Thursday, April 12, 2007

UFO: Afterlight Review

UFO: Afterlight, developed by Altar Games and published by Cenega.
The Good: Both strategic and tactical gameplay, plenty to keep you busy, adequate graphics, new setting, additional weapons and technologies, chosen research path and diplomatic decisions determine mission availability
The Not So Good: Very similar to previous titles, user interface could be better, totally annoying voices, every soldier action must be explicitly ordered no matter how basic, no semblance of any organization as soldiers will routinely block other team members, repetitive mission design
What say you? Another UFO game with some superficial improvements and additions, but the micromanagement-heavy tactical game remains: 5/8

A wise man once said, “the truth is out there,” if by “truth” you mean “aliens.” Aliens have a solid place in American culture, propagating through movies and television shows, preying on our fears of the unknown. This, of course, has been extended to the world of computer games, and comes to us in the form of UFO: Afterlight, another game in the UFO series, the last of which I reviewed a year ago. UFO: Afterlight takes the series to the red planet, slashing my hopes for a game played in Uranus. How many improvements to the game have been made in the past year?

UFO: Afterlight is a visual improvement over previous titles. Mars looks really good and very detailed, almost as if they used real imagery of the planet and put it into the game. It is a very realistic approach, and it results on one of the better looking maps in a strategy game. The tactical mode also looks more polished, with slightly more detail to your units and the environment. Although this game is very similar to the previous game, there has been some extra work done in the graphics department, and the result is that UFO: Afterlight holds its own in the realm of strategy games. The sound is slightly worse off, mostly due to the repetitive voice acknowledgements that get tiring very quickly. All of the in-game dialogue is voiced, however, which serves to promote a plausible game environment. The background music is typical for a game of this type, and it fits the setting. UFO: Afterlight doesn’t look or sound outdated by any stretch of the imagination, which is a definite improvement over UFO: Aftershock.

UFO: Afterlight takes place on Mars, with new settlers who must deal with aliens, both friendly and otherwise. The game, like previous titles, takes place in two phases: a grand strategic mode and a tactical game. The game follows a storyline as you progress through the game, covering the expansion of your colony. You must start over from the beginning in each new game, however, but a lot of the choices in they way you expand are up to you. The game doesn’t features completely random missions, but they are based on diplomatic decisions and research that you conduct. The missions are not varied, as most of them just consist of killing all enemy units. You start out with a handful of territories, and you expand your resource allocation by probing neighboring provinces (too bad this game takes place on Mars; otherwise you could probe Uranus) and then establishing mining operations on them that extract resources required to build structures and weapons. Producing weapons and other items is easy: just go to the production menu and queue up some stuff. The time it takes to produce the item is dependent on the skill levels of the people you have employed at the production bay. Research is very similar to production: queue up some stuff from the tree and your scientists will get cracking. It’s very straightforward to conduct research and produce new items.

Each person in UFO: Afterlight is rated in one of three areas: soldiering, production, and research. Your more advanced employees can be rated in two of the areas, making them more versatile. The more experience your people gain by killing aliens, producing new products, or conducting research, the higher their level will grow. You’re given a well-rounded selection of people in the beginning of the game which makes it easy to set up your staff assignments. Once you produce new weapons, you’ll want to give them to your squads. This interface is a little bit more complicated than it needs to be, as the squad information is scattered over several different pages. Still, the proper ammunition for each weapon is clearly indicated, and the number of different arrangements you can have for a given mission is pretty good. Missions are generated on the global map, where enemy nations invade your territory or a scripted event occurs. Not all of the aliens will be hostile, however: diplomacy can be conducted in UFO: Afterlight. You can form alliances, share technologies, and declare war. Overall, the strategic mode of UFO: Afterlight is well designed, sort of a light version of Europa Universalis III. It works well, has different paths you can undertake, and is fun to play. UFO: Afterlight adds some more technologies and weapons to research, but the strategic mode is largely unchanged from UFO: Aftershock; this is not surprising as the strategic mode doesn’t have many weaknesses.

Like in the previous game, the tactical game is where UFO: Afterlight falls short. The tactical game involves ordering your soldiers around, issuing move, attack, and interact orders and equipping different weapons. There is nothing unique about this mode of play, as it has been around since the original XCOM titles way back when. Despite recent advancements in AI, the soldiers in UFO: Afterlight are completely retarded as you need to give them specific instructions on everything. Unlike well designed games like Company of Heroes, the soldiers will stand in each other's way and then complain about not being able to move. There is absolutely no friendly AI. Now, I'm sure that this was an intentional design decision, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I want to have control over my troops, but I'd still like them to behave semi-intelligently: return fire when needed, move out of the way of other team members, and so on. I'm surprised you don't need to press a “breathe” button every five seconds. The new features added in UFO: Afterlight are trivial: “authentic” physics are really just rag doll deaths, having robots and aliens in your team behave just the same as their stupid human counterparts, and mind control is just another ranged weapon to use. The tactical mode of UFO: Afterlight is just way too outdated to be fun anymore, and since it’s been done several times over there’s no real reason to play it.

UFO: Afterlight, barring than some insignificant improvements, is identical to UFO: Aftershock: an entertaining strategic mode coupled with a boring and tedious tactical mode. The strategic mode gives you enough options in research and diplomacy to make it play out different each time, and even though the missions are repetitive, they do offer some superficial variety depending on your actions. The improved graphics are nice, but graphics don’t make the game. The tactical game is still lacking, and while a small portion of the population might like explicitly giving every instruction in the game, most people will wonder where the AI has gone. If your soldiers can’t figure out to return fire on their own, then they deserve to die. Unfortunately, there are games that do the strategic mode better, and there are games that do the tactical mode better; the total package of UFO: Afterlight just doesn’t add up to a unique gaming experience.