There are questions that seem destined to be unanswered in our lifetime. Is there really a God? Are we alone in the universe? What is the meaning of life? And just what is a wonderwall, anyway? I was struck by a similar moment of introspection when I first played this latest addition to ALTAR's UFO franchise. An "aftermath" or "aftershock" are relatively straightforward semantic concepts, but what exactly is an "afterlight"? A slang term for a post-coital cigarette, perhaps? I pondered this logical quandary for some time, before deciding that you'd be undoubtedly more interested in finding out about the game than the origin of its name. So alas, the mystery of what an "afterlight" is will probably remain unsolved...
Fortunately, the game itself is much less of a mystery. UFO: Afterlight is set on Mars, with its story timeline running parallel to its immediate prequel, UFO: Aftershock. The story centres on a small community of human refugees from Aftershock's Laputa space station, who have chosen to try and colonise Mars, rather than reclaim the Earth. You start the campaign with a fixed pool of just twenty people. They are at once your scientific research team, your technical engineers and your fighting force; each character can take on two of the three class archetypes. The primary archetype (soldier, technician or scientist) for each character is predetermined at the start of the game, but not all of the characters have secondary classes assigned, allowing you some flexibility in deciding whether you want a larger group of scientists and technicians than fighters. If twenty people seems like a terribly small number of people to go through an entire campaign game with, well, you're right. The whole point of having such a limited pool of manpower is to make the player approach the game more conservatively and take fewer risks in combat. Here, there is no retreat; no surrender. Your burgeoning colony is committed to taking Mars or dying in the attempt. Once a character is lost, there is limited scope for replacement (you are able to recruit alien and robot drone characters later in the game), but the loss of skills is what will potentially hurt you the most - so protecting your characters is imperative.
To make the combat engagements more survivable and less punishing, the tactical interface has undergone a thorough revamp. Orders are now easier to stack and remove, making individual battle plans simpler to assign or tweak on the fly. The interface also allows you to perform actions on the battlescape much more seamlessly than before, giving the tactical engagements a greater sense of continuity and pace. The simultaneous action point system used in combat itself is effectively unchanged and remains a curious hybrid between true turn-based and real-time combat. Personally, I've always been a fan of the system and it's nice to see that ALTAR haven't needlessly tinkered with one of the game's stronger aspects. While not a system that will necessarily please TBS or RTS purists, I've always enjoyed its balance between RTS fluidity and allowing the player to pause the game at will to reassess their approach to an engagement.
The biggest changes, however, have been reserved for the strategic level. You now only have one base to manage, but the level of management complexity present in that base has been increased. Base modules, such as scientific stations and production facilities, must be assigned members of your crew to function. It's a nice, realistic touch that makes much more logical sense than just having scientific research magically appearing out of nowhere, and harkens back to the series' inspiration (the X-Com games), where you had to assign specialised personnel to scientific labs and workshops. With individual base modules performing more efficiently the more crew members you assign to them (and even more so if you assign crew with character levels of the appropriate type for the module), this allows the player to make both short and long term decisions as to whether it's more in their interest to prioritise scientific research over weapons production (for example) and assign the secondary classes of personnel according to these needs. On balance, it's probably fair to say that you're probably going to want to err on the side of favouring research, as your ultimate long-term aim is not only to secure Mars, but to terraform it into a more habitable world.
It's pleasing to see how the environment changes from an airless, hostile dust bowl of a world into a more welcoming, Earth-like place - albeit one with incredibly exotic flora. As you terraform the planet, the thickening of the atmosphere allows your soldiers to dump their cumbersome space suits and fight wearing more protective armour, giving you a distinct tactical advantage over the early stages of the game. So if you skimp on the pursuit of science, beware that you are in fact only making the game harder for yourself...
As well as the improvements to the game interface and management system, the visuals have also been spruced up. The result is that Afterlight is distinctly prettier than its predecessors, but can't really be classed as cutting edge. That's not to say it's ugly, more functional; though the flexibility of the 3D camera is pleasing and the camera point-of-view overlay on the tactical mini-map really helps prevent the player from missing anything important during tactical battles.
More time with the finished version of the game will be needed to determine whether this third iteration in the series is the best yet, but initial impressions are promising. The tweaking of the game model and the interface shows that ALTAR have certainly listened to the criticism of the previous titles in the series, and that they're committed to building upon the solid foundations laid down by UFO: Aftermath and Aftershock. While not a franchise that has ever quite captured the imagination or inspired the same level of nostalgia as the legendary X-Com series, UFO: Afterlight certainly offers enough new features to warrant interest for fans of the genre, if perhaps not wild rejoicing.