Before I talk about UFO: Aftermath, the latest game from Czech developer ALTAR Interactive, let me first discuss the game’s box. Yes, I know, you want to hear about the game, but bear with me. UFO: Aftermath’s box is one of those boxes that opens up like a book so the publisher can add extra screenshots and quotes. But look at the sad-sack quotes Cenega Publishing decided to include:
“UFO: Aftermath is an unexpected jewel of a game.” -- UFO: Aftermath fan page
“UFO: Aftermath, a spiritual successor to X-COM.” -- Brubin.net
“Altar is holding true to the spirit of X-COM while introducing one or two innovations.” -- PC Gaming World
“Put simply, UFO: Aftermath is as close as we’re probably ever going to come to a true sequel to X-COM.” -- Gamespy.com
If you were browsing games and didn’t rely on game reviews (tsk, tsk), is UFO: Aftermath a game you’d buy? I mean, nothing against the anonymous fan page or brubin.com, but wouldn’t you figure that if a publisher was using them instead of major publications that the major publications must have hated the game? And even PC Gaming World and Gamespy aren’t exactly waving a “buy me” flag. In fact, PC Gaming World’s quote might be an insult. If you’re only adding “one or two innovations” to a game that’s over five years old (assuming they were talking about X-COM: Apocalypse and not X-COM: UFO Defense, which would make it more like ten years), then why bother?
So UFO: Aftermath’s box led me to believe one of two things must be true: either the game royally sucks, or somebody at Cenega Publishing should get fired. My guess is the answer is “both.” Certainly the future coaster / frisbee known as UFO: Aftermath is a disturbingly bad game, but I’d be shocked if the four sentences Cenega used were the four most favorable ones available. Even bad reviews and previews usually have a nice sentence or two about the game. You know, something like, “The game sucked, but watching aliens blow up is fun!” Even this review might have a positive sentence somewhere in it (don’t blink!).
Anyway, for those of you patiently waiting to hear about the game itself, here goes. UFO: Aftermath is a game in the same style as the X-COM games. Aliens attack the Earth, but instead of landing in spaceships and attacking through conventional means, they use strange biological weapons that smother most life on the surface and mutate most of what’s left. That leaves it to you, playing as the rag-tag survivors on the Earth, to assemble a force and beat back the aliens. Of course, given the crappy weapons and armor you start with, that means you also have to scavenge equipment from the aliens, research how to improve upon it and make it useable, and capture and kill aliens to learn more about them.
But with all that, the focus of the game is the tactical combat missions against the aliens and the mutations. During these missions you get to use a team of up to seven soldiers, and you get to use weapons like sniper rifles, AK-47s and grenade launchers, and eventually you even get to use lasers and plasma weapons. Combat uses a “simultaneous action system,” which sounds complicated but isn’t (or maybe it’s complicated, but only under the hood). In fact, for all intents and purposes, the game is played in real time.
Unfortunately, it’s the missions where UFO: Aftermath has the most problems. For starters, they’re way too similar. You don’t have to protect civilians, and capturing aliens works the same as attacking them (they fall over unconscious once you do enough damage), and so all you have to do in missions is attack aliens, and there isn’t any variety. Worse, you might have to play through 50-100 missions to complete the game, but they’re all randomly generated (that is, boring), and the only real difference between them is the aliens you face. Some of the aliens, like the “car crab,” are fun, but there isn’t a huge variety to them, and you’ll probably see all the aliens well before the half-way point in the game, meaning the second half of the game is like playing the same mission over and over. Yuck.
Another problem with the missions is the difficulty. If there were only a few, distinct missions, I wouldn’t care if they were difficult, but UFO: Aftermath’s frequent missions are loadfests, where you’re loading not because your strategy is bad but because you need to be lucky to get through certain situations, and eventually I avoided as many missions as I could. (The “Council of Earth” can handle some missions for you, but there’s only about a 50% chance they’ll succeed.) Eventually the aliens start coming equipped with rocket launchers and microslug guns and warp guns and a bunch of other nasty things, and they start out attacking you from all sides, and there isn’t much you can do other than hope nobody dies. It’s like ALTAR Interactive forgot they were supposed to be making a tactical strategy game, and instead thought they were making a real-time strategy game where it’s okay for units to die all over the place. To keep your team alive in most missions -- or, heck, at least try to keep them from all ending up in the hospital -- takes more loads than could even close to be considered fun.
Of course, you have to go on at least some missions, because it’s through missions that your soldiers gain experience and, by gaining levels, improve their attributes and skills. Developing soldiers is a certain amount of fun, and I always like it when my “Westlake” soldier kills things, but the soldiers aren’t as interesting as they could be because they’re too generic. Soldiers are basically defined by their attributes (strength, intelligence and so forth), and the only difference between them is where they put their attribute points each time they level. I liked the X-COM method of handling soldiers better, where soldiers were defined by their skill levels, and skill levels only changed by using skills during missions.
Should I keep piling on? Should I mention that there isn’t a minimap to help you see what’s going on? That you’re not allowed to zoom in the camera enough to see things, so combat is boring to watch? That you usually don’t know what you’re being attacked with so you don’t know how to defend against it? That there’s a “throw” command that doesn’t work with grenades and doesn’t seem to have any purpose? That there aren’t any friendly fire issues with guns, so you can should right through your teammates?
No, you get the idea. It’s just depressing to think about what might have been, if Mythos Games had been able to keep working on Dreamland Chronicles (what UFO: Aftermath started as) instead of the game being canceled and ALTAR Interactive picking up the pieces. It’s also odd, because I liked ALTAR Interactive’s previous offering, Original War, largely because of its X-COM elements, but something went terribly, horribly wrong here. UFO: Aftermath isn’t a good tactical strategy game, and it’s not even a good action game by mistake. It’s a game you should avoid, even if you liked the X-COM series.