In the strategy game UFO: Enemy Unknown, the world is under attack from mysterious extra-terrestrials. They appear without warning, then vanish into the shadows. They raid cities, abduct people for experimentation, build hidden bases and even infiltrate national governments. Their campaign is a prelude to invasion of this planet, and brutal subjugation of the human race.

You the player are put in charge of X-Com, the small but elite international military force founded to tackle this terrifying adversary. When UFOs appear in the skies, they must be intercepted. When alien agents appear carrying out their sinister missions on the ground, you must send in your soldiers to do battle with them.

You have many reasons to worry. The aliens seem to have you out-matched on every level. They seem to carry out their missions attacks with impunity, and that’s when you’re even aware of them. There’s so much activity going on that you’re probably not seeing, which leads to a sense of deep unease as you watch the map screens. You’re constantly on the defensive, aware that you are merely reacting to alien incursions, without any long-term goals.

The most obvious way the war can turn against you is when you lose assets in battle: your aircraft shot down, your troops killed in battle. Even worse, your bases may be assaulted, and the loss of one could be a setback from which you can’t recover.

However there’s another way in which you can find yourself losing. X-Com is funded by a council of nations, but as time passes some of them will stop contributing. That means you’ve failed to effectively halt alien activities in that country. The aliens have spread their sinister influence behind closed doors, and persuaded the government to form a pact with them.

It’s intensely dispiriting when the monthly budget summary states that another nation has withdrawn. You’re watching for UFOS as widely as you can, but you don’t have a complete enough picture of their movements. You’re responding to every threat, in the air or on the ground, as effectively as you can, but it’s not enough. Time is slipping through your fingers, and you’re failing in your duty to protect the human race.

Also, your troops are a bunch of hapless incompetents that cannot shoot straight, and need a sit down after carrying a big gun up a flight of stairs. Frankly you would have hoped the armies of the world might send a higher grade of soldier. They will improve with time, if they survive, and become skilled and veterans. Still the loss of every experienced soldier is painful. You rage at yourself every time one dies under your command, and worry about how long it will take some newbie to become an effective replacement.

Another problem is your need for better weaponry and equipment. The aliens possess technology far in advance of anything on earth, such as their devastatingly powerful plasma guns. This puts you at a significant disadvantage. So over the course of the game you’ll have your scientists and engineers working tirelessly to develop new wargear. Some of the improved tech is native to earth. However to properly match the aliens you need capture some their own gear, then research and reverse-engineer it.

Many of the new items that become available are new weapons and armour for your troops. However, you also need to improve your interceptor. This fighter jet carries the burden of shooting down UFOs but despite being the most advanced warplane on earth, it’s woefully inferior to all but the smallest alien craft. Sending it into battle is a matter of crossing your fingers and praying that it will cause enough damaged before being blown to fragments.

Losing one is expensive but also, it means another UFO is continuing on some sinister mission unimpeded. You may be able to track it until it lands, and send troops to deal with it on the ground. Or it may evade you, disappearing to god knows where. That’s an undesirable outcome, to say the least. So you urgently need the ability to reliably intercept UFOs.

Once you’ve mastered some alien weapon tech, you can equip the interceptor with plasma beams. Now it has real teeth, and can inflict heavy damage on UFO. That’s assuming if it can catch one, mind you. It’s still painfully slow. It’s also rather flimsy, with little capacity to absorb damage.

To truly reclaim your airspace, you need to put in some time researching how the UFOs work. You must set your scientists to work on their fuels, their powerplants and their navigation systems. You’ll also need to ensure you have large quantities of rare exotic materials in your stores, some of which can only be scavenged from aliens. After several months, much expense and hopefully not too many lost battles you get: Firestorm.

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Here’s the funny thing: all you ever actually see of your new fighter craft is that picture above, and some basic icons on the map screens. It’s a testament to how absorbing this game is that, despite such a basic depiction onscreen, deploying Firestorm is a moment of HELL YEAH. Crack open a beer. Shake your fist at the screen. Make whooping noises. It’s okay, no-one’s watching.* Now you’ve got your own goddamn flying saucer, and it’s going to chase the UFOs down and blast them out of the sky.

Firestorm is twice as fast as the old interceptor, making it far harder for UFOs to escape before it enters weapon range. Made of exotic alloys, it’s durable enough to take several hits and keep flying. Loaded up with your latest plasma weapons, It can swiftly and ruthlessly deal with almost any interlopers. After being comprehensively outmatched in the air war for so long, you are now much closer to being on an equal footing.

The war is far from over, of course. Aliens continue to ramp up their activity. More of their hidden bases are built every month. Still now you can allow that feeling of gloomy tension, of being burdened with an impossible task, to abate. There’s room for some real optimism, now. With Firestorm in service you have a fighting chance for victory.

*Your wife may be watching.