UFO: Afterlight is the third game in the UFO franchise, following UFO: Aftermath in 2003 and UFO: Aftershock in 2005 (and, in some ways, following the X-COM franchise, which petered out after X-COM: Interceptor in 2001). All three games are tactical strategy games where humans battle aliens, but developer Altar Games (formerly Altar Interactive) hasn’t been lazy with them. They didn’t just create one engine and then make a few tweaks here and there and stick new titles on them. Each game has had its own unique engine, with different ways to develop characters and different enemies to fight and different equipment to use, and so each game has played differently, which is nice.
While the first two UFO games took place on Earth, UFO: Afterlight sends you on Mars. You’re dispatched to the red planet to create a small mining and science colony, but right after you arrive, you run into aggressive robots and hostile creatures called beastmen, and so you have to piece together a military component to your colony as well. Then as you play your way through the included campaign, you have to build up your colony and eventually defeat (or ally with) the other races on the planet, and terraform the planet to make it more suitable for humans to live on.
The structure of UFO: Afterlight is roughly the same as in the other two UFO games. There is a strategic component where you manage your base, train your colonists, and explore your surroundings, and there’s a tactical component where you battle aliens.
Base management in UFO: Afterlight is more complicated than you might expect. Instead of just having buildings (like labs and hospitals) that work on their own, you have to assign your colonists to different jobs in those buildings. Colonists can be scientists, technicians, or soldiers (or a combination of the three), and their classes determine where they can work. Scientists can do research and explore zones, technicians can manufacture goods and construct mines, and soldiers can fight aliens. Your facilities only allow you to have a small number of colonists at any one time, and so you have to be careful about how you assign them, and micromanage their activities as much as possible. For example, if you have a soldier / technician in one of your fighting squads, you might need to assign her to the civil engineering building between battles, so she can help with construction on the base.
There are also interesting decisions to be made when developing your colonists. Colonists gain experience and levels for doing their jobs, and that includes science and technical activities as well as soldiering. Each time a colonist gains a level, he or she receives a training point, which can be used to learn a variety of skills. When a soldier gains a level, he or she also receives an attribute point, which can be used to increase things like strength and willpower. The training points are more interesting than the attribute points, simply because there are many more skills than attributes, and because some training options don’t show up until later in the campaign (such as bonuses for using plasma weapons, which require that you do some research), and so you don’t know if you should spend your points now or wait to see what else becomes available later.
The planet itself is divided into about 80 regions. Each region might have a natural resource (like crystals or metals) associated with it, and you can put a terraforming machine into each region, and so, obviously, your goal is to control as many regions as possible. You can capture any region adjacent to a region you already control, but enemy factions can try to capture your regions, too. From what I could tell, enemy factions don’t have to worry about their economy. Any region they control is just a region unavailable to you, and you can’t beat them through attrition or anything like that. The only way to defeat an enemy faction is to capture their main base and to defeat all of their regions.
The battles when capturing (or defending) a region are usually small scale affairs. You can send up to seven soldiers to any one battle, and you might have to fight up to a dozen enemies. The battles use a “simultaneous action system,” but that’s just a fancy way of saying that the battles occur in real time. Conveniently, you can pause the action at any time, and you can set up the interface so that certain events (such as encountering an enemy) pause the game, and so the battles are generally pretty easy to control, and with weapons like lasers and gattling guns and more, they’re usually pretty fun to watch as well.
In other words, the engine to UFO: Afterlight is great. Everything that I’ve listed in the previous few paragraphs works well, looks good, and is slickly designed, and it’s almost enough so that I don’t miss the original X-COM games. But UFO: Afterlight has two serious problems that severely derail it, and, incredibly, they’re the exact same two problems that UFO: Aftershock had: slow load times and an unbelievably long, boring campaign.
Let me start with the load times. UFO: Afterlight is one of those games where you’re going to have to do a lot of loading. Enemy creatures tend to be way more powerful than your soldiers, and so battles can go south in a hurry, and even if you set up ambushes well, sometimes the random number gods don’t smile upon you, and your soldiers miss while the aliens score critical hit after critical hit. The problem is that while the save times are almost instantaneous, the load times are in the minutes -- and that’s on my machine, which is relatively new and relatively fast. I shudder to think what the game might be like on an older computer. If you’re a developer, and you’re designing a game where players are going to load their game quite a bit, then excessively slow load times are not acceptable. It’s no fun when you’re spending more time staring at the loading screen than you are in the mission itself, and let’s just say that UFO: Afterlight doesn’t need any more frustration than what is already built into it.
The other problem is the campaign. Finishing off all of your opponents and terraforming the planet takes somewhere around 50 hours and 150 missions. The campaign starts off well enough, as you see maps and enemies for the first time, but then about halfway through, the evolution stops, and you start fighting the same things on the same maps with the same objectives over and over and over again. This second half of the campaign is at best tedious, and Altar Games would have been better off cutting most of it off.
Worse, none of the missions are particularly interesting. At various times during the campaign you have to defeat enemy bases, or explore excavations, or even go to Mars’ moons, but Altar Games didn’t even try to make these missions different from ordinary missions, and it’s shocking to me how a developer could go from an intriguing, story-driven campaign in Original War to bizarrely boring content-free campaigns in their UFO games. Did all of their writers quit? Could Altar Games actually think their current campaign is fun to play, or that anybody would want to slog through the same mission 50 times in a row?
And so, overall, I’m giving UFO: Afterlight a mixed review. The engine is a lot of fun, but the campaign is a disaster, and it appears that Altar Games hasn’t learned anything since releasing UFO: Aftershock two years ago. If you enjoy tactical strategy games, then I’ll go ahead and recommend UFO: Afterlight anyway, just because some parts of the game are really good, and because there’s just about nothing else out there right now. However, UFO: Afterlight leaves me pessimistic about the future of the franchise, although I’m curious what A-word Altar Games might think up next.