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Xenonauts (PC) artwork

Xenonauts (PC) review

"I could write myself a catchy header, but Iíve got Xenonauts shrunk down on my toolbar, and itís been a few minutes since I took my last turn. "

Originally, my biggest fear for Xenonauts was that it was shaping up to be inspired so heavily by the original X-Com that it was going to be a carbon copy with slightly shinier graphics and a few little adjustments here and there. And I was exactly right. However, now some weeks after release, my biggest fear has somewhat shifted: Iím now very concerned that I canít drag myself away from the game long enough to finish this review.

Itís of no exaggeration to suggest that these paragraphs are crafted between snatched handfuls of missions. Iím aware of how Iím kidding myself into believing my own ethereal sense of professionalism; what if the next UFO encounter shows me something Iíve not seen and blows my opinion wide open? What if my R&D team discover something that will change everything? What if aliens storm Dubai again in new numbers, or raze my main HQ once more? These things could all happen, I guess, but Iím aware that all I really want is just one more turn.

For the unaware, X-Com is universally agreed to be the greatest game ever created a very in-depth alien apocalypse simulator rife with micro-management, tactical combat, base-building, research trees, government juggling and a tidal wave of stats that make early edition Dungeons & Dragons look casual. Back in them olden times, X-Com tasked you with keeping track of every missile your fighter jets fired into alien UFOs and every bullet ploughed into pasty grey extra-terrestrial skin. Running low on assault rifle clips? Better order some up. Just used up your last med kit? Canít buy them; got to manufacture more from scratch.

Xenonauts does away with all the fiddly stuff; essentials like bullets are in infinite stock and take up no room in your warehouses. Crashed fighter jets were discarded in X-Com, forcing you to build or buy anew upon losing a dogfight; here, theyíre recovered and repaired without prompt. Some avenues of research automatically upgrade equipment on the fly rather than force you to scrap perfectly functioning builds with one obsolete mechanism.

Iím not going to lie: the elitist in me raged at these changes. How dare they water down my complete dictatorship: if I wanted a streamlined, more simplistic X-Com, Iíd be playing (a few hundred hours more of) the excellent Firaxis reboot. But! The further into Xenonauts I played, the more I realised that I did not miss these things at all. Who wants to be sorting through mouldy harpoon bolts and junking huge piles of corpses to try and make room in cluttered warehouses so you can take order of new smoke grenades? Xenonauts stomps that into the ground, and with it takes away the ability to undercut X-Comís funding bonuses from world governments. Who cared if China was reducing their funding when you can make several times the amount lost by manufacturing some obsolete junk, and selling it off for a huge profit?

Xenonauts forces you to care about appeasing government overlords you used to casually ignore and despise. Losing a few world powers to the aliens in any of the X-Coms has always been a blow, but was never a big deal with all the different revenue building options available to you. Here, you lose a couple and the diminished funds really cut you deep. Lose five and its game over. One of the many things that have been lovingly restored is the rarely seen option to sink hours and hours into the game and still come up on the losing side should you fail to keep atop the alien threat. Itís not that easy keep yourself rolling, either; initial sorties only stack the deck against you with hardier troops deployed with far superior technology. Your jumpsuit-clad cold-war tech soldiers shoulder their assault rifles and get effortlessly mowed down with plasma bursts while watching the weakest strain of invaders take several bullets to down. Slender humanoid snipers mix with brutish lizard men while hovering disks scout the area and plough troops with rapid fire laser pulses.

The idea is to eke out underdog victories, steal alien tech from cold, dead hands, then use it against them. As such, the most you can ever achieve is a level playing field. They remain better equipped, more evolved. Develop laser weaponry, they bust out mech armour thatís resistant to them. Get used to stacking troops by crashed UFO doors, ready for a breach, and theyíll start casually dropping grenades in your midst. Think outside the box; make breach holes with C4, but risk damaging vital UFO parts youíll need for future research or chunks of cold, hard cash.

The enemy forces do borrow heavily from the X-Com lore. That alien that deals melee damage and turns anyone it kills into a zombie that births hostile parasitic mayhem? Maliciously redesigned to destroy entire platoons in panic fire and face eating. Mind controlling jerks that sit in their ivory towers brain-jacking your troops and making them blast each other in the back? Brokenly shoehorned in. Psi balance has been readdressed in Xenonauts, doing away with humanityís ability to shameless steal our otherworld visitorís telepathic abilities and instead making them helpless puppets, particularly end game. Here, perhaps the ability to lose the game starts to slightly stray away from being a consequence of poor planning or performance, and starts to unfairly hamstring you from the shadows.

It becomes increasingly clear that your troops are going to be remotely controlled from afar, and youíre offered no real way to deter this. Thereís nothing you can develop to lessen the chances, no training you can partake in to bolster your troopís chances of shrugging it off. It sounds cheap on paper; in practise, itís downright infuriating to see the final assaults youíve been preparing for with hours and hours of running battles, endless development and jumping through governmental hoops end so cheaply. On the other hand, having what was left of my army crawl over the bodies of both fallen foes and friends Iíve had to put down myself to finally disintegrate the big boss raining down all the damage was one of the most satisfying moments Iíve yet to find in gaming.

Itís been a few hours between the start of this paragraph and the last; itís my second playthrough of the game, and the UFOís have just started invading in threes, which is a prelude to terror attacks. I can pick apart the smaller scouts still (and raze the crash sites with airstrikes if I canít be bothered to storm the shell) but no such option exists in terror attacks; you either respond, or a city is wiped out and your popularity plummets. Unlike X-Com these two missions often promote vastly differing alien tactics. Down a UFO, and the surviving aliens dig in, rarely hunting you out and taking cover in and around their downed craft. Terror missions contain shock troops, better armed, better prepared and openly searching the map for you and surviving civilians. The death rattle of an innocent from the darkness is nothing new, but, in Xenonauts the people fight back. Armed police officers take pot shots and, land near a military base, and you might find a couple of soldiers littered around the place to give you a hand. Once, while clearing out a farm, I injured an alien who thought better of his chances in a standing firefight, turned and ran around the back of a barn. There, waited the farmer with a shotgun. And that was the end of that story.

Xenonuats does a lot of little things to try and modernise the Gollop games of old without losing that which have helped it endure through the years. Dogfights are interactive and not just played out on a static screen; loadouts are fixed so you donít need to restock your troops from scratch before every single mission; directional cover makes a drastic difference when receiving or offering fire; secondary victory conditions mean that every fight doesnít have to be a long-running bug hunt. At the same time, thereís time unit reserves and nerdy shot completion percentages and dodgy height scaling to contend with. Thereís risk and reward; soldiers that survive see their stats steadily climb, but the death of a hardened warrior plummets morale much faster than that of a green rookie. So much feels familiar; so much has been subtly improved.

I could go on, but Iíve got Xenonauts shrunk down on my toolbar, and itís been a few minutes since I took my last turn.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (July 11, 2014)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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wolfqueen001 posted July 12, 2014:

Nice review! So this is the game you were talking about a week ago. It sounds like it'd be worth checking out, especially for first timers to the X-Com franchise.
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EmP posted July 12, 2014:

Yeah. I think this started getting made when The Bureau was announced and all us X-Com fans starting nerd raging out. Of course, then Firaxis came along to soothe us, but this was still happening in the background. It has issues that still existed back in original X-Com, and it certainly invents a few of its own, but I love it and have real trouble pulling myself away.

Did you spot the Easter egg in the review? Don't say what it is if you did!
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wolfqueen001 posted July 12, 2014:

Which one is the Fireaxis one, then? The only reboot I remember seeing was that one where they turned it into an FPS or something and was supposed to be awful for it. (Unless I'm completely confused)

Haha. I didn't think I had found it when I first read it but I looked again. Pretty awesome.
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EmP posted July 12, 2014:

This is the Firaxis one.
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Suskie posted July 13, 2014:

Very good review, EmP (and I particularly liked the sneaky working-in of Will's second opinion). Do you think you'd recommend this game to me? Bear in mind that I always found the original X-COM too unwieldy for a youngster like myself to get absorbed in, but as you know, I did quite enjoy the reboot, which I felt did a better job of explaining/contextualizing everything. Can I get into Xenonauts? Is it accessible enough?
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EmP posted July 14, 2014:

What a handsome question. Iím pretty confident in recommending Xenonauts to people who enjoyed the Firaxis game, because it works really well as a bridge between the remake and the original. Itís not as rigid and linear as the reboot, but nowhere near as sprawling and chaotic as the original.

Original X-Com just kind of dumped you in the middle of the war and then forced you to do everything without ever explaining why or how. I loved that at the time, but understand how people can find that extremely daunting. Xenonauts holds your hand a little more Ė you donít have to ever worry about running out of bullets or grenades or medipacks. Night missions see your soldiers automatically equipped with infinite flares. Some R&D is done unprompted, and advances are automatically applied throughout. Itís harder to mess up on the field, too. Troop movement is colour coded to warn you how far you can go without losing your reaction shot ability. Stuff like throwing a grenade used to be a hell of a faff as you dug it out of your backpack, put it in your hand, primed it then lobed it. Here, you click on a grenade option. And chose where you want it to go. You can decide for yourself what kind of solider each troop is going to be (including completely new classes like riot shield guys I never use but other adore) and his loadout is saved Ė this alone saved me hours from the old interface of re-equipping troops before every single bloody mission.

Accessible is a good word for it, so letís go with that. Itís not perfect, and in streamlining the originalís interface it creates brand new problems of its own. Willís also right when he notes the tile set for the missions is super limited and even though the missions are randomly generated, everything will start to blend into one after a while. What Will didnít mention (because thereís no room for the amount of gushing heís dropped on this particular achievement) is that itís the first game to wrap their geoscape in a globe rather than a square. Fair warning, though: if the game does grab you, it will take over your life in much the same way as XCOM did.
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zippdementia posted July 14, 2014:

Never did play X-Com. The people I know who played it are the kind of people who laugh at Starcraft and consider it's multiplayer beneath their notice. You know. Because they can multi-task seventeen times faster than the average human.

This seems like a more accessible version of X-Com, something that (maybe a little bit like Baldur's Gate) has a lot of complicated things going on under the surface that take a while to wrap your mind around, but are easy to control once you understand the premise.
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- posted July 14, 2014:

You've sold me. I gotta play this (as soon as I whittle down my backlog).
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Suskie posted July 15, 2014:

Ben's backlog = whatever I've been praising lately :)
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- posted July 15, 2014:

Aha. I didn't realise it, but it's true. The three games I'm playing right now are all Suskie-approved, and I'm keen to play Spec Ops: The Line as well.

This is what happens when I use Twitter.
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WilltheGreat posted July 16, 2014:

Actually, Xenonauts also uses an equirectangular globe projection - it's just up-front about that fact so you don't make assumptions about flight routes that turn out not to work.

The only XCOM or similar game to use an actual spherical globe is OpenXCOM. Classic XCOM used a 3D globe but didn't teach the AI how to do Great Circle pathfinding, while New XCOM just stretches an equirectangular projection around a ball. That's less an issue because in New XCOM you can't manually set flight paths, but at the same time more noticable because distortions get really extreme as they approach higher/lower latitudes. Also Firaxis forgot what they were doing and wrapped the North and South edges of the world map.

1. Set HQ in Europe
2. Respond to terror mission in Australia
3. Fly Skyranger straight north
4. Teleport to Antarctica
5. Proceed to Australia

There was a thread on the forums where someone suggested that Xenonauts should use a globe projection. One of the devs said they considered it, but rejected it "because while more accurate, it isn't actually more intuitive to the player". Which is a perfectly fair reason to do so.

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