Sunday, October 19, 2008

Project Aftermath Review

Project Aftermath, developed and published by Games Faction.
The Good: Unique weapon/armor counter system, comprehensive squad customization and weapon research, well-designed interface with clear objectives and easy access to hero units, good production values for the price, intelligent pathfinding and formation movement, online high score list
The Not So Good: Linear missions reduce replay value, tedious combat, rigid difficulty, lacks cooperative multiplayer, units don’t attack on the move, no mid-mission saves
What say you? A budget-priced squad-based tactical strategy game with a number of distinctive features but repetitive gameplay: 5/8

A lot of the larger, and obviously less important, review sites tend to ignore games from small developers. I have a theory as to why this is: no advertising dollars from those tiny companies. But here at Out of Eight, we are equal opportunity reviewers (at least for publishers that don’t refuse to give us games), and I actually like covering small games that you might not have heard of otherwise. One of these is Project Aftermath, a game developed by a British team and released (as most independent titles are) over the grand expanse of the Internet. This is an “action RTS” game, eschewing resource collection for a focus on combat and RPG-like unit upgrades.

For a cheap ($20) game made by two to three people, Project Aftermath looks surprisingly good. Now, it’s certainly not cutting-edge with all sorts of fancy effects, but it doesn’t look terrible by any stretch of the imagination. The environments are not bland, with forested and snowy environments with good 3-D models for buildings. The character models are detailed but could be animated better. Some of the weapon effects are nice, such as the more toxic or explosive weapons at your disposal. The game also features some introductory cut-scenes that offer some nice-looking graphic novel (we all know they are really comic books) inspired artwork. When compared against other independent titles, Project Aftermath looks quite good. I spend an inordinate amount of time rotating the camera, however, as mountains blocked the view far more often than desired. The sound design is also lovely, with good non-exaggerated voice acting and appropriate background music. Maybe I’ve played too many independent titles recently with less than stellar production values, but I must admit I was pleasantly surprised (in a good way) by the relative quality of Project Aftermath.

Project Aftermath is a single-player action tactical strategy game where you lead a group of commanders to kill lots of enemy units. The game removes traditional resource collection in favor of some light role-playing upgrades and constant action. The single player campaign is your only choice and missions are selected from a map. The missions are very linear and not random in any sense (either the maps or the enemy placements), which doesn’t offer much replay value: when you’ve done it once, it will always be the same. Enemies spawn from locations that can be captured and will continually be produced until you take them over; this is the only was successive play will be different. Project Aftermath does offer a good tutorial and while the game lacks a manual, the in-game help (press F12) is comprehensive. The game lacks multiplayer; cooperative missions could have been very interesting, considering the amount of coordination needed in attacks. The mission difficulty cannot be adjusted and I found Project Aftermath to be a bit on the hard side, even for someone with a penchant for strategy games. You also cannot save the game in the middle of a mission; they aren’t long (30 minutes on average), but if I have to quit because you have a life outside of computer games (blasphemy, I know), you’ll have to redo everything in the mission. Sigh.

Project Aftermath uses a left click select and move, right click action menu system for controlling your troops. Because of this, you can commonly issue “move” orders instead of “attack” orders by mistake, especially since enemy troops move. You can queue up orders by holding down the shift key, either movement or attack (or both). A right click will open up a small menu to change formations, switch weapons, or use a special power. You will only be issuing commands to hero leader units, and their subordinates will follow their lead; this cuts down on tedious micromanagement significantly. Leaders are listed along the bottom of the screen and they can be accessed without having to find them on the minimap or in the game world itself. You can also select all units using the tab key. Next to the leader listing, the interface also displays the health of both the leader and the squad. While this is nice, I with the interface showed which weapon type each squad has selected instead of making me right-click to find out. Heroes can be respawned using some of the game’s only resource (goop), but support troops cannot regenerate until the hero dies. The clear objective locations, both primary and optional (but important) secondary ones, round out the generally solid interface.

Each troop in the game is equipped with armor (spell it right, you crazy British!) that protects against one (or two, for elite troops) specific weapon type: physical (red), biological (green), energy (blue), or morphid field (yellow). The key of Project Aftermath is to use weapons that the enemy is vulnerable to, and this system works well. Helping the process is that the armor an enemy unit is using is clearly indicated by a bright circle underneath their character, making planning in advance a very simple procedure (especially since you can see enemy units from far away as Project Aftermath lacks fog of war). In addition to bringing the pain with traditional weapons, you can also use field effects: special powers of a certain type that either hurt enemy units or assist friendly ones.

The only resource in Project Aftermath is “goop,” gained by killing enemies, completing objectives, and finding the occasional canister. You can only lose the game if your goop drops below a set level at the end of a mission, since heroes can be respawned multiple times in a single mission. Goop is rare, so you actually have to use some strategy of where to use it: resurrecting heroes, using field effects, or spending it between missions. Different weapons can be equipped by spending some goop (each squad is limited to two weapons), and entirely new weapons can be researched for a price as well. There are a lot of weapons to choose from, although since you never know what type of armor enemy units will have, you should always balance out your arms. You can also invest some money in shiny new armor or more advanced field effects. Goop can also be spent on boosting your heroes (for increased health, movement speed, and experience gains) and having more support troops per hero.

The AI, especially friendly, seems to be quite good: units will stay in formation and pathfinding is excellent. Units will not attack on the move, which makes issuing a “move” order by mistake even more deadly. While the enemy AI isn’t using any advanced tactics, since they are stuck with the weapons and armor the scenario designer chose, the sheer amount of them does provide a challenge. Unfortunately, even with all of the innovative things that Project Aftermath brings, the combat is one-note: kill. There aren’t any advanced puzzles or variety in the objectives other than going to a location, killing everything along the way. While I do applaud the developers for coming up with an interesting weapon and armor system, it only slightly varies the actual gameplay, which I found to be bland overall.

While Project Aftermath isn’t perfect, it does offer some innovative features that make it stand out against the action-oriented strategy crowd. The weapon and armor system is designed well, and the interface is top-notch with easy access to hero units and a clear indication of enemy armor. The weapon purchases and upgrades between missions also add some intrigue: you really need to balance your weapons to combat any potential threat as it really stinks to outfit your team in energy weapons and then find out most of the enemies have blue armor. It's nice that Project Aftermath has all of these ancillary materials like researched weapons and the armor system, but it can't compensate enough for the generally bland gameplay and linear level design. This combined with the game’s lack of potentially interesting cooperative multiplayer means replay value is very small. Maybe I’m being too hard on the game, but I found Project Aftermath to be interesting but not terribly fun. There is definitely a solid foundation here, though, and hopefully with more fleshed out features and a more dynamic and interesting campaign, the advantages of Project Aftermath will become more prominent.