Xenonauts by Goldhawk Interactive is billed as the “spiritual successor” for UFO: Enemy Unknown, also known as X-COM: UFO Defense from the early 90’s (thanks Wikipedia!). I.e. back in the day when I was more concerned with learning how to walk and breath simultaneously instead of complex and novel turn-based strategy. X-COM is a turn-based strategy game which was, apparently, a commercial and critical success but honestly I had not heard of it until a few years ago when 2K Interactive rebooted the series with X-COM: Enemy Unknown (taking the best parts of both names and mashing them together to make a new one it would seem). This is also not to be confused with The Bureau: XCOM Declassified which was a 3rd person shooter which was about as successful as warm milk on a hot Summer’s afternoon.
I’m not really sure if Xenonauts began life as a group of modders making some huge changes to the original X-COM or whether it was started from scratch as an entirely new game. Whatever the case, since development began (all the way back in 2009, shockingly) and following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Xenonauts has been recently released as an entirely new, stand-alone title deemed a “re-imagining” of an old and much beloved game.
Instantly one ought to be able to point out the biggest flaw in this particular idea. Why would someone want to “re-imagine” a game which has, only in the last two years, actually received a reboot for the entire series? That was genuinely my first thought when I picked up Xenonauts and it’s one that hasn’t really left me since. While Goldhawk may not say it is, Xenonauts is essentially a remake of X-COM: UFO Defense, whilst X-COM: Enemy Unknown is an entirely new game based around the same formula. If the word’s of Barney Stinson are to be believed (“New is always better”) then it stands to reason that a full “reboot” of a game will be better than a simple “remake”.
Early quibbles aside, I settled in to try out Xenonauts, and approximately 20 hours later I find myself still playing it and still having fun. So really, if there’s anything which ought to quell both my and your worries that Xenonauts has no place in a world alongside X-COM: Enemy Unknown, it’s THAT.
Xenonauts is set during the heart of the cold war, your game starting up in 1979, but instead of any intrigue or conflict between the nations of the world, everyone is actually getting along famously, shaking hands and overall just being very good chums. The reason for this is that a vast and mysterious alien force has appeared in the atmosphere above Earth and is now obviously in the preliminary stages of invading, and so the nations of the world band together to create an elite force which will be humanity’s last line of defence against the vastly technologically superior foe.
For whatever reason, the aliens clearly have to warm up a little before they can actually properly invade and so they send down scout ships, crewed by their weakest troops, so that the Xenonauts (and indeed humanity) has a chance to play catch up and begin the long and difficult process of fighting for their lives.
There are two basic arenas of gameplay. The first is the world map: Periodically a wave of alien ships (which advance steadily in difficulty the longer you play) will appear and begin flying about causing varying degrees of havoc. Here you must scramble intercepting jets which will swoop down upon the alien vessels and blow them from the sky (or vice versa). You build bases for your Xenonauts, and then within those bases you must build hangers and jets in order to have a decent coverage of the whole planet, whilst also building radar arrays so you can actually detect the enemy in the first place.
Once your interceptors have engaged the enemy you have the option of actually controlling the dog-fight directly, which takes down as a semi-real time, top-down grid-based combat. Bizarrely, taking direct control of your jets is actually far harder to grasp and far more likely to fail than simply having the game “Auto-resolve” each fight. It is likely to do with more complex tactics than my brain can comprehend, some enemy vessels need to be engaged head on, some need to be kited, some require specific types of jets to deal with. Despite the technically limited number of things you can actually do during the combat, it can be quite complex.
Throughout this time you must keep the nations of the world (divided up into x areas) all “happy”. If you keep the skies above each nation clear of aliens, at the end of each month that nation will reward you with an increase in funding. Should you fail to do so however, and the amount of funding will drop constantly until finally that particular nation is considered “lost” and will never fund you ever again.
Assuming you are successful in your aerial defence, the alien vessel crashes to the ground and you may then send in your ground forces to mop up the survivors. This is where the second arena of gameplay is: An isometric, turn-based strategy game involving a squad of Xenonauts set against a team of aliens. This can happen when mopping up a crash-site, defending one of your own bases, defending a city from assault or even attacking an alien base.
The turn based combat can be extremely varied, not even taking into account the variety of maps and locations you can be thrown into. Because you choose not only the make-up of your squad, but what weapons they have, the equipment, even the vehicles and armour they take along with them. Equally there are several alien species which each require different tactics to deal with. It’s emergent and involves many random elements of chance, whilst also requiring a reasonable amount of skill and tactical thinking.
Overall it is the micromanaging aspect of Xenonauts which truly makes it such a brilliant game. You can not only choose where to position your bases on the world map, but what buildings will be within the base, whether it will house soldiers, engineers or scientists (or none). You must choose what your engineers build, you must choose what your scientists research and you have to go through each of your soldier’s back-packs to make sure they all have the right ammunition, weapons and underpants for their missions. You even then get to rename the soldiers to further make you invest with them as they become more like well known companions than merely underlings. Then the micromanagement continues in the combat itself as you must decide whether to charge an enemy, whether to crouch and allow them to come into a cross-fire, whether you should throw a grenade to deal with that group over there, whether you should attempt to snipe a far away baddie, or suppress a closer one with burst fire.
You do also become more attached to your higher ranking soldiers, the ones who went through several difficult missions in a row without dying. The ones you give the special armour and weapons to. They have the shiniest medals and the biggest collection of wounds, and you love them all the more for it.
I should also mention that I have a great appreciation for the art style of the game and that whoever went through all the tech-tree providing the excellently detailed illustrations and descriptions really helped immerse me in the game world.
Then the random elements come into play as well as your soldiers sometimes go berserk and shoot their comrades, sometimes losing their nerve completely and dropping their weapons in order to flee. While I do appreciate things like this from an objective view-point, I will say that when pushing deeper into hostile territory, only for one of your vanguard to drop his gun and run into the middle of a shit-storm… It’s really, REALLY frustrating. More frustrating is when your soldier has an apparent 80% chance of hitting that absolutely crucial shot from a few paces away and then misses. Shit like that happens a lot.
There are a couple of things about ground combat which I actually thought were not simply frustrating gameplay but actually rather frustrating design. Your soldiers have action points (called TUS) which they must use in order to move, crouch, stand up, shoot, throw grenades and drop their guns and run screaming like a little pussy. So, naturally, you have to plan ahead your moves in order to make the best of each soldier. The major issue here is that the game will tell you that shooting normally (because you can also snap fire or accurately fire) will cost the soldier 28 TUS, so you move your soldier forward into a decent position, crouch him to increase the accuracy, knowing full well that you have now got exactly 28 TUS remaining… Only for the game to inform you that shooting now costs 31 TUS. This has happened a fair few times and is increasingly annoying each time it does happen.
The other thing which genuinely bothers me is aspects of the cover mechanic. Essentially, if you have your solider next to a piece of cover (and this can actually include crouching comrades) then s/he can shoot over it with no penalty to his/her aim. However, there is no mechanic for shooting around corners, which is merely a shame rather than a problem. If there are two pieces of cover adjacent to each other, the further away one DOES provide a penalty to aim, even if it’s something a car beside the one your soldier is crouching behind. Another thing is that your soldiers apparently throw grenades in a completely straight line, standing behind any form of cover (cars, buses, hedges) seems to utterly nullify how well they can throw. They can’t even blindly lob it in a required direction, it’s most upsetting. Most bizarrely though is that elevation seems to provide absolutely no benefit whatsoever. My early missions, I would always send my troops to the high ground, assuming they would see further, aim better AND be harder to hit. Only to find out that actually none of these hold true. In fact, it actually seems to be the case that it is easier to hit someone at an upstairs window than it is to hit someone FROM an upstairs window. It’s one aspect of the whole strategy thing which really doesn’t fit.
The difficulty curve of the game is also worth mentioning in that by mid-game it starts to ramp up drastically. Early missions (especially aerial ones) are practically a walk in the park, your Xenonauts not really feeling particularly challenged by the foes they encounter. Then as the alien tech begins to increase you find yourself more and more outnumbered and outgunned. I personally have yet to even begin to reach what could be called “late game” and I feel like I have been hanging on by the skin of my teeth for the last half dozen hours. The problem with this being that in a game where training up soldiers takes a fair amount of time and effort, should you have some bad-luck and somehow lose a portion of your best men then really re-loading seems to be the only viable option of recovery instead of training up a new bunch of the little retarded scrubs.
There is one other nitpick I feel the need to get off my chest right now and that is the same thing which I liked about the game does, quite slowly but inevitably, start to grate. The variation which at first feels rather broad with a lot of room for expansion does start to feel a lot less so after the 5 hour mark. One begins to realise that you really don’t have that many options of weapons to choose from. Combat is limited to something along the lines of 15 maps (in various locales) so you start having to replay the same ones over and over, and in a game where variety and emergent gameplay is the main flavour having a limited supply of maps means that the gameplay starts to become bored and familiar.
I ought to make it clear that I very much enjoy Xenonauts. In fact any small, indie title that holds my attention for going over 20 hours deserves a pat on that back for that alone. I just still want come back to the very point which has me confused about it’s place in the world. Why do we need a remake of the game when we already have a reboot? I mean, it’s great fun and all, but does that mean that I’m enjoying Xenonauts or does that mean I’m enjoying a slightly touched up X-Com: UFO Defense. I mean, who really get’s the credit here? I’m going to go out on a limb and say its Goldhawk Interactive but I would also say that constant remakes of older games does not make a happy Seb!