Why it’s been so hard to replace UFO: Enemy Unknown

It’s hard to find a more revered game in PC-gaming history than UFO: Enemy Unknown. Also known as XCOM: UFO Defense in North America, it revolutionised the concept of strategy gaming when it hit us like a freight train in 1994.

The graphics are difficult to look at these days and the intro (that I thought at the time was mind-bendingly amazing) is a LOT cornier than I remember, but the core of the game still contains an open world strategic defence model that few games, if any, have been able to replicate in the 23 years since its release.

Pitting the player against an ever evolving alien invasion, UFO is a mixture of open world base building, inventory management and top down turn based strategy that is still as popular as ever today on steam as it was in its prime.

Two more sequels were developed: the near impossible to finish Terror from the Deep and the trippy multi-dimensional X-COM: Apocalypse.

Trips down memory lane aside, as a plethora of sequels, knock offs and reboots have marched past us in rapid fire succession over the years, why has it been so hard to replicate the complexity and sheer enormity of the first game?

Let’s be clear, Firaxis Games’ 2012 XCOM: Enemy Unknown reboot was a pretty exceptional game that kickstarted my love once again for strategic turn based combat. Adding in a three dimensional cover system for your soldiers was a stroke of pure genius and I found myself eagerly chomping at the bit for a new alert to pop up so I could send my team into the hot zone and shoot some damn bugs.

However it wasn’t what was added to the original that made it lose points among real UFO fans, it was what was missing that hung around in the air like a bad smell.

Air combat felt pointless. So was the Geoscape. Without freely being able to move aircraft around the map or even have multiple bases the Geoscape became nothing more than a mission selector tool. What was the point of watching my aircraft fly around the map to undertake a mission when I can’t redirect them or change their orders at any point?

It felt like it was there purely as an aesthetic Easter egg for older fans.

The “it’s this mission or nothing” approach to the mission roster was far from perfect too. Every month it was the same; at least one alien incursion to deal with (sometimes zero as your satellite network increased), one council mission and maybe one terror mission. The game didn’t give you any options to choose your own missions or develop your own game plan and make up a terrible monthly performance by attacking an alien base or going on multiple missions at once.

And that was its core issue – it was the illusion of choice. The player wasn’t really free to run XCOM as they saw fit, they just simply reacted to pre-planned events that were either won or lost.

The original game allowed players to develop real world survival strategies. It was normal to have multiple assault teams specially suited for different situations: I always had an ‘A’ team, made up of officers and battle hardened veterans that had access to the latest weaponry. Following them into combat on smaller missions was my ‘B’ team, usually with hand-me-down weapons and armour that had seen previous battle use with A-team. Naturally there was your psyonics team and I even had a special income generating squad that was always situated within a short Skyraider ride from the nearest Alien base, so they could swoop down and prey upon alien supply craft that regularly serviced the alien invasion at regular intervals.

Loot was a massive part of the original game and usually made up an ever increasing percentage of your monthly income. Elerium 115 and Heavy Plasma guns were highly prized and you felt more obliged to push your soldiers to the limits not just to level them up, but also because the more missions you undertook the more loot you gained and sold. It was a prologue to the resource gathering functionality of modern games like Fallout. Playing through Fallout 4 I would often spend hours at a time hunting animals for food or clearing out raider settlements so I could scrap their weapons for parts and resources.

In UFO, you could choose to turn alien bases into grocery stores, leaving them around because the longer they operated the more missions you could extract from them. It was a system that rewarded fastidious players with an extra reliable income source, while at the same time a gameplay structure that left inattentive players slowly sinking without a lifeline. It forced players to actually care about their gameplay.

All of this has been missing in any UFO reboot game we’ve had since.

At the end of the day we simply have to ask ourselves – why couldn’t they just take the old game and all the elements that made it exceptional and just make a new version?

Well, UFO’s creator Julian Gollop is back and he’s working on what in theory should be the true spiritual successor to his UFO franchise.

His next project Phoenix Point http://www.phoenixpoint.info promises to recapture the vibe of the original and even introduces a new procedurally generated mutation element into the alien invasion scenario. The video also indicates that the player needs to manage available map resources alongside various hostile and war-weary human factions that will presumably add an extra dimensionality to the overall campaign.

This excites me greatly. I’ve already purchased a copy.

In saying that though I still have high hopes for the XCOM reboot franchise. XCOM and XCOM 2 were still great games and I definitely logged a few hundred hours into each. My ultimate hope is that both XCOM and Phoenix Point are able to learn from each other’s game architecture and build upon one another to create a gaming experience that’s reminiscent of the original ’94 Enemy Unknown game.

Of course UFO: Enemy Unknown never REALLY left us; it’s still here on steam, racking up overwhelmingly positive reviews and delighting new and old fans in droves. But seriously, why has it been so hard to just take that thing we know and love and just make it prettier?

- Andrew Archer