UFO: Afterlight Review - 01/02/07

The UFO series has only been around for a few years, if you discount the old XCOM (often known in Europe as UFO) games from the mid-nineties and, while this series is not directly XCOM, it does share many similarities, and benefits greatly because of it.

The history of this new series is pretty complex, but basically, while answering comments from the XCOM community about what they would like to see in a new game, the developers ALTAR have done their best to keep their UFO series on a different wavelength to the original. After all, so many developers get slated these days for ruining classic gaming series, and the best selling PC game in 1995 is a hard act to live-up to.

The two previous UFO games by ALTAR are Aftermath and Aftershock, both receiving pretty average review scores. With the three titles out within just over three years, not that much has changed between them, bar graphical upgrades and a few tweaks here and there. If you’ve never played the XCOM or UFO games, then they basically revolve around the humans’ fight against various different alien species, and in Afterlight, it has culminated in the humans fleeing earth, or more heroically, trading Earth for Mars with the aliens, so as not to get eaten.

These aliens help you build basic amenities on Mars and to begin with, you can research some of their alien technologies to make the planet more liveable. The game actually takes place over two wildly different, but somehow co-operative, interfaces – the old XCOM games were fully turn based, and this follows suit when the action parts kick in, for the mostpart. In the strategic view, you have a view over the entirety of Mars. You can see all the territories you own, any areas of conflict, your vehicles and buildings, and resource pipelines. The planet is massive, and a serious amount of playtime is required to dominate it.

Still in the strategic mode, you have free reign over a multitude of different tabs and menus. The most important ones of these are for organising your squad, researching new technologies, producing weapons and keeping your territories managed. At first glance they’re very, very intimidating – there is a lot of text and not a huge amount of assistance for anyone completely new to the concept. However, the system is well polished, and all your diplomatic advisors appear in video link form, fully voiced, to help you through the initial struggle with the navigation, which has still been greatly improved over previous versions, and offer some tutorial advice. It allows new gamers to get into the series with relative ease, after half an hour or so of investigating the menus.

To explore the surface of Mars, you can send your UFO to any conflict points or new territories on the map. Before doing so, you need to pick a squad of people to take with you, and as you build your colony you can multi-manage a number of different squads in unison. Selecting equipment also plays a big part, and when you start the game you’ll have a really bare selection of weapons and items. Basically, it’s one pistol, one assault rifle, and a few chainsaw guns. If you want to take the full seven people in your squad, then you’re going to have to keep two or three of them using knives alone – not ideal. All of this creates a lot of tactical interest until you can get research going on either ‘ancient’ human weapons, or alien technologies, and get a production line going. You can upgrade the stat of your soldiers, technicians, scientists etc. and it adds real tension to a mission when you have to bargain with taking your best soldiers, but risk losing them for future, harder missions, or sending a load of new recruits to gain experience, and use as disposable human shields.

There’s far more in depth aspects too, like moving people around to ensure the base is working efficiently, so that all your engineers are in science labs, and that all soldiers are in the medical bays or training after missions, and all the micro-management can get on top of you at times. Once you embark on a mission, and your UFO lands in the destination, the game switches to the ‘turn-based’ action view.

Here, the camera takes a view from the sky, but close up to your squad, often directly behind the selected team member, and the graphics switch to fairly impressive looking replications of the Mars landscape. You control your team in the standard way, clicking and dragging to highlight them all, and right clicking to move. There are more in depth controls, and this is where I personally find UFO: Afterlight makes its main mistake. While it tries to be turn based, it also mixes real-time elements with it. For example, if one of your team mates doesn’t have a ‘plan’, the game pauses. If you see an enemy, the game pauses. If one of your squad can’t shoot the requested enemy, the game pauses.

Essentially, this means that when you see one enemy and the game pauses, you can dish out commands relating to the new revelations. However, if another enemy appears straight away, that was just previously out of your line of sight, then it pauses again. If ten enemies appear, a second after eachother in a line, then the game will pause ten times, allowing you to adjust for each new enemy on screen. I personally don’t see that as a help, as it just means that you’re constantly tapping the space bar to get the game speed back to normal. Thankfully though, you can tweak the options for this aspect of the game, and specify what actually makes the game pause – this is an absolute necessity, and wasn’t immediately obvious of how to do it but in order to make the game flow, you really have to sort it out for your own needs.

The main problem is that because the camera is in more of a third person view rather than a birds-eye one, you feel as though your squad should always be moving in realtime – the fact that they do, until an enemy appears or something new happens, makes it all the more confusing. Having the game constantly pause as you are trying to move your squad over large distances can be a real pain, as you often can’t actually shoot the enemy until you’re near them, especially not early on with short range weapons, and so you have to get close to the enemy before firing – meaning an agonisingly large amount of pauses. It may sound like I’m putting a lot of focus on this, but it did detract from the gameplay experience quite significantly for me. Once you tweak it though, it becomes a lot more enjoyable – however, it’s not the default option and the game is not designed to be played in the free running, real time manner. Having said that, it still plays out really well either way.

Also in the action mode, is the slightly frustrating movement system. ALTAR have clearly tried to implement a waypoint system as their primary mode of movement where you can click one piece of ground, then another, to string two commands together (making up a ‘plan’). To overwrite previous moves, and to simply update where you want someone to go, you have to hold ALT. If you’re used to playing RTS games, then this will feel alien (teehee) to you, but it actually works quite well once you get used to it. The game also has a habit of switching characters without you really wanting it to, based on events, meaning you can be issuing commands to completely the wrong squad member, without knowing it, again disrupting fluid gameplay.

Shooting on the otherhand is great fun. Because you select crew members’ weapons before deploying the UFO, it is very satisfying to see them using them with such aplomb. ALTAR specifically said they have concentrated on making the guns more diverse, and the effort put in really shows as a barrage of different damaging, different looking, and exhilarating weapons discharge towards the enemy. Other positives include the diversities of the surroundings. As the game progresses, the characteristic red sand of Mars changes to oxygenated, lush utopias, as you colonise the planet and develop more effective ways of living, which makes a really nice change to what would otherwise be boring and dull surrounds.

You’ll meet all manner of weird and wonderful beings; huge vehicles, mechs, and generally a load of well thought-out aliens. They don’t look as good as you might want them to, but with the two different modes, tactical, and action, it’s hardly surprising.

The tactical screen is actually probably the most involving part of the game. While initially it’s overwhelming, getting to know the people living in your base, listening to advisors, and trying your hand at diplomacy with the aliens gets to be a real pleasure.

UFO: Afterlight is a strange entity. There are predefined events that shape the game, and do so every time, but you can choose exactly where you want to colonise on Mars, which enemies to attack, which to make peace with, and so it’s a lot like a God game, or city-builder in that way. There’s only the single player ‘campaign’, but it’s similar to playing a skirmish in Civilization IV, or Galactic Civilizations – the game’s probably a mixture of those two as well as a large chunk of third person action. If you’ve ever wanted to actually fight in your RTS games firsthand, then UFO: Afterlight is definitely the game for you.

It’s a shame that the problems come in the action mode, but ALTAR clearly saw sense and have given consumers the option to sort most of them out for their own needs – essential in a game that can be as complicated as this. As such, UFO: Afterlight could well be a PC sleeper hit for its February release date, it’s certainly kept us amused for the last few, flat-out weeks. Definitely worth a purchase for strategy, sci-fi and action based fans – ALTAR deserve a lot of credit for such an ambitious and complicated project – they just about pulled it off too.


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Altar Interactive