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!