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Platform

PC

 

Genre

Strategy

 

Publisher

Cenega / Topware

 

Developer

Altar

 

ESRB

E (Everyone)

 

Released

Q1 2007

 

 

- Well-designed game system rewards thought and careful strategy

- The pausable real time combat system actually works

- Limited resources add to the tension

 

 

- The game feels a little long and monotonous at times

- Tactical maps feel constrained

- Graphics are a little too “cute”

 

 

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U.F.O.: Afterlight

Score: 8.0 / 10

 

I’ve discussed in a few past reviews (ie. Brigade E5) how trying to reinvent a classic is a no-win situation.  Diverge too much from the original and purists will hate it; remain too faithful and newcomers won’t get it.  When the classic in question is a unique game like X-COM:  UFO Defense, the problem is compounded.  Cenega / Altar have taken three tries at it now, and wisely decided that, rather than attempting a “remake” of X-COM (like Chaos Concepts did with their recent UFO:  Extraterrestrials,) it might be smarter to produce a series of titles “inspired by” the original.  Cenega’s first attempt, UFO: Aftermath, was dismal, the second, UFO: Aftershock, considerably better.  And finally, with UFO: Afterlight they’ve managed to create a game (albeit one with flaws) that feels both unique and true to the X-COM spirit.

 

ufo afterlight          ufo afterlight

 

The original X-COM series combined an ingenious strategic game with tense tactical combats as the player managed a planet-wide defense against alien invasion.  Along with the Jagged Alliance series, X-COM created a unique genre (now sadly neglected), the squad based tactical strategy game.  Afterlight is commendable if only for continuing this great tradition.

 

While Aftermath and Aftershock dealt with humanity’s continuing struggle against an invasion of earth, Afterlight takes place in a new venue, Mars, where humans

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who have fled earth struggle to protect an incipient colony.  Mars’ hostile environment adds greatly to the game’s complexity, forcing the player to contend with sun radiation and the difficulties of fighting while protected by bulky spacesuits (and fighting while not protected by bulky spacesuits – yikes).  Interestingly, Afterlight also takes place in a world of

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limited resources.  Essential fuel, metals and energy are hard to come by.  Players must work from a single base and with a very limited pool of humans (and nonhumans) to draw from.  Efficiency becomes everything, knowing which individuals should be devoted to science, manufacturing, combat or training, knowing which facilities to cram into the base domes or which sectors will provide the most needed resources.  As a result of all this the stakes feel higher and losing a character or a sector feels like much more of a blow than in any of the previous UFO titles.

 

In all their games, Altar have, wisely or unwisely, replaced XCOM’s turn-based system with a continuous, pausable real-time system.  Three times in, they seem to have gotten it mostly right.  While the pauses are sometimes annoying, they are adjustable, and play does seem more fluid once a rhythm is established.

 

While a number of story triggers progress the plot, play is fairly open.  The player can go in different directions in terms of expansion, research, production and diplomacy.  As new alien and human factions appear, there are choices in how to deal with them.  However, the game does suffer from a few problems in terms of flow.  Like its predecessors, the campaign feels just a little long and repetitive and becomes a bit of a grind by the two-thirds point.  As well, enemy attacks are frequent, barely giving the player time to breath.  Rather than generating tension, this creates some monotony.  The game’s difficulty curve is a little bizarre as well, with periods of the game that feel like cakewalks suddenly turning into struggles against impossible odds.

 

ufo afterlight          ufo afterlight

 

While graphics in Aftermath and Aftershock verged on the cartoonish, Afterlight goes even further, resulting in figures which I can only describe as “cute.”  This might not bother some gamers, but it did ruin the immersion for me a little as I watched my adorable little spacesuited Michelin men slugging it out with adorable little bug eyed Reticulans.  And the character voice clips can occasionally be annoying (though not as bad as Aftershock, where I began to put certain individuals into harm’s way just so I wouldn’t have to listen to them gripe anymore.)

 

Afterlight’s maps feel more constrained compared to those in Aftershock and the battles often feel a little claustrophobic.  And the developers haven’t quite addressed a continuing problem in the series: a lack of map variety.  Especially given the length of the game and the number of overall missions, it’s hard not to fall into “oh, this map again” mode after a time.

 

Interestingly, Afterlight plays better with the addition of a number of brilliant, community-created mods which address some of the game’s problems like lack of weapon variety and the wonky difficulty curve, making the game even more fun and interesting.  (I am a little alarmed by this increasing trend of developers relying on modders to bail them out.)

 

Despite the problems, I have to say that overall, Afterlight is a very enjoyable game and a sign that the series’ developers have learned from past mistakes.  Though Aftershock might edge Afterlight for combat and UFO: Extraterrestrials might be a better X-COM clone for purists, Afterlight feels like the most thoughtfully designed and fun of the UFO titles to date.

 

- John Tait

(July 3, 2007)

 

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