UFO: Aftershock

Review by Steerpike
November 2005

That'll Do, Pig

UFO: Aftershock is an odd duck. As the sequel to UFO: Aftermath, its role is to succeed one of the most underwhelming—underwhelming, but not precisely bad—strategy games of the past few years. I commend Altar Interactive for their efforts with this series; most studios wouldn't dare try to emulate X-Com: UFO Defense, considered by many to be the best game ever, period. Aftermath was never judged on its own merits, but only in the context of how it stood up to X-Com. Naturally enough, it was found to be sorely lacking. Rest assured that Aftershock will endure the same scrutiny.

And it's still not X-Com. But the truth is the comparison isn't fair. Many people, me included, would still be playing X-Com if it worked well on modern systems (all of the X-Coms will be available soon at GameTap—I know because I wrote the instructions for them; with luck Turner's software will ease the compatibility problems). But the fact is X-Com is twelve years old, and memory has a way of polishing off the burrs and nits that flaw a game, leaving you with only the hard candy shell of perfection. UFO: Aftershock cannot measure up any more than UFO: Aftermath did, but it hits a lot closer to the mark.

Though this sequel still lacks the political maneuvering, game-to-game variability and economics that were the beating heart of X-Com's magic, Altar added a lot of valuable stuff and reversed some of the more nonsensical design decisions that plagued Aftermath.

A buddy and I discovered that Aftermath got a lot better if we played it when drunk. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay its sequel is that no foreign chemicals are necessary to make it an enjoyable experience. It has rough edges, but it's a solid game.

Just three notes we should get out of the way at the beginning: first, Aftershock is like a Chia pet. Smearing the seeds onto the ceramic cow is just the inaugural step; you have to wait a few weeks for the fur to grow and even then it never looks as nice as the one in the commercial. So too does UFO: Aftershock require a helping of patience, for it serves up its rewards in its own time and can't quite achieve its full potential. You will need to play it for a while before you stop being frustrated, before you figure out the labyrinthine interface and some of the weirder new features.

Second, this game is not a "Middlin'," it's a "Thumb Up." It's getting the lower score for stability only, and I make no claims to its reliability on machines other than my own, where at times it was perfectly stable and at other times so pulverizingly crash-happy that multiple uninstalls and reinstalls were necessary. If the crashes weren't so thermonuclear in nature, I'd have let them go, but more than once I had to turn to technical expertise that common gamers may not have in order to put Humpty together again.

Third, Aftershock uses the StarForce copy protection system—or at least the import version does. This is a dealbreaker for some people, so you've been warned.

I Have a Lovely Space Station to Sell You

UFO: Aftershock places you in command of a fairly ragtag band of human beings living on a space station orbiting the Earth. There are a number of these stations—called "Laputas" for the flying island in Gulliver's Travels—and they're basically big holding pens for the remnants of the human race. If you played through Aftermath, you'll recall that the invading Reticulans eventually have to acknowledge that you are a threat to their plans. They offer a ceasefire and a safe haven for humanity, but they warn you that it will not be Earth and that you're not to give them any grief about what they're doing to your planet. If you took this deal, you lost the game. Nonetheless, that path is the very one that UFO: Aftershock explores.

Seventy or so years have passed since that agreement, and humanity has lost most of its history. It's also totally ignorant about the details of the Reticulan invasion. The Laputas are beginning to break down, and your people have recently captured an unoccupied one with the intention of using it as a base from which to begin a recolonization of Earth. As it happens, the Reticulans missed a few people while they were evacuating humanity, and there are already plenty of folks down there—some heavily mutated—living in rather Road Warrior-like conditions.

You may also recall why the Reticulans needed Earth. They were a splinter faction of a larger empire, obsessed with the idea of building a colossal organic supercomputer with brain-melting psychic powers. Our planet was meant to basically serve as a frame to hold the thing together. The terrifying Biomass that was slowly gobbling up the planet in Aftermath was the first stage of that computer's growth. We now learn that the Biomass experiment was a disastrous failure and the Reticulans themselves hightailed off the planet shortly after relocating humanity. Those few accidentally left behind on the surface went feral, and everyone forgot that the Laputas were there.

Your objective in Aftershock, therefore, is to use your Laputa as a staging area and slowly take over territory on the ground, pushing back the mutants and Reticulans as you go. You also have to befriend the three human races—regular humans, cyborgs and psychics—because they're your source of troops. As the game proceeds, the plot thickens, but that's the gist of it at the beginning.

That's What They Meant by "Crashed UFO"

Aftershock's 2.7-gigabyte footprint (it ships on DVD only) has surprisingly harsh system requirements given its fairly low-key technology. Loading times will drag on slower machines, and a pesky memory leak causes staggering in some tactical scenes. And while I wouldn't call this an overly crashy game, when it does crash it crashes hard—corrupting save games, bewildering StarForce and sometimes refusing to start up again. It's badly in need of a patch.

It is fairly obvious that Altar spent a lot of time on the new interface, but it's still kludgy and inelegant, requiring you to navigate through too many screens to get at information that should all be compiled in one place. Aftershock's interface isn't really bad, comparatively speaking, but it takes a while to get used to and can be very frustrating while you're learning, and the instructions and included tutorial aren't much help.

In the plus column, the Czech developers apparently recognized that it would be wise to hire a localization team in the wake of the "all your base are belong to us" translation catastrophe that was Aftermath. The manual and game screens are translated into excellent English, even including some colloquial humor that implies a truly multinational game.

Voice acting, too, is handled by professionals and pretty well done. One persistent gripe is the verbal responses when you click a soldier—no game does it right. While Aftershock dodges the frank racism or ridiculous Al-the-big-gay-soldier routines found in many such games, much of the soldiery is obnoxious and badly written. Just have ten actors each record ten variations of "copy that" and "roger, executing." I really don't want to click my shotgunner and hear "What? More orders? Jeez!"

But He'll See the Big Board!

About half your time is spent in the strategic game, where you look down on the Earth, manage your troops, coordinate research and manufacturing and make long-term plans. Aftershock includes fairly disappointing resource management. Low-tech, high-tech and alien artifacts are found in various provinces, and they flow constantly into your pool provided you control a base in that region. But resources are not tied to performance. Clever players will simply spread themselves thin engaging in a massive land grab early on, since captured provinces aren't under threat until much later in the game. It would have been far wiser to have each of the three factions provide resources based on what you'd done for them lately. This would achieve the dual benefit of making resource management more nerve-wracking and forcing you to consider carefully any action that might offend your allies. As it is, by about midway through the game you have such a massive surplus of resources that they're no longer a consideration.

Some provinces are occupied by nothing but wild mutants; these are yours for the taking. But the most important ones tend to be owned by one of the three races on Earth, and they're rarely in a hurry to join your Commonwealth. If you wish to occupy their territories, you must cajole them into joining by strengthening diplomatic ties and providing military assistance, or risk their displeasure and conduct an armed assault on the region.

You'll also customize your bases in Aftershock, constructing facilities and connecting everything via a track network to share resources. Facility management is a lot more X-Com-like than it used to be, featuring attractively rendered 3D bases and a wide selection of things to build. The only real frustration tied to base construction is that each has a sharply limited amount of space, and many facilities have hefty prerequisites, so you're constantly tearing things out and putting new things in. Still, it gives you a greater sense of ownership over your alien-fighting endeavor. I also like the ability to share research and manufacturing resources across the track network.

But that's all bases are for. All of your troops live on the Laputa and must deploy from it; you can't quarter your people in Earth bases or launch assaults from them. The Laputa landing pod has a very limited range, meaning you have to move the Laputa itself whenever a mission appears outside of the deployment area. And while that's not exactly a hard thing to do, you'll find yourself very hesitant to move away from your territory in case something horrible happens while you're gone. All in all, this is an artificially inserted difficulty modifier, and it doesn't work, a pity when so much of the rest of the strategic game does, especially in the areas of research and manufacturing.

A ridiculous number of concepts are available for research, and each of the several lab types will conduct research simultaneously. Research and manufacturing work similarly; you can queue items in both and construct additional facilities if you want the work done faster. There's a ton of depth here. Alas, the included glossary is rather clumsy, and there are no cross-referencing tools to look over past research or find connections. Still, it's a very strong implementation of something that's commonly bungled in games like this.

Welcome to the Jungle

You can generate surface missions whenever you like or wait for random ones to pop up. That's when you equip a squad of troops and drop them into combat in a close-up tactical environment.

Aftershock employs the same timeshifting mechanism that its predecessor did—the game is paused until you start time, at which point everything goes on simultaneously. This is the case in both the strategic and tactical portions of the game. It works very well in both, though in the strategic portion so much is going on that time seems to crawl. About two weeks of game time are a solid 15 to 20 hours of play, which is kind of ridiculous.

The tactical missions are enjoyable but imperfect, considerably briefer than those found in Aftermath or X-Com. There's also too little variety; aside from the "kill aliens" objective you'll find yourself escorting civilians, aiding local militias and extracting trapped soldiers. It's okay, but there's a glaring lack of such things as alien terror activities and smash-and-grab ops. Since there's a story driving this game, it would have been great to include more story-centric missions. Despite the inclusion of many improvements, the tactical stuff also features some idiosyncrasies that keep it from being the nail-biter it should be.

It's really cool, for example, that they provide satellite telemetry of your mission zone prior to each landing, giving you an opportunity to place the landing capsule and begin formulating a strategy. The problem is that there are only maybe 15 outdoor scenes, and it's not long before they begin to repeat. I'd much rather have seen a random-terrain generator.

Also, aliens and mutants tend to conglomerate in one area. The missions aren't the suspenseful bug hunts of X-Com, where delays in deployment gave the aliens a chance to spread out and hide. When one enemy puts in an appearance, you can be pretty confident that the rest are right nearby. Equally weird is the fact that though you spend an enormous amount of time exploring alien craft and ruined alien installations, the aliens are almost never inside them, preferring instead to stay out in the grass.

Aftershock makes a point to talk about an improved physical model and destroyable terrain; both are so ineptly implemented as to be nonissues. You don't have a good physical model if your troops refuse to shoot through a chainlink fence, vault over a low obstacle or peer around a corner. Equally maddening is the fact that this squad of highly trained alien killers can throw a grenade no more then nine or ten feet. Compared to the awesome physics of Silent Storm, the tactical scenes are sadly lacking in that department. They are fun, though, despite the complaints listed here.

Soldiers improve over time and have the opportunity to train in an assortment of career paths, all of which provide tangible benefits in the field. Managing your squad is a lot of fun, and you find yourself very attached to your troops. In X-Com, the death of a soldier was measured mostly in dollar signs and political fallout; here you feel like you're losing a friend. Squad maintenance, equipment options and ordnance are very well-rounded and can become quite exciting once you get to know your squad.

UFO Afterword

UFO: Aftermath was originally to be titled Freedom Ridge, and it was in development for many years at Mythos Games, the studio that created the original X-Com. But with the collapse of Microprose, Mythos found itself without funding, and most of its executives decided to get out of the business. They sold their half-finished game to Altar, which made massive changes and turned it into Aftermath. These games don't just share similarities of plot with X-Com, they share a pedigree.

As to the future of the franchise, that's probably dependent on global sales of Aftershock. It was highly praised by PC Gamer Europe, and publisher Cenega is desperate to get a strong foothold in the United States, where the memory of X-Com remains strong. Cenega may use the UFO franchise to chip out a niche for itself, but it wouldn't surprise me if Altar felt like moving on to something else after this. More to the point, the only other compound word beginning with "after" that I can think of is "afterbirth," and ... ew. So we'll have to wait and see on that.

I was just exiting the game to put the final touches on this review when Aftershock crashed so spectacularly that the game now refuses to even uninstall itself. Most "unstable" games content themselves with crashing out now and then. Aftershock is the teenage girl of video games. It can't just shut down, it has to make a scene, screaming and tearing its hair, corrupting its own filesystem and generally doing its level best to wreak havoc where no havoc is called for. This reason and this reason only is the cause for the decidedly ambivalent score it receives; when patched—assuming the patch helps—it can be promoted to the Thumb Up it would otherwise deserve.

It's things like this that make UFO: Aftershock a highly subjective experience. Were it not for the stability and a few minor issues, I'd be giving it a Gold Star. I'm certain that there are many whose opinion of the game will differ wildly from my own, both to the positive and negative. In the end, whether or not you enjoy Aftershock depends a lot on the sort of person you are.

I am the sort of person who has realized to his desolation that he's playing fewer and fewer games. It's not that I don't like games any more, it's just that I can never seem to find the time—or when I do have a free moment, there's always something more responsible to do, like brush the cat or vacuum. I sorely miss the halcyon past when I would often sit and play a game literally all day.

For the past two weeks, I've pretty much gotten home from work and played UFO: Aftershock until bedtime every day. This is a rare thing for me, and any game that can keep me entranced for that many hours despite the not-inconsiderable flaws in its execution deserves special praise. At the end of the day and despite all its shortcomings, Aftershock is a game that will give you your money's worth if you let it. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Altar Interactive
Publisher: Cenega
Release Date: October 21, 2005

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows XP/2000
PIII or Athlon 1GHz
512 MB RAM
GeForce TM 5700 or Radeon 9500 video card
DirectX 9.0 compatible sound card
4 GB free hard disk space
DVD-ROM drive
DirectX 9.0c

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