UFO: Afterlight
Developer: ALTAR
Publisher: CENEGA
Release: January 2007
Format: PC downloadable, CD-ROM, DVD-ROM
Genre Keywords: Real Time Strategy, Real Time Tactical, RPG

I lost my internet connection for two days this past weekend, and so it was time to put aside my current MMO fascination - Everquest II (which will be another node). Fortunately, I had just downloaded a demo of the continuation of a certain venerable franchise prior to the outage, and resolved to try this out whilst unable to venture forth in Norrath.

Four hours, three missions and 2 full-honors funerals later, I was pondering canceling the MMO du jour and in fact staying away from these time-sapping, yet amazingly shallow things in the future. In those piddling few hours I experienced a concentrated burst of gaming joy which you simply cannot get in an MMO - and I hope after reading this, you will too.

UFO: Afterlight is the third UFO game out of ALTAR Interactive, a Czech developer house that is very persistent in its attempts to crank out a worthy successor to the original classic, XCOM. Or at least that's how it feels since each game is an improvement and embellishment on the previous, yet with none breaking the "slightly better than average" rating on game aggregate websites. You gotta admire that kind of dedication - and with Afterlight, it may finally pay off.

The purists out there are probably screaming about the fact that the strategic game is far more linear than the original, and that the tactical game is pausable realtime rather than turnbased. Don't worry, I know my roots (in fact my geekitude extends to having XCOM on my PSP) and this truly is a worthy spiritual successor - a word that's much overused but in this case quite apt. Here we go.

Afterlight takes place after mankind has lost its alien war and is forced to resettle on Mars or live in reservations on Earth or in orbit around our home planet where conditions are subpar. Your task is to construct and expand a Mars base and make the planet fit for humans to live. At your disposal you have roughly 30 unique individuals to shape to your liking (although some are already better at some tasks than others), some basic modules like living quarters, a lab (for research) and a workshop (for production), and a UFO for deploying your team and some territories under your control.

The strategic layer

Right away you become aware of conflicting priorities. Your crew has to be simultaneously ready to deploy for combat or reconnaissance, has to work in workshops or labs, and later juggle precious military training and instant combat readiness. If you're not advancing your science fast enough, the next aliens that attack will win through technological advantage; if you don't take over enough territories you won't be able to expand your base (the more resources, the bigger the base can be), if you don't have someone churning out ammo, medkits and new weaponry you'll run out, if you don't have someone driving around establishing mines and taking over territory you can't expand your base, and if you don't improve your crew's skills you might not have anyone on staff who can use the items you've researched. It's a very absorbing balancing act, and the slight linearity (you can't build bases ad hoc as in the original XCOM; instead at predefined intervals when you control enough Mars surface you obtain another one) and lack of balancing funds from the various factions doesn't feel like a lack to me - the fact that each crew member has a distinctive appearance, voice, set of vital stats and skills makes up for that loss of depth. It is a little annoying to not be able to build new structures very often, but the shift of focus to crew- rather than base-maintenance offsets this.

There are some differences in this layer, primarily having to do with obtaining crew and items. Since you're cut off from earth, you're left on your own to build nearly all of your equipment, and your crew is fixed; you can't just order up a gaggle of trainees and 2 boxes of M16s on the side. However, fairly soon you encounter some allies who will send some trainees your way, and certain events trigger changes in your line-up as well. Likewise, you do not receive money for funding (since there is no funding) but you establish mines on the Martian surface that get you access to Fuel, Metal and Chemicals, the three resources that dictate what you can build, how far your UFO can fly, and what you can trade to other cultures.

The strategic layer is pausable real-time just as the original - you can pause it at anytime, place build, research, production and training orders and resume action. Random events can occur at anytime as well (although some are more random than others as there are several major plot points that tend to signal the appearance of a new foe or ally), and gaining control over territories can trigger events as well - it's quite dynamic, which gives me a nice segue into ...

The tactical combat

This is where the purists start yelling, so I'll just start off by saying: Yep, it's realtime pausable. Why, exactly, is that a bad thing? All it means is that instead of aliens reacting to single troop movements, they react to everyone at once. Likewise, you get to manage all of your troops at once and watch how they respond under fire. With the way Afterlight manages this combat, it feels just like streamlined turn-based to me - but I'm sure the TBS grognards will correct me (/msg me if I'm wrong!) at some point.

So, how does this work? Pretty simple - choose the crewmembers you want, select the action you want them to perform, and hit space to enable time passing. The moment you do, all of your squad will perform the tasks given to them in the order they were given, be it moving, firing, reloading, changing stances, healing, scanning or what have you. At the same time, any hostiles present will be performing their action - until a trigger event is hit (like sighting an alien, being fired upon, completing an action) the two forces will continue to perform their tasks.

There are some differences from previous UFO/XCOM games in that your soldiers really don't come with a whole lot of skills to begin with. Even basic XCOM things like kneeling, going prone, or running need to be learned as a skill - since they're wearing spacesuits now and proper handling needs to be learned just like any other skill. Medkits, suit repair tools (suits of course double as armor, with heavier suits a later research task as well), explosives and even some weapons all require appropriate skills, so again, troop management and deployment becomes a bigger task than just grabbing your best combat-trained and most well-healed soldiers; you may have to sacrifice some combat prowess for a handy user of medkits, for example.

Other than that, combat progression is as always - equip your troops with appropriate weaponry, scout out the map, and perform the assigned task. You can set reactive fire, snapshots or aimed shots, set up ambushes or choke points, and perform room-clearing maneuvers. Later developments include psi powers, special vision modes, detecting equipment - the works.

Speaking of vision modes, a word about the camera in UFO. In addition to the normal Auto mode (which focuses on the active squad member and attempts to height-adjust automatically) there are also first-person and free camera mode. It is this last that's easiest to use, as the automatic adjustment tends to work about 50% of the time. I tend to default to about the angle of the classic XCOM, but do appreciate the presence of full free rotation and even the gimmicky first person camera. Still, after the third iteration the fact that you still have to adjust the camera a lot stands out a bit.

One notable missing feature is the lack of destructible terrain and decor; perhaps next year's UFO will have that aspect intact. It would certainly change up tactics quite a bit, but I can't say I feel its lack in Afterlight.

A worthy UFO

I play a lot of tactical combat, but the games that make me give a damn about my often-disposable troops are few and far in between. Without that intangible aspect, the game would be no different from designing a simple optimal troop placement algorithm - it's the identity of your crew that gives what you do in the game a sense of meaning. The original XCOM: Ufo Defense and Final Fantasy Tactics are two that come to mind, and now, due to the voice acting, little tidbits of historical info, and the extensive and careful training you must provide your soldiers, Afterlight joins those exalted ranks too (hey, games are serious business!).

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