E3 2003 Impressions

UFO: Aftermath - Impressions from E3
by Mike Nino for ufoaftermath.co.uk


I spent at least three hours over the course of two afternoons hovering around the Cenega booth which, as you know, was presenting UFO: Aftermath (U:A).  A good deal of time was  spent talking with Martin Klima and Robert Hoffman of ALTAR Interactive as well as with  Brian Faller of Cenega. I played parts of four missions (45 minutes of total playing time), and watched Martin Klima demo maybe five or six missions. I should stress that I did not  play U:A nearly enough to get a good understanding of the tactical game, let alone the finer points. The beta version was 1.5, and the game is not finalized although it was playable.  Observing the public reaction to U:A was also a blast; more on that later. Lastly, there is  not one line of code from the Dreamland game in U:A. I was under the impression that the  globe was from Mythos, but this is not true.


Roughly 60,000 people attend the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) , and roughly 1,000 new games or gaming products debut there. One thing to know is that E3 is not the best place to  concentrate on anything. You would not believe how loud it is! Dozens of companies compete  for your attention by blasting out the sound effects of their games. And the booth babes! If you've ever been to a trade show, you know what I mean. If not, maybe Slaughter will be nice enough to post the X-Box booth babes photo I sent him. While I don't play console games, some of their games feature heroines with jaw-dropping endowments. Microsoft had some fine  examples of such ladies strutting around their booth. While I know she wasn't for real, I  could not resist the cat-like one. I started up a conversation with her, she said that she  was interested as long as I had . . .

Now, back to the game!


The most significant single thing I learned was that the game looks much better in person than the screen shots had led me to believe. Until I had actually seen and played the game, I had  though that U:A's graphics were somewhat colorless and lacking in visual excitement. Maybe it was the thrill of seeing the actual game for the first time, but it looked great from the  first minute I saw it. And this wasn't only my opinion, either. One benefit of spending so much time around the booth was that I got to talk to a number of people who stopped by to check out U:A. After speaking with one such person, I learned that he had actually heard of U:A (the only one of the dozen people with which I spoke) and is an active Laser Squad Nemesis player (I was  a LSN beta tester and was a customer for the first six months, but became disenchanted with  solely tactical combat). We both agreed that the U:A screen shots posted on ALTAR's own website did not do the game justice and that they made U:A look drab and visually uninteresting. Based  on this limited sample size of two, immediate action is required to get better screen shots!!!  I hope the game will have gamma correction as a video option. I'm thinking that maybe the screen shots look drab because they are too dark. Either that or the screen shots need to be higher  resolution.


Secondly,  as I watched Martin Klima, ALTAR's gaming guru, give a basic rundown on the tactical game to some attendees, I couldn't help but notice the number of gamers that would walk by and  remark "This game looks like an updated X:Com. I really liked X:Com. Is this game going to be  like X-Com?". These people are all gaming industry insiders (you have to have some kind of  gaming credentials just to get into E3), and yet they were completely unaware of U:A. This  demonstrates not only the sales potential of the game, but also the need for increased marketing to get the word out. It's like winking at a pretty girl in the dark . . . making the effort  (or in this case, the game) is not enough, you need to let the object of your desire (the gaming public in Cenega's case) know about it or you've wasted your time.


Since so few people know about the game, having a good demo is extremely important to U:A's success. However, one problem with a making a demo is that it takes resources away from the game  itself. Say you have funding for 100 programming hours, and that's it. Do you spend 90 hours on  the game and 10 on a full demo, or do you spend 95 on the game, adding additional features to  the game, but spend less time on a more limited demo? Remember, no matter how much you want both  a game loaded with features AND a full demo, you don't have the money to do this. ALTAR was  considering a full-featured demo (one entire sector, with multiple missions), but I suggested  that a more limited demo (one mission, with a flash presentation showing the other features of the game - ALTAR was already planning to do a flash presentation of the game, so that's already  been considered). A more limited demo would take less time to prepare, could be released earlier,  would be smaller and so easier to download, and would allow ALTAR to devote more time to the  game itself. I left E3 before the ALTAR folks could discuss the idea of a more limited demo, but  I'm sure that no matter what they decide it will be for the best. A ufoaftermath.co.uk poll,  giving you the ability to vote on the type of demo you would prefer, is in the works.


The human weapon modeling is top notch (not knowing much about plasma rifles, I'll leave that for the aliens!). Until U:A, I'd thought that Jagged Alliance 2 had the best weapon modeling,  but U:A takes it one step beyond. ALTAR made the point that there will be no single best weapon  in the game, and that the player must balance his squad's load out with the expected mission  parameters.


After playing a few missions, I did notice that it was sometimes difficult to figure out line of sight and targeting. In urban settings, this was noticeable when soldiers took fire from  aliens when the aliens should not have been able to see them. For example, when a soldier was behind an overturned bus or around the corner of a building, he would take fire from aliens that could not possibly see him. Martin himself even commented that this was not right, so  I'm sure that it will be corrected. A different but related problem occurred when the ground was rolling . . . like in a desert or a rocky/hilly setting. In one desert mission, a soldier was armed with a RPG launcher. That soldier targeted an alien and the game gave him a 100%  chance of hitting the alien. Two shots were scheduled just to make sure that alien was taken  out. The soldier fired off a rocket - it flew at a 45 degree angle to the alien and exploded harmlessly. The second round was just as ineffective. All this time, the alien had been  moving toward the soldier. The alien was targeted for a third shot. This time the rocket  nailed the alien, but another alien was now in range and severely wounded the RPG soldier.  The map was hilly with sand dunes, but the alien was moving in a straight line toward the  RPG soldier. I could not figure why he missed so badly, but I suspect that there was a line  of sight issue.

ALTAR actually developed a first-person mode, which might have addressed this problem, but decided to drop the feature. Why? Because the first-person graphics were less than spectacular, and ALTAR doesn't believe in offering a feature if it does not meet their quality standards.  While I agree with their decision (if you want a first-person shooter, this is not your game),  there is a need to address the line of sight situation. Based on my impressions of the ALTAR team, I'm sure that the actual game will not have this flaw.

On this same subject, I learned from Cenega that there was some thought to enlarge or build on the first-person shooter aspect of the game. My response was this: don't try to be all  things to all people, but instead make U:A the best possible squad-based strategy game. If  you want to make a first-person shooter (FPS), then make one, but don't bastardize U:A to  chase the FPS crowd. More likely than not, the end-result of such a game that would not be  strategic enough for X-Com fans and wouldn't satisfy the FPS gamers either. And wasn't there a first-person shooter version of X-Com released a few years back that flopped?


I know that there has been talk about how the UFO interceptions will be handled. Here's what I learned: the interceptions will look similar to the original X-Com game. You send out your jets and they get into a dogfight with the UFO. Damage to both crafts is displayed by filling in the outline of the craft with red. The options are more limited than in X-Com (you cannot  disengage: once you're committed, you're committed). I did not actually witness an interception (not all of the planned features were available for E3). Personally, I have never felt that  the interception mechanism was crucial to the game one way or the other, but some of the  more 'hard-core' fans have made their feelings loud and clear.


This was addressed before, but I'll mention it again: while you can only send out a seven-person squad, you do have a much larger pool of soldiers to select from. You choose your squad based  on the type of mission. If it's a mission that requires speed, then you select your fastest  seven soldiers out of your pool of available soldiers. If the mission requires the ability to give and receive a lot of damage, then you would select strong soldiers with high marksmanship ratings. Strong soldiers are necessary to handle the weight of heavy armor - by the way, there are three levels of armor available: light , medium and heavy - as well a whatever heavy  weapons you have available. The player knows the mission type before leaving, so he has the  ability to choose the seven-person squad that would be best "suited" for that mission (no pun  intended!). Based on how the aliens chewed up my four-person squads, the seven man limit might be a limitation. However, this was probably due more to my inexperience with the game than with  any design error.


There are no plans to have a record-game feature. This is something that might be nice . . . sometimes I would wonder why half my squad was wiped out as soon as I hit the play button. It won't be the first feature I would add to the game, but I could see its usefulness.


When I stepped back to take a few pictures, I noticed two guys from the US Army checking out the game. Martin was giving a tactical demo of aliens invading a human base, and they were  quietly yet intently listening in. At the time, I didn't really think anything special about  their behavior; it was just interesting to see them checking out U:A so intensely. I later  got a better idea why they were so interested in the game.

Last year, America's Army (a well done first person shooter) was presented at E3 by the US Army, and the Army spared no expense promoting that game: an anti-aircraft missile battery  was out front of the E3 convention center, while inside there were commandos and a heavy  weapons squad (which the crowds gave a wide berth - it was almost funny to see everyone  get out of their way like sheep reacting to sheepdogs - they protect you but they've got  quite a bite!). This year, the Army presented a squad-based tactical combat game by Pandemic  Games, called Full Spectrum Warrior, due in early 2004 for the X-Box. The presentation was a canned video (it looked like a recorded game) showing a running firefight between two squads  of US infantry and various terrorists in an urban setting. The video did not show how the  two squads were controlled (which for any squad-based game is critical), but it did have  state-of-the-art FPS graphics and was impressive to watch. It was designed to be a combat  simulator: your soldiers are semi-autonomous and don't need to be told to fire at an enemy,  but they didn't seem to manage ammo very well, nor did they seek cover very effectively.  In any event, maybe the Army guys checking out U:A were looking for pointers on how to handle squad-based combat!.


Both Robert and Martin are fans of alternative history (what would have happened if Hitler had been killed in World War One, what would have happened if the Great Plague had wiped  out 90% of Europe rather than 35%, etc.). ALTAR's previous game, Original War, was loosely  based on an alternative history story by a German author (I did not catch his name). I'm  also a fan of alternative history, and so gave them my copy of Harry Turtledove's first  Worldwar novel (aliens invade Earth during World War 2, humanity unites to try and defeat them). If I win the lottery and had an extra half million or so, I would ask ALTAR to base  a game on this universe (Professor Turtledove permitting).


The largest US retailer has already contacted Cenega regarding their games. Since Cenega is new to the US market, they have hired another firm to arrange some of the distribution arrangements for them. I can only hope that Cenega isn't run over by the price-grinding  machine of American mega-retailing. That huge retailer has a reputation for squeezing the very last dollar out of its vendors (especially clothing manufacturers, which have ended  up producing clothes at such a low price that they go out of business) and I want Cenega  to make enough money to fund ALTAR's next squad-based strategic masterpiece.


First of all, I would like to thank Slaughter for setting up the interview with ALTAR Interactive. I would also like to express my sincere thanks to both Martin Klima and  Robert Hoffman for the time and attention they gave me. All of the Cenega and ALTAR  Interactive people were very kind, and I wish them the very best with U:A and their future endeavors. The best advice I can give Cenega: get your marketing act together! A great game  that few people know about is not going to make anyone happy: not the fans (who won't get  additional games from you), not the employees (who won't get the paychecks they deserve),  and not the investors (who will jump ship, cursing all the while).