In the spirit of the home computer game classic X-Com, Altar continues its turn-based tactical resistance to extraterrestrial occupation in UFO: Aftershock, the direct sequel to 2003's UFO: Aftermath. The game is set in a future Earth which suffered an apocalyptic cataclysm 50 years earlier. Direct evidence of the alien presence that caused the destruction has become sparse, but in its absence, a corrupt, provisional human government has risen to oppress the few remaining tribes of humans.
Players must lead a band of rebels to take charge of their own destiny, and develop enough strength and technology that they might yet wield some human influence over the future of the planet, and perhaps even assert a human presence in the galaxy at large. This will only be accomplished through a combination of strategic foresight and tactical proficiency.
To gain the resources required for survival and expansion, players can establish bases and build the factories and infrastructure required to produce the materials and equipment they need. In order to gain new territory -- or shut down operations in a rival area -- small teams of elite soldiers can be deployed to tactical missions of reconnaissance, capture, and defense. As these soldiers gain experience, they become more powerful and gain new skills.
UFO: Aftershock is a sequel to 2003's UFO: Aftermath (which itself was a spiritual successor to the old X-Com games). Both titles are squad-based tactical strategy games, but where in Aftermath you had to defend the Earth from alien attacks, Aftershock takes place a few years later. You control a group of ragtag survivors who managed to hijack an alien craft called a Laputa, and your job in the game is to take back the Earth and then take the fight to the aliens themselves.
I think it's safe to say that Aftershock is a better game than Aftermath. It is more polished and it gives you more things to do. For example, you need to build bases and gather resources in the game. This is handled on a global scale. The Earth is divided into a series of Risk-style provinces, where some provinces give you resources and others allow you to build a base. Each base can only support 3-5 buildings, but there are dozens of buildings in the game, so clearly you have to take control of a large portion of the Earth, both to build the bases you need and to support them with resources so they can function.
Or consider the troops you use in the missions. In Aftermath you only controlled human soldiers, but in Aftershock, thanks to some of the weird events in Aftermath, you can also control cyborgs and psionics. Cyborgs are stronger and bulkier than humans, and psionics are frailer but get a different variety of attacks (as an example, psionics can cause enemies to panic and not attack for a while). Better yet, not only do soldiers gain levels and get to add to their attribute levels (as in Aftermath), they also get to train now, and it's through training that they learn how to use certain types of weapons (like rocket launchers) or gain bonuses to their skills (which would otherwise be controlled solely by their attributes). And so you have to decide things like should you put a soldier into training so he gains skills, or use him in missions so he gains experience?
The missions even work pretty well. Aftershock uses the same sort of "simultaneous action system" that Aftermath did, which basically means that everything happens in real time. You control up to seven soldiers, and your mission tasks might involve eliminating all of the enemies in a region or capturing an alien for an autopsy or escorting a group of civilians to a safe place. The missions are all pretty small, usually with a dozen enemies or less, and they can generally be played in half an hour. If the missions have a downside, it's that Aftershock's engine is a little vanilla when compared to the likes of Silent Storm. You won't splatter an alien with a machine gun and push it through a window, and you won't tear apart buildings with your firefights. When aliens die, they just slump over, and very little of the terrain is ever disturbed.
Really, Aftershock has everything you'd expect from a good tactical strategy game. There are decisions to be made when managing your bases, there are decisions to be made when building up your soldiers, there is a whole slew of research to be done and equipment to be used, and the tactical missions themselves work well enough. But unfortunately, Aftershock has two major problems, and they do a pretty good job of sabotaging the game.
The first problem is technical. Save and load times are unbelievably slow (loads often take up to three minutes), the game speed drops down to almost nothing whenever enough enemy units have to decide what to do during missions, the game crashes every couple hours, there are weird inventory bugs where soldiers somehow "lose" their equipment, there are two-part missions where there aren't any enemies in the second part, and more. A really good patch could probably fix most of this, and I've heard that a patch is coming soon, and so there's reason to hope here.
But the second problem is tougher to fix. That's because it involves the game's campaign, which is a total dog. For starters, the campaign is way too long. I clocked it at somewhere around 150 missions and 75 hours. A strategy game just shouldn't have a campaign that long. Even a really interesting strategy game with lots of parts to it shouldn't take that long, and Aftershock doesn't have that many parts. There are only five types of enemies that you can face, and they don't really evolve, and so each mission against them plays about the same. That's fine for several missions, but after 30 or more it's just boring. Worse, the game ends with you assaulting an alien mothership, but you only face the second most difficult alien while on board, and by that time they're barely a challenge at all. And, honestly, I'm not even sure that the campaign ever ends. After I blew up the mothership, the campaign kept going, and it even hinted that there might be more research to be done and enemies to face. I hope that the developer was just putting in some stuff to hint at a possible sequel, because I can't imagine that anyone would want to keep playing at that point.
And so UFO: Aftershock is one of those hit-and-miss games. It gives you some things to think about and the tactical missions work well enough, but those missions are too similar, and they just go on and on and on, well past the point of tedium.
People who downloaded UFO: Aftershock have also downloaded:
UFO: Aftermath, UFO: Enemy Unknown Collector's Edition, X-COM: Terror from the Deep Collector's Edition, Titan Quest, Ultima 9: Ascension, Warlords: Battlecry III, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
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