Thursday, July 7, 2011

X- Com Enemy Unknown VS. Aftermath

Back many years ago, in the good ol’ 90’es existed a generation of people blessed with wonders that by no means can be understood nor fathomed by youths of the modern generation.
Besides things such as Push-Pop and better produced television from Disney, the 90’es also provided us with great names such as ‘Captain Planet’, ‘Are you Afraid of the Dark?’ and the Super Nintendo. However, none of the above truly matched the feeling of epicness experienced by the majority of us, when we played ‘UFO: Enemy Unknown’ for the first time.
UFO is a strategy game, originally developed by the company Micropose. As the name gives away from the start, once again we find ourselves in the middle of a classic struggle; that between the humans of Earth and the ravaging aliens of outer space. There really wasn’t any deeper premise to it that this. The aliens arrive with no friendly intentions and wish to eradicate humanity. Period. They didn’t need an excuse, all our base belonged to them, and we, as players, frankly didn’t need to know anything besides that. It was up to us to save the world, and we felt damn proud about it.

X-com was established for this very same purpose. A militant organization that cried out a global call to arms and had the most brilliant soldiers, scientists and engineers rally to their cause. The initial goal was simple: Find out what we’re up against, what they want and how to stop them.
As the player you were in absolute charge of these areas and were initially presented with a digital globe on which you had access to a single base of operations. This part of the game was a tactical game of management in which you eventually had to juggle a lot of stuff around, especially as the war progressed into later stages.
When the base picked up a UFO it was up to you to decide whether it was worth deploying your fighters in a direct attack during which they’d attempt to bring it down. Once done, you were free to either let the crash site rot or send in your troops to investigate the smoking crater. In this respect the game turned into a severely tactical turn based mode in which you had to maneuver your soldier through randomly generated scenery and neutralize any remaining threats. In hindsight,  these missions were really intense, exciting and almost eerie, since you never knew what was waiting out there, and therefore had to take a cautious approach.

Your troops were limited in their repertoire of actions per turn, so you always had to prioritize whether to move and/or shoot, or sacrifice your offensive in order to march a bit longer. When all your soldiers had acted, it was the aliens’ turn. Simple and very elegant.
Initially you were equipped with very mundane weapons and items. Your soldiers couldn’t carry armor and fired ordinary rifles and guns. At the same time, the heaviest artillery at your disposal was tanks firing highly explosive missiles. Even though the latter has provided countless of fun, you weren’t really that well equipped for the job. Especially because the aliens utilized another technology that was light-years ahead of X-Com (pun intended) and therefore carried lethal weapons and technology. All was not lost, though, since you were able to put your greedy little hands on any alien artifacts, once a mission was over. Back home at the base, your science team was eager to research your findings and how to utilize them. This was, in my opinion, one of the best aspects about UFO. Your team could, in due time, not only tell you more about the origins of these weapons, but eventually teach your soldiers how to use them, and thus give the aliens a taste of their own medicine.

As time progressed you were wielding plasma-rifles, heavy armor that allowed you to fly and heavily modified aircrafts with UFO-technology. You even had the chance to do autopsies on the foreign corpses for a lot of fluff-details. This usually didn’t provide you with anything important, except some nice details about your enemies. What really mattered, though, was when you were able to bring home aliens alive, which could result in some very nice advantages. In particular the very (some would say ‘too’) powerful PSI-ability, with which your soldiers got to play with The Force and combat the aliens with telepathic attacks. After months of training you were able to instill fear and panic into your enemies, and eventually crush their fragile mind and make them slaves on the battlefield.
The incitement for doing so was not merely a feeling of triumph but also the fact that the game was one huge arms race. Once you developed lasers they developed plasma. When you got better aircrafts they got bigger UFOS (to the brink when some of those things were really fucking big and able to two-shot some of your crafts). When you constructed more bases they simply started the same.  Thus, having the advantage was important, arms- as well as information wise. Information was usually gained through patrolling aircrafts or radars that managed to spot enemy bases or UFOs on important missions. The thing was that aliens weren’t comfortable just abducting cows, but instead went on diplomatic missions in the donor countries, in which they attempted the governments to cancel the financing of X-Com. Thus you had to cut negotiations short by blowing up the ships before the ever reached their destination.
If the aliens were bored they’d go on terror sites and attack a random city, and if you didn’t show up to defend it, it would cost you dearly point-wise at the end of the month. Lose too many of those and the game is over. Terror sites didn’t just resolve themselves, though. Usually they involved very special and strong aliens, and civilians that were not to be caught in the crossfire. If they did there was subtraction on the overall score, and the aliens had an uncanny talent for finding them during the first few turns.
Thus the game progressed slowly, and if you managed to ensure the safety of the world’s population there was a continual income of much needed cash. However, should the various countries feel threatened they would immediately (and perhaps a bit illogically) withdraw funding. Luckily, you were often able to sell everything from the UFOs, ranging from old metal to alien-corpses (I’ve always wondered, who buys them?). But the aliens got more and more personal, and eventually started assaulting your bases with magnificent warships, and you had to see to your defenses. Later on you could easily return the favor, although these cropped up like weeds in the garden later in the game. This was a motivation to find a way to end it once and for all, by interrogating a high ranked alien and then fly to Mars. Not surprisingly this is where the mother-brain  resided, and once it was destroyed everyone lived happily ever after, till the second game.
To me, UFO is a classical example of how a simple concept can intertwine with a brilliant gameplay in which everything becomes more than the sum of its parts. It is a game I still install from time to time, and even though I’m pretty familiar with every weapon and alien, I still love it.
This thorough presentation of UFO begs the question whether its predecessors were actually any good. I’m not going into a detailed review of the entire series (since there are a couple of them, by now) but instead talk about one of the more recent games; Aftermath, which I managed to find in a used-stuff-bookstore, some time ago.

It also begs the question whether said predecessors have truly managed to maintain the former glory or fallen into the notorious trap of being merely moneymaking machines, which is (have I mentioned repeatedly) a tendency among idiots I never truly got. But that is, after all, from an ideological standpoint. Make no mistake, though. I am all for innovation and improvement, which has worked fine for some games that managed to develop without sacrificing its virtues. HOMM 5 and the new Pirates! are two examples. I suppose you could say that DNF attempted the same, but that’s another story.
I heard that some of the original designers of the UFO-game were involved in the making of Aftermath, which in my eyes was promising. Even at the back of the package of the game I was greeted by the good old Geoscape, with the globe and tactical menus looking familiar. At the price of 5 Euros it was worth taking the chance. Now, after a certain amount of testing, I’ve decided that it’s reasonable to at least partly compare its predecessor, which results in a gentle warning to everyone out there, still yearning for those blessed 90-experiences.
Reviving an old classic is a huge responsibility. You have to stick to the original concept and yet you have to bring something new to the table. Otherwise, you might really just play the old version. I am sure that Aftermath actually thought about this. At least compared to:

Which is a whole other matter that I won’t really wish to comment too much on, due to the blatant idiocy of it. Aftermath, in my eyes, seems to have tried to fulfill some of the old stuff, compared to the new release. Frankly, when I watched the interview at AngryJoe, I got the feeling that the developers hadn’t played the original games for more than an hour.
The issue with Aftermath is that it choose to cut the wrong corners.

I’m pretty sure it was a rush of nostalgia, when I once again looked at the globe and was in control of X-Com, up to the point when I realized that X-Com is not really the true name anymore. Setting-wise we’re way passed the first UFO, in which all your had work is forgot as the world has pretty much kicked the bucket. The aliens decided to release a weapon called ‘The Biomass’ (wow…) which managed to eradicate huge parts of Earth’s population. Why they simply didn’t just do this earlier is beyond me.
Thus you’re in control of a group of surviving soldiers, and once again bring the battle to the aliens and whatever mutated freaks are now wandering the world. For this purpose you make use of some old bases (which I assume are former X-com facilities?) and whatever equipment you can find.

This concept really doesn’t sound that alien compared to the one initially described (again, pun intended) but it’s extremely simplified. A significant example is the removal of everything related to micromanagement. You’re no longer supposed to build your own base and the financial aspect is no longer present. Instead you discover additional bases that are military, scientific or industrial by your choosing. Following the same theme you’re no longer able to recruit personnel (they just show up, from time to time) and they come in much smaller squads. The research-aspect is somewhat similar to the old one, which also counts for the engineers, but the impact has lessened a bit. In example, weapon upgrades are now something you can stumble upon as you discover new bases.
In combat everything is, of course, looking better than the old games. The music isn’t bad either. Sadly, I had hoped for more possibilities to interact with the environment, which the developers claim to be a strong point. Maybe I was doing it wrong, but often shit just got in the way.
The aliens are usually grey and weird in a bad sense. Often they are also quite hard to take seriously.
Compared to snake-men, floaters, and the ethereal floating telepathic monks from the first game…they’re very tame.
Time units are gone and instead we’re stuck with quasi-real time-battles, in which you pause to give orders and watch your soldiers execute them. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but in Aftermath it just works so clunky. Once you’ve made your initial setup in order to stop auto-pausing the game if one of your soldiers sneezes AND once you’ve gotten used to their dull acknowledging monologue THEN you get to it. But in combat your soldiers often stand drooling or not understand how to move closer to the enemies, if they’re out of range with their weapons. I suppose what really sinks this is the way orders are handled cumulatively, and for a guy like me who just prefers to say “Shoot that alien-turd, now!” this is really annoying in so many ways. And even when I finally mastered it, it didn’t give the same feeling of accomplishment as, say; Magicka. It kept being insanely dull.
This is a simple tactical game that doesn’t have anything to do with UFO than ‘Spirits within’ has to do with Final Fantasy. It’s by no means a goldmine for any veteran of the series and although I understand how the developers wished to make the game more accessible and manageable they could easily have done that, without resolving to this. I often want to ask:

Is it really totally implausible, to keep the interface entirely of the old games, provide some great modern graphics, and argue that this wouldn’t be a popular game with modern gaming-culture?
I frankly can’t see why it would stand a bad chance.
Hardcore fans might want to try this out just to be thorough with the series. And the dreamers, like me, who are still loving the first two game, while fantasizing about the second (third, in this case?) coming.
We might want to wait a bit for that. As I mentioned earlier a new X-COM game IS coming out. But not quite sure whether that’s a great idea…

Until then, both UFO and Terror from the Deep are on Steam for a cheap amount. Maybe, if you’ve lost your original disks during the years, this could be a very happy reunion?
Final Verdict: 2/10

1 comment:

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