UFO: Enemy Unknown - Recipe for primal fear

Updated: November 24, 2008

There was something magical about the first half of the last decade of the last century, namely the early to mid 90s, because the majority of my favorite games were made then. It may have been the thrill of modern computers and blooming graphics, combined with my transition from a child to a bigger child, but I doubt it. Because today, 15 years past, I'm still loving the games made in 93-95, the fabulous Transport Tycoon Deluxe, the epic Pacific Air War - and the terrifying UFO: Enemy Unknown.

In the olden days, the graphics were scarce and the computing power was weak, so the game developers focused on one thing they could push without limits - the atmosphere. Here forth comes UFO: Enemy Unknown, one of the most frightening, most ... touching games created.

The setting ...

UFO geoscape
This is Geoscape, the isometric view of the world ... Here, the mayhem and terror begins. Here, you will manage your bases, your funds, your interception missions. My first base, Utopia, is located in the marshes of southeastern USA.

UFO: Enemy Unknown takes place in 1999, in the year before the apocalyptic turn of the century, as it was conceived back then. Earth is being attacked by aliens. They abduct people and terrorize cities. Something has to be done. An international task force is created, with the job of getting the alien force repelled and destroyed. The task force is called the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit - X-COM - and you get to command it.

Simple, isn't it? A recipe for a great game or a complete disaster. MicroProse, the creator of the game, being cosmically gifted in those great years between DOS and everything else, decided to stick with option no. 1.

The execution ...

Ah, a true masterpiece. Today, there are games that eat a whole hard disk and still fail to deliver a fraction of suspense that UFO: Enemy Unknown does in 15MB of glory. The game begins with the isometric view of Planet Earth and the doomsday clock ticking its minutes past the New Year's Eve of 1999. This is the Geoscape. And you first step is to setup your first X-COM base. You begin with a handful of engineers, scientists and soldiers, some supplies, a radar, and several inferior spacecraft designed to intercept aliens coming to Earth.

The game management is extremely complex. You will have to fully micro-govern the running of your first base, and later, other bases, including the maintenance and arming of the spacecraft, the ordering of technical supplies and weapons, the scientific research, the employment of new personnel, and other tasks without which you will be unable to succeed in the game. Quartermasters rejoice, this is your heaven.

UFO researching technologies
If you're lucky to come back alive from a mission, you may bring along some of the precious alien stuff, like Elerium-115. This strange element is crucial for powering up the future-generation spacecraft you will build.

And while you spend your meager funds trying to buy guns, ammunition and scientists, your radar will pick up UFO signals, to which you will be able to send your spacecraft on an interception course, in an attempt to bring down the enemy ships. Of course, your primitive radar will be able to detect only a handful of enemy ships, with many big, menacing alien vessels slipping past your guard. And when you give chase, they will outrun you or fire back, destroying your small, weak spacecraft.

If you're lucky, you may force down the enemy ship to crash-land. And this where the true fun begins. Enter the Battlescape.


You can send your soldiers to the crash site to investigate. This means kitting them out with guns, pistols, spare ammo, and anything else you can find, load them onto a transport craft and send them to action. Once your soldiers enter the crash site, the game will switch to a turn-based tactical view.

Your first squad will be a green lot with international names, brandishing basic human weaponry. They will find themselves landed in a corn field somewhere, in the pitch-black darkness. Each soldier has a certain number of move points, which will be exhausted based on how much they walk and what actions they take, like picking up items, reloading their weapons or taking shots.

An oppressing fog of war will cloud your view to just a few meters around the squad, turning an investigation into a blood-curdling uncertainty. Objects and buildings strewn around the map will obstruct your view. You will send your soldiers into this darkness. And when you exhaust all their moves, you will end your turn ...

UFO alien being shot at
UFO alien dead
UFO alien being shot at
An alien Floater is being fired at by Jurgen Zander, one of the many internationals fighting for X-COM ... The alien is dead! All rejoice! One of the Area 51 lookalies is about to turn into a puddle of green, fired at by a tank equipped with rocket launchers, probably the most devastating weapon the humans have.

It's now the alien's turn. Most often, you will just hear noises somewhere, the creak of a door, the rustle of grass, the click-clack of alien technology. And just sometimes, you will glimpse a shadowy thing, sort of humanoid or worse, shuffling away. And to make this worse, an erratic techno beat will hammer to the rhythm of your heart.

UFO floater
Once you bring back alien corpses, your scientists will dissect and analyze them, studying their anatomy and weaknesses. These discoveries will significantly advance your research.

You will fire at the aliens and they will die screeching eerily in metallic, raspy voices. But quite often, you will miss. And then, they will fire at you. Your soldiers will be wounded. Or they may panic and go berserk. Others will die.

Depending on how big the downed alien ship is or how strong your force is, the duels may take as many as 15-20 turns, taking half an hour and more to finish. You will quite often end up battling aliens inside their damaged ships, with strange technology and bizarre artifacts all around you.

Missions will be hard and costly. Your men will die. And if you panic and take off with the transport, the stranded, deserted soldiers will be all lost in action. Once you commit to action, it's either kill or die. The surviving veterans will gain stamina and advance in ranks, becoming efficient warriors. But you will quite often see a whole new roster of names after a few engagements.

If you happen to win, you'll get back carrying a few alien bodies and their artifacts. Your scientists will try to replicate these items. Research will often take many long days. Once you build a containment chamber, you'll be able to bring back wounded or captured aliens and interrogate them. With time, better weapons, including alien technology, will become available. But so will the threats that face you. At first, you'll fight the scouts. Later on, you will face the invasion forces.

UFO ethereal
Ethereals possess psionic powers and will use them to control your soldiers and turn them against you in combat. Make sure you put them down quickly and without any mercy.

Your goal is to become self-sustained by producing a range of alien technologies and selling them. Eventually, this will become your main source of income. Extensive research will also make you better suited for combat against the superior enemy.

In the first weeks, you will only intercept some of the alien ships. But they will land anyway, creating forward bases on Earth or terrorizing cities. Your force will often be called to respond to enemy incursions to big cities, where you will fight all sorts of monsters alongside panic-stricken citizens. If you fail to fight off these attacks, countries may become subverted to aliens.

Monthly report

UFO monthy report
My funding has almost increased by a million dollars thanks to great performance in combating aliens.

A string of successful missions will make you popular in the international community supporting X-COM. They will increase the funding, allowing you to buy more things and people and speed up your research and hire more soldiers. On the other hand, continuous failures will decrease your funding and may even force some of the member countries to withdraw their support for X-COM.

It is imperative to succeed. But your first victories will be extremely costly, unless you're very lucky. As the game progresses, you will learn more and more about the aliens. Eventually, you will learn that the enemy comes from Cydonia, on Mars. Equipped with alien technology, you will send a task force to Mars to destroy the alien brain and put an end to their terror. Until you do, you will shiver in terror as your soldiers probe unknown places for unknown enemies.

You will never know what the Battlescape will look like or what enemies will be there. You'll never know how many they'll be. And the aliens will also attack your own bases. Be prepared. There's only one way to victory and countless paths to defeat.

Music & sound effects

UFO intercepting a ship
Tiny, one-man scouts are the least of your worries.

Oh man! How can I explain the feeling the game sounds invoke. It's like asking you to describe a smell. But here's the best analogy I could have come up with - imagine a synthesized version of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana played in a dark room. And there might be someone in the room with you. Just maybe.

The music that plays on the Battlescape is composed of long, yawn-like notes and deep, bass thuds that sound like heart beats. And then you hear feet pattering and doors closing. And then there's clicking. You see nothing. You just hear sounds - and your mind is racing, creating evils far greater than any visual effect could have done for you.

Alien screams are superb. They sound strained and weak, the complete opposite of what you're used to in the movies, where monsters holler from the back of their throat. But it is exactly this morbid absence of vocal terror that inspires one.

I recommend you watch the intro movie on Youtube, just to get the feel of the sounds that permeate the game, especially the tones toward the end, the slow, repetitive, low-timbre notes that reverberate in the pit of your stomach. Now immerse yourself into the game, play it for an hour or two - and then you'll realize that the background veil of synthetic sounds are not just plain music - they are drums to your soul. The game opens with those twisted, foreboding notes softly playing.

Just for fun, I have downloaded the file from Youtube, extracted the audio using ffmpeg and then composed a sequence of the first few seconds into a longer track using Audacity. You're welcome to download and enjoy. Naturally, do exercise all necessary caution when handling unknown files, even if they come from me. So here it is, enjoy. The file is called ufo-audio.mp3, it's 43 seconds long and it weights 677 KB. In the future, quite soon, I'm going to show you how to manipulate media files, including conversion, extraction, re-sampling, and all sorts of nice things. But this is a different story altogether.


The game was so popular that it spawned numerous sequels. But none compares with the original. For example, xcomufo.com is a must-see site for all UFO: Enemy Unknown fans. It has everything you may or may not want: Strategy Guides, Cheats, an entire UFO-pedia (arranged in the same format like in the game), third-party utilities that can enhance (or simply) the game, and even the above-mentioned music available for download! I recommend you visit this site - but do NOT be tempted to read everything it has until AFTER you have finished the game. It will spoil the fun and the terror of playing this masterpiece.


UFO: Enemy Unknown is definitely one of the more elemental games ever made. It's so simple, so raw, yet so profound it creates a sensual stimulus that can only be induced by chemicals. It sounds incredible that a game created an age ago can invoke such powerful feelings.

If you have never played the game, you must find a way to try it. DOSBox is a superb solution to running the game on modern operating systems. If you have the original, like I do, just copy the files and start playing. BTW, if you're wondering, it comes as no surprise (to me) that this game was chosen as the Top PC Game of All Times by IGN. Have fun!


Some awesome screenshots:

UFO inside enemy ship 1
UFO inside enemy ship 2
UFO mission accomplished
Taking over an entire enemy ship is the best source to get access to precious alien technologies. Strange technology, vats with yellow and green fluids and surreal music - the perfect formula for fun and fear. Killing three Ethereals is a tricky business ...
UFO alien entertainment
UFO autopsy
UFO getting ready for the mission
Aliens seem to be entertaining themselves pretty much the same way people did in the 60s - lots of hallucinogenic drugs. Ethereal seek to be just big-headed nerds ... Getting ready for the mission ...

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