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Afterlight Afterglow

Sometimes I run across a game of some 5-10 years back and reflect on how it seems nobody was able to top it today.  One such game is Altar/Cenega's UFO: Afterlight.  I first tried the game when I had a GameTap subscription some time ago (I'm unsure if they still have it in their catalog) and I rather enjoyed it at the time.  Upon noticing this 2007 game is down to a mere $10 on Steam, I forked out the dosh and have been hooked over the last week.

As if the name isn't clue enough, Altar set out to create games in homage to the wildly successful X-Com series, which were essentially squad-based turn-driven combat games that pit humanity against alien invaders.  Their first two attempts, UFO: Aftermath (2003) and UFO: Aftershock (2005), were rather buggy and lackluster but, as the old saying goes, "The third time's the charm," and UFO:Afterlight  is actually quite brilliant.

The thing that makes this something I want to blog about is, as a dabbler in game design myself, I'm impressed by the amount of thought that went into the design.  Afterlight isn't merely a homage, I believe it is a legitimate successor to the X-Com series, marred only by occasional lockups (and sometimes crashes) that seem to be related to squaddies standing up out of a crouch and temporarily losing the geometry to their upper half.  Here's some of the many innovations I've noticed:
  • This time, the struggle takes place on Mars as the fledgling remnants of humanity seek to terraform the red planet.  It feels a bit better because a largely lifeless (or so it would seem) planet suits the amount of activity that occurs on the world-map strategic level of these kinds of games.
  • Each of the types of opponents you're up against (and sometimes allied with) seem to have a good reason for being there.
  • The real-time based combat actually works and works well using spacebar pausing.  X-Com experimented with their approach in Apocolypse but it feels comparatively more organic in Afterlight.
  • They rethought the idea of your squaddies being largely disposable alien fodder, instead giving them each predefined personalities, voices, and so on.  This creates a much better feeling of emotional connection with them.
  • They realized that an accumulation-based economy doesn't make a lot of sense when it comes to survival of your species, and replaced it with one that determines what you can build based off of the number of holdings you have on the planet, limiting equipment quantity wholly by the time it takes to build it.
  • Rather than having your squaddies weapons upgraded through several different types of same-damage type weapons, they instead seem to have one type of weapon that can be customized with a number of attachments.  This eliminates a great deal of inventory bloat while still introducing a sense of arsenal variety.
  • Included are several different modes of detecting enemies, sight, sound, psychic, even smell.  This is supplemented by switching visual modes if you prefer.  (One minor critique here is that the sound location is a little too precise: you can see where enemies are in a large room behind a closed door.)
I'm sure there's more that can be noticed.  About the only thing that X-Com does better is the idea of shooting down UFOs and having multiple bases - neither of which are supported by Afterlight.  All things considered, this is probably among the best $10 you could spend on a game, provided you've an appreciation for squad-based tactical combat.
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