UFO: Afterlight

Review by Steerpike
April 2007

No, Dammit

The UFO series is a collection of tactical strategy games influenced by 1994's X-COM: UFO Defense, one of the best and most important PC games. Like its forbear, UFO is part big-picture military and logistics management, part small-squad tactical combat. Czech developer Altar Games has tried to fill some pretty big shoes—shoes so big, in fact, that no one else has dared attempt it. "Potentially the next X-COM" is a loaded statement. And if "potential" were all games needed, the UFO series would be awesome.

2003's UFO: Aftermath was solidly okay, but no more. 2005 saw UFO: Aftershock hit close to the mark, but it was too easy, too repetitive and hobbled by bugs. Rather than patching Aftershock, Altar left it crippled and moved on to UFO: Afterlight, producing an odd Sims-in-space mutation of a strategy game that, despite some interesting ideas, can't overcome the ruinous information management, humdrum tactical encounters and poor design decisions.

The primary issue they fixed is stability. This installment is crashless and largely bugless, the opposite of previous installments. But though they repaired that one perennial series gripe, Afterlight also retains too many of the classic UFO problems—boring tactical, convoluted interface, lousy organization. And while I applaud the developers for their willingness to explore some new play styles, they don't really add much to the fun level.

Simply put, I don't enjoy playing this game, which was not true about either predecessor.

General Mars-pital

Aftershock and Afterlight both tell the story of what happened if you lost the first game in the trilogy. Midway through that one, the Reticulan Empire, busily invading Earth, offers to transport humans to a safe haven and end the war. Take the deal, lose the game. The sequels have humanity beaten, near extinction, and without hope for the future. Some of the population was transferred to space stations called Laputas, whose story was told in Aftershock. But most survivors of the Reticulan bombardment of the Earth—a few million people—are stuffed into freezers and carted off to Mars. A skeleton crew of scientists and engineers remain thawed to terraform the planet and defrost everyone once it's habitable. That's your job in Afterlight.

Turns out, though, that Mars is like the most popular and vied-over planetary body in the galactic supercluster. Approximately five gazillion species of alien, mutant, robot and combinations thereof have staked a claim, and what was meant to be a fairly routine scientists-only gardening job turns into a bloody battle for the planet. You've only got about thirty people, and, of them, few have combat training. Mars can't yet support all of humanity, so the folks in the freezers are nothing but a vulnerable albatross.

Your talent pool must therefore wear many hats. Engineers and scientists are also soldiers. You might pull a mechanic off the line for a mission simply because you lack the knuckle-draggers—or because the mission calls for an expert who can, say, repair a water main (the aliens are constantly blowing up your water main). And if that person dies, his spot in the workshop remains vacant and your production suffers. Losses anywhere along chain are felt throughout your entire war machine. Moreover, these people are people. They know each other, they intermarry and breed. They have histories and moods and best friends, and they get dejected if they lose them.

While this sounds like a cool idea, it also means that you can't name your troops like you used to, a seemingly insignificant subtraction that dramatically diminishes the fun. They feel less like your troops. Despite occasionally interesting (and hilariously mistranslated) background info, I really never identified with any of the shallow characters in Afterlight. And it's so irritating to manage daily lives that the whole "pull so-and-so out of the lab to do a mission" thing is more tedious than scary.

As you play, you get to watch Mars slowly turn green thanks to your terraforming efforts. Strategically, your job is to oversee territorial expansion, fight and negotiate with the many enemy factions, manage the income of various resources, assign jobs to your people and direct R&D. The tactical side of the game is fought in a time-shifted combat environment that puts your spacesuit-clad, pocket-protectored Urkels in direct conflict with those who want a piece of your planet.


The stylized, colorful, cartoony look of Afterlight is a big change from its gritty predecessors. Afterlight has a much brighter, more vivid world than the other UFOs, and while the graphical change is jarring at first, it actually works really well in the context of this game. Graphics in general are excellent, with bold, confident designs that belie Altar's talented art direction. This game engine has been in service for a long time and still works well for the genre. Since I'm guessing this is the last UFO game, Altar really got its money's worth from the codebase.

The music, on the other hand, sounds like it came out of a porn movie. Bowng-chika-bow-wowng does not evoke an environment of pressure and fear and seems out of place in this sci-fi drama. Obnoxious voice acting doesn't help matters either; all of the characters are annoying, but later on teenagers (the offspring of your main staff) join the active squad. I got really sick of hearing "Shya! Like, that's a totally bogus alien." You know what I'd like to hear from a soldier acknowledging an order? "Yes, commander," not "Again?! *sigh*"

Afterlight doesn't introduce any really revolutionary concepts to the genre. This is good because the first line of the manual warns you not to read it (seriously). Controls in general are the same as the previous titles. The camera is still fussy and hard to manage, particularly if you allow the game to set your perspective. And while some controls are intuitive, most are not, requiring too many clicks of mysterious iconic buttons to produce the effects you want, particularly in tactical encounters. Altar has always struggled with interface design and never gotten it right.

Tied into this is the issue of information management. Strategy gameplay all comes down to information—there's a ton, coming in from all sides, and in order for the game to work, the interface must categorize and present it elegantly. In Afterlight, that doesn't happen. Breaking news pops in from the perimeters of your screen and vanishes, disappearing before you can click the accompanying info button. You need to switch windows, sometimes more than once, to compare data that should be side by side. Facts that should be at your fingertips are often buried in a labyrinthine menu system not at all improved from those of its predecessors.

Example: suppose one of your characters has finished a training exercise. Your HR person pops on and says, "One of your characters has finished training." Great. Which one? These people have names, you know, names I can't change. How about, "Rita has completed Advanced Suit Handling. Her spot has opened in Tactical Training, and she has returned to work in the lab." And that's just a status update—in this game, even information of vital importance (you know, stuff like, "we're being invaded," "base under attack," etc.) flies in and vanishes with no elaboration. The buttons to drill down for more information on an update disappear so fast you'll rarely get to them in time, making the strategic view feel like a game of Whack-a-Mole. Ultimately, learning to manage your information flow and play effectively becomes an onerous task, and you feel lost for a long time.

Making Mars Safe, One Bullet at a Time

The tactical game is a little better, including a few new controls for your people and better use of interesting landscapes and maps. In Afterlight, you tend to visit the same places over and over again, which gets boring after a while, though at least you appreciate the value of crucial strategic locales in your theater of war. Once again, the game is time-shifted, allowing you to pause, issue orders, and then start the clock when you're ready.

Combat is more challenging and remains so throughout the game. Some of the enemy factions are quite heavily armed, and some are even proficient with psychic weapons against which you initially have no defense. Just when you think the game is getting plateauishly easy, something that hurt Aftershock, a new alien with a giant rocket launcher turns up. You will lose people if you're not careful, though another problem with the these-people-are-your-people thing is that casualties usually lead you to reload rather than suffer the consequences.

Over time, you'll research a selection of spacesuits appropriate for various mission parameters. However, changing a character's spacesuit also causes him to lose all of his equipment. I'd like to have been able to create a database of standard loadouts and just click once rather than dozens of times to equip each person. You can outfit several teams differently, which is handy; so rather than manually arming troops for each specific mission's objectives, you can make templates and just send the one that's appropriate. It's really for equipment, though; you'll use the same squad on pretty much every mission so as not to disrupt base activities like research.

Environmental hostility is a cool addition to the game. Mars is an unpleasant place, and you can't safely visit all regions all of the time. This changes with solar activity, the day/night cycle and seasonal weather, and it can be very cruel. If a vital province is invaded during a solar flare, your troops will get cooked without the proper spacesuits. The alternative is to wait it out or risk the exposure and hope you finish fast enough that it's survivable.

Aliens all come equipped with their own weapons, some of which are interesting, but once again basic human weapons seem to work best. Your scientists research advanced rifle technology, producing a weapon cleverly called "Rifle" that holds you through most of the game. As your alliances with other factions materialize and dissolve, you may get access to alien soldiers with special capabilities. Your scientists will become adept at researching alien technologies, and your troops adept at killing specific extraterrestrial species.

Tactical makes better use of elevation, but more often than not that turned into an unfair advantage for my side. The vast majority of encounters can be completed by putting your squad on top of a cliff and simply lobbing grenades down at the enemy, who always seem to conglomerate below. Ultimately, very few tactics are necessary to dominate in tactical encounters.

UFO: Uninspiring, Feeble and Ordinary

I assumed that Afterlight would be an evolutionary improvement on Aftershock, as that game was on its predecessor, but it's not the case. It is not fundamentally broken, but it's a lot less fun to play than its predecessors. It is loutish and hard to manage; many of this game's more unique ideas simply work better on paper than in play, and some things, such as interface and tactical controls, have actually devolved. In a word, it's boring.

Trying to make a game mimicking X-COM is like trying to remake Citizen Kane: a very dangerous idea unless you're absolutely sure you're doing it right. From one point of view, Altar deserves credit for trying; from another, they've had three chances and missed with each. In my Aftermath review, I quoted Bill Harris, who said this about the 2003 game: "It seems that everything I like about this game is everything they copied exactly from X-COM, and everything I don't like is anything they changed." And it holds true throughout the entire trilogy.

The UFO series has been pretty successful in Europe, less so in the States, and will probably come to an end with Afterlight, if for no other reason than all three games essentially sing the same tune, and four would be pushing it. Recently, a rumor started floating around—based on a leaked document, now vanished—that claimed Irrational Games was working on a new property called ... X-COM. The veracity of the rumor is anyone's guess; Irrational is owned by 2K Games, which does in fact possess the X-COM IP, and Irrational founder Ken Levine has described that game as his "first love." Irrational, with a credit list that includes System Shock 2, Bioshock, Freedom Force and more, could probably do something really amazing with the X-COM franchise.

I bring this up because X-COM still lingers in the hearts of gamers, thirteen years after its release. Some people don't bother to mince words and just call it the best game ever. Gamers the world over would thrill to play a soup-to-nuts remake of X-COM, updated with modern tech but otherwise essentially the same. In trying to mimic X-COM but also leverage original ideas, Altar's UFO series has succeeded only in highlighting its shortcomings—shortcomings particularly egregious in this disappointing installment. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Altar Interactive
Publisher: Cenega
Release Date: March 1, 2007

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows XP/2000
DirectX 8.1 (DirectX 9.0c recommended)
1GHz CPU (2 GHz recommended)
512 MB RAM (768 MB recommended)
nVidia GeForceT 5700 or ATI Radeon 9500 (nVidia GeForceT 6600 or ATI Radeon 9700 Pro)
DirectX 9.0 compatible sound card (Sound Blaster X-FiT sound card recommended)
4 GB free hard disk space
DVD-ROM drive

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