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8 Features

History Lesson: UFO - Enemy Unknown

The mid '90s strategy game that proved the truth was out there

If you were remotely interested in sci-fi or strategy in 1994 and had access to a PC or Amiga, there's a good chance UFO: Enemy Unknown was less a game to you and more a high-tech social life removal device.

Known as X-COM: UFO Defense in the US, it demanded weeks, months, whole seasons of unwavering global vigilance and crash site firefights to safeguard Earth against terror from the skies, and by the Sectoid Leader's grotesquely swollen brain, that's just what it got.


Few gamers would deny the health benefits of a dollop of Gollop after star turns from designer Julian (and, later, brother Nick) in the realms of Rebelstar, Chaos and Laser Squad.

UFO: Enemy Unknown was on course to arrive as Laser Squad 2 until MicroProse requested something on the same scale as Civilization: this sassy backtalk spurred its growth to a new level where hands-on isometric skirmishes in the Battlescape stage were framed by high-level X-COM base management and UFO monitoring in the new Geoscape view.

But even then, with publisher cold feet and takeover bids brewing, only a heroic burst of coding in the final stretch saw the game delivered safely into an alien-fearing pre-millennial world.

Yes, UFO: Enemy Unknown's crazy future view of 1999 saw the governments of Earth, skittish over rising alien activity, joint-funding a dedicated Extraterrestrial Combat Unit.

They (meaning you) started small with long-term plans to engage Sectoids, Snakemen, Mutons and all the rest, salvage and study their tech, tool up to storm a distant base and finally end the war of attrition with a ton of cheeky plasma violence... easy.

Except not easy. To get paid, you had to get results. That meant downing UFOs and tackling their hostile crew at ground zero, from American suburbs to Italian farmland, Moroccan deserts to Arctic tundra. Even with scanners and flares, there was no knowing what would rear its ugly head next.

Turns and tactics factored in time units and line-of-sight mechanics, leading to a state of total alertness that ultimately defined the game. That and reaping the spoils of war as your base boffins replicated alien laser weapons, power suits, hovertanks...

Only one successor (the second sequel, Apocalypse) involved the Gollop brothers after another MicroProse team hammered out Terror from the Deep. The fourth game, Interceptor, and shooter spin-off Enforcer are best left grumbling in their restless graves. After that, the rights pinballed around until the Firaxis relaunch in 2012.

Julian Gollop still plies his turn-based trade at every opportunity, whether in Rebelstar: Tactical Command on GBA or the less rabidly alien Clancyverse in 3DS launch title Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars.

Meanwhile, years of fan games and spiritual sequels have proven that this was a game comparable to Elite in the profundity of its effect on people - one that gave the strategy sim's beardy reputation a shave and showed how imagination and heart could really make it soar