Casual observers of the strategy-based UFO games may have lost track of the series, but it's easy. Remember: Afterlight's after Aftershock's after Aftermath. Simple really.
In practice, it doesn't really matter. While the setting has upped sticks for the red sands of Mars, and now tasks you with a mixture of terraforming on top of fighting evil aliens, the core game remains constant.
Clearly inspired by the original X-COM (which you may remember was originally called UFO in the UK), you alternate between a strategic level where you manage the colony (manufacturing, research, deciding whether to get a ping-pong table or an antique Defender cabinet) and a tactical level where you jet off to a trouble-spot and have your ex-terrestrials shoot at extraterrestrials. As with the earlier games, combat is played in a pause-time mode. That is, real time, but as soon as anything happens, the game freezes, enabling you to queue up orders.
The biggest change for fans will be Mars itself. Here the hostile environment itself is a challenge. Visiting certain areas on the planet requires increasing levels of cumbersome hazard suit protection to be researched. Plus, the actual level of environmental danger varies between night and day. This means you may have to delay an assault until night falls - with commensurate lack of visibility - to ensure it's less likely your suits will be compromised.
On the strategic level, a higher degree of people management is demanded, where you must decide who would be the best crew to man any given module you've constructed. Even deciding what modules are going to be operative is a major decision, as staff numbers are so limited. On top of which, each individual has their own statistics, and develops over time, making your choice even more complex.
It's in aspects like this that Afterlight is at its best. You get to know each character by name, and losing someone on a mission is usually enough to immediately make you restart it, and not always just because you're losing all their hard-earned skills. There are reasons why the X-COM games are whispered about in hallowed tones, and Afterlight gets plenty of them right.
The problem is that it also gets a few wrong, the biggest of which is that it never feels all that tactical. The various aliens are only really challenging the first time you meet them and work out their weaknesses, and so Afterlight lacks the second-for-second tension of X-COM.
While the higher survival odds of your soldiers make for a more accessible game, this is undermined by the general level of confusion that surrounds the strategic level. For example, early in the game you get a continual message that lab staff are unemployed, and perhaps another lab could be opened. Except it won't let you build one. Eventually, when you decode the display, it becomes clear that you can't do it now and won't be able to do so for another few hours of resource collecting. So why tell us to do something we can't?
What really keeps me from recommending Afterlight, however, is the repetition of its bases. The relative simplicity of the fights, married to returning to the same locale time and time again, means the game is simply not thrilling enough. Soon the alert that your territory has been invaded provokes an exasperated sigh rather than an excited start. There's life on Mars. Sadly, there's not really enough.
UFO series stays in its own orbit