The Edge ExPlay Panel: UFO: Enemy Unknown and the beauty of self-set objectives
The secret of why 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown (released as X-COM: UFO Defense in the US) is so good, and why still it has so much to teach other games, is that it lets you play it your own way.
Now, criminally, many readers won’t have played the Gollop brothers’ classic game, or even the excellent remake that came out last month. So for those, here’s X-COM 101.
Half of Enemy Unknown is a strategy game about managing a UFO defence force against mysterious alien attacks. You build bases around the world, hire soldiers to fight off aliens, buy them equipment, hire scientists to research alien artefacts and manage a fleet of attack planes to shoot aliens down. It’s about Building things, and about money and time management, like so many strategy games.
The other half is a turn-based tactical game. Here, you direct your soldiers in isometric levels set in farmland, cities, alien bases and even your own, to kill the aliens and repel their attacks. Your soldiers level up their skills through use, making veterans massively important. You need crack-shot snipers and fast assault troops armed with the best equipment to have a chance of surviving. And if they should die, they’re dead for good.
Part of Enemy Unknown’s genius is that these two modes are inextricably linked. The management strategy game absolutely affects the tactical battle game. Obviously, there’s the management of your troops, hiring a whole group of them and firing all but the very best. You’ll also research and build them better guns and armour.
But there’s another way the two modes are glued together, and that’s where Enemy Unknown’s secret lies. At some point, your scientists will do enough research of alien corpses and artefacts to realise that, to find out where all the attacks are originating from, you’ll need to capture one alive and interrogate it.
Now, that’s a scary prospect. These little bastards are lethal, and, as we’ve discussed, losing your best soldiers is a massive problem. But to progress, you’ll need to do it.
This revelation completely changes the nature of the meat and potatoes tactical game. Until now you’ve been going into levels and flushing out aliens, maybe done tens of times already. Other than through getting better weaponry, your tactics probably haven’t particularly changed over the game so far.
But now, as you send your soldiers into a normal UFO crash site, or to fight back a city attack, the need to capture one gives you a completely different attitude to the challenge. One that arises directly from your own actions in the strategy game: of your own free will, you’ve suddenly given yourself a new objective layered over your usual aim to kill them all.
And through this, the game comes alive.