First Impressions: UFO Online

UFO Online screenshot
I've written about UFO Online before. It should be obvious how much I am looking forward to this new browser-based, turn-based strategy combat game. When I got to sit down with representatives from publisher gamigo at E3 earlier this year, I felt that familiar old feeling that I used to get when shopping for tabletop gaming miniatures. There's something about controlling a squad of little dudes with guns, something that seems to resonate with my generation.

Well, the board game has gone digital, and now we do not have to drive for miles and miles to get to the closest gaming shop and wade through six feet of nerddom just to hope that we aren't teamed up with players who really give the hobby a stereotypical bad name. Now we can digitally join up with fellow game geeks and have it out across worlds that fit in our browser.

I was able to take a bit of a tour through UFO Online over the last week. So what did I find? Click past the cut and I'll let you know.

UFO Online screenshot
The very first point I want to make is that the game is currently in closed beta phase. Honestly there were times when it felt more like an alpha, but the developers were OK with our coverage of the title. The players in the chat seemed to acknowledge the presence of all the bugs and lag and actually seemed willing to send in suggestions, bug reports, and game results. On one hand, I hate playing during testing phases, especially for a title that I am very excited for. I simply do not like spoilers of any kind and really do not have time to be checking out a game that might be riddled with bugs. On the other hand, it is exciting to see a game morph and change as testing moves along, and it's fun to be part of the process. Many developers really listen to their testers, so in many ways it's a chance for gamers to have a hand in the development of the game.

Even though I understand how testing works, I couldn't help but become frustrated with some of the lag, missing artwork, sluggish UI response and general unfinished appearance of the game. I really wanted to play this game as it would be on release day. I want to see the smooth art and style that the Unity engine can make within a browser environment, and I knew that a week in a game that has so many issues (for obvious reasons) would not really be enough to really warrant a full preview.

Still, I soldiered on. When I was able to get into a single-player mission or a PvP match, I had a lot of fun. What's so great about UFO Online, other than the previously mentioned board game-like qualities of it, is the way the game allows players to take their time. While in my base area, I was able to heal my squad members using a wonderful timed healing mode (one that I could speed up with virtual cash) or outfit them with new skills, weapons, and crafted items. I could plan out the strengths and tweak the weaknesses of my tiny army, and I could ask the chat for advice. Skill planning in particular was a bit odd but refreshing. Your tiny heroes earn skill points that can be placed into a pyramid of abilities. It's a chance to tweak your characters even more, and I fully expect exhaustive guides that show just how perfect they can be.

The UI was simple and conveyed how to do most of the things needed to run a state-of-the-art killing crew. Even though many of the tutorial popups were in German, I was able to drag and drop my way to success. Want to repair a weapon? Drag and drop it and hit repair. Want to heal your little dude? Drag and drop him and click heal. Want to join a mission? Go to the map, click on either "PvE" or "PvP" in the selected area, and join the match.

UFO Online screenshot
Combat felt almost too minimalist at times, but looking back I realize that the simplicity of it threw me off. I am used to army-vs.-army style games being a string of more complicated processes. Make an army, nominate a leader for that army, select the enemy, make sure to have enough fuel for the army, and finally, attack and hope the bonuses help you win. In UFO Online, I simply put together a squad, moved around the map, and watched out for mechanics that were obvious and simple. If my medic was turned around, he would not have line of sight with the enemy and might be ambushed. I could turn him and the enemy would appear. Sometimes I would round a corner and enemies would pop out from a few feet away. If I couldn't see them, I might hear them, but often I was ambushed or surprised when I walked into a room. I learned to send in my tank first and remained conscious of cover and line of sight. This is old school combat. Combat is not instant but also not bloated with two-inch-thick stacks of rules. I did not have to worry about "that guy" who seemed to show up at almost every Warhammer 40k match I ever participated in. You know the guy: the loudmouth who questions every move with a glance at the rulebook.

The presence of other factions and the world map, complete with areas to fight over, gave the game not only its "MMOness" but also its depth. Sure, I could play single-player matches and learn the title (and that was a lot of fun, trust me), but I could also jump in and help defend my side's territory. I had to look out for alien NPCs and for other players as well.

Sadly, the game I played was not as smooth as I had hoped and definitely has a way to go before being ready for public consumption. I need to play this game some more, but I am starting to feel as though I am spoiling it a bit. I'll leave it to the brave testers to straighten things out for a while, but as soon as it is ready, I will be the first one on the front lines. After all, those aliens won't kill themselves!

Pros:
  • Runs in a browser
  • Looks fantastic
  • Turn limits are variable and long
  • Easy to understand but remains deep
  • Old-school gameplay
Cons:
  • Flash and Unity might not be the best choice for performance
  • Camera controls are a bit limited
  • PvE can get repetitive
  • Territory control might become aggravating
Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions may be everything, but games change too, so why shouldn't our opinions?
This article was originally published on Massively.