UFO: Afterlight

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Cenega
Developer: Altar


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PC Preview - 'UFO: Afterlight'

by Keith Durocher on Nov. 24, 2006 @ 5:49 a.m. PST

UFO: Afterlight is a mixture of squad based tactical action and global strategy with the gamer controlling the actions of elite ground troops, and the running and construction of an intricate network of interlinking bases while collecting resources.

Genre: Turn Base Strategy
Publisher: Cenega
Developer: Altar Games
Release Date: February 9, 2007

Without going too much into a maudlin recanting of my gaming past, let me begin this little missive by establishing which two titles drew me into this mess we call a hobby: Doom and X-Com: UFO Defense. Why is this even important? Well, because today I'm writing about a distant descendant of X-Com, called UFO: Afterlight. The fact that I was so in love with its predecessor may very well factor into things before long.

Let's jump straight into the clinical, shall we? UFO: Afterlight is turn-based 3D strategy game of exploration, research, development, and survival. This is the third game in a series developed by a team called Altar Games. (The preceding titles were UFO: Aftermath and UFO: Aftershock.) As you might have guessed, Afterlight continues the story, after a fashion.

You are placed in control of a tiny (and I really mean tiny!) seed-colony of humans on Mars. As the introductory cinematic explains, 50 years previously the earth was invaded by a race known as the Reticulans. Humanity lost in a big way, and the few survivors who could plead their way out of extermination were banished to the desolation of the red planet. The craft that made planet-side couldn't possibly support the entirety of the populace it had lying in cryo-sleep, and so a skeleton crew of scientists, engineers, and technicians are all that remains of mankind. They work tirelessly night and day, trying to terraform enough of the world that the sleep-chambers might be opened and a serious attempt at a new civilization might be made.

As tenuous as this situation sounds, it's actually worse. All that keeps even the miniscule population running is a frail water pipeline connected to the polar ice caps. It takes very little to disrupt this supply of life-giving liquid, and wouldn't you know it? Mars has ancient alien defense mechanisms in place designed specifically to repel "invaders." Well that's just great, robot drones keep snipping the water hose in half! On top of this, new horrors have been spewing from various excavation sites that house antediluvian technology the colonists were hoping might assist them. Mindlessly violent "beast men" keep seeping out of these artifacts, further justifying a need for armed response. Finally, the Reticulans are on Mars, too! Of course, they're being attacked by the beast men and ancient Martian drones too, so at least this time the greys are willing to negotiate with you rather than just wipe you out. So there you have it, the basic plot: survive on an increasingly hostile world, and do it on the ultimate shoe-string budget.

So what do you, as a consumer and strategy fan, have to look forward to if you decide to spend your hard earned pennies on this when it comes out? Well, if this pre-release version of the game I have here is any indication, quite a lot, actually. If it doesn't blow my objectivity too far out of the water, allow me to say that this has been some of the most fun I've had in a turn-based title in quite a long time.

One of the things I loved about the original X-Com was the ability to rename my soldiers and create my own custom strike-teams. In fact, I almost beat the game once with "Team Decepticon," until I lost a .dll file somewhere and it was gone to me forever. With this in mind, I was initially skeptical when I found out that you can't rename any of your units in Afterlight. However, each and every person you use has a background and history that lends a sense of depth you just can't get from renaming a soldier "Shockwave" and pretending he can transform into a purple laser gun.

Moreover, just about all of your people are multi-classed. In X-Com, all you ever had any connection to were the fighters. Afterlight connects you to everyone in your base. You see, most of your soldiers are also scientists or engineers, and are desperately needed in other sectors besides the militia. Instead of being just an abstract graph of numbers, your public-sector servants are individuals just like the warriors, and are equally important. In fact, many missions require you to have other abilities. For example, if the water pipeline gets disrupted, it's not good enough to just go blow away the root cause, you have to have a technician along to repair the damage as well. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that there is a stronger sense of community cohesion to Afterlight than I ever remember X-Com having.

There's more than just a small write-up explaining each characters motivation, too. You're given two areas in which to upgrade and individualize the people who populate your bases. The first is attribute statistics. With each "level up," you receive a point you can put into such personal aspects as Strength, Agility, Dexterity, Intuition, and even Psi-Power (if you happen to ally with the Reticulans and ask for a few troopers to help out). The second area is skill training, which provides important bonuses that are essential for that character to know. Attributes are instant improvements; skills take time to learn, however.

A significant element of the strategy in this game is the balance between technological progress and individual improvement. You see, you can send your scientists to the University for skill upgrades like Civil Engineering or Surveying, but the entire time they're going through their coursework, they're unable to assist in the lab, thereby decreasing the speed at which you research new technologies. This effect holds true for everyone in the game; soldiers taking firearm training aren't available for missions, technicians out in the field setting up fuel and metal mines can't help build new structures or assist in production. Manpower is your greatest commodity, and you simply never have enough.

The sense of isolation is quite prevalent as well. You no higher have government overlords to answer to or ask for help, and you aren't given a monthly budget that depends on keeping the people of the world happy. You're entirely alone, and if you don't keep on top of things, you die, period. My first game through, I hadn't quite grasped how to expand my territories to collect resources. It didn't take long for the Martian drones to hit the polar ice caps, disrupting my water. I didn't have enough fuel to get my strike team there to fight the 'bots off, and so my whole colony died of thirst in a matter of days. Thereafter I learned the value of expansion versus my short-sighted turtle strategy.

The tech tree system isn't entirely new. You have a team of researchers who examine new technologies, and every time they figure out something new, you will then be given the option of building those technologies, provided you've been keeping up on your resource gathering. A nice touch is the ability to modify some of these items for greater efficiency, such as an "accelerator," that can increase the raw damage of a rifle, or a silencer to make pistols less likely to draw extra enemy attention on the field. As with just about everything else, what makes technology in Afterlight seem different is the sense of urgency that comes with it. There's just never enough time or people.

If you'll recall, I mentioned earlier that you can find aliens on your side. If you so choose, you can enter into diplomatic negotiations and treaties with non-humans. I've had no luck speaking with the beast men, but the Reticulans were more than happy to use me for their own ends. Of course, the game itself recommends I go to war with them because they're hogging all the best resources and because of lingering bitterness over the prior war, but for the moment I'm using them too, as a buffer zone while I build up my power and for occasional assistance in materials and manpower. Plus, I love having big-headed greys on my strike teams.

Graphically, Afterlight carries with it a certain stylized charm. The visuals aren't quite like a claymation cartoon, but there is a rounded plastic aesthetic to the models that is reminiscent of plasticene sculptures. Personally, I quite like the way it looks so far. I especially appreciate that it looks good without stressing my system too much. The audio is in great shape too, with strong voice acting and sound effects already applied to virtually everything.

There isn't too much more I can say about UFO: Afterlight without spilling over into critique, and that's not my intention. It's bad enough that I've let slip the fun I've had; my job here is only to inform, not opine. Let me sum up with some hyperbole: X-Com, like Tribes, is a title that I've long given up on as a freak occurrence, one that will never be successfully recreated. That doesn't mean that I don't think anyone should try, I'll just be exceptionally sceptical regarding any efforts. Do I think Afterlight has managed to recreate the experience and capture the charm of UFO Defense? I'll answer that question if I'm given this game for review when it goes live. For now, let me say that, if you're a fan of strategy gaming and you love science fiction, then this is a title you should definitely be keeping an eye on, whether or not you were a fan of the prior versions.

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