UFO: Afterlight Review (PC)

How many gamers out there started off their addiction to PC games with the wonderful UFO: Enemy Unknown (XCOM: UFO Defense in the USA), first released by Microprose way back in December 1993? If you fit into that category like I do, then you’re probably looking forward to a modern game that manages to recreate the elements that made UFO: Enemy Unknown one of the most popular PC games of all time. UFO: Afterlight is the latest release from Altar Games that attempts to fill those awfully large shoes. Will it be successful? We’ll find out during the course of this review.

UFO: Afterlight follows in the footsteps of UFO: Aftermath and UFO: Aftershock, though with a somewhat more obscure name, and has many of the same design elements of those two games including the story itself being a continuation of what happened. In the previous games the human race lost their battle for Earth, and then attempted to regain it some 50 years later. This time the action moves to a new planet in our solar system – Mars. The idea is that a small group of humans have come to Mars in an attempt to terraform and colonize the planet, hopefully providing a place where the human race can be reestablished. In doing this, the game uses a very familiar interface – a strategic view of the planet with tabs for the Globe, your Base, Research, Production, People, Equipment, and Squads, coupled with a tactical view where the squads you equip battle it out with the various evil aliens stopping you from achieving your goals.

The global view. Defending that pipeline is critical in the early stages of the game Your base, your home away from home. The big cross in the middle is where 10000 people are frozen

The game starts with the tactical view just mentioned. The first thing your small group of explorers did on reaching Mars was to build an aqueduct from the Polar Ice Cap to the location of your base, providing you with the water you needed to survive. Once that was completed, they started expanding into areas around the base, with particular interest in archaeological sites left behind by the original inhabitants. It’s at one of these that your first mission commences – with a fairly straight forward tutorial that teaches you about how to move around your environment, explore different areas, and deal with the nasty things you run into. The hints that pop up while going through this mission are useful, though not always immediately intuitive. For example, I knew I had to attack the enemy unit that was there, but the fact that my unit kept putting the gun they picked up directly into their backpack seemed rather strange, especially since they weren’t holding anything else at the time. Nevertheless, the tactical mission is a nice introduction to the game, which helps build upon the story delivered in the initial cut scene.

Once the first mission is complete, the strategic view is where everything starts to happen. This consists of multiple tabs including a view of the planet, the Globe screen, a screen showing the Overview of resources like fuel, water, and metals, a Research screen that allows you to choose what research occurs and who works on it, a screen where Production of various technologies is assigned once they have been researched, a Storage screen showing all the items at the base, a screen showing the People within the expedition and allowing you to promote and train them in various specialties, a Squads screen where your squads are formed and armour is assigned, the Equipment screen where weapons and equipment are associated with squads, and the Diplomacy screen where you can attempt diplomacy with the various other races in the game. The learning curve on using these screens varies quite a bit. For example, assigning research to your scientists is just a matter of dragging and dropping, and then re-ordering as appropriate. Other things, like building new areas of your base, is more complex, because it’s not just a matter of selecting what you’d like to build, but also assigning appropriate technicians to the “Civil Engineering Bay” so that they can do the appropriate construction work. This was something that resulted in many structures not being built for some time after I ordered their construction – though the fact that the review copy of the game came without a manual probably didn’t help. You do get tutorial tips to help with this at first, but it can be slightly confusing until you’ve been through everything a couple of times.

This brings us to some of the more fiddly management aspects of the strategic view. In UFO: Afterlight it is extremely important to manage your personnel resources. This is because you have to make your way through the entire game with the personnel you start with. Despite the fact that you’re sitting on some sort of cryogenic monolith that contains over 10,000 survivors from Earth, for some reason you are unable to revive any of them to help with the mission. So unless you form alliances with other groups in the game, there is no way to make for any casualties that you suffer. This puts a very different spin on how you handle things, and makes building things like robotic vehicles that much more important, and hence makes you prioritize about the sorts of technologies you research. Is it more important to learn about alien weapons, or discover ways of building robots so that you don’t have to rely as heavily on human soldiers? All of the decisions here make for a better game, and one that becomes more re-playable as you consider what you might do differently next time around. It also nicely side steps what made for some of the easier hacks in the old UFO: Enemy Unknown game – assigning yourself tons of money so you could just hire hundreds of scientists and engineers to almost instantly research and produce any technology you found.

The Research screen, where you decide what projects are researched and in what order
The People screen. The ones you can see are the only ones you’re ever going to have in the game unless you build robots or recruit allies

While the strategic aspects of the game can be complex at times, you do get reports from your various department heads as and when events occur within your base and across the planet. For example, a talking head will pop up whenever your territory is invaded, research is completed, items are manufactured, and new territories are claimed or are available to be explored. There are also times when several of the people in the expedition will converse with each other over a particular event – like the first time you run into your erstwhile enemies the Reticulans from the previous two games. This drives the story along nicely without detracting the gameplay.

Another nice feature in UFO: Afterlight is the way missions are handled. No longer is it a matter of waiting for an alien craft to fly by that you can try and shoot down, it’s now all about expanding and defending your territory – and you choose where and when you go based on the available missions. You need to expand your territory as this is the only way you get access to the elements you need to build new technologies, or fuel your spaceships. Sometimes there are neutral territories in which you can just build what’s called a geoprobe, and is effectively a robot run base. As the game continues most of the territories into which you could expand are held by other factions, and so need to be attacked. Initially this may only involve wiping out a few random robots on a fairly barren map, but there are other parties lurking on Mars that aren’t anything like as easy a push-over. In addition to territorial expansion, you’ll also have to defend what you’ve conquered from enemy attack, and especially defend the pipeline that runs to your base from the ice cap. If that is cut, then you will run out of water in just a couple of days, so you need to send a squad to “sort things out”. However, the squad can’t just include soldiers as someone needs to fix the pipeline while they are there, so you also need to bring a technician. As many of your people have multiple classes, like soldier/scientist, or soldier/technician, or scientist/technician, though there are four exclusive soldiers, this isn’t too hard to do. Once again though it comes back to being quite selective in who does what, and managing those scarce personnel resources effectively.

All this constitutes the strategic portion of the game, in which you will spend a fair amount of time, but the other important part is the tactical game. This is where your squads will fight it out with whatever is out there on the surface of Mars. Like the two other Altar games that preceded it, UFO: Afterlight uses 3D graphics to make a fairly lush environment. Everything is very nicely textured, and although the models have a somewhat cartoonish air to them, the whole thing looks great. One down side of the nicely sculptured environments is that you can end up on the same map every now and then, likely because there are only so many available. There are choices of a fixed, floating, or unit based camera to allow you to better see what is happening. Unfortunately, the floating camera tends jump around quite a bit at times, making it frustrating to get the exact angle that you want. This happens a lot when moving between different levels on the map. What is nice is the way height is handled, as when your units are above an opponent they can gain an advantage from that position.

The Squads screen allows you to assign your personnel to the squads that will go alien hunting The Equipment screen is where you lock and load with whatever you can find – in this case a scientific laser. Hopefully you’ll find some better weapons soon

The way the tactical battles play out is definitely handled very well. Rather than a strict turn based system, UFO: Afterlight uses a simultaneous action point system which is a hybrid between something strictly turn-based and real-time combat. You can pause the game at will, and easily assign or stack orders for your units. You can also specify what events will cause an automatic pause of the action, for example when something is detected or spotted, a unit exhausts all their currently assigned actions, or you’ve killed an enemy. You can then either add to the orders for your units, or change them entirely based on the situation. This makes for a thoroughly enjoyable experience – though you may want to tweak the default options for breaks as if you take the defaults the continual pausing can get a little tedious at times. That said, the action point system is one of the best aspects of the game and I am glad that Altar have included it as they did. It’s also nice the way that the training that you give your personnel on the People screen can have an impact on the battlefield. For example, you can’t make anyone crouch until they’ve completed “Minor suit handling”, making them more proficient in the use of their space suits. Similarly, if you train someone in first aid or robotics then they will be able to heal someone who is wounded, or even repair a damaged robotic unit right there when you need it most.

A nice inclusion in the tactical game is information on the relative hostility of the environment. This doesn’t have anything to do with how many hostile units are around, but represents the conditions on the surface on Mars. As you begin to explore, most areas will have a daytime hostility of 2 and a nighttime hostility of 3. This is no problem for the basic space suits your squads are wearing, as they can cope with environment hostility up to level 3. However, as you continue to expand across the planet you will find that some environments are level 4 or 5, and are occasionally more hostile during the day than at night. This means you either need to finish your missions very quickly, or find a way of getting space suits that are more resistant to the environment. In my case it also meant that I lost a couple of territories because I wasn’t able to defend them because I couldn’t properly equip my squads. It’s a very neat twist as it is important to expand quickly so that you can get fuel to fly your squads to any potential attacks on the water aqueduct, but you have to be careful at the same time to ensure that you don’t accidentally lose anyone because the environment is too hostile for the space suit that they are wearing.

You’ll start off fighting these guys, but the opposition quickly gets tougher The simultaneous action point system allows for group movement in formation, as well as individual actions – in this case inside an ancient Martian structure

Overall there are a lot of nice features about UFO: Afterlight. The spruced up graphics are nice, though not cutting edge. Of course, you also don’t need a GEForce 8800 card to play the game either. The well handled complexity of the strategic view of the game makes for something that is a lot more than just clicking and hoping – you need to try and plan what you’re doing and make sure you have the resources to support that. The fact that you only have a small number of people and have to watch over them carefully also makes you much more attached to the members of your team, and the fact that you can train each person differently makes them that much more unique. The resource handling also means you can’t just go and grab any land, but need to find that which has specific resources because you need those to manufacture a new weapon, or build something back at the base.

So to my original question – is UFO: Afterlight as good as UFO: Enemy Unknown? The answer to that question is probably no because it doesn’t have that feeling of eeriness and suspense that had you looking over your shoulder while playing the game late at night. But that said, UFO: Afterlight is a great game that you’ll find yourself unable to step away from because you have to research one thing more, or expand to one more territory. It’s certainly an enjoyable game that any fan of the original will not find a disappointment.

Top Game Moment:
Completing a mission where you were ambushed by something unexpected and coming out without losing any of your precious team members.