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Posted on Jan 17, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

UFO: Aftershock – Game Review (PC)

By James Lombardi


Introduction

There are a few games that, when I look back upon them in my memory, I remember that playing them felt like the Golden Age of Gaming. "How could anything top this game?," I would ask myself. Two weeks later, I’d be asking myself the same question about another game, but I was young and brash then. Regardless, the X-Com games rightfully held that mantle for a time with me, and many other gamers. So here I am, looking at the CD for UFO: Aftershock - the spiritual reincarnation of the X-Com games. I missed UFO: Aftermath, and never really heard much about it, but I told myself, all they need to do is keep the same great gameplay from all those years before and it’s a sure hit with me. So I tell my squad to pick up their rifles and head off on in search of aliens to kill. After all, it’s been a while and aliens tend to get rather uppity if you don’t constantly put them in their place.

"Is this going to be a stand up fight, sir, or another bug hunt? "

The short of the story is that aliens came down and decided to muck up Earth, as they commonly do. You begin as the leader of a group of humans which escaped Earth and live on a "Laputa" relaxing above Earth while all sorts of trouble continues down below. Eventually, the vacation ends and it comes time to take back the planet for humans and clean up the mess which the aliens left. Unfortunately, this job is going to take a bit more than just a broom and dustpan and so, armed initially with your little flashlight laser guns, you head down to make contact with some of the locals on Earth. There are basically four factions there; the run of the mill humans, two not so run of the mill groups of humans (one group made up of cyborgs and the other group has psionic gifts), and then a rather nasty lot called Cultists. The Cultists tend to be your typical "doom and gloom the end is coming and all hail the alien masters" group – the kind one often runs into in the grocery store. Working with and against these groups, your goal is to reunite Earth and clear out all the aliens. So with the setting established, how does it actually play?

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Well, one little word truly defines the gameplay in UFO: Aftershock, and that word is ‘painfully-and-endlessly-repetitive.’ For those unaware, the game has two games going on at once. There’s the strategic level and the tactical level. On the strategic level, you secure resources, research technology, build bases, weapons, armor, and other items, and manage your squads. The world is divided up into territories, which you slowly gain control in a few different ways. You control territories by either conquering neutral or faction-controlled ones, or helping out the faction that lives in the territory enough that they choose to join your group. You move your Laputa around the world above territories and launch missions into them (or you have to react to a call for help or an enemy attack). The problem is there are basically only a few types of missions – escort civilians (and the civilian AI is atrocious), capture aliens or enemy leaders, search and destroy, and I suppose technically, defend missions, which really boil down to search and destroy. On top of the low number of mission types, the maps tend to be extremely repetitive. I’ve hunted aliens through practically the exact same underground base in so many different regions. My goal eventually became to reunite the world just to open an architects’ school so we could get some variety in our buildings.

You’ll spend a lot of time on this screen waiting for your squad to heal up and finish training. Here you can swap equipment, increase soldier stats, give them training, and organize their teams.

To be fair, the game is quite fun until the repetition wears on you. There’s nothing quite like moving your squad through an abandoned base or stretch of woods hunting down nasty little aliens. The game technically works in real-time, however the action can be paused at any point (and unless you turn off some of the reasons for auto-pausing, the game will be pausing constantly). However, the game can also be quite frustrating. As a result of my preference in these types of games to never lose anyone (especially at the beginning when you can’t afford to lose a soldier) I’ve had to replay many a mission. There were several times where I’d have a small section of woods to go through, which I was pretty sure was empty, so I’d keep most of my team on the outskirts waiting to move on to the crashed alien ship where I assumed the majority of the enemy would be. I’d then take two of my soldiers in, stealthily moving through the woods, only to have one of them suddenly ambushed by a surprise alien – lit on fire – and die, before the teammate a couple feet away could get there to help. The combat in the game is very lethal. Unless you have a person with a medic kit but a few feet away from the injured soldier, it’s quite easy to lose a man. And there’s nothing quite like a mission where an alien has some sort of grenade launcher and is at the end of a tight hallway making it impossible to rush up to take him out. I tried storming that hallway several times to no avail before I moved on to greener pastures (at the point in the game, I lacked firepower to compete).

On the strategic level, the game can be fairly frustrating also. It takes some careful planning to properly balance your growth and resources. Bringing resources (of which there are three types) in from other territories requires the construction of tracks (basically rail lines) which require resources to maintain. Your research and production also requires resources. You can negotiate for resources now and then from other factions, but it pays to plan your expansion carefully to prevent running out of a resource (which then causes your tracks to shut down and exacerbates the issue). On top of that, it seems that the enemies quickly outstrip you in firepower and numbers. There are constant demands on your forces to help friendly factions and to defend your own bases, and it takes a while to build up the production base to properly equip a number of soldiers (let alone recruit them). None of this is necessarily bad, it gives the game the feel of fighting an uphill battle against a thousand different threats – which seems fairly fitting.

encounter_s.jpg
Right then. Bring it on. Right then. Time to reload.

"They ain’t paying us enough for this, man." "Not enough to have to wake up to your face."

Graphically, there isn’t much to speak of. The game’s graphics can best be described as adequate. The textures and graphics are fairly repetitive (notice a repetitive theme in this review?), but they get the job done. This isn’t the type of game one generally looks for the latest and greatest effects and models. Some of the animations are a little awkward at times, but they all work sufficiently. Amusingly, there was one point where the game suffered major slowdown while an enemy fell over dead or unconscious and then slid the entire way down a hill (no rag doll effects, he just laid down and moved down the hill in the same pose).

The menus and controls are all fairly intuitive and after some game time you’ll settle into the nuances of the game. Once you disable the annoyingly constant causes of auto-pausing in game in the options menu, the game plays well and the tutorial at the beginning guides you through enough of the controls that most people shouldn’t have too many problems.

On the other hand, while the game is fairly easy to control (for its complexity) it is buggy. I ran into a problem with the sound initially and rather frequent crashes plagued me until patching, after which it seemed to run better. Still some problems now and then, but it’s much more bearable after the patch. Definitely patch this game after installing. On top of the technical issues, the sounds are fairly unexciting. Gunfire and the like are pretty much average, and I found myself having to turn off the voices after a map or two, or risk purposefully killing off my team.

One last warning, the game comes with the moderately controversial Star Force copy protection system. That said, I haven’t had a single issue with it. It seems that the initial kinks that some ran into with Star Force have been worked out on the whole.

Conclusion

This game is definitely for those who miss managing a squad and cleaning out moody aliens hiding behind corners. There’s a lot of depth in the game in the research and squad management system, it’s just a shame the rest of the game wasn’t as expansive. You’ll soon feel like you’re treading the same ground over and over, and at times you’ll probably feel more like you’re working than playing when trying to deal with all the headaches pushed upon you. Ultimately, it’s a good game, but the lack of variety will deter all but the diehards from pushing all the way through.

And now, all this squad action against aliens has really made me want to go watch Aliens.

Armchair General Score: 65%

28/40 – Gameplay
10/15 – Graphics
05/10 – Sound
12/15 – Interface
02/05 – Installation and Technical
03/05 – Documentation
05/10 – Value

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