Few games before or since have gotten players as intimately involved as the 1993 classic, X-COM: UFO Defense, which dealt with defending Earth from an alien invasion. Managing men, organizing top secret bases, and prying funding away from tight-fisted governments let players feel like they were actually in charge of a desperate attempt to save humanity. Add to that a gripping turn-based tactical mode where soldiers attacked ET on his own turf and looted crashed flying saucers, and you had a game that few could put down. So it's surprising that UFO: Aftermath, a spiritual successor that began life as an unofficial sequel to X-COM--and designed by the original team--is so different. ALTAR Interactive has changed the focus completely, diminishing user involvement to the point that the game feels much emptier than its predecessors. The biggest problem is a stripped-down design that makes the player more of a generic commando than the commander of a paramilitary organization. Combat has also been stripped down to the bare essentials, with missions and maps that lack interactivity and challenging artificial intelligence. Despite some bright spots, this isn't a fitting sequel to X-COM, and, on its own merits, it just isn't a good tactical combat simulator.
On the surface, there are strong similarities between UFO and X-COM. You are still defending the Earth against alien invaders. You are still waging this war with small teams of soldiers who are sent to attack alien strongholds and sent to ransack crashed UFOs for their advanced technology. You are still researching terrestrial and extraterrestrial technologies for ways of chasing ET back to his own area code. Even the main map screen is a mirror image of that in the original X-COM, complete with a rotating globe, clock, and ticker, detailing available missions. If not for the post-doomsday storyline and a ticking-bomb subplot about an alien biomass that is slowly killing off planetary life, the games are nearly identical.
However, the design veers in new directions under the hood. Some of these new directions eliminate features that made X-COM and its sequel, Terror From the Deep, so popular. Aspects of play have been simplified, in part, due to the apocalyptic plot dealing with the aftermath of an alien invasion that's all but destroyed humanity. Most notably, virtually all of the management duties in the original X-COM have been removed. There is no budget to ponder, no bases to design, no scientists to hire, and no governments with which to deal, largely because these niceties no longer exist in the post-invasion world. You apparently run the Phoenix Company of commandos and answer to the "Council of Earth," but these organizations are nothing but names on the screen.
Basically, you make do with what you're given, which dovetails with the end-of-the-world setting but isn't satisfying from a gameplay perspective. Win enough missions in a particular territory and you discover a base that can be conquered and converted for your alien-fighting purposes. Then you pick a base type from the four available--military, engineering, research, and biomass repulsion--and your operation is up and running, a scant 24 hours later. That's it. Aside from the option of turning one base type into another (in the same 24-hour span), selecting tech trees to research, and aliens to autopsy, there is nothing else to oversee.
While this rids the game of micromanagement worries, it also does away with much of the role-playing that made X-COM so all-consuming. ALTAR needed to make some changes, as you end up controlling at least a couple of dozen bases around the globe in the average campaign. This would drown you in minutiae if they were governed in the old hands-on style. But forgoing all managerial responsibilities is too much of a sacrifice. It's hard to feel emotionally involved when so much of the struggle against the aliens is taken out of your hands. In many ways, the game is more similar to squad-based combat simulators, like Fallout: Tactics or Jagged Alliance 2, than X-COM. Where X-COM felt like a sprawling, open-ended campaign, UFO: Aftermath feels more strictly mission-oriented and is therefore more limited in scope. This isn't inherently a problem--but, unfortunately, the combat in UFO tends to not be satisfying.
The tactical combat, which takes place in randomly generated missions, seems barren. A seemingly interesting combination of turn-based and real-time mechanics that blends cautious decision-making with an exciting pace is wasted, largely due to the complete absence of artificial intelligence. You can't give your troops standing orders, so if you want them to fire back when attacked or to take cover, you have to manually tell them to do so. Being able to constantly pause the action makes it easy to stay in control of everyone, though this eliminates the real-time element. If an option to put troops on offensive or defensive postures had been provided, the real-time option would have been much more useful.
Lack of mission variety is another problem. You raid crashed UFOs, capture aliens to be interrogated, and assault and defend bases with a single team of up to seven soldiers--although it seems like you're just patrolling maps and killing everything in sight. Base missions turn into a tunnel crawl, where the narrow corridors are more of an annoyance than the aliens. After about six hours, you'll have experienced everything that the game has to offer in this respect. Far too many missions are about determining "the level of enemy resistance" in search-and-destroy expeditions. The only other point of interest is the ability to pass off noncritical missions to other teams, and even this is tempered by a lack of information about these associates and their results. All you're told is whether the mission succeeded or failed.
Even with fully 3D environments, the mission settings don't seem nearly interactive enough. Cover doesn't seem to work very well. Although there are typically a lot of cars, buildings, trees, and other items to hide behind on every map, these things seem to be more of a barrier to your weapons than they are to the aliens. All of the aliens with ranged weapons certainly seem to be crack shots, as they can take out soldiers who seem to be completely hidden under cover.
Expeditions play out on level terrain, so there's no point spreading out and looking for high ground. Not that it would matter even if it were possible. Your soldiers are usually crammed into close quarters, near aliens, when beginning a mission, in urban, wilderness, and/or indoor settings, so there isn't any point in trying fancy moves. Terrible pathfinding makes it even less of a good idea. Most attempts at a coordinated battle plan are wrecked by overly polite soldiers who bump into a comrade and insist on taking the long way around.
Alien artificial intelligence isn't indicative of an advanced life form, either (despite the aliens' good aim). Each of the more than a dozen species of ETs opens up with whatever weapon is at hand and either kills you or goes down in a hail of gunfire. The only evidence that these creatures can even walk and chew gum at the same time is their occasional decision to run away when wounded. Even then, they typically turn around and walk right back into your sights.
All of this means that you don't have many choices to make when going into combat. Generally, a frontal assault is the best option, as long as you select a good close-range and a good long-range weapon in the initial loadout (there is a huge selection of hardware available, including a number of submachine guns and alien beam weapons). Outside of set-piece ambushes, the aliens never work together, so it's often advisable to advance in a phalanx with all guns blazing. Combining firepower is absolutely essential, as the accurate aliens tend to do a lot of damage in short order. This results in some casualties, especially once the game gets difficult (about a third of the way in). But this is nothing like the body count generated if you split up the troops and force them to take on the heavily armed aliens one-on-one.
At least you can exercise some strategic thinking when your troops aren't in the field. All soldiers gain experience and go up in level, which provides points that can be used to advance 13 skills in combat, defensive, detection, and other categories. Skills include generic options, like speed and stealth, along with more specific areas of expertise, like aliens and psi. Couple this with the training option--where you can take soldiers out of active duty and instruct them in seven specialized classes, like soldier, sniper, and psionic--and you are free to build customized commando teams.
UFO: Aftermath looks decent overall, though some aspects of its visuals are behind the times. The random map generator does a good job creating settings appropriate for the different regions you'll explore (urban, wilderness, tropical, arctic, and so on), although certain backdrops show up again and again. Once you've taken on a couple of missions in each particular district, you'll have seen all of the ruined buildings and burned-out cars that the generator has to offer. Soldier and alien animations are stilted. Troops on the run look like they're pumping their legs in slow motion, although there are some nice touches such as soldiers who lean out from behind cars to squeeze off a couple of rounds. Special effects are also hit and miss. While ALTAR has provided some nifty features during combat, such as showers of blood when a shotgun blast hits home, other aspects, such as canned videos that pop up during UFO interceptions, are pretty poor.
Sound is of such low caliber as to be irritating. Soldiers are poorly acted as one-note ethnic stereotypes. The Americans all talk like Gomer Pyle, for instance, and anyone with a darker complexion speaks with the inflection of Apu from The Simpsons. Still, this is something of an improvement on the aliens, who either grunt weakly or don't make a peep at all. Atmospheric sounds are subdued enough to be barely there as well. Weapon effects are realized fairly well, though the explosion of grenades and the squeal of alien plasma weapons are on the wimpy side. At least the musical score is a suitably subtle piece, complete with a spooky piano line.
Finally, there are some questionable, if not outright buggy, design decisions. Shifting items from a soldier's backpack to his hands often requires many attempts. You might trade the FN for the shotgun when a battle gets into close quarters, only to find that the weapons are back in their original positions when you leave the inventory screen. This may have something to do with the hybrid turn-based/real-time combat engine, though it's hard to understand how this works. At any rate, you shouldn't have to select a weapon a half-dozen times before it finally stays equipped. Another inventory problem is that you can't automatically swap items. You have to drag and drop from your hands to empty slots in your backpack. As a result, you often have to momentarily leave items on the ground while switching weapons or healing comrades during combat (in another strange design decision, medikits can't be used on the inventory screen), and it's easy to forget them.
Other oddities are not quite as annoying, though they're still troublesome. The default difficulty is apparently on the hardest setting, and the instructions given in the manual for changing it don't work. And there seems to be some kind of memory leak, as the game noticeably slows down after a few hours of play. Crashes are frequent if you don't restart the game every so often.
It's hard to label UFO: Aftermath as anything but a disappointment. Even though it follows in the footsteps of one of the most identifiable, even iconic, games ever released, ALTAR Interactive's tribute is little more than a generic tactical combat simulator that doesn't do anything particularly well. Add to that an almost complete absence of personality, and you have a game with limited appeal that won't make anyone forget about X-COM.