose sole mission it is to defend earth from the aliens, whose sole mission seems to be “all humans must die”. After taking a look at your email where you would have received a few messages from your advisors, your first objective is to build a base, and you can select any point on the earth you want. Once that’s done, you can even name your base. Your first base comes with all the necessities pre-built, but subsequent bases will have to be built room by room, and this takes a while, plus you need a lot of credits in order to do it. You have different buildings in your base, which each allow you to perform different actions. These include hangars, where you can house your aircraft which includes interceptors—craft that shoot down UFOs—and dropships, which will carry troops to the battlefield and back. You’ll also have access to laboratories, workshops, missile command centres, and alien containment buildings, and more.
Borrowed Engines and Animations
The game is not only inspired by "X-Com," but also the "Quake" series. The game uses a modified id Tech 2 and Quake 2 engine, as well as the death animations from Quake III Arena, and the suit of armour used once you’ve researched alien body armour, nanocomposite armour, is based on that of the slipgate explorer armour from Quake. Ranger and Wrack also wear this armour in Q3A.
Then after you’ve got all the buildings you need, you can go about hiring employees like workers, scientists, pilots, and soldiers. You can buy and sell equipment, start production on new technologies, and conduct research of alien technology.
Outside of building bases, you can also construct smaller, but just as crucial buildings, like UFO yards, SAM sites, and radar towers. Positioning is everything, so don’t waste credits building structures all over the place, overextending yourself. Focus on one area first, and then gradually extend your presence over the face of the earth when you have the money to do it. This will decrease response time when aliens attack.
At some point, you are going to come across a UFO. It will more than likely be picked up on radar, and will probably land somewhere unless you are able to intercept it with aircraft or SAM sites. But even if you do intercept it, you’ll have to get to the crash site to secure the area. The only way you can prevent a battle scenario from taking place at all is if you shoot down UFOs over water. There are different UFOs that perform different functions. You have harvesters, scouts, and the fighter class UFOs, and this can determine which sort of scenario plays out, but inevitably it all ends up with you going into battle to kill aliens. There’s not all that much variety. So it's a good thing then that with some mission types you can opt to have the missions play out all by themselves. Of course without you around to oversee matters, this might not end with desirable results.
So let’s say you have a UFO that lands in United America. You then arm your hired troops (whom you can also individually name) with armour and weapons that you’ve taken the time to buy or produce and get them loaded up in the dropship before sending them to the location to take on the aliens. This is where you enter Battlescape mode (otherwise known as Tactical mode), which sees you command a squad of soldiers in turn-based combat against the enemy. You’ll need to get them behind cover, use tactics such as flanking and suppressing fire, while using weapons like assault rifles, light machine guns, and grenades to take out those pesky extraterrestrials, all while civilians scurry about, often getting caught in the crossfire, or just plain getting in the way. You have to do all this while keeping in mind that you only have so many TUs, or time units per soldier, per round (usually around 30, but this number can go up as a soldier progresses through the game). You have up to two or three actions per move. This includes standing, crouching, moving, shooting, throwing grenades, or performing other tasks like healing another soldier, reloading, or switching on their infrared goggles (if equipped) during night missions.
Completing the Mission
Assuming you’ve successfully completed the mission, you’ll go to the statistics screen and see just how many aliens you offed and if any civilians were harmed, etc. You are then taken back to the Geoscape screen, where you can speed up or slow down time to suit your desires. Your dropship will automatically head back to base, unless you order it to do otherwise. Here you’ll have to heal wounded soldiers in the hospital and rearm soldiers, because over time munitions are depleted as they are used in combat. And you can take the opportunity to study alien technology to improve your weapons and armour, so your troops stand more chance of surviving in the field. From there it’s pretty much rinse and repeat, and you can watch your soldiers get promoted and their stats, such as accuracy or strength, improve; your base will get bigger and you’ll inevitably build more bases.
Funding and Credits
Eventually, you’ll reach the end of the month, and funding will start coming in from the different territories, the amount depending on how satisfied they are with Phalanx’s progress. If they’re pleased, then you’ll get a lot of credits and then these credits are used to pay hired staff and for maintaining your bases, with bases each having a basic running cost. The remaining credits can be used to build bases or structures, buy items for your base, aircraft or soldiers, and more. If the territories are not pleased, then they will withdraw their funding, and opt to take on the aliens themselves, individually, instead of investing in a global defence initiative (that sounds familiar). And of course, they fail, and everyone either dies at the hands of the aliens or gets probed and has their farts harvested, and it’s all your fault. From there you have to start over, or load a savegame and try a little bit harder.
+ Satisfying for control freaks who relish micro-management
+ Essentially two games in one
+ There is no real end to the game
- Graphics aren’t much to look at
- Gets a bit repetitive after a while
- Not a lot of variation when it comes to missions
The turn-based game that takes place in Battlescape mode is much like that encountered in Jagged Alliance, Fallout, or that other series . . . damn, what was it called? Oh yeah, X-Com. It probably isn’t as great in my opinion as say Jagged Alliance 2, seeing as you are constantly in a mode where you use TUs, unlike JA2 where you are free to move around as you like until you encounter an enemy. Missions also immediately end when all aliens are dead (or indeed when all humans are dead), and you aren’t free to explore and find all the alien bits and bobs, or special items. JA2 lets you look around and move on at your own pace.
There are some issues like hanging, particularly during Geoscape mode when you encounter UFOs. That was the one major gripe I had while playing.
But apart from that, UFO does pretty much everything else right. For a freeware game, it certainly is worth a play. A lot of others share the same sentiment, as UFO: Alien Invasion has won several accolades thus far, such as being nominated for "Best project for Gamers" in the Sourceforge Community Choice Awards (2007 and 2008), and “Best Open Source Turn-Based Strategy Game” according to Linux Game News as well as receiving a nod from Linux Journal. It's multi-platform too, even appearing on Android. How many standalone games can boast that?
I quite like the fact that there’s a renewed interest in the X-Com series. Because it’s a break from all the zombie games which are getting stale. And aliens, as everyone knows, are real.
A Great Game for Control Freaks
Initially, I didn’t really like UFO that much, or at least the looks of it. Approaching it in a sort of shallow way, I didn’t like the cartoony look of it, right from the loading screens, to the intentionally anatomically incorrect soldiers who look more like bobbleheads, and the oversized weapons they carry. From what I’ve seen, this is a lot like the original X-Com games, however, or even the more recent one, X-Com: Enemy Unknown. They all go for a more unconventional art style, which isn’t bad; one just needs to approach it with an open mind. But underneath this sort of comical façade, is a serious game. It’s part real-time strategy, and part turn-based strategy. The RTS bit comes in with managing bases—it’s a bit like Red Alert mixed with a soccer simulator—you know, with all its micro-management. You can even decide which colour camouflage your troops wear and what their weapons loadout is like—which really reminds me of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. Couple this with an extensive UFO encyclopaedia detailing everything down to the bullets used in the in-game weapons, and you have achieved nerd nirvana. This will excite control freaks no end.
Overall Score: 8.5/10
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