UFO: Alien Invasion is a freeware, turn-based strategy game for the PC that draws heavily from Microprose’s X-Com, a 1994 classic that has distinguished itself from other strategy PC games due to its unique gameplay design.
- Capable AI; enemies don’t have pathfinding issues
- Awesome audio; background music is appropriately eerie while having a techno vibe
- Developers have taken care to overhaul the id Tech 2 engine (which powers this game); implemented real-time lighting effects and bloom
- The resource management-research part of the game is engaging and at times is even more engrossing than the game’s “battlescape” phase
- Impressive content; team has an excellent writer (writers?)
- Like most freeware open source PC games, this one is a work in progress. There are some features that are being overhauled. Things will get better with each released build.
- The game’s graphics---given that it’s powered by an altered version of id Software's id Tech 2 game engine—is relatively abysmal. There’s just no way it can compete with games in the market today
- AI is capable, but not awesome
- Some sound effects and content are missing.
- Like some strategy games, this freeware downloadable PC game is not for everyone. Casual gamers, for example, will have trouble digesting its deeper gameplay nuances
- Like most open source games, this one is a work in progress. There are some features that are being overhauled. Some of the game’s weak points might prove to be deal breakers for some players.
It may seem odd that I should discuss this aspect first, given that this freeware game is based on a PC classic that featured an unprecedented gameplay structure but I felt that I should discuss what I’ve listed as one of the weak points of the game. UFO: Alien Invasion may not have production values found in AAA games but its real strength is in its gameplay. It’s not for everyone, particularly those who nitpick about visuals. However, for those of you who have not pigeonholed yourself into the idea that all games should have AAA graphics to be worth playing, there’s still plenty to feast your eyes on; the developers of this freeware strategy game have made significant tweaks to UFO: AI’s engine.
For one, the real-time lighting in this PC game is superb; walls and other surfaces glow as coherent light from energy weapons knife through the battlescape. Ravenous fires of flamethrowers bathe aliens with high-contrast colors---shadows deepen while sides facing the flames light up. I also love the way how objects slowly get swallowed by darkness the farther they are from the camera. It’s chilling to behold a humongous alien Harvester from a distance in night battles; the effect is akin to an underwater behemoth resting just inside the periphery of your vision.
The developers also didn’t ignore minute details---even in aerial world map battles where the models are Lilliputian, aircraft with laser cannons will lance out shafts of coherent light while missile-equipped ones will unleash a swarm of projectiles at enemies. (Missiles are way too large though; I’m hoping this will be fixed in later builds.)
I’d be guilty of gushing (like the fan that I am) if I am to discuss just the positive side of this PC game’s graphics. This freeware strategy game’s graphics is far from perfect. Letting the game run at 1024x768 or 1152x864 resolution will only display incremental visual improvements relative to lower resolutions. Sure, graphics do appear crisper but the improvements are only obvious if you look for them. Compare this with other games wherein letting the software run at 1024x768 resolution would bring improvements that are immediately apparent.
For a military game wherein statistics play an important role, I’m surprised that the game developers haven’t introduced systems for players to immediately recognize who is who at a glance in large maps. I’ve taken it upon myself to use the game’s (non-functional) camouflage scheme to clothe soldiers in different uniforms to spot who is who; hence in my games, elites go out in arctic garb, rookies in urban, and competent and proficient troopers in jungle and desert camo respectively.
If the developers had implemented a system wherein players could apply color schemes or rank stripes to the soldiers’ armor it would have been so much better. I suppose this is asking too much as this game is freeware but think about what THQ is doing with its Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine video game---the skin DLCs aren’t selling like pancakes but they are selling! Customization appeals strongly to a wide player base, not just strategy gamers. I’m very confident that capitalizing on customization would give this game a solid boost in terms of gameplay and user-friendliness.
The game also treats fallen enemies alike: stunned aliens (from stun prods or electro lasers), disemboweled aliens (from blades), burnt aliens (flamethrowers, laser weapons), blasted aliens (grenades, plasma blasters) ---all these fall, crumple, or cartwheel into prone bodies covered with spattered ichor. For what it’s worth, the aliens do assume multiple death poses but it would have been a huge plus for aliens hit with plasma blaster fire to leave cauterized chunks or for flamethrowered ones to leave blackened bodies. I’m sure these effects be implemented in future builds though, seeing that these can be implemented with (relatively) minimum fuss.
X-Com fans should be warned that this downloadable freeware strategy game’s environment is static. Here, no walls can be brought down by explosives and even cardboard crates hit with a rocket launcher display a resiliency that would make scientists specializing in armor R&D turn a vicious shade of green. (Hmm, there’s an idea there…)
Finally, permit me to insert a strong personal opinion that most guys in the UFO: AI forums disagreed with: the plasma pistol found in this freeware turn-based strategy game looks as if it has been ripped from the Halo universe. The curves, even the color---which is blue---look disturbingly close to the violet Covenant plasma rifle found in the Halo games. I don’t know; what with the multitude of games nowadays, certain amounts of parallelism are inevitable but in this case, the similarities are just too close. I’m hoping that the design will change in future versions of the game.
Gameplay – Resource Management and Research
First off: UFO: Alien invasion is NOT X-Com. And while I haven’t played any of the Microprose games, I’ve interviewed friends who I’ve given a copy of this freeware strategy game to and all of them opined that the experiences they had with both games were vastly different.
This freeware turn-based strategy game however, uses X-Com’s dual aspect gameplay structure. There is the resource management-research aspect where you juggle funds, buildings, and manpower. Initially, you are given a base with enough facilities and funds to assemble an 8-man squad.
Wait. What’s the squad for?
UFO: AI puts you in the shoes of a commander tasked with constructing bases, commanding squads, and reverse-engineering alien technology to combat an increasing number of alien incursions into the planet. Every time a UFO lands, you should ideally have a base nearby to scramble and launch a squad that would neutralize the hostiles’ mission. Your force is funded by various nations so it is imperative that you respond rapidly to each alien threat. Failure to do so results in a country changing its opinions of your forces’ importance (represented in “mood” levels; “Exuberant” countries will continually supply you with funds). Fail to deliver continually and the world’s governments will withdraw their support, ending the game.
With increasing funds, you should be able to erect bases in various parts of the world, the user interface of which is a beauty to behold; there is even a day-night cycle as the Earth spins on its axis. On the world map interface (henceforth known as the “Geoscape”), you can erect bases, surface-to-air missile (SAM) and radar sites, and UFO yards, structure that act as humongous storage houses for UFOs salvaged from battlefields. You just can’t place structures willy-nilly. Smart placement is critical here as there is a structure cap in place. You can’t, for example, cram the entire planet with SAM installations as the implication of this scenario is game-breaking---UFOs would be continually shot down wherever they appear near land masses. Also, bases are expensive and constructing one entails that you have to have enough spare cash to construct internal SAM sites (in addition to the installations) and a well-armed squad to defend it if a UFO manages to puncture through your point-defense array and land on your base.
The user interfaces for bases are 5-slot x 5-slot plots. You construct buildings within these. Take note however that some buildings are 2-slot affairs so plan carefully. Is the base you’re erecting going to be a production facility? You should erect more workshops and living quarters for your workers. Is it going to be a research facility? You should make more laboratories and quarters for your scientists and maybe plop in an alien containment facility for your braniacs to experiment with living aliens. Aircraft production bases should have spare hangars in them. (Classic gamers should be pleased to know that this free X-Com clone also has large and small hangars for dropships and interceptors.)
What strikes me as odd in the base building aspect is that you need to have a dropship to recruit and equip soldiers in; there’s no way for you to assemble a base defense force if you don’t construct a large hangar and acquire a Firebird Dropship. The whole thing is a 120,000-credit investment so it’s an awful waste of resources if you just want to build a production facility. Granted, the dropship could come in handy if a UFO lands nearby and all your other bases are too far away. Still, in this freeware strategy game, there are times where you have to penny pinch just to coast through, making the whole dropship pre-requisite a pain. (Maybe in future builds they should relabel the large hangar as “Large Hangar/Barracks.” This way, without dropships, players can still assemble a squad. Later, if funds allow---or base design direction alteration dictates---players can plop in a dropship without needing to replace the structure.)
When you have multiple bases already, you can also transfer assets (aircraft, ammo, alien artifacts, etc) and personnel to and fro among the bases. (The “Transfer” menu can be accessed via the base UI, making the whole process a breeze.) You can also scroll through various bases by clicking the left and right arrows in a base UI, negating the need to exit to the Geoscape and clicking bases.
Gamers who aren’t into economic management might find the above as an unexciting gameplay design but this freeware strategy game’s main appeal is in the way you direct and witness your armed forces’ steady progression in terms of technology and proficiency. Almost after every engagement, your Research & Development wing sends you project proposal letters to reverse engineer captured alien technology. You can then choose among the numerous choices on what technology branch to tackle first. Should you prioritize improving the defenses of your troops or should you allocate all your scientists into researching better weapons first? Is your base defense your weak spot? Should you prioritize outfitting your interceptors with energy-based armaments?
Questions like these bring a different dimension to this free turn-based strategy game. When you see reports that your scientists are nearing research completion on new technologies while your workshops are churning out your first batch of plasma rifles, you can’t help but stay glued to your chair and see how your squads perform with the new equipment.
You also have to choose wisely while equipping troops. Every month, your soldier, pilot, scientist, and worker candidate pools grow. While you can just take in employees from the other pools, picking new soldiers isn’t just a matter of checking boxes from the list. Do you need a heavy weapons expert? Choose one that has a high “Heavy Weapons” rating. Need a medic? Choose a candidate who has a huge “Mind,” “Speed,” and “Close Combat” stats. This way, you can outfit him with a medikit in one hand and a one-handed ranged/melee weapon in the other. A high speed rating will ensure he has a prodigious amount of time units with which to spend walking to an injured squadmate.
Your soldiers’ statistics grow over time according to what weapons you’ve given them. Thus, grenade launcher users will become more accurate on where their ordnance bounce and explode and medics will recover greater amounts of hit points. Contrast this with X-Com where stats are limited to strength and throwing and firing accuracies and you can readily see the gameplay deviations. In this free X-Com clone, your elites would be specialists, not jacks-of-all-trades. This design scheme makes you more protective of your squad. Lose an elite in a skirmish and chances are you’ll be hard-up to replace him; candidates with “Competent” stats are few and far between. Ones with “Proficient” stats are rarer still.
Music and Gameplay – Combat
Combat in UFO: Alien Invasion takes place in maps called “Battlescapes.” Unlike in the Microprose games, battlescapes in this freeware strategy game are rendered fully in 3D. Thus, you can zoom in and out, rotate the levels around, and even swoop in behind your soldiers’ backs to better gauge what they’re seeing. You can also inspect each floor of each structure by using level up and down keys. Unlike in X-Com, going up one level doesn’t render what’s below invisible; you can still see soldiers you’ve positioned in the sidewalk while you inspect the layout of the second floor of a building.
While at any time you can see what every structure has right down to tables and telephones and even wall hangings, aliens not in your soldiers’ lines of sight are rendered invisible. This makes for a tense gameplay experience. Nothing is more frightening than an alien equipped with heavy weapons round a corner near your precious elites. In cases like the one mentioned, you better hope that the extraterrestrial is as surprised as your troops are.
Turn-based strategy gaming suits the horror-tinged UFO: Alien Invasion; in the AI’s turn all your troops remain immobile while you hear footfalls within buildings and the death cries of civilians as unknown hostiles open fire within the edifices. The game’s music is also well done; in fact it can go toe-to-toe with some of the best AAA tracks out there. Except for two tracks that I strongly dislike, the game’s background OSTs are bass-heavy techno affairs that sound eerie while at the same time upbeat enough that at times make me forget that I’m playing a turn-based game. Think about Martin O’Donnell’s Halo tracks and you get the idea. (In fact this freeware strategy game’s impressive intro music reminds me a bit of O’Donnell’s “Under Cover of Night.”)
As you probably surmised by now, this freeware PC game uses a time unit system. Units with more TUs can do more in a given turn. Each action in the game---crouching, looking around, walking, firing---has a corresponding TU “price” and troops have their own individual TU amounts with which to spend. I’m pretty sure TU amounts are directly affected by the Speed and Strength attributes but I’m not too sure if the latter has been implemented seeing that units with stuffed inventories don’t lag behind those with lighter loads (ie, Item in holsters and backpacks don’t affect TU amounts). I could be wrong but I’ve several rookies hefting Plasma Blasters with their packs and belts filled to the brim with grenades and medikits and I’ve never felt that their TUs have dipped to inconvenient levels.
Each weapon has alternate fire modes. Plasma Rifles for example have a handful of firing options. These are “Full Auto,” “Aimed Shot,” “Snap Shot,” and “Burst” modes. Even fragmentation grenades have two modes to choose from (“Lob” and “Roll”). Almost all firing modes have wildly deviating TU and accuracy ratings. Full Auto modes for example, gobble a huge chunk of TUs, entailing that you have to get into position to use them (and have enough TU afterwards to duck back to cover). It’s also wise not to employ that firing mode if you’re firing at targets than a city block away---doing so would ensure that most---if not all!---your shots will miss. Aimed Shots are, needless to say, better at sniping targets. (You could also increase your accuracy by crouching though the act does consume 3 TUs. Considering that, on average, your troops have 30 or so TUs, this is a significant percentage. Moving while crouching also eats up greater amounts of TUs than just walking.) It’s variables like these that demand you optimize firing arcs, cover, and squad proximity when moving your troops around in this freeware PC game. If you’ve enjoyed games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, or even any of the GDW tabletop games, you’re sure to have a good time with this one.
One of the complaints I have about this game is that while it has a robust collection of levels, they’re not as numerous as I would have liked them to be. In the course of the game---wherein you have to speed up the passage of time so your production and research rates can go at a brisk pace---numerous UFO landings (and crashes!) will occur. These recurring events demand that you send in troops and enter the battlescape phase of the game multiple times. Thus, there will come a time that you will have seen all the levels this game has and replaying them again and again might take a toll on you. (There is a cool randomization system that randomly repositions the game’s assets---houses, rock formations, buildings, aircraft, etc---but it can only do so much. Still it’s a nifty feature.)
Also, there are two maps where the first turns almost always play out the same way. There’s this multi-level parking lot where aliens invariably spawn at the topmost floor. The best way to the top is through a huge stairwell located at the front and it’s here that most of the action transpires each and every time. (There are two more stairwells at the rear of the structure but these are veritable Indian passes, letting only one soldier negotiate through their narrow confines.) The second are maps wherein you’ve downed small fighter craft. Here, two aliens always---always!---spawn near my grenadiers, guaranteeing first-turn, 2-alien kills.
These are, however, minor complaints and do not hamper the experience in a significant way.
If at times you just wish to play the economy-research-production facet of the game and don’t want to be bothered by battlescape sequences, the game does provide you with the option to resolve battlescape action with the “Auto-Mission” option. One click is all it takes to resolve a certain mission. Be forewarned though that:
1. There’s a greater probability that you will lose; quick save first before committing.
2. The feature is largely a work in progress; currently results seem to be random as I’ve seen a veteran squad lose multiple times.
3. There are certain missions that can’t be resolved using this option.
4. Loot acquired will be significantly less than what you will get with regular missions. A developer has also stated that experience gained in Auto-Missions is substantially less.
The feature is, needless to say, handy if you’re short on time and just wish to complete research on a certain technology before ending your gaming session.
A caveat to veteran X-Com players: this game won’t allow you to save in the battlescape, ensuring that players won’t be able to “cheat” by reloading saves mid-skirmish. This is a pretty subjective topic but I agree with the developers on this one. I don’t want my gameplay to devolve into strings of reloads after missed shots and savefests after killing multiple aliens.
Finally, players should be aware that flashbangs and smoke grenades have been taken out of version 2.3.1. Developers have stated that they will bring them back at a later date. Also, faithful to the source material, this turn-based freeware game isn’t story-driven. You won’t see cinematics and any pivotal points mid-game wherein paragraphs of text scroll by (ala Transformers: War for Cybertron). This is just a minor complaint (after all the first two X-Com games did succeed without these) but implementing cutscenes would greatly diminish the feel that the game is just a string of random, turn-based battles and more of a cohesive, singleplayer campaign that’s fueled by a compelling storyline. (Limited funding wouldn’t pose as a major problem as the developers could implement simple but effective narrative pieces like that found in the Neverwinter Nights or Homeworld 2.)
As it is, UFO: Alien Invasion is fun and addictive but sometimes I just can’t shake off the feeling that I’m coasting through a series of random battles. There’s a story and it’s well-written (and the R&D’s project proposals are certainly impressive pieces) but it just comes off as a vehicle to string together the different elements of the game. As a result, I don’t feel that the world is on the brink of losing to an invading force and that the entire world is working together to fund my defensive campaigns. Every time I play, it’s just me and the AI moving pieces across the board in a bid to outsmart each other. Don’t get me wrong, this game IS more than good but when the wheels start turning, the background story remains just that.
Geoscape (Aerial) Combat
While aircraft combat in UFO: Alien Invasion is just a footnote in the game, it is by no means a poor aspect. When responding to alien terror missions, you get to see your dropships fly from your bases to the beleaguered areas. While these really have no business engaging UFOs, sometimes you will have no choice but to fly them to places beyond the reach of your interceptors and anti-aircraft emplacements. Here in these remote places, things can get hairy as marauding UFOs can appear out of nowhere. You can scramble your long-range interceptors though and hope that they’ll catch up and defend a fleeing transport. While not a major component, Geoscape combat still presents itself as an entertaining mini-game that’s still firmly integral to the UFO: AI experience.
Geoscape combat at this point is not fully fleshed out: it lacks sound effects; you won’t hear laser fire or even radio communications among aircraft.
“AI” is for “Alien Invasion”
One thing I have to grind about this freeware game is its AI. It’s competent; it does all that it is expected to do: it doesn’t have a problem with pathfinding, it fires when it sees a soldier, and it can use multiple types of weaponry. However, it still has a lot to go. I don’t know what the current standard is in turn-based strategy but I am dead sure the AI here isn’t as smart as say, Galactic Civilizations 2’s. I haven’t seen it coordinate squad efforts. Aliens do not: 1.) Heal squadmates 2.) Rely on each other (instead they operate individually) 3.) Use cover 4.) Crouch to improve their accuracy 5.) Use grenades (in v2.3.1; I’ve seen them use grenades in earlier builds though.)
There’s also a game feature that only affects aliens—outgunned ones sometimes drop their guns and cower, crouching while holding their heads. It’s a nice feature but I hope to see this applied across the board in future builds; soldiers have a “mood meter” (judging from the sine wave thingamajig with the smiley emoticon in the inventory window) but I don’t think this has been implemented yet as I’ve yet to see one of my troopers lose it.
Aliens also don’t prioritize your forces; they invariably make beelines for civilians if any are nearby. Luckily, though, civvies can be trusted in fleeing from hostiles. My only complaint is the latter’s animation: they may run from the aliens but when at rest, some put a hand on their hip, making them appear nonchalant about a UFO parked in the neighborhood while a swarm of homicidal extraterrestrials are making shish kebabs out of their families and friends.
Nothing bothers me more though than the wallhacking aliens found in this game. Some species have infrared vision, making them see troops even behind a wall. While this is cool, the AI can’t seem to realize that walls stop shots; thus you’ll see aliens wasting precious time units as they use the Full-Auto mode of their weapons behind a wall, trying to shoot through it. You will even see some of them trying to fire through floors in a vain attempt to shoot soldiers that are below them. It’s this bug that seriously handicaps the AI.
Surprisingly, though, even with all these complaints, the combat in this freeware game remains an engaging affair as the AI can be counted on to rack up horrifying kill counts if you move your troops around carelessly. While it’s not Deep Blue, the AI is competent enough to give you an entertaining time planning tactics in a detailed 3D environment.
Bugs – The Other Alien Threat
While the game has bugs they occur rarely enough that I don’t find them to be major issues. To date, I only had five crashes (game freezing after successfully loading up). There’s also an issue with slopes—sometimes if the inclines are gradual enough, aliens and troops alike inexplicably vanish as they pass through the terrain. I’ve only seen this happen thrice though. However, in the “Convoy” map, parts of the grassy slopes can’t be traversed through. The most annoying bug I had involved the game exiting back to the world map UI after I tried to make a soldier pick up an item from the ground—this after I had invested several minutes in an anti-terror mission.
UFO: Alien Invasion may not be a next-gen game but if you don’t mind its archaic engine and the fact that is being developed by people who aren’t financed by a major game publisher, you’re sure to find an almost unparalleled experience here. The game’s two-fold structure means that people who are macromanagement-oriented will have an engrossing time allocating meager funds and manpower to base defense and R&D while turn-based strategy enthusiasts won’t be disappointed with the battlescape aspect of the game. If you are both, be warned: UFO: Alien Invasion is one of those games that are so addictive, you can’t help but invest several weeks of your life into them. Be prepared to stave off alien terror campaigns way into the wee hours of the morning.
Tilt: 7.5 – This game could have scored an 8.0 or even an 8.5 but some missing content (aerial combat sound effects, several project proposals having blank pages, etc) clearly mark version 2.3.1 as a work in progress. There are also bugs that rear their ugly heads from time to time. Also there are still some tech tree paths that aren’t complete; case in point: the Medium Alien Armor technology branch.
Graphics: 6.5 – id Tech 2 graphics bring down this game in the graphics department. While the team has made huge (nay, gargantuan!) leaps in visuals in 2.3.1, I can’t give this game a 7.0 if I am to maintain consistency in my ratings (I gave FEAR 3 a 7.9). Once the new models and UI get implemented though, this can easily score a 7.0 or even a 7.5.
Gameplay: 9.5 – This is UFO: AI’s forte. Maintaining the X-Com formula ensures that purists who are looking for an X-Com experience will have a blast playing this one. Positioning troopers across detailed 3-dimensional, multi-level landscapes while seeing alien craft vomit a whole platoon of hostile ETs who then either melt into the shadows or charge towards your troops is an experience few games today offer.
Sound: 7.5 – The original tracks found in this game is nothing short of amazing. They’ve really poured creative talents into the background music. By themselves, the tracks can collectively score an 8.0. I’ve scaled down the rating though as there are sound effects that do not quite sound right; the shotgun and assault rifles for example, sound too sibilant and weak. Also, Geoscape combat could use some sound effects.
Replayability: 9.0 – No two skirmishes play out the same way. The initial excitement might wear off once you finish the campaign but the battlescape combat never gets old. The challenge the AI presents isn’t overwhelming but it isn’t mind-numbingly easy either. Also the research-management phase and the Geoscape UI tie in well with UFO: AI’s core gameplay aspect, adding different avenues of goal achievement other than eliminating alien threats.
Final Score: 8.0
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