The Red Planet is a place that has captured the human imagination since the Romans saw it burning so fiercely in the sky that they named it in honour of their god of warfare, Mars. Ever since, Mars has been a subject of feverish imagination and speculation, especially in the realms of science-fiction. So it should only be natural that ALTAR's UFO series should return to the setting of the denouement of its original inspiration - Microprose's classic turn-based strategy, UFO: Enemy Unknown.
Whilst in UFO: Enemy Unknown Mars was the climax to the game, here it is very much the main course; your job here is base building, not destruction. You start the game with a burgeoning colony of just twenty people and your task is to tame Mars, both figuratively and literally, to make it a viable alternative homeworld to the Earth (which has been left in a complete mess, thanks to the alien biomass experiments that took place in UFO: Aftermath). This job, however, isn't made easy by the hostile environment and the somewhat unwelcome surprises left behind by Mars' previous occupiers. The early part of the game is spent gathering resources and fighting off the robotic drones left behind by a long extinct civilisation.
Due to the fixed population cap, the initial engagements are necessarily easy, but once you are able to recruit new team members (drones, and later, aliens) the learning curve steepens to difficulty levels players of the previous games in the series will be familiar with: i.e. hard as nails. Frustration (for the most part) is headed off in the tactical engagements by an improved interface, however, and the simultaneous combat system works as well as ever. Players of the previous titles in the series will find that the basics remain fundamentally the same as before (this is not a criticism, incidentally), and will be pleased with the revisions to the GUI that allow you to more easily alter a character's combat plan without needing to constantly stop and start the action. The graphics are also markedly improved over the previous games in the series, but the 3D camera can be a little fiddly and the environmental textures could be described as functional at best.
'Who decided that your colony's best soldier should be an 80 year old granny called Ute? I mean, really...'
The strategic layer of the game has also undergone a thorough servicing, with a revised interface making it easier to access the numerous management screens (research, manufacturing, stores, squad management, etc). Resources play an even more vital role in Afterlight than its predecessors, as you only have a single base in a fixed location. Now if you want to fight a tactical mission halfway across the world, you will need sufficient fuel resources to reach it - you can't simply move your base in orbit (as you could in UFO Aftershock) to bring the mission within range of your transports. This doubles in significance when you realise that later in the game the enemy won't sit still and wait for you to conquer them - they will try and take over regions controlled by you and disrupt your supply lines.
Base management has been tweaked also: one of the weaknesses of the previous UFO titles was that once you expanded your power base and established strongholds in several regions, you simply had too much to manage. So here you only have a single base, though the level of management for that base has been increased. Now you have to micromanage each individual base module, assigning it with personnel (which need to have levels in the appropriate skill for the module - such as scientist or engineer) to accomplish tasks, like researching an artefact or completing a production run of weapons. While the move to a single base is a welcome reduction of the management workload, you do need to pay careful attention to whom is doing what within the modules. Sending characters out on combat missions will take them off previously assigned tasks, so you need to ensure that once they return, you reassign them, lest they spend a couple of days kicking their heels not doing anything productive. Having your combat, research and engineering teams all within the same pool of people does make personnel management a little more complicated than it needs to be, and perhaps was a step too far in the pursuit of management depth. Keeping them separate and not having characters able to multi-class would have given the player a clearer indication of where they should be used, rather than allowing you to send one of your most talented scientists off as a soldier on a tactical mission, only to get them killed.
My other big gripe with the game is the attempt to tell a story. Personally, I've never thought that a turn-based strategy is a particularly suitable genre in which to try and hold down a narrative. It can be done (Advance Wars being a notable example of one of the rare occasions where it has been done well), but by nature it's very difficult to maintain a cohesive narrative when a game takes place over such a long period of time and shifts focus between several layers of play. It's not so much the attempt at storytelling itself that annoys, but that the characterisation is lacking. The character design is a tad lacklustre, the voice-acting is pretty lamentable, and there's very little reason to actually feel any empathy with the characters anyway. And who decided that your colony's best soldier should be an 80 year old granny called Ute? I mean, really... stretching the boundaries of credibility there, aren't we? The reason why I always found UFO: Enemy Unknown utterly compelling was that while there was definitely a story, the game itself did very little in the way of exposition. You were left to discover the threads of the plot for yourself - you were given a world and left to play with it. You became attached to your soldiers and were protective of them because you could rename them to be your best friends or members of your family - you didn't have "characters" forced upon you.
So, while Afterlight is a definite improvement over its predecessors, it still lacks that je ne sais quoi which would push it towards "classic" territory. Despite an iconic sci-fi setting and competent execution, Afterlight somehow fails to really spark the imagination. Fans of the series and the genre will enjoy it while they play it, but Afterlight isn't a title that will have you looking back in nostalgia.