Nobody has yet recreated the magic of MicroProse's X-COM, but it hasn't been for want of trying. It seems like every six months or so, someone has been releasing a fresh take on this early 90s strategy masterwork about shooting down flying saucers and sending soldiers to hunt down the survivors, and each attempt has only sent disappointed diehards back to the original. UFO: Extraterrestrials adds another chapter to that unhappy saga. This effort by development studio Chaos Concept is dissatisfying both as a rip-off of a legend and as a game in its own right because of odd design decisions, bugs, and bottom-drawer graphics and sound. The best that can be said about the game is that its sci-fi atmosphere and smart artificial intelligence make it a somewhat acceptable way for the desperate to whittle away a couple of dozen hours waiting for someone to finally do a proper remake of X-COM.
Gameplay in UFO: Extraterrestrials mirrors X-COM right down to the global view on the main interface screen. There is a big change to the setting, in that you're now defending the colonized planet of Esperanza against little green men instead of Earth, but the concepts remain the same. So you outfit alien-busting bases with various facilities like interrogation rooms and laboratories in real time in each of the nine nations on Esperanza, send out fighters to intercept and shoot down UFOs, and then attack the downed saucer sites with teams of RPG-styled soldiers in turn-based tactical combat sequences based on an action-point-reliant movement system. At the same time, you also need to research the aliens and their technology to reverse-engineer it into sci-fi weaponry and hardware for your troops. It's all formulaic and familiar if you have any experience with X-COM or its copycats.
However, attacking saucer crash sites remains suspenseful because you never know what sorts of ETs you're going to encounter. There are numerous creatures featured, including giant insects, half-humanoid slugs, and floating blobs, each with different attacks that range from laser blasts and gas bombs to paralyzing mental blasts. Aliens are also smart enough to know when to retreat and when to attack (although they're not great at taking cover). If you hit one with superior firepower, it will often take off given the opportunity. And you can't just follow these cowards because doing so can draw you into an ambush. ETs don't always run either. If the numbers are in their favor, aliens have no problem blitzing you with head-on assaults.
Still, missions are more annoying than anything else. Too many aspects of the tactical engine are skewed against you or simply don't work well. The pace is really slow, even for a turn-based game. Some sort of hybrid system where you move in real time when not engaged in combat is needed to speed up the tedious map exploration. Animations are also slow and jittery, so you spend more time watching troops stutter or aliens slither. Aliens can see farther than your grunts, so you regularly take fire from the blackness. Peripheral vision is equally awful. An alien might just be a smidgen outside of your direct line of sight, but you won't see it. Shooting distances are wonky. In the early stages, before you can level up troops, increase their shooting skills, and provide them with high-tech guns (the initial equipment loadout is pathetic, aside from jeep-tank hybrid vehicles), you have to get within a couple of squares of an alien to have a better than 50 percent chance of hitting it. This leads to Police Squad-style shootouts where you're blasting away at each other across a few feet but still missing a good deal of the time (sometimes by laughable distances), or even worse, accidentally shooting each other or tossing a grenade into your own lap.
Maps are another cause for concern. There are only a limited number of maps in the game, so you wind up repeating yourself. A random map generator would have greatly improved things here. Also, the maps are quite sparse when it comes to interesting terrain. You get bland factories, scrub brush, the odd tree, various alien fauna, and little else, all done up with horribly dated visuals that could be five or six years old. At least, it seems like everything is destructible, which can lead to cool moments where you blow open walls. But because there aren't that many buildings to detonate, you don't do this sort of thing very often. And the aliens typically seem to be found out in the open or in their crashed ships. Exploring buildings is typically a waste of time because the ETs in outdoor missions almost always come after you in open fields. This ratchets down the tension after a while because you soon realize that bad guys are rarely waiting to surprise you around darkened corners inside of buildings.
Management mode in UFO: Extraterrestrials hasn't been thought out particularly well. Soldiers can't be killed on the battlefield unless they're riding in a vehicle that gets destroyed or the entire squad is wiped out. This sounds like it would make things easier and lessen the need to constantly sign up new recruits, but it actually makes everything harder because troops regularly get injured for long stretches of time (30 days and up are common). It's also impossible to manually replace the wounded, which means you have to wait for the game to automatically come up with fresh blood. This inevitably leaves you short on manpower in the early going because you start with just eight grunts and can expect to take out one casualty on each assignment. The only thing you can to do mitigate troop losses is buy those jeep-tank things because they come with drivers. Workers toiling in bases are also recruited automatically, albeit on a more regular basis because you get a set number of them every time you construct certain types of buildings. For instance, a basic lab comes equipped with 10 scientists and a basic workshop comes with 10 technicians.
Nations reward you with cash every month if you've done a good job keeping the skies clear of flying saucers. As with soldier and worker recruitment, this makes the monetary aspect of the game run on rails because you never really have to think about keeping your coffers full. On the other hand, it's a bit more realistic than making cash on the open market by researching and selling high-tech accoutrements (although you can make a few bucks here and there by flogging excess hardware). Being reliant on nations to keep you in the black also increases the importance of keeping ET bases off of terra firma because if a single alien base is set up in a nation, it cuts off the cash flow. And despite the lessened importance of research on your bottom line, the game does have an impressive tech tree. After a boring start where you have just a few basic weapons available, such as shotguns and rifles, you soon move into lasers, energy shields, gravity engines, and other nifty goodies.
Finally, the game isn't stable. Sudden drops to the desktop are common, and the audio never works unless you Alt-Tab out of the game to manually close the splash screen on the Windows desktop. But playing in silence isn't a big deal because the sound effects seem like relics from the eight-bit console era, and the soundtrack is loaded with techno disco more appropriate for a dance club circa 1990 than it is for hunting aliens in 2007. Only the odd bit of spooky music during levels makes the tunes bearable.
OK, all of that sounds pretty grim. But despite the many flaws in UFO: Extraterrestrials, there remains something mildly compelling because of the aggressive AI, the expansive tech tree, and the X-COM look and feel. This isn't a good game no matter how you look at it, but there are rare moments where you almost feel hypnotized into believing you're playing something that actually resembles a proper X-COM remake. Of course, then the game turns around and does any number of remarkably stupid things, thus snapping you out of this reverie very quickly. At least you'll wring some small amount of nostalgia out of UFO before the harsh reality of its many, many problems sets in.