Review by Steerpike
The UFO series is a collection of tactical strategy games
influenced by 1994's X-COM: UFO Defense, one of the best
and most important PC games. Like its forbear, UFO is part
big-picture military and logistics management, part small-squad
tactical combat. Czech developer Altar Games has tried to fill some
pretty big shoesshoes so big, in fact, that no one else has
dared attempt it. "Potentially the next X-COM"
is a loaded statement. And if "potential" were all games
needed, the UFO series would be awesome.
Aftermath was solidly okay, but no more. 2005 saw
Aftershock hit close to the mark, but it was too
easy, too repetitive and hobbled by bugs. Rather than patching Aftershock,
Altar left it crippled and moved on to UFO: Afterlight, producing
an odd Sims-in-space mutation of a strategy game that, despite
some interesting ideas, can't overcome the ruinous information management,
humdrum tactical encounters and poor design decisions.
The primary issue they fixed is stability. This installment is
crashless and largely bugless, the opposite of previous installments.
But though they repaired that one perennial series gripe, Afterlight
also retains too many of the classic UFO problemsboring
tactical, convoluted interface, lousy organization. And while I
applaud the developers for their willingness to explore some new
play styles, they don't really add much to the fun level.
Simply put, I don't enjoy playing this game, which was not
true about either predecessor.
Aftershock and Afterlight both tell the story of
what happened if you lost the first game in the trilogy.
Midway through that one, the Reticulan Empire, busily invading Earth,
offers to transport humans to a safe haven and end the war. Take
the deal, lose the game. The sequels have humanity beaten, near
extinction, and without hope for the future. Some of the population
was transferred to space stations called Laputas, whose story was
told in Aftershock. But most survivors of the Reticulan bombardment
of the Eartha few million peopleare stuffed into freezers
and carted off to Mars. A skeleton crew of scientists and engineers
remain thawed to terraform the planet and defrost everyone once
it's habitable. That's your job in Afterlight.
Turns out, though, that Mars is like the most popular and vied-over
planetary body in the galactic supercluster. Approximately five
gazillion species of alien, mutant, robot and combinations thereof
have staked a claim, and what was meant to be a fairly routine scientists-only
gardening job turns into a bloody battle for the planet. You've
only got about thirty people, and, of them, few have combat training.
Mars can't yet support all of humanity, so the folks in the freezers
are nothing but a vulnerable albatross.
Your talent pool must therefore wear many hats. Engineers and scientists
are also soldiers. You might pull a mechanic off the line for a
mission simply because you lack the knuckle-draggersor because
the mission calls for an expert who can, say, repair a water main
(the aliens are constantly blowing up your water main). And if that
person dies, his spot in the workshop remains vacant and your production
suffers. Losses anywhere along chain are felt throughout your entire
war machine. Moreover, these people are people. They know
each other, they intermarry and breed. They have histories and moods
and best friends, and they get dejected if they lose them.
While this sounds like a cool idea, it also means that you can't
name your troops like you used to, a seemingly insignificant subtraction
that dramatically diminishes the fun. They feel less like your
troops. Despite occasionally interesting (and hilariously mistranslated)
background info, I really never identified with any of the shallow
characters in Afterlight. And it's so irritating to manage
daily lives that the whole "pull so-and-so out of the lab to
do a mission" thing is more tedious than scary.
As you play, you get to watch Mars slowly turn green thanks to
your terraforming efforts. Strategically, your job is to oversee
territorial expansion, fight and negotiate with the many enemy factions,
manage the income of various resources, assign jobs to your people
and direct R&D. The tactical side of the game is fought in a
time-shifted combat environment that puts your spacesuit-clad, pocket-protectored
Urkels in direct conflict with those who want a piece of your planet.
The stylized, colorful, cartoony look of Afterlight is a
big change from its gritty predecessors. Afterlight has a
much brighter, more vivid world than the other UFOs, and
while the graphical change is jarring at first, it actually works
really well in the context of this game. Graphics in general are
excellent, with bold, confident designs that belie Altar's talented
art direction. This game engine has been in service for a long time
and still works well for the genre. Since I'm guessing this is the
last UFO game, Altar really got its money's worth from the
The music, on the other hand, sounds like it came out of a porn
movie. Bowng-chika-bow-wowng does not evoke an environment
of pressure and fear and seems out of place in this sci-fi drama.
Obnoxious voice acting doesn't help matters either; all of the characters
are annoying, but later on teenagers (the offspring of your main
staff) join the active squad. I got really sick of hearing "Shya!
Like, that's a totally bogus alien." You know what I'd like
to hear from a soldier acknowledging an order? "Yes, commander,"
not "Again?! *sigh*"
Afterlight doesn't introduce any really revolutionary concepts
to the genre. This is good because the first line of the manual
warns you not to read it (seriously). Controls in general are the
same as the previous titles. The camera is still fussy and hard
to manage, particularly if you allow the game to set your perspective.
And while some controls are intuitive, most are not, requiring too
many clicks of mysterious iconic buttons to produce the effects
you want, particularly in tactical encounters. Altar has always
struggled with interface design and never gotten it right.
Tied into this is the issue of information management. Strategy
gameplay all comes down to informationthere's a ton, coming
in from all sides, and in order for the game to work, the interface
must categorize and present it elegantly. In Afterlight, that
doesn't happen. Breaking news pops in from the perimeters of your
screen and vanishes, disappearing before you can click the accompanying
info button. You need to switch windows, sometimes more than once,
to compare data that should be side by side. Facts that should be
at your fingertips are often buried in a labyrinthine menu system
not at all improved from those of its predecessors.
Example: suppose one of your characters has finished a training
exercise. Your HR person pops on and says, "One of your characters
has finished training." Great. Which one? These people
have names, you know, names I can't change. How about, "Rita
has completed Advanced Suit Handling. Her spot has opened in Tactical
Training, and she has returned to work in the lab." And that's
just a status updatein this game, even information of vital
importance (you know, stuff like, "we're being invaded,"
"base under attack," etc.) flies in and vanishes with
no elaboration. The buttons to drill down for more information on
an update disappear so fast you'll rarely get to them in time, making
the strategic view feel like a game of Whack-a-Mole. Ultimately,
learning to manage your information flow and play effectively becomes
an onerous task, and you feel lost for a long time.
Making Mars Safe, One Bullet at a Time
The tactical game is a little better, including a few new controls
for your people and better use of interesting landscapes and maps.
In Afterlight, you tend to visit the same places over and
over again, which gets boring after a while, though at least you
appreciate the value of crucial strategic locales in your theater
of war. Once again, the game is time-shifted, allowing you to pause,
issue orders, and then start the clock when you're ready.
Combat is more challenging and remains so throughout the game.
Some of the enemy factions are quite heavily armed, and some are
even proficient with psychic weapons against which you initially
have no defense. Just when you think the game is getting plateauishly
easy, something that hurt Aftershock, a new alien with a
giant rocket launcher turns up. You will lose people if you're not
careful, though another problem with the these-people-are-your-people
thing is that casualties usually lead you to reload rather than
suffer the consequences.
Over time, you'll research a selection of spacesuits appropriate
for various mission parameters. However, changing a character's
spacesuit also causes him to lose all of his equipment. I'd like
to have been able to create a database of standard loadouts and
just click once rather than dozens of times to equip each person.
You can outfit several teams differently, which is handy; so rather
than manually arming troops for each specific mission's objectives,
you can make templates and just send the one that's appropriate.
It's really for equipment, though; you'll use the same squad on
pretty much every mission so as not to disrupt base activities like
Environmental hostility is a cool addition to the game. Mars is
an unpleasant place, and you can't safely visit all regions all
of the time. This changes with solar activity, the day/night cycle
and seasonal weather, and it can be very cruel. If a vital province
is invaded during a solar flare, your troops will get cooked without
the proper spacesuits. The alternative is to wait it out or risk
the exposure and hope you finish fast enough that it's survivable.
Aliens all come equipped with their own weapons, some of which
are interesting, but once again basic human weapons seem to work
best. Your scientists research advanced rifle technology, producing
a weapon cleverly called "Rifle" that holds you through
most of the game. As your alliances with other factions materialize
and dissolve, you may get access to alien soldiers with special
capabilities. Your scientists will become adept at researching alien
technologies, and your troops adept at killing specific extraterrestrial
Tactical makes better use of elevation, but more often than not
that turned into an unfair advantage for my side. The vast majority
of encounters can be completed by putting your squad on top of a
cliff and simply lobbing grenades down at the enemy, who always
seem to conglomerate below. Ultimately, very few tactics are necessary
to dominate in tactical encounters.
UFO: Uninspiring, Feeble and Ordinary
I assumed that Afterlight would be an evolutionary improvement
on Aftershock, as that game was on its predecessor, but it's
not the case. It is not fundamentally broken, but it's a lot less
fun to play than its predecessors. It is loutish and hard to manage;
many of this game's more unique ideas simply work better on paper
than in play, and some things, such as interface and tactical controls,
have actually devolved. In a word, it's boring.
Trying to make a game mimicking X-COM is like trying to
remake Citizen Kane: a very dangerous idea unless you're
absolutely sure you're doing it right. From one point of view, Altar
deserves credit for trying; from another, they've had three chances
and missed with each. In my Aftermath review, I quoted Bill
Harris, who said this about the 2003 game: "It seems that
everything I like about this game is everything they copied exactly
from X-COM, and everything I don't like is anything they
changed." And it holds true throughout the entire trilogy.
The UFO series has been pretty successful in Europe, less
so in the States, and will probably come to an end with Afterlight,
if for no other reason than all three games essentially sing
the same tune, and four would be pushing it. Recently, a rumor started
floating aroundbased on a leaked document, now vanishedthat
claimed Irrational Games was working on a new property called ...
X-COM. The veracity of the rumor is anyone's guess; Irrational
is owned by 2K Games, which does in fact possess the X-COM IP,
and Irrational founder Ken Levine has described that game as his
"first love." Irrational, with a credit list that includes
System Shock 2, Bioshock, Freedom
Force and more, could probably do something really amazing
with the X-COM franchise.
I bring this up because X-COM still lingers in the hearts
of gamers, thirteen years after its release. Some people don't bother
to mince words and just call it the best game ever. Gamers the world
over would thrill to play a soup-to-nuts remake of X-COM, updated
with modern tech but otherwise essentially the same. In trying to
mimic X-COM but also leverage original ideas, Altar's UFO
series has succeeded only in highlighting its shortcomingsshortcomings
particularly egregious in this disappointing installment.
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Release Date: March 1, 2007
Four Fat Chicks Links
DirectX 8.1 (DirectX 9.0c recommended)
1GHz CPU (2 GHz recommended)
512 MB RAM (768 MB recommended)
nVidia GeForceT 5700 or ATI Radeon 9500 (nVidia GeForceT 6600 or
ATI Radeon 9700 Pro)
DirectX 9.0 compatible sound card (Sound Blaster X-FiT sound card
4 GB free hard disk space
Where to Find It
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