Developer: Altar Interactive
Release Date: June 4, 2007
Although it shames me to say it, I have never played any of the games in the X-Com/UFO series before. That's right, never. Anytime I have ever admitted this to a fellow gamer, the response has always been an incredulous, "Dude!"
In fact, when I was assigned UFO: Afterlight for review, I was completely unaware that it was even part of that same storyline. I had no idea what I was getting into.
I know: Dude!
The benefit, however, is that I was able to play UFO: Afterlight without any preconceived notions or bias. I had no expectations about what this game should be like, no happy memories of merrily blasting away at Reticulan scum in defense of Earth on my old 486. I can honestly say, with no prejudice whatsoever, that this game is really freaking cool.
That's a good thing because it's also really freaking long. My review copy was good for 30 days, and despite spending many, many, many hours neglecting my other responsibilities in favor of this game, I still didn't actually finish it.
Ah, but what fun those countless hours were. Let me tell you about it.
You begin the game with a small seed colony (about 20 usable characters) on Mars. The goal is to prepare Mars as the next home planet of the human race, since we are no longer in possession of Earth. (The Reticulans eventually won the war, it seems.) To do so, you must establish a larger and more capable base, terraform as much of the planet as possible, and tap into as many natural resources as possible. This is all complicated by the fact that, naturally, somebody else doesn't want you here.
Unlike previous titles in the franchise, you are the sole decision maker, and you report to no one. Allocate scientists to research or territorial expansion as you see fit, allocate mechanical specialists to production or construction tasks. Oh, and use your soldiers to kick alien butt. There is no need to worry about cost because there is no economy on Mars. All you have to worry about is: do you have enough natural resources, equipment, technology, and manpower to achieve your next goal?
About half of this multi-faceted game involves balancing your immediate and long-term needs against your available resources. The task is never really an easy one, and you will constantly have to make sacrifices in one area in order to achieve gains in another. Personally, I found this to be the most enjoyable and challenging aspect of UFO: Afterlight.
The combat is what one would expect from an offering in this franchise. You have the opportunity to hand pick the soldiers and drones you want to take on each mission and equip them as you see fit. At the outset, your equipment choices are very limited, but as the game progresses, you will find yourself spending more and more time tweaking your team's load out as your store of available equipment expands.
Once your troops are in the hot zone, it's squad-based tactical combat. If balancing your resources while trying to expand your territory and terraform Mars is half the game, then this is the other half. Your soldiers will face off against enemies from multiple factions in a seemingly never-ending series of small-scale battles fought over territory, resources, and archeological finds. For me, this part became a little more monotonous. Once you have learned the right tactics to use against each enemy and have the right equipment available, the battles all play out pretty much the same. That's not to say combat is easy because it isn't, but it is a little formulaic.
The graphics in the combat zones are pretty cool. The chunky European style to the characters and landscape gives you the feeling that you're in a '70s sci-fi cartoon, which is a good thing because the storyline feels like something from a '70s sci-fi movie. The two complement each other very well. The graphics will not overtax anyone's system, either, and I didn't notice any performance differences with the configuration options cranked all the way up.
The sound in UFO: Afterlight, however, is another matter. Although the voice acting is passable, the sound effects and music fell short for me. You could argue that the sound effects are also geared toward the game's retro feel, but I think they could have been more polished in the same way the graphics were — what few sound effects there are, that is. You could play this game with no sound at all and not miss a step. In fact, I occasionally did.
I think what impressed me most about this title is the amount of control you possess over what's happening, and the challenge you face in accomplishing each task. Because your team is so small and you have so many competing tasks and priorities, the game just wouldn't work unless it granted you some very precise control over how your personnel are utilized. It's a lot like being a senior project manager in today's do-more-with-less economy, but the game does grant you that control, and you must take advantage of it. Each time a research or construction task is finished, or whenever a character finishes training on a new skill, you have to pause the game and consider how you want to reassign the affected personnel. Though a tad tedious at times, it certainly keeps you on your toes.
Like every other title in the X-Com/UFO franchise, UFO: Afterlight possesses a high replayability factor. Although the story will always be basically the same, there are certainly some things you could do differently each time. Besides, the game is just plain fun and has a terrific timeless appeal to it. This is the sort of title you could play through once or twice right away (even though it might take you three months), and then reinstall it again a year, two years, even five years later, and still have just as much fun.
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