Category Archives: Turn-Based Tactics

#83: UFO: Enemy Unknown

Format: Amiga 1200 Genre: Strategy, Turn Based Tactics Released: 1994 Developer: MicroProse

 

UFO: Enemy Unknown box art with, as was usual in those days, a picture of something that did not appear in the game.

 

Do you believe in love at first sight? That you could be at a crowded bus stop in the rain and your eyes meet with a special someone. Suddenly you know that this is the person who is going to make your life complete, that will bring sunshine and happiness into the darkest corners of your soul and will be the one who has to sort through your stuff after you drop dead from an aneurysm which struck as you were bending over to pick up a (101 Video Games) pencil off the floor?

I don’t. In fact I’ve had several relationships with women that, when we first met, neither of us was particularly interested. Or more accurately they weren’t particularly interested. But on the second or third meeting something clicks, and before you can say ‘I must warn you that there’s a history of aneurysm and pencil related death in my family’ you’re strolling through parks holding hands and kissing each other inappropriately in front of friends while they try to pretend they can’t see you and awkwardly carry on their conversation.

It’s not just love that sometimes strikes the second time around. Ever seen a film or heard an album that for whatever reason you just can’t get into? Then you’ll go back to it a few months, or even years, down the line and for some reason you see or hear something you just didn’t notice before.

Happens to me all the time. But for some reason it doesn’t really happen with video games. Maybe it’s because the video game, as a medium for entertainment, is constantly evolving. That in the same time you might try an album once then give it another go a bit later a game would have had three sequels with vastly improved graphics and game play. There was one game though that I definitely came back to years later, and got far more into than I ever did the first time around, and that’s UFO: Enemy Unknown.

I got UFO: Enemy Unknown (also known in the US as X-Com: Enemy Unknown)for Christmas 1994. Set in the insanely futuristic world of 1998, UFO put you in charge of a secret, international, military organisation dedicated to intercepting UFOs and defeating the cattle bothering, probe wielding aliens within. A mixture of resource management and turn based tactics, UFO tapped into the general popularity of aliens, conspiracy theories and the unexplained that was floating around in the premillennial mid-90s. The tone of the game was all dark shadow-y. The X-Files had just started to be shown on terrestrial British TV and I remember how every review of the game ‘hilariously’ referenced Scully and Mulder in some way.

 

Find out what makes a 'Grey' grey.

 

I was really into all that kind of stuff back then and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the game and start dissecting aliens. Imagine my disappointment when I realised I was rubbish at it. My troops would be wiped out during the turn based missions. My bases would struggle to break even as various countries would pull their funding and start making secret deals with the aliens and I never seemed to have enough alien materials to build better weapons. After about a year of trying, I gave up.

 

Equiping your troops so they can face those evil aliens. The game would randomly generate a name for each soldier, all of which were ridiculous. For some reason MicroProse seemed to think that just 4 years into the future we'd all change our names to things like Boris Zachery.

 

Flash forward to the even more futuristic year of 1999. I’ve just got a second-hand laptop so I can write essays at home rather than in the University Library. And of course play games. While out one day I came across a budget collection of all the X-Com games and, on a whim, decide to get it. I more or less ignore all the follow ups but decide to try UFO: Enemy Unknown again and this time… This time I get it.

 

The mission sections had a curious feature where an enemy would only appear on-screen if a character was looking at them. This lead often led to you stumbling on a group of aliens, or worse, being killed by an alien which you somehow didn't notice as it wasn't directly in your eye line, despite it standing right next to you!

 

I don’t know if it was just me being a bit older, or by sheer chance I had stumbled on how crack the game (lots of saving basically – maybe I felt that saving every other go was cheating when I was 15). Whatever the reason the second time around it clicked with me, and I became obsessed with finishing it. I certainly wasted a lot of time playing it when I should have been writing those essays. A lot of people seem to have been similarly obsessed, there seems to be a massive on-line fan community with all sorts of updated versions of the game and mods. There’s even a new sort of sequel currently in development – a first person shooter. (An FPS? Is nothing sacred?)

It still ranks as one of my favourite games ever. Indeed writing this has made me think that maybe I should give the game a third go…

 

You were recommended to place your first base in rich countries as they'll give you the funding. The UK was always my first base's location though. National pride was at stake!

 

Ian

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Filed under 1994, Amiga, MicroProse, Strategy, Turn-Based Tactics

#61: Hogs of War

Format: Playstation Genre: Turn-Based Tatics Released: 2000 Developer: Infogrames Studios

If anyone has listened to our podcasts (anyone?) then you’ll know there are lots and lots of games that I haven’t played. So it seems fitting that in one of my rare posts I talk about a game I have never played before and have very little idea what it’s about – Hogs of War.

Here’s what I imagine Hogs of War to be – something like Worms, but with pigs. I had absolutely no interest in playing it when it came out and have even less interest now. I’ll be honest with you, if you want to read an overview of the greatness (or rubbish…ness) of Hogs of War I’m afraid this is not the place…

Several years ago I found the North Star. The North Star is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest pubs on planet Earth. There’s nothing flashy about it. It has no gimmicks, it doesn’t need them. It’s a friendly local. ‘Local’ in the very best sense of the word. It has its regulars but it’s friendly to new comers as well. Patrons range from people who have lived in the area for years, to trendy young things who have probably just moved to London, to a big group of middle-aged lesbians. The bar staff know what I drink there and I know most of them by name. The juke box has excellent tunes and, as an extra-large cherry on top, they have a dart board. The only thing missing is the piano. Sadly they had to get rid of it for some reason last year.

Every Monday I head down the North Star, play darts with friends Andy and Paul (plus the occasional special guest) and drink one too many bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale (it’s always one too many). We talk about everything under the sun – previous subjects have included the feasibility of building a replica Spitfire, whether or not the gunpowder plot was a protestant conspiracy and the greatness of Alan Whicker. It helps me get over Monday blues, gives the week a kick-start and always helps put things in perspective. It’s rare to leave the North Star without feeling that little bit better about the world and life in general.

Of course, drinking Newcastle Brown Ale means I have to occasionally use the facilities. It’s a small pub, so said facilities are not huge: three urinals and one cubicle. Above the urinals there are two advertisements. One for Reebok Classic trainers the other…

North Star toilets

Oh the glamour...

Hogs of War. I could sit down and come up with a relatively accurate estimation of how long I have spent staring at that Hogs of War poster over the years. But I can’t be bothered. So lets say I’ve spent the equivalent of 3 weeks, 5 days, 2 hours and 41 seconds reading the, ah, hilarious innuendo of the advert. Hahahaha, who’s got the biggest weapon? Hahahaha. Do you see? Do you understand? It has two meanings? One a bit rude. Hahahahaha.

So how exactly has a mere advert for a game I have never played before made my life slightly better? Well it symbolises for me how this pub doesn’t really change. And I like that. In my life, and I’m sure in your lives, things constantly change and adapt. We get new jobs, move house, meet new people, get married, have children, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, usually change is good, and life is all about moving forward and facing new challenges, but… It is nice to have something that doesn’t change, something that stays constant, if only for a little while.

That Hogs of War poster represents the little oasis of calm that is the North Star. That no matter what happens in my life I’ll be down the ‘Star on a Monday talking about it. Last year the pub was redecorated yet they kept the Hogs of War advert. Somehow they knew…

One day they will take down the Hogs of War advertisement. I hope to try to get it off them when they do and keep it. No doubt there will come a time when I can’t go to the pub every Monday to play darts with Andy and Paul: after all, nothing lasts forever. But if I have that poster (above my toilet, it’s definitely the perfect place for it) then at least I’ll be able to have one thing that doesn’t change.

“My favourite public house, the Moon Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights. Its clientele, though fairly large, consists mostly of “regulars” who occupy the same chair every evening and go there for conversation as much as for the beer.”

That’s how George Orwell described his perfect imaginary pub and it’s the perfect description of the North Star.

Ian

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Filed under 2000, Infogrames Studios, Playstation, Turn-Based Tactics

#39: Ring of Red

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Turn-Based Tactics/Mech Game Released: 2000 Developer: Konami

It was surprisingly difficult to buy computer games in Japan – in fact, in the two years I lived there I only bought a handful of PS2 games. That’s not so say that games weren’t easily available – my local electronics store was crammed to the rafters with them – but actually finding games that only required a basic understanding of Japanese was a demanding task.

I found that the vast majority of video games in Japan were either RPGs or sports titles: unfortunately, the masses of Japanese dialogue ruled out the RPGs, and sports games have never really interested me (and especially not baseball games, which are hugely popular in Japan). The remainder was made up of popular Japanese series such as Devil May Cry and Metal Gear Solid, along with various manga crossovers (such as Naruto) and creepy dating games. Western staples, such as FPSs and driving games, only constituted a tiny minority, and my gaming diet in Japan mostly consisted of the odd Western import (Medal of Honor, Burnout 3) and a smattering of oddball Japanese titles (Katamari Damacy, Mr. Mosquito 2).

Infantry are key to success - your mech is almost helpless without their support.

After dejectedly ploughing my way through Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (not recommended), I was in the mood for something a bit different, which was when I came across Ring of Red. I bought it on a whim, and was surprised when it turned out to be one of the most interesting and compelling games I’ve played. It’s set in an alternative version of the 1960s where Japan didn’t surrender and WW2 dragged on into a protracted land war – which inevitably involved the development of mechs (this is Japan after all). After WW2 Japan was separated into Communist North Japan and Democratic South Japan, and the game starts as tension between the two sides is beginning to build (you can read more about the plot here).

Some of the mechs are capable of melee combat.

The mechs in this game are wonderfully primitive machines, all whirring cogs and smoking exhausts, and their movements are delightfully clunky and noisy, which makes a change from the sleek, futuristic machines found in most other mech games. Battles are turn-based, but each turn is governed by a strict time limit, so the action never really lets up. As with almost all turn-based strategy games, the core experience is basically two sets of stats gradually being reduced until one side has zero, but the game does an admirable job of papering over this with various strategic choices and special moves. One of the best features is aiming the cannon on your mech: the screen switches to the view of a target hovering wildly over the enemy, accompanied by the sound of your heartbeat; the longer you wait, the less erratically the target moves, but wait too long and you risk the enemy firing back. It’s a neat system and it really helps to build tension.

One of the long-range artillery mechs - basically a massive gun on legs.

The major downside is the repetition – inevitably the skirmishes get a little samey, although unlocking special moves keeps things interesting as you play on. The most frustrating thing about the game was not being able to understand the dialogue, but I managed to get the gist of what was going on… most of the time at least. Although I’m still not quite sure what happened at the end. In fact, the ending was a little abrupt in my opinion, which was annoying considering the amount of time I’d spent getting there. But then again I’ve seen much worse – the Playstation version of GTA2 springs to mind. It didn’t even have a cut scene at the end, just a black screen with the words ‘Game Over – Thank you for Playing!’

Tsk.

The lightweight mechs rely heavily on infantry support.

I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that Ring of Red is one of the best games ever made, but then that’s not the point of this list. In an ocean of lacklustre manga spin-offs, endless baseball sims and dodgy games featuring scantily-clad Japanese schoolgirls on their covers, Ring of Red was a beacon of hope – and for that it deserves celebrating.

Lewis

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Filed under 2000, Konami, Mech Game, Playstation 2, Turn-Based Tactics