Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Toshiba really sucks...

Not only apparently their product quality, but their warranty service two.

Earlier this year, my old Apex DVD player (which is 3-4 years) started having trouble playing some of my dvds. Mostly tv shows, I guess cause they are dual layer and a little harder to read.

So, I go to buy a new one. And I end up with a Toshiba SD-4000, for about $50. Not a lot, but more than I paid for my Apex years ago.

And so 2 months later, my Toshiba starts having the same trouble.

So, I figure, oh great, but at least it's probably still under warranty.

But, apparently they don't let you just go to the store you bought it at and trade it for a new one. Oh no, that would be too simple. You have to box it up and mail it to them at your own expense.

How is it that a supposed high end, or at least big name electronics company won't let you return the product to a store for an exchange, but Insignia, maker of a low end, crappy products, does? I know because my father bought a portable DVD player from them and the battery connector in that crapped out. The warranty just said take it back to the store for a replacement. And he did.

Monday, June 04, 2007

UFO: Extraterrestrials

Released almost 15 years ago, the game UFO: Enemy Unknown (better known as X-com: UFO Defense) is still considered to be one of the best PC games ever. In it, the player was in charge of a secret government force (X-com) charged with stopping an alien invasion. It combined turn based tactical combat with a tycoon like strategy layer and a Civ-style technology tree. Unfortunately, while it was huge hit, the sequels sold worse and worse (as they got worse), and the original company that published it went under. Over the years, the property has changed hands several times, with none of the new owners apparently planning on doing anything with it.

However, it has spawned a number of games "inspired" by it. The UFO AfterXXXXX series by Altar, but that changed the combat to real time. The original X-com designers, the Gollop brothers, made a couple tactical games (sans a strategic layer), Laser Squad Nemesis for the PC and Rebelstar for the GameboyAdvance. There are a couple fan remakes, the best of which is UFO: Alien Invasion. There's even a hentai game. But none really came too close to capturing what made the original great. Until this one, UFO: Extraterrestrials.

It's from a small company in the Czech Republic, Chaos Concepts, and is apparently their first game. As such, it's a little rough in some areas, but is still a very impressive showing.


You are tasked with protecting the planet from an invasion by aliens. But in this case, it's now the 22nd century, and the planet is "Esperanza", colonized by humanity in the early 21st century (how is not mentioned). Esperanza seems to be a fairly Earth-like planet, and is divided up into 9 somewhat oddly named (at least to an American perspective) states.

You get an overview of the planet from the "Geoscape" screen. This basically is a picture of the planet that you can rotate and zoom in on. Occasionally a UFO will show up and you will have to launch interceptors. If the UFO is shot down or lands, you then dispatch a plane load of soldiers to battle the aliens in tactical combat. This tactical combat is the real meat of the game, and where you will probably spend most of your time.

The tactical combat is turn based. You have a turn, then the aliens have a turn. Each soldier or alien has so many APs or action points, and each action like moving or firing a weapon costs so many points. If they save enough when their turn is over, they can sometimes interupt an enemies turn by firing at them when the enemy comes into view. (This is called "opportunity fire" and is pretty much a staple of these sort of games.)

There are basically 4 types of tactical combat missions: UFO retrieval (either when they are shot down or land), terror missions, base defense, and base invasion. In pretty much all of them, the goals are the same - explore the tactical map and kill all the aliens. Terror missions have an extra goal - you are supposed to save as many civilians as you can.

The tactical portion is played from an isometric perspective. The view is fixed, you can't zoom in or out or rotate, other than scrolling around the map. Many maps have more than 1 or 2 stories/levels where the action can take place on.

The map selection is this is decent, but could have used some more variety. Rather than completely randomly generated by putting together "blocks" like in X-com, this seems to use a number of pre-made maps and either tweaked a little, or rotated. There also doesn't seem to be a huge variety of terrain. There's arctic, desert, desert factory, forest, mines, and whenever you shoot down a larger ship, it almost always seems to land on a golf course. It's not bad, but like I said, it could have been better.

The neat thing is, other than walls of the UFOs, pretty much everything on the map can be destroyed, either shot or blown up by something.

Your soldiers can't be killed, but don't think this makes the game easier. When they go down in combat, they can take a long time to heal, often leaving you short handed. At the other end of the spectrum, the aliens can be quite tough. They don't really use any tactics, but they often take several shots to kill. They also like to sneak up on you. There's a pretty good variety of enemies - 14, I think, ranging from little floating blobs to clanking robots to miniature flying saucers.

The other part of the game is basically like a Sim or Tycoon game. You have to build up a network of bases on the planet, one base per region. Your main base can have a lot of different buildings, while the other bases can only have a few. You can also reseach items and build things you have researched. This part of the game is actually quite hard, it's very easy to go bankrupt.


The graphics are somewhat bland and dated (say, 2003-ish), but the level of detail is pretty good. Lots of lights, flashing things. It really depends on the map, though. Some are quite ugly. All in all, it definitely won't wow you, but they are perfectly serviceable.

The scale of the objects on the map is a bit weird, though. Like a toilet or set of golf clubs is as big as a car. The animations are also hit or miss. Most of the aliens are animated smoothly, but your soldiers seem a bit jerky, and have no animation for throwing a grenade (they just sort of pop out of them in an amusing manner). Similarly, while the aliens move fairly smoothly, when they are killed, there's sort of a brief pause, and they are replaced suddenly by a dead one. There's no in between, "dying" state.

The music isn't necessarily bad, but is too fast for the game. Instead of nice, atmospheric, ambient music, it's fairly fast paced generic electronica.

Part of the fun of the original X-com was using sound to listen for hidden aliens. This sort of has that, but doesn't seem as deep as in X-com. You can hear doors open and such, but it's often hard to hear them move around.

One problem is that the sound levels of the different effects vary wildly. Some are too loud, some are too quiet.

Final Thoughts

I honestly can't remember the last time I played a game so much. Probably not since the original X-com, which I played for 3-4 days straight without sleep. This isn't quite as addictive, but close. I think I spent close to 50 hours on it during the first week I had it, sneaking in an hour or two during the day, then at night playing until 5am.

That said, it could have used a bit more polish. While it didn't bug me, I think it could have used things like hotkeys and some of the text is a bit stilted. (Also, the introductory video has some of the worst voice acting in a game, ever). It's also perhaps a bit too hard and too long. I had trouble playing on "Easy". And it took me two weeks of almost contant playing to finish. Which is a bit too much for a strategy game - the end part of the game seemed to drag out too much. More map variety would also have been very nice.

X-com fans might like it, but at the same time, they might dislike it because while it's a lot like X-com, there are enough changes that could bug them. Still, they should give it a try, if they keep an open mind, they should really enjoy this. At least I did. A-