Review by Steerpike
That'll Do, Pig
UFO: Aftershock is an odd duck. As the sequel to UFO:
Aftermath, its role is to succeed one of the most underwhelmingunderwhelming,
but not precisely badstrategy games of the past few years.
I commend Altar Interactive for their efforts with this series;
most studios wouldn't dare try to emulate X-Com: UFO Defense,
considered by many to be the best game ever, period. Aftermath
was never judged on its own merits, but only in the context
of how it stood up to X-Com. Naturally enough, it was found
to be sorely lacking. Rest assured that Aftershock will endure
the same scrutiny.
And it's still not X-Com. But the truth is the comparison
isn't fair. Many people, me included, would still be playing X-Com
if it worked well on modern systems (all of the X-Coms will
be available soon at GameTapI
know because I wrote the instructions for them; with luck Turner's
software will ease the compatibility problems). But the fact is
X-Com is twelve years old, and memory has a way of polishing
off the burrs and nits that flaw a game, leaving you with only the
hard candy shell of perfection. UFO: Aftershock cannot measure
up any more than UFO: Aftermath did, but it hits a lot closer
to the mark.
Though this sequel still lacks the political maneuvering, game-to-game
variability and economics that were the beating heart of X-Com's
magic, Altar added a lot of valuable stuff and reversed some
of the more nonsensical design decisions that plagued Aftermath.
A buddy and I discovered that Aftermath got a lot better
if we played it when drunk. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can
pay its sequel is that no foreign chemicals are necessary to make
it an enjoyable experience. It has rough edges, but it's a solid
Just three notes we should get out of the way at the beginning:
first, Aftershock is like a Chia pet. Smearing the seeds
onto the ceramic cow is just the inaugural step; you have to wait
a few weeks for the fur to grow and even then it never looks as
nice as the one in the commercial. So too does UFO: Aftershock
require a helping of patience, for it serves up its rewards
in its own time and can't quite achieve its full potential. You
will need to play it for a while before you stop being frustrated,
before you figure out the labyrinthine interface and some of the
weirder new features.
Second, this game is not a "Middlin'," it's a "Thumb
Up." It's getting the lower score for stability only, and I
make no claims to its reliability on machines other than my own,
where at times it was perfectly stable and at other times so pulverizingly
crash-happy that multiple uninstalls and reinstalls were necessary.
If the crashes weren't so thermonuclear in nature, I'd have let
them go, but more than once I had to turn to technical expertise
that common gamers may not have in order to put Humpty together
Third, Aftershock uses the StarForce copy protection systemor
at least the import version does. This is a dealbreaker for some
people, so you've been warned.
I Have a Lovely Space Station to Sell You
UFO: Aftershock places you in command of a fairly ragtag
band of human beings living on a space station orbiting the Earth.
There are a number of these stationscalled "Laputas"
for the flying island in Gulliver's Travelsand they're
basically big holding pens for the remnants of the human race. If
you played through Aftermath, you'll recall that the invading
Reticulans eventually have to acknowledge that you are a threat
to their plans. They offer a ceasefire and a safe haven for humanity,
but they warn you that it will not be Earth and that you're not
to give them any grief about what they're doing to your planet.
If you took this deal, you lost the game. Nonetheless, that path
is the very one that UFO: Aftershock explores.
Seventy or so years have passed since that agreement, and humanity
has lost most of its history. It's also totally ignorant about the
details of the Reticulan invasion. The Laputas are beginning to
break down, and your people have recently captured an unoccupied
one with the intention of using it as a base from which to begin
a recolonization of Earth. As it happens, the Reticulans missed
a few people while they were evacuating humanity, and there are
already plenty of folks down theresome heavily mutatedliving
in rather Road Warrior-like conditions.
You may also recall why the Reticulans needed Earth. They were
a splinter faction of a larger empire, obsessed with the idea of
building a colossal organic supercomputer with brain-melting psychic
powers. Our planet was meant to basically serve as a frame to hold
the thing together. The terrifying Biomass that was slowly gobbling
up the planet in Aftermath was the first stage of that computer's
growth. We now learn that the Biomass experiment was a disastrous
failure and the Reticulans themselves hightailed off the planet
shortly after relocating humanity. Those few accidentally left behind
on the surface went feral, and everyone forgot that the Laputas
Your objective in Aftershock, therefore, is to use your
Laputa as a staging area and slowly take over territory on the ground,
pushing back the mutants and Reticulans as you go. You also have
to befriend the three human racesregular humans, cyborgs and
psychicsbecause they're your source of troops. As the game
proceeds, the plot thickens, but that's the gist of it at the beginning.
That's What They Meant by "Crashed UFO"
Aftershock's 2.7-gigabyte footprint (it ships on DVD only)
has surprisingly harsh system requirements given its fairly low-key
technology. Loading times will drag on slower machines, and a pesky
memory leak causes staggering in some tactical scenes. And while
I wouldn't call this an overly crashy game, when it does crash it
crashes hardcorrupting save games, bewildering StarForce and
sometimes refusing to start up again. It's badly in need of a patch.
It is fairly obvious that Altar spent a lot of time on the new
interface, but it's still kludgy and inelegant, requiring you to
navigate through too many screens to get at information that should
all be compiled in one place. Aftershock's interface isn't
really bad, comparatively speaking, but it takes a while to get
used to and can be very frustrating while you're learning, and the
instructions and included tutorial aren't much help.
In the plus column, the Czech developers apparently recognized
that it would be wise to hire a localization team in the wake of
the "all your base are belong to us" translation catastrophe
that was Aftermath. The manual and game screens are translated
into excellent English, even including some colloquial humor that
implies a truly multinational game.
Voice acting, too, is handled by professionals and pretty well
done. One persistent gripe is the verbal responses when you click
a soldierno game does it right. While Aftershock dodges
the frank racism or ridiculous Al-the-big-gay-soldier routines found
in many such games, much of the soldiery is obnoxious and badly
written. Just have ten actors each record ten variations of "copy
that" and "roger, executing." I really don't want
to click my shotgunner and hear "What? More orders?
But He'll See the Big Board!
About half your time is spent in the strategic game, where you
look down on the Earth, manage your troops, coordinate research
and manufacturing and make long-term plans. Aftershock includes
fairly disappointing resource management. Low-tech, high-tech and
alien artifacts are found in various provinces, and they flow constantly
into your pool provided you control a base in that region. But resources
are not tied to performance. Clever players will simply spread themselves
thin engaging in a massive land grab early on, since captured provinces
aren't under threat until much later in the game. It would have
been far wiser to have each of the three factions provide resources
based on what you'd done for them lately. This would achieve the
dual benefit of making resource management more nerve-wracking and
forcing you to consider carefully any action that might offend your
allies. As it is, by about midway through the game you have such
a massive surplus of resources that they're no longer a consideration.
Some provinces are occupied by nothing but wild mutants; these
are yours for the taking. But the most important ones tend to be
owned by one of the three races on Earth, and they're rarely in
a hurry to join your Commonwealth. If you wish to occupy their territories,
you must cajole them into joining by strengthening diplomatic ties
and providing military assistance, or risk their displeasure and
conduct an armed assault on the region.
You'll also customize your bases in Aftershock, constructing
facilities and connecting everything via a track network to share
resources. Facility management is a lot more X-Com-like than
it used to be, featuring attractively rendered 3D bases and a wide
selection of things to build. The only real frustration tied to
base construction is that each has a sharply limited amount of space,
and many facilities have hefty prerequisites, so you're constantly
tearing things out and putting new things in. Still, it gives you
a greater sense of ownership over your alien-fighting endeavor.
I also like the ability to share research and manufacturing resources
across the track network.
But that's all bases are for. All of your troops live on the Laputa
and must deploy from it; you can't quarter your people in Earth
bases or launch assaults from them. The Laputa landing pod has a
very limited range, meaning you have to move the Laputa itself whenever
a mission appears outside of the deployment area. And while that's
not exactly a hard thing to do, you'll find yourself very hesitant
to move away from your territory in case something horrible happens
while you're gone. All in all, this is an artificially inserted
difficulty modifier, and it doesn't work, a pity when so much of
the rest of the strategic game does, especially in the areas of
research and manufacturing.
A ridiculous number of concepts are available for research, and
each of the several lab types will conduct research simultaneously.
Research and manufacturing work similarly; you can queue items in
both and construct additional facilities if you want the work done
faster. There's a ton of depth here. Alas, the included glossary
is rather clumsy, and there are no cross-referencing tools to look
over past research or find connections. Still, it's a very strong
implementation of something that's commonly bungled in games like
Welcome to the Jungle
You can generate surface missions whenever you like or wait for
random ones to pop up. That's when you equip a squad of troops and
drop them into combat in a close-up tactical environment.
Aftershock employs the same timeshifting mechanism that
its predecessor didthe game is paused until you start time,
at which point everything goes on simultaneously. This is the case
in both the strategic and tactical portions of the game. It works
very well in both, though in the strategic portion so much is going
on that time seems to crawl. About two weeks of game time are a
solid 15 to 20 hours of play, which is kind of ridiculous.
The tactical missions are enjoyable but imperfect, considerably
briefer than those found in Aftermath or X-Com. There's
also too little variety; aside from the "kill aliens"
objective you'll find yourself escorting civilians, aiding local
militias and extracting trapped soldiers. It's okay, but there's
a glaring lack of such things as alien terror activities and smash-and-grab
ops. Since there's a story driving this game, it would have been
great to include more story-centric missions. Despite the inclusion
of many improvements, the tactical stuff also features some idiosyncrasies
that keep it from being the nail-biter it should be.
It's really cool, for example, that they provide satellite telemetry
of your mission zone prior to each landing, giving you an opportunity
to place the landing capsule and begin formulating a strategy. The
problem is that there are only maybe 15 outdoor scenes, and it's
not long before they begin to repeat. I'd much rather have seen
a random-terrain generator.
Also, aliens and mutants tend to conglomerate in one area. The
missions aren't the suspenseful bug hunts of X-Com, where
delays in deployment gave the aliens a chance to spread out and
hide. When one enemy puts in an appearance, you can be pretty confident
that the rest are right nearby. Equally weird is the fact that though
you spend an enormous amount of time exploring alien craft and ruined
alien installations, the aliens are almost never inside them, preferring
instead to stay out in the grass.
Aftershock makes a point to talk about an improved physical
model and destroyable terrain; both are so ineptly implemented as
to be nonissues. You don't have a good physical model if your troops
refuse to shoot through a chainlink fence, vault over a low obstacle
or peer around a corner. Equally maddening is the fact that this
squad of highly trained alien killers can throw a grenade no more
then nine or ten feet. Compared to the awesome physics of Silent
Storm, the tactical scenes are sadly lacking in that department.
They are fun, though, despite the complaints listed here.
Soldiers improve over time and have the opportunity to train in
an assortment of career paths, all of which provide tangible benefits
in the field. Managing your squad is a lot of fun, and you find
yourself very attached to your troops. In X-Com, the death
of a soldier was measured mostly in dollar signs and political fallout;
here you feel like you're losing a friend. Squad maintenance, equipment
options and ordnance are very well-rounded and can become quite
exciting once you get to know your squad.
UFO: Aftermath was originally to be titled Freedom Ridge,
and it was in development for many years at Mythos Games, the
studio that created the original X-Com. But with the collapse
of Microprose, Mythos found itself without funding, and most of
its executives decided to get out of the business. They sold their
half-finished game to Altar, which made massive changes and turned
it into Aftermath. These games don't just share similarities
of plot with X-Com, they share a pedigree.
As to the future of the franchise, that's probably dependent on
global sales of Aftershock. It was highly praised by PC
Gamer Europe, and publisher Cenega is desperate to get a strong
foothold in the United States, where the memory of X-Com remains
strong. Cenega may use the UFO franchise to chip out a niche
for itself, but it wouldn't surprise me if Altar felt like moving
on to something else after this. More to the point, the only other
compound word beginning with "after" that I can think
of is "afterbirth," and ... ew. So we'll have to wait
and see on that.
I was just exiting the game to put the final touches on this review
when Aftershock crashed so spectacularly that the game now
refuses to even uninstall itself. Most "unstable" games
content themselves with crashing out now and then. Aftershock
is the teenage girl of video games. It can't just shut down,
it has to make a scene, screaming and tearing its hair, corrupting
its own filesystem and generally doing its level best to wreak havoc
where no havoc is called for. This reason and this reason only is
the cause for the decidedly ambivalent score it receives; when patchedassuming
the patch helpsit can be promoted to the Thumb Up it would
It's things like this that make UFO: Aftershock a highly
subjective experience. Were it not for the stability and a few minor
issues, I'd be giving it a Gold Star. I'm certain that there are
many whose opinion of the game will differ wildly from my own, both
to the positive and negative. In the end, whether or not you enjoy
Aftershock depends a lot on the sort of person you are.
I am the sort of person who has realized to his desolation that
he's playing fewer and fewer games. It's not that I don't like games
any more, it's just that I can never seem to find the timeor
when I do have a free moment, there's always something more responsible
to do, like brush the cat or vacuum. I sorely miss the halcyon past
when I would often sit and play a game literally all day.
For the past two weeks, I've pretty much gotten home from work
and played UFO: Aftershock until bedtime every day. This
is a rare thing for me, and any game that can keep me entranced
for that many hours despite the not-inconsiderable flaws in its
execution deserves special praise. At the end of the day and despite
all its shortcomings, Aftershock is a game that will give you your
money's worth if you let it.