capsule review

UFO: Alien Invasion Scratches the X-COM Itch

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder UFO: Alien Invasion

    PCWorld Rating

The saga of X-COM: Enemy Unknown and its many misbegotten sequels reads like a gaming industry exposé. The first game came out of nowhere in 1993 and knocked geeks off their feet with highly detailed tactical combat, satisfying resource allocation mechanics and a polished, slick presentation. It's considered one of the best computer games ever made, and despite its age remains compelling. Things went downhill quickly after the first sequel, however, with each successive design team wandering further and further astray, insisting on either simplifying or reimagining aspects of the game despite legions of customers pleading otherwise. Eventually, the situation reached the infamous nadir of the cancelled XCOM: Alliance first-person shooter, one of computer gaming's greatest follies. That's only half the story, however. The truth is that the fans never gave up on X-COM; after the originals began to show their age, a group of coders got together to remake the classic, rather than replace it with something else. The result of that multiyear effort is UFO: Alien Invasion.

UFO: Alien Invasion screenshot
In X-COM successor UFO: Alien Invasion, Line of sight rules apply. Pick your targets carefully and leave action points in reserve for opportunity fire.
UFO: Alien Invasion is a high-resolution return to form for players looking for more of the turn-based goodness that X-COM provided in spades. Using a heavily modified version of the Quake 2 engine, the visuals are a huge improvement over the original's pixelfest, and help bring a certain amount of clarity to your tactical planning. As with the first game, you'll spend most of your time either building your base and researching new technologies or sending out your carefully equipped squad to investigate areas where alien activity has been reported.

Base design and construction remain key foundations of X-COM gameplay and require careful planning and execution to avoid later difficulties. You'll need proper facilities that not only balance the needs of your squads and their equipment against your scientists' research and development of new and captured technologies, but also will serve as an adequate defense against alien attack when they find and assault your strongholds later in the game. Spend your budget wisely.

The turn-based combat will be pleasantly familiar to X-COM veterans, with each side vying for line of sight and crossfire advantages while using cover and other terrain strategically, often with civilians running about in the line of fire. As the game progresses, you'll need to escort your squad shuttles with fighters as the aliens attempt to shoot down your teams while en route to their destinations, a bitter blow that can change the balance of power if one of your primary teams is taken out. The only major aspect of XCOM's tactical repertoire that's absent is destructible terrain. This will disappoint purists, but according to the game's development team, it was not possible to implement that feature with Id's underlying 3D engine.

I experienced no problems on various test platforms, but gamers in online forums describe a host of issues large and small from text localization anomalies to hard system crashes--especially with 64-bit Win 7--a situation the sizable upcoming v2.4 update may alleviate. Due to the active, open-source nature of the project and code, these tend to get addressed quickly, but that doesn't help users stuck with problems now. The 3D models and textures used are also a bit on the low-end side compared to current DX11 games, although you have the option of replacing them with your own if you have the time and skill. This is another area the coming update promises to address, with better textures and more polygons on display along with particle effects to compliment the enhanced play mechanics.

These criticisms seem a bit unfair in view of what you get for free, however. The team behind UFO: Alien Invasion managed to pull off what half a dozen development teams and several million dollars either could not or would not do. There's a message here that Firaxis and especially 2k Games, after their recently shelved attempt to revive the XCOM FPS in 2010, should carefully heed as they approach release of the latest commercial XCOM sequel in the fall: Don't mess with success. Let's hope they listen.

Note: The Download button takes you to the developer's site, where you can download the version of the software appropriate to your system.

--Jim Norris

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Save the earth for free with UFO: Alien Invasion.

    Pros

    • Great turn-based gameplay
    • Satisfying resource & construction management

    Cons

    • Buggy
    • Visuals slightly dated
    • Story and action slow to start
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