The year is 2003 and the world as we know it is about to end. A space-faring alien race has invaded Earth and, in less than three short months, has left human civilization in near ruin. Mankind's last hope lies in the Terran Resistance League, a small guerrilla army that still manages to hold out against the ruthless invaders. The TRL has established operations in a hidden military base in Nevada, which contains fantastic alien artifacts that were closely guarded government secrets before the recent invasion. Only by tapping into the power contained in this ancient technology can the Terrans hope to build a resistance force that might yet save the planet for humanity.
UFO: Aftermath - originally developed under the title Dreamland Chronicles - began at Mythos Games, the same house responsible for 1994's revolutionary X-Com: UFO Defense. After apparent cancellation of the title, development duties were later assumed by ALTAR Interactive, the studio that created the 2001 character-centric RTS Original War.
Like X-Com, UFO: Aftermath involves multiple styles of gameplay including base development and turn-based squad combat in the field. Players must create the structures to support troops and research new technologies. They must choose their missions, arm their soldiers, and direct them step-by-step through dangerous combat situations with mysterious alien invaders. Based upon such well-established concepts, the game branches out with such factors as enhanced AI and deformable terrain to make UFO: Freedom Ridge a new experience with familiar roots.
Aftermath is no X-Com. That doesn't make it a bad game by any means, but to equate it with that towering giant of interactive glory is a disservice to its memory. X-Com may well be the greatest game ever created, and no one will apply that kind of praise to UFO: Aftermath.
There's no doubt that the Czechoslovakian designers of Aftermath knew full well that they were creating a game nearly identical to X-Com. In fact, I think they counted on it - fans have been clamoring for a worthwhile sequel (all subsequent X-Com products have been painfully awful) or a flat-out remake. The folks at Altar would have been wiser to do exactly that: remake X-Com, balls to bones, with a modern engine and graphics. Instead, they created a game that bears an enormous resemblance to the general theme and style of X-Com, but removes or changes some major aspects. I assume they did this to duck accusations of copycatting. It's ironic that most gamers wanted a copycat in this case and are likely to be at least slightly disappointed with what they get instead.
Bill Harris of Gone Gold stated the facts as well as I could; rather than say the same thing using different words, I'll just quote him here: "It seems that what I like about this game is everything that was copied exactly from X-Com: UFO Defense, and everything I don't like is anything that's been changed."
One sunny day in May, a huge alien spaceship appears without warning in geosynchronous orbit over the Earth. All attempts to contact it are rebuffed. Shortly thereafter, the immense craft releases millions of tiny spores into the atmosphere, blocking out the sun and eradicating nearly all life on the planet. Those who survive this assault are those already locked in the safety of underground bunkers, breathing recycled air. Shortly after all macro-scale life on the surface croaks, the spores fall to the ground and apparently become harmless. The handful of survivors venture to the surface, only to find it overrun by a hostile alien empire of unknown size and intent.
While the humans are just getting back on their feet, a new menace emerges from the supposedly harmless spores on the ground. The Biomass is a titanic living entity slowly engulfing the planet, destroying everything (including bases and buildings) as it inexorably grows. The Biomass is insanely dangerous, and "Biomass management" is a fun new aspect of Aftermath, constantly reminding you that the planet is no longer yours and that you are far from safe here.
In UFO: Aftermath, you divide your time between two main environments. The "geoscape" screen shows a 3D map of the Earth, the position of your military installations, possible assault points, and any activity in the skies. The other half of the game takes place in a small-squad tactical environment, when you drop members of your elite Phoenix Force to combat the alien menace and improve humanity's chances. While in the Geoscape environment, you oversee research of alien technologies and manufacture of better weapons and equipment for your soldiers. Later, you can deploy fighters to shoot down alien craft and attack alien-occupied installations. If this game sounds a lot like X-Com, you're right on the money.
However, in Aftermath most folk on the planet are already dead. As such, you don't answer to an authority overseeing your activities, you have no money-management responsibilities, and you cannot manufacture technologies to sell. Additionally, you do not "hire" soldiers, scientists, or engineers: the former just show up at your base now and then (but never often enough to cover your death toll), while the latter two do their work in bases specifically assigned to perform research and manufacturing. Since the story of Aftermath unfolds through your research, the designers should have created a more graceful implementation of this game aspect. Also, the aliens control the lion's share of the planet, so rather than having free rein to build bases anywhere as in X-Com, it's your job to slowly push the enemy back, collecting bases as you do.
Aftermath is not precisely a turn-based game, nor is it precisely real-time. Instead, it employs a clever new system called timeshifting. With this interface, the game is paused until you "start" time - and during the pauses, you can issue orders and perform general housekeeping tasks in the geoscape and management screens. When you're ready, you start time, and the action begins. You can run things at various speeds and, naturally, stop time again whenever you like. For comparison, imagine a much more full-featured version of the combat system in Baldur's Gate.
This system is especially ideal in the tactical sections, because it allows you to see the action/reaction relationship of things going on simultaneously, without turning control into the clickfest of real-time. Also, it grants you the power to issue extremely complicated commands to your soldiers, which they will carry out in order until you either cancel the orders or they finish. Various events will cause time to stop for you - sighting an alien, losing a soldier, et cetera - so you can regroup and plan your next move. The timeshifting control scheme is pretty much the only thing about Aftermath that is better than X-Com.
Aftermath takes a long time to install and already has a patch out; in fact, a patch was available the day the game shipped. This does not promote confidence in its overall stability, and rightly so: it crashes constantly. It also sometimes insists on running in a window rather than full-screen, and I have a devil of a time changing it back. The sound often returns static or skippy beats. Another patch is desperately needed to combat the game's general lack of polish, but I will say that despite these issues, it is a pretty fun game with many - but nowhere near all - of the addictive qualities of X-Com.
Graphics are good and in 3D; they're not the best I've ever seen, not even for a strategy game, but they do the job. Tactical screens are nicely rendered and show exceptional attention to detail - unique billboards, logical urban layout, and so forth. Animations, too, especially of your soldiers executing their orders, are very smooth and attractive. The menus - critical in a strategy game - are well-designed and smooth to operate, though occasionally your troops will swap the items in their hands for items in their kits without consulting you first. It's hard to shoot an alien with a first aid kit, and I've found a soldier holding one instead of his rifle more times than I care to count.
The malleable concept of time in Aftermath is something the player must learn to use to his or her advantage. For example, it takes less time to pull a grenade off your belt than it does to fish through your backpack for one. As you equip your soldiers with any of the several dozen Earthly and alien weapons available, the "kits" you give each of your people must be thought through with attention to their individual carrying capacity, role in the squad, and the speed at which you want them to accomplish tasks.
Soldiers have stats, as in X-Com, and these stats increase as the soldier gains experience and levels. Additionally, you can train your soldiers in any of seven career paths, thereby further improving their stats. As you play, you'll get to know your troop by name and assign specific roles to them. You can even rename them if you like (mine are named after the Detroit Red Wings).
You may only take seven soldiers with you into any tactical mission, and you don't have to do every mission available: the Phoenix Force is your elite squad; you can (and should) delegate many tasks to the rank and file. The seven-soldier limit is a critical deficiency in the game, especially considering that the aliens usually outnumber your people by two to one or more, and that the tactical events are very, very difficult. Aftermath would have been better if you could take a larger troop into the field or, as in X-Com, if the number of soldiers available was dependent on the sort of craft you used to transport them to a mission.
Tactical missions in general are divided more or less equally between urban and rural settings, and they normally only take twenty minutes or so to complete. A clumsy facet of Aftermath is the inability to enter buildings in urban settings; it would have been nice to be able to put a sniper in a third-story window to cover my squad. Aftermath does sport several mission parameters, whereas in X-Com it was always just "kill everything that ain't human." You'll rescue downed pilots, perform smash-and-grab ops, reconnaissance, base assaults, and more. It helps keep the tactical missions from becoming too ho-hum.
Oddly enough, most of the aliens seem to have gotten their arms from Heckler & Koch. For the first half of the game at least, you'll find yourself fighting aliens and engineered super soldiers armed with common Earth weapons. This, combined with the fact that most weapons are on the same level (at least ten assault rifles are available, but all do essentially the same damage and have the same range and magazine capacity), make the game seem clumsy and poorly tested.
Later in the game you'll be able to take or manufacture alien weapons, though you can only manufacture one item at a time. The designers would have done better to include a manufacturing queue system, or at least the ability to build several of one thing - as it is, you tell your engineers to build one laser gun. When it's done, you tell them to build another. Even X-Com, released in 1994, grants you the opportunity to dictate how many parts you want produced.
Overall, UFO: Aftermath has removed or changed most of the great stuff about X-Com and added very little new material to offset its shortcomings. That said, it arrived the same day as Max Payne 2, and, for the first few days at least, I found myself playing more Aftermath than Max Payne. I also glanced up in the middle of a session to realize that it was four in the morning - I'd been playing for seven hours and not even realized it. That's the sign of a good strategy game.
So much of what was good about X-Com has been eliminated or altered in this title that the two represent a peculiar oxymoron of design: they are both remarkably similar and shockingly different. Aftermath has no money management, no base construction, no purchasing, and weaker R&D controls. There is no reason to make decisions based on the political climate, because there is no political climate in Aftermath, whereas in X-Com it was a factor in every move you made. Meanwhile, the tactical missions are better and more varied, the timeshifting a huge improvement over a purely turn-based paradigm, and the gameplay in general has a lot going for it.
It lacks polish, it's unbalanced, unstable, and contains many peculiar or even nonsensical design decisions. Documentation and in-play text make it clear that English is the second language of the designers. But it's good fun and nowhere near so flawed as to make me shy away from a recommendation. I will say this: those who love X-Com will like this game. Those who love strategy will like this game. But no one will ever love this game. UFO: Aftermath will be forgotten in a matter of months, while the game that inspired it continues to burn as brightly as ever in the memories of PC gamers.
People who downloaded UFO: Aftermath have also downloaded:
UFO: Enemy Unknown Collector's Edition, X-COM: Terror from the Deep Collector's Edition, X-COM: Apocalypse, UFO: Aftershock, Warcraft 2, Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, Tropico
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