UFO: Afterlight (PC) review
"For a solid attempt and otherworldly genocide, things worked out great."
Things could go very well or very badly for Altar, the team behind Afterlight, the third of the UFO games to hit our PCs. I direct your attention here and here where I, the respected reviewer, dribble fanboyishly over the X-Com games in which UFO has always been touted as a spiritual successor.
Way back in the dark ages of 1993, alien haters were given a platform in which to wreak bloody and strategic havoc, but after the X-Com series was 'improved' by new developers into insulting messes, a hole has existed in the hearts of those who wish to nerf intergalactic visitors. The UFO series sought to change this and has got considerably closer to that goal with each release.
So UFO: Afterlight gets lucky. It will not face the wrath of a fanboy scorned. It does this by being a great game that melds genres together as seamlessly as the benchmark series from which it draws inspiration. It sees you take tactical command of an army that needs to be placed strategically around the globe, force you to cerebrally outfit and stock your troops with an ever-expanding arsenal of weapons and have you go at it with alien villains and human aggressors in a series of hybrid turn-based/real time battles.
Aftershock (the prequel to Afterlight) saw the human race get their collective arses kicked and booted off Earth by little grey men known as Reticulans. Homeless and without a planet to call their own, humanity tried to settle on Mars. You control a small section of the population rather than fight for the entire planet in this chapter, protecting your turf from rival settlers and the hostile inhabitants of Mars that lain dormant before your arrival so rudely awakes them.
Expanding your territory is important; the more you have, the more options you own. All you need to do is grab more land and the chance to better equip and train your troops is at your fingertips. To start with, obtaining new land is as easy as rolling into an unoccupied space, but the bigger your boarders, the more often you'll encounter alien resistance and human invaders trying to usurp precious living space from under your nose.
Mowing them down is a literal blast -- once you get to grips with the hybrid battle system. Like the last two games, Afterlight allows players to switch between a free-flowing real time system and a tactical turn based one. You can have the game pause the action each time a notable event occurs, such as spotting an enemy unit or coming under fire, or you can just let havoc reign. It will take a bit of tinkering, but once you find the setting that is right for you, ploughing through anyone daft enough to point a ray gun at you will be nothing short of a joy.
What's less as customisable is the base building and territory expanding which often feels too sprawling and unwieldy to micro-mange as efficiently as you might want. To manage bases, sort though item stock and ensure your mines and operation as all running smoothly, you'll forever find yourself diving into an endless slew of screens.
Thereís also an irksome difficulty curve that seems to overtake the RPG-like levelling that your troops can undertake with each successful mission they complete. No matter how quickly you collect skill points, how cleverly you allocate them into or how much training you invest into them, the oppositionís skill will suddenly spike. One day youíll be merrily gunning down ragged terraformers and skittering spiderbots that ignore cover and tactics to line up in front of your chattering weaponry. The next you face fatalistically armed marines that snipe you from afar and spherical orbs of death that glide through your gunfire and gut your troops with an alarmingly fine porcupine impression that see them hurtle they new coat of spikes into your rankís ribcages. Just as you start to adapt to your more skilled foes, youíll cross (chainsaw-embedded) blades with the pesky Reticulans, who bring more outrageously advanced weaponry with them as well as the ability to hack into your troopís minds and have them blow chunks out of their former comrades.
Itís bad enough getting shot down by the enemy, but when the sniper youíve been carefully training throughout the game gets hit with a successful psi attack and starts putting bullets through the back of your best menís skulls, itís time to cue the heavy swearing.
Youíll need to counter this not only with well-levelled troops and ingenious tactics, but by upgrading your arsenal, making the behind-the-scenes personal like scientists and technicians just as important as your combat-ready troops. Itís these specialists that design and build new weapons, allowing you to hit harder, new armour that lets you absorb more blows and better standards of vehicles for your driver to abuse in exploration and the building on your mines and power plants. The research tree is a lot of fun to play about with and the results, and how you use them, have an explosive bearing on the direction and tactical output contrived in battle.
So, whereas things could have gone badly for ALTAR in UFO #3, where things like the unvaried AI that has most foes stand in the open and take pot-shots might rob some of an ultimate sense of challenge and the constantly-sprawling interfaces may leave learning gamers feeling lost and overwhelmed, things worked out great. Thereís enough going on at all times to keep interests peaked , enough cleverly-moulded genre-mixing that no aspect stands head and shoulders above the rest. Afterlight is a lot of things, itís in-depth, itís cerebral, itís strategic addictiveness wrapped up in a xenomorphic slaughter-fest that would have E.T reaching for the kelvex body-armour and praying to whatever passes as God on his home world.
But above all these things, itís a bloody good game.
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