Saturday, February 04, 2006

UFO: Aftershock Review

UFO: Aftershock, developed by Altar Interactive and published by Cenega.
The Good: Different management aspects, customizable squad members
The Not So Good: Outdated graphics, automatic pausing gets annoying, no friendly AI to speak of, no multiplayer, poor tutorials with vague objectives
What say you? A crushingly run of the mill, micromanagement-heavy game similar to the X-COM series: 5/8

The turn-based strategy game has been around since the first turn-based strategy game. There have been many titles in the genre, covering countless topics from historical armies, modern armies, and even futuristic armies. UFO: Aftershock is the sequel to UFO: Aftermath, which is a “spiritual successor” (meaning rip-off) of the old X-COM series. You remember X-COM, right? You order troops around, issuing orders and blowing up stuff, sometimes not your teammates. Well, UFO: Aftershock features those infamous turn-based squad battles and adds an overall strategic layer similar to how Rome: Total War does it.

The graphics in UFO: Aftershock are definitely outdated; the game uses an isometric perspective that is adjustable, so technically the game is rendered in 3-D. You don’t really notice all three dimensions, and UFO: Aftershock looks like an older 2-D game, reminiscent of Neverwinter Nights. Not only are the graphics behind the times, but finding objects in the game is entirely too difficult: walls almost always obscure your players and the enemy and you must rotate around to see anything. It’s also difficult to tell which floor your troops are on, as many maps have multiple levels. Wrestling with the camera is not something that we should have to deal with, but it is a problem in UFO: Aftershock. The sound is unremarkable, although it does contain a good deal of voiceover work. The effects of the weapons are underpowered and disappointing. Like most games, the sound neither detracts nor elevates the gameplay.

UFO: Aftershock features two game phases: the strategic mode and controlling your squads. It should be notes that UFO: Aftershock only has the single player semi-dynamic campaign; there are no multiplayer or skirmish modes present. In the strategic mode, you are given an overview of your empire and can plan your global attack strategy. Initially, all of the provinces on the map are unexplored (which is strange, considering it is Earth and you are Earthlings) and you can either explore one province per turn or have the game automatically (and slowly) explore the surrounding terrain. Capturing a newly found territory results in resource income along with production capabilities, and it is done by assigning a mission to a particular area. Bases outside of your capital province must be connected in order for the supplies and resources to be collected and transported. Each of the territories has a base (a city) where you build buildings, manufacture new units, and conduct research. The strategic mode is similar to the Europa Universalis games, and it’s a nice, albeit unoriginal, addition to flesh out a more complete game.

Once you assign a mission, the game becomes the classic squad-based strategy game. There are some RPG elements in the game; as your troops conduct more missions, their skills increase in several areas. Thus, it is imperative that you keep your best people alive to see another day. Each squad member is usually more adept at a particular skill (such as using close range weapons or moving with stealth), so forming a well-rounded squad that can cover almost any mission is a definite advantage. Before heading out on your mission, you can customize each soldier’s loadout, including the weapons and attire. The turn-based gameplay of UFO: Aftershock is an exercise in micromanagement. Your troops are essentially robots and will not do anything unless they are specifically told to do so. If they are being shot at, they won’t return fire unless you assign a target to them; these are supposed to be living, breathing, thinking humans. I thought we were way past the days of non-functioning, dumbed-down AI. The enemy AI is only slightly better: they mostly charge straight for you until they are in range of their weapons. When games such as F.E.A.R. can feature advanced AI in a first person shooter, it’s a bad sign when a strategy game cannot do the same. The game auto-pauses every time a new enemy appears or one of your soldiers completes their task. You can imagine how annoying this can become if you have five people under your command and they are all doing different things. Unfortunately, you need the game to auto-pause, because your soldiers won’t do anything on their own. The mission objectives don’t help either: they are usually “eliminate a sufficient number of enemies,” who can be scattered in random locations all over the map. The turn-based mode is just not fun for anyone except the severely obsessive-compulsive.

When I first learned of UFO: Aftershock, I assumed this was a sequel to X-COM; I don’t know why that is, other than the fact that both are turn-based squad games where you shoot aliens. This really sums up the whole impression of the game: we’ve seen it all before. We’ve seen the turn-based tactical battles. We’ve seen the overall dynamic strategic campaign. We’ve seen the RPG-like ability enhancement. So, in order to differentiate yourself from the pack, you must offer something new, and UFO: Aftershock just doesn’t do that. In fact, it removes some features (such as multiplayer) and has some archaic graphics. Plus, the tactical turn-based mode isn’t even that fun due to poor AI all around. There are much better tactical squad games out there, and UFO: Aftershock just doesn’t offer enough new ideas to become a recommended title.