They may have come from beyond the galaxy to terrorise the unwary (and in most cases, incredibly stupid) population, they may have technology far surpassing ours, they may be all warty and brown and smell a bit, but they're not fooling anyone. The game's called UFO, but it's nothing more than another reworking of that cranky old game Laser Squad. People of the world - rejoice!
Julian and Nick, the brothers Gollop, wrote Laser Squad abck in the days when they called themselves Target and then sold it under name of Blade. Now (in their ongoing bid to foil the sinister attentions of the Treasury, Josef Mengele's illegitimate son AND certain splinter groups of Hezollah, Party of God) they've written UFO under the nom de plume of Mythos Games Ltd. But even though they've been rattling through the names at a fast enough pace they're still writing the same game - though with a bit of a story this time.
It's the near future (as it is so often) and to try to mee the threat of rampaging alien invaders, the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit (XCOM) (Surely ECU? Ed) has been given permission to violate any country's airspace and shoot down any UFOs they can find. The idea's ultimately to rid Earth of these villains' horrid alien nastiness by developing a ring of defensive bases around the world, but that'll take you a long, long time.
You start the game at the birth of the XCOM organisation, with a single base, a few personnel, minimal stores and a couple of planes. The manual runs a really friendly tutorial section, but the game;s easy enough to get into anyway as long as you're aware of your aims.
The base section of the game presents you with enough stat screens to make even the most complex footy management sim green with envy, and it's this section, that separates UFO from the previous 'stand up and fight' versions of Laser Squad. (Or rebelstar Raiders to trace the game's history right back and impress everyone with our mighty powers).
After each successful combat mission, you return with alien artifacts and weapons which you can then disassemble, examine and ultimately manufacture. In this way your firepower grows, while at the same time you get paid more and more by countries grateful to your protection. So you build more bases, recruit more staff, down more UFOs and eventually make the world a safer place to live in. That's the plan at least.
Pointing and clicking your way through various menus, you can add new sections to the base, order and pay for new equipment (from hand grenades to interceptor jet fightes) and look up stats on all your curiously named staff. There's something about near-future games that assumes everyone will be called Ludquist Svenson or Amall Traventi rather than Paul Greenwood or Billy Brown. Explanations on postcards would be most welcome. (It's a tradition with Gollop games. They started off naming their characters quite sensibly, experimented predictably with people from SF books and then settled on really stupid names. Actually. - Ed)
When you finally spot a UFO, you scramble an interceptor, but unfortunately, the air tracking/air combat part of the game's no fun at all. A small radar screen pops up and gives you the option of engaging the UFO at extreme range, or whooshing in and giving it everything you've got. Either way, it's a bit of a lottery as to who wins.
Certain splinter groups of Hezbollah
If you get them before they get you, you're all ready for phase three of the game - the Laser Squad bit. You pack up to eight soldiers in a transport plane, zoom them straight over to the crash site in a powerful transporter plane, and then send them out with as much equipment as either they can carry or you can afford.
It's bug hunt time. For those of you unfamiliar with Laser Squad (and therefore clinging to the thread of this review by the tips of your fingers) the system works like this. The game takes place in turns. A turn is split into movement points, and these are soaked up by your actions. If you walk, that's a few points gone. If you kneel down or turn around, that's a few more. Firing from the hip takes less points than an aimed shot (but is less accurate), and if you use up all the action points in that soldier's turn they're completely at the mercy of the aliens.
However, if you save enough t shoot back, you can tell your soldier to fire at any aliens moving across his (or her, this is a near-future scenario after all) line of sight. This line of sight rule determines how much of the playing area you can see. Most of the level stays black until your squad's had a look around, and even then buildings and trees cast shadows behind them. Also, if a soldier's got his back to an alien, they won't appear on the screen until the soldier turns around.
The section falls down on two counts. There's something not quite right with the line of sight rules, especially when a soldier's on a higher level than the target. Quite often you'll be on a rooftop with a clear view of the area below, but (obviously wrongly) be told you can't see an alien standing out in the open. Also (and I'll admit this is a personal 'games versus reality' type argument) when a soldier moves past a window, an alien can shoot and kill him as he flashes by - even though the alien would have had no chance to acquire the target. ("Recognise there's someone there and identify them as an enemy soldier." - Ed)
The second (and more important) gripe is time. When it comes to the aliens' turn, you have to sit there and wait for ages while the computer moves them around. I clocked up over six minutes between moves on a particularly hectic level.
The A1200 version of Sabre Team (also a Laser Squad clone, fact fans) (Though not by the Gollops, further fact fans. - Ed) managed to pack all of this baddie-moving down to a few seconds, so what went wrong here? Equally annoying is the high frequency of disk swapping you have to endure. It hampers your enjoyment hugely, and raises suspicion that the game's intended for hard disk owners only, because the floppy version really does provide only a second-rate version of the game.
UFO's still great though. (As long as you play it from a hard drive that is). The missions pop up randomly so you don't get bored when you play it again, new weapons increase your firepower to match the aliens', it's incredibly tense and exciting, and if you mess up badly you get trounced. Just like real life. (But probably without the alien invasion motif).