It’s nice to see that some games, no matter the level of obscurity or categorization, can stand the test of great lengths of time and industry trials. The universe where UFO:Aftermath originated was a quaint turn-based strategy game developed in the early nineties called UFO: Defense, and Defense gathered critical acclaim for its ingenuity in the genre. Since Defense’s release, the games and stories based in the UFO license have been passed down through a handful of developers, all with their own ideas about how to represent the ongoing alien threat, including a space combat sim and a third-person action shooter. After years of what some fans of the UFO continuum might call “abuse” of the original’s premise, Altar Interactive has taken the concept and design of UFO: Defense and updated nearly every aspect to create a better experience in UFO: Aftermath.
To represent the threat to the human race in Aftermath, an opening real video scene of movie attendees that apparently died of severe acne is shown to incite the planetary jingoist inside you. While I’m not totally immune to that sort of reaction, the images of ravaged, pockmarked humanity before me weren’t really all that inspiring. It’s possible that this plot affliction infected the rest of the game, despite the marked depth in Aftermath’s turn-based strategy structure.
There actually are a lot of diverse and very entertaining elements, with turn-based micro-management at center stage. There’s also a small portion devoted to the development of macro scale technologies and abilities, such as UFO Detection (self-explanatory) and Diplomacy, used to gather and unite the ragged bands of divided humanity into a common alien-thrashing cause. A good-sized chunk of RPG pie is also served up, allowing your troop development to attain greater strengths in the usual character attribute spectrum. Completing a mission garners experience points used to upgrade one of six main attributes, which in turn advances the various itemized skills of the individual soldier. However, this diversity is mentionable as a slight drawback. It’s almost as if in its evolution to its current state, UFO:Aftermath tries to dip into more genre and gameplay pots than it can handle, consequentially turning the process of trying to have fun with the many aspects into a conscious and somewhat tedious effort.
The level management was handled pretty well. The macro-level screen is a well-rendered model of Earth, and the micro-level screens are the actual terrains, be they urban or forested rural hills that your squad will traverse to their mission’s completion. If you broke the level management down to its root elements, the strategic screen - the globe - is what you want to dominate by taking more and more ground, and the tactical screen - the terrains - are the arenas where the nitty gritty takes place. As a modus operandi, this portion is very well-realized. In order to take more territory on the strategy screen, missions will pop up all over the globe over time which can either be accepted by your personal troops or, if you’re feeling lucky, delegated to troops you don’t control (delegation is, in essence, a crap shoot.) Moving influence and control through this method feels very natural in a game where the oppressed human forces must take back their birthright. Aiding in the retaking are the human bases placed sporadically around the planet. Bases present Aftermath’s minute approach to the tech tree by allowing a choice of three different base functions for any given location (military, research, or engineering) and can produce anything from additional soldiers to UFO detection devices to more powerful weaponry. None of the strategic aspects become too complex, which bodes well for the long term as there seems to be quite enough going on already.
The tactical screens portray a wide variety of mission environments from a Ã‚Â¾ isometric vantage, and the camera repositions and zooms with exceptional ease. The exact layout of the terrain is viewable from the start, a nice change from having to discover the landscape as you go. What isn’t immediately available until it’s within a certain line-of-sight is just about anything that moves, and the tension this creates as you wait for the next adversary to pop up on the screen is moderate, though not immersive. Enemy AI is very dopey. Most of the time, the brilliant entities that captured our home planet have an “attack” mode and a “wander-aimlessly” mode. That’s about it. If too many creatures sense your presence nearby, it’s quite easy to get overwhelmed and, consequentially, killed.
The underlying mechanic behind the turns in Aftermath is a menu of events that warrants its own tutorial. I’m talking here about having the clock stopped every time an enemy shows up on screen, or a location has been reached, or the sun comes over the horizon, or... you get my point. Any time you click the ubiquitous “play” button in either the strategic or tactical screens, there’s always some event or notice that stops the clock in order to notify you. The menu that manages what happens when these events occur, and whether you want any notice at all, contains too many options. One could easily spend a majority of the entire game tweaking which events are important and what kind of notification one wants to receive. In order for this to be a turn-based tactical experience, I understand that this time governance must exist. As it is, the turn-based gameplay either becomes too choppy or too fast and unmanageable (if all event notices are turned off), and this affects every portion of the game.
Dirty, run-down towns and decrepit timberlands are adequately displayed as the tactical mission environments. The strategy screen (planet) is almost entertaining by itself, from the smooth rotation to the scalable camera zoom. Even the 2-D characters in the soldiers’ stat screen look pretty good, if not a bit cartoonish. Overall, the graphics do their job, illustrating a planet in distress, and the drift into neglect as the human population is overtaken by the extraterrestrials. Accompanying the ghost town environs is a relatively forgettable music score that’s not grating or bad, per se, but really does nothing to enhance the mood of human insurgence and a threat of unknown proportions. I did understand more fully the alien’s need to subjugate us, though, when I discovered that the communicative skills of any given person/soldier on Earth boils down to one repeated phrase. Every... time... they’re selected. It gets old, trust me.
The mixed bag of UFO games has come a long way through bumps and blunders inflicted by the march of time, innovation, and misplaced creativity. It seems that, against the inevitability of evolution, the UFO universe continues to search for the refinement it needs in order to become the golden title it deserves to be. Though UFO:Aftermath is a notable attempt to bring together all that is good, and more, from the original UFO, the unstable flow of Aftermath takes away some of the fun involved in being enveloped by so many engaging gameplay dynamics. However, underneath the stubble is a game rife with good tactical elements and enough developmental depth to occupy the martial mind for hours. Worthy of a look-see for turn-based strategy enthusiasts and cult followers of the UFO/X-COM games.