The series is a little mixed, and with a 3rd game trying the UFO: Apocalypse route going into the game I am skeptical.
Afterlight is a direct sequel to the first game (Aftermath). Assuming you lose the battle against the Biomass, Earth sends what it can to Mars in order to colonise the planet. 50 years pass and it is now 2053 (so these events are happening just after Aftershock which was 2050). The steady terraforming is suddenly disrupted when your archaeological dig unleashes a new foe.
It is then your mission to investigate, destroy robots, ally with an alien faction, prevent the Beastmen from expanding, contact Earth. Research stuff. I’m not really sure what the story is to be honest from this point. But after A LOT of research, and time (35ish hours) you finally get to attack the Beastmen’s HQ, and you win the game.
It can be very frustrating trying to figure out what to do, as a lot of the things required for progression are not obvious. You HAVE to capture certain troops for research purposes, but not all the capture missions are for enemies you need. It means you can have 10 capture missions in a row and none of them be useful.
After all the story research is completed you’re told about a “secret enemy base”, after one last bit of research, you gas the planet and attack the Beastman base.
Taking it’s influence from X-Com and adding a modern twist, Afterlight is a “Real Time Strategy – Squad Tactics game“, so it plays like a semi-turn based game. Actions can be queued up (while paused) similar to Knights of the Old Republic, but the action will primarily take place in real time with the DnD style dice rolls hidden from you.
Like X-Com, you switch between a world map/overview where you conduct research, and accept your missions. As well as a Tactical combat mode using full 3D models presented on an almost Isometric style grid.
The RPG elements have been ramped up in Afterlight, and it isn’t all good. You can no longer rename your troops, instead you are given people and they have certain specialisms – Scientist, Military and Technician. Some staff members can have a combination of Military AND Scientist or Tech , you can’t have a Scientist and Tech (or at least I never unlocked one), and some are just Tech or just Science. Some missions will reward Scientists or Engineers for tagging along, but the ultimate difference is they can train in different things.
This is a slight problem. Like in Aftershock there are a million layers of research, but this time, once those layers are peeled away, you need to train your men to do anything. Regular Military troops can’t use medicine, only Military/Scientists, and only after all that research and training. It means I didn’t have the ability to use Medikits until about the 25 hour mark.
It all takes too long to build a troop to be what you want. Training is especially onerous as there are only 4 spaces in the training room, so you really need to micromanage to maximise outputs until much later in the game. As men level they earn training points, so while there are 300 things to be trained in, you can mess up training byplowing low level skills into soliders before you learn the system, and means they can lack required things like training for better suits.
Having “Major Sniping” as a skill doesn’t make your troops sniper gods either, and only Reticulans can use Psionic Equipment.
I personally found the training system to be a too advanced, it doesn’t produce gods like Aftershock does, and the changes in skill doesn’t really make as much difference as in Aftermath.
One other difference in Afterlight is similar to X-Com Apocalypse, in that you only have ONE base . But you expand your territory by terraforming the planets areas.
As you do this the planet slowly morphs from the dead rocky red-planet, to a lush and vibrant landscape.
Afterlight has the best difficulty curve of all the X-Com/UFO games I have played. It starts easy, you learn the ropes slowly, and as you advance the enemies advance and the training/research becomes more detailed.
The tactical map is give and take, so you’ll gain and lose territory. But it never feels overwhelming like in Aftermath. Towards the end there could be 40 missions available to you, but you only need to focus on defense missions. The rest can be done at your own leisure.
With missions completed, your troops will gain experience and level up, and despite getting all my Military to max level, they were still susceptible to my own incompetence, Psi Attacks, rockets or all three.
Pray to the high heavens you DON’T annoy the Expedition Alien faction. Oh shit they like their Rocket fire. New enemies appear constantly throughout the game, so there is usually an in-game event, and a new breed of enemy appears. It keeps the game fresher for much longer and it means you can’t steamroll every mission.
The AI on easy can be cheesed, but on normal (or harder) every step needs to be planned, it makes Afterlight much closer to X-Com in the difficulty stakes.
The final level is hard as hell too, you’re fighting Matriarch aliens, which require entire clips of ammo to kill, so your healer will be on overdrive, and make sure everyone else has maxed out on ammo, otherwise you’ll be out of ammo quick… It doesn’t feel unfair like Aftermath can do, but it does require patience and inching your way across the map for one last bug hunt.
I’ve already touched on it, and while it can be annoying, the research is clear and easy. The problems come from not always knowing you HAVE to do a certain mission type rather than the research path itself. If you click on the Unavailable research tab, it’ll tell you the thing you need to do, such as having to interrogate a Beastman Shaman. You can accept a capture mission, but if the specimen needed foe research doesn’t spawn as mission objective, tough shit. Just keep doing capture missions until the enemy you need is the one they want.
While I started to get a little frustrated trying to tie all the loose ends together to complete the research, the game is overall better than both Aftermath, and Aftershock, and I would go as far as to say it is better than UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-COM: UFO Defense.
The difficulty curve, and the changing enemies type keeps the game fresher for longer. The Terraforming aspects of the game mean the environment is always slightly changing too. It means you’re not always met with gray/red and adds a reason to keep playing.
The final mission is hard, but not obtuse, and the research paths are clearer.
All this added together make this a better game. The micromanagement can be a little impenetrable, and does require some leg work on your behalf though.
Pros: Decent strategy elements
Cons: A little too much micromanagement, can’t rename your troops