Thursday, May 17, 2007

UFO: Extraterrestrials Review

UFO: Extraterrestrials, developed by Chaos Concept and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Streamlined and intuitive gameplay with an easy to use interface, non-linear campaign, destructible environments
The Not So Good: No tutorial, outdated low-resolution graphics, no tactical game minimap, a little too similar to X-COM
What say you? A faithful reproduction of the X-COM series: 5/8

Ever since the release of X-COM :UFO Defense in 1995, developers have tried to emulate the alien-inspired combination of tactical and strategic gameplay. I’ve recently reviewed a couple of these tributes: UFO: Afterlight and it's predecessor UFO: Aftershock. Ultimately, the Altar UFO games just didn’t do it for me (and by “do it” I mean “have sexual intercourse,” and by “have sexual intercourse” I mean “provide a compelling gaming experience”). Along comes the completely unrelated but similarly titled UFO: Extraterrestrials, a game that doesn’t try to hide its obvious source of inspiration, hoping to cash in on people who really enjoyed X-COM. Will UFO: Extraterrestrials fill the void left by more than ten years of unsatisfying copycats?

The graphics of UFO: Extraterrestrials is decidedly outdated, especially when you compare it against competing titles. The game just lacks the level of detail that you would expect from a title released in 2007. Everything in the game has a fuzzy quality to it from the globe view to the characters in tactical mode. The special effects are nothing special as well. It feels as though UFO: Extraterrestrials was released about seven years ago when games were predominately played from fixed isometric perspectives (you can't rotate the in-game view). The good thing about the graphics is that the user interface is very straightforward and navigating through UFO: Extraterrestrials is extremely easy. This is where the title has a leg up on the competition, as I never became confused with the arrangement of the bases like I did in UFO: Afterlight. While lacks the flair present in many contemporary titles, these shortcomings are offset by a good interface and, as you’ll see, generally solid gameplay. The sound in the game has a nice subdued nature to it: you’re never blasted with over-the-top music or annoying people talking to you (like in UFO: Afterlight). Some may dislike the lack of voiced dialogue and the limited selection of sound effects and a more dynamic environment could be presented , but in general the sound effects don’t get in the way of the gameplay, and that’s really the way it should be in a tactical game. Still, UFO: Extraterrestrials is definitely behind UFO: Afterlight in terms of graphical and auditory quality.

In UFO: Extraterrestrials, you are defending the planet of Esperanza (Earth has long been taken over) against constant alien invasions. The first thing you’ll notice in the game is a complete lack of a tutorial. This is inexcusable, and the manual doesn’t provide enough information for veteran players (where are my weapon lists and research tree?), so if you’re not accustomed to games in the X-COM ilk, you’ll need to restart the game several times before you get the hang of it. Heck, I’ve played other UFO/X-COM games and I needed to restart the game thrice before I got everything “right.” The game plays out in two phases: global base construction and defense and tactical battles. On the global map, you will start with one base and detected alien craft will appear on-screen. Then, you will need to send fighter aircraft to destroy the ship and then send a crew in a transport to deal with the survivors (which are always there if the crash occurred on land). The UFO appearances are randomized, so you can replay the game over again and see a different frequency of alien activity. Of course, the research trees are the same, so each new game isn’t totally different. Esperanza is divided up into nine different countries and your income is dependent on how well you defend them from alien attacks. New bases can only have a limited amount of structures built on them (hangers for aircraft and defenses); this is a design decision to limit the ability to make the human player outpace the alien AI. Whether you like the decision is up to you (personally I don’t have a problem with it), so if you’re used to powering your way through X-COM, the reins will be quite a bit tighter in UFO: Extraterrestrials.

In each base, you can give each of your soldiers new weapons, items, and ammunition and assign them to a specific transport craft (they are limited in the number of troops they can carry). Each soldier is assigned a rank according to their experience in fighting and killing aliens. Gaining a rank allows you to increase their skills in eight areas: armor, agility, vitality, bravery, strength, reactions, throwing, and shooting. Each soldier can carry equipment on their shoulders, belt, hands, and in their backpack; there isn’t a weight limit (although some weapons required a certain strength level), just a space limit. Soldiers that are wounded in battle are automatically sent to the hospital and unavailable for a number of days, depending on the severity of their injury. Soldiers in UFO: Extraterrestrials don’t die unless the entire team is eliminated. While this is a bit unrealistic, the game is tough enough where it’s a good thing that you never really lose your most experienced players until you really screw up a mission. Your attack aircraft can be fitted with shields, missiles, and guns to ward off alien invasions. Research and production is straightforward: each lab or workshop grants ten scientists (or workers) that can be assigned to any unlocked project (you can research more than one thing at a time). As I mentioned earlier, the research tree is linear so you’ll be going through the same technologies each time you play, but your emphasis may change over time. Only researched weapons and items can be produced by your workers; basic weapons and aircraft can be purchased from the countries in the game through the buy/sell interface.

Once you’ve equipped your troops with the latest gadgets and taken down another alien ship, it’s time for a tactical mission. The tactical missions are very reminiscent of X-COM. Unlike UFO: Afterlight where the action was presented in pausable real-time, the tactical battles of UFO: Extraterrestrials are turn-based and each soldier has a number of action points per turn that they may spend moving and shooting. I like the turn-based mode of UFO: Extraterrestrials much more than the annoying pause-every-two-seconds gameplay of UFO: Afterlight. Of course, at the end of the scenario the battles can get tedious, but for the most part they are pretty action packed as you search the landscapes for aliens. The maps are varied and depend on the terrain the ship crashed on. There is no way of knowing whether a map includes a building (rendering vehicles pretty much useless), though. I do wish the tactical battles had a minimap so that I can scour the map more easily (since you can’t zoom or rotate the map). Issuing commands is very straightforward and action point costs are clearly displayed; clicking on a weapon will come up with the probability of hitting the enemy and the action point cost. You can choose from aimed (most accurate but highest action point costs), snap (the opposite), or automatic shooting. You’ll want to use the aimed mode the most (and kneel for even more accurate shots), but if you are limited in your action point amounts, the other two modes come into play. Throwing grenades and launching rockets are done in the same manner, and these potentially dangerous methods highlight the destructible environments present in the game. Need a door? Make one with a grenade or rocket! This is pretty cool and also fun, in a sort of sadistic way. Minor injuries can be treated in the field with medkits (they must be researched and produced). The AI opponents are generally pretty good, although they seem to operate independently (they generally don’t “swarm” your team) and some of the game comes down to luck. Still, UFO: Extraterrestrials is a challenging, rewarding, and fun game as you guide your team against the alien threat. Anyone who played X-COM will feel right at home with UFO: Extraterrestrials, and it’s a good (if overly familiar) follow-up to that classic game.

Of all the X-COM-like games to be released after the original, UFO: Extraterrestrials is one of the better ones. For the most part, it keeps true to what made the original game engrossing to an obsessive amount. There are a couple of small tweaks made to the mechanics to make UFO: Extraterrestrials more accessible to a wider audience that veteran players might scoff at, but these are welcome changes to the basic game. The graphics and sound need an overhaul and an update to the 21st century, but since UFO: Extraterrestrials focuses (as it should) on gameplay, most people will be able to overlook the presentation’s shortcomings. UFO: Extraterrestrials should spawn a mod community that will offer changes and additions to the basic game, so people who complain that UFO: Extraterrestrials is too similar to X-COM will be able to change the game somewhat. The game is fun to play: fans of the strategic and tactical mix that was perfected in X-COM will find that UFO: Extraterrestrials almost lives up to the lofty expectations of an unofficial follow-up. It may not be as groundbreaking as the original, but UFO: Extraterrestrials still offers some solid gameplay that’s a few tweaks short of a completely recommendable title.