Xenonauts Preview (PC)

As critically and commercially successful as Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown was (we gave it Game of the Year 2012) there was one group of gamers who weren’t satisfied - X-Com fans. As surprising as that may seem, hardcore fans of the original X-Com titles were left deeply underwhelmed by the Firaxis reboot, as while making the series more accessible it lost a great deal of tactical depth... not to mention the sheer overwhelming terror of turning a corner and seeing a Muton loom out of the pitch blackness. Indie team Goldhawk Interactive have decided to answer the pleas of these hardcore fans with Xenonauts, the game that’s going to try to out X-Com XCOM. An early version of the game’s now out on Steam’s Early Access, so we decided to give it a play and see how it was shaping up.

It’s not fair to say that it’s Firaxis or 2K’s fault that Xenonauts exists of course. When the new XCOM was announced as an FPS fans were aghast, and circled around the already-in-development and promising-looking Xenonauts, the ultimate X-Com remake. Since starting the FPS has come, gone, and turned into a digital squad-based shooter, and the long-awaited strategy reboot has been and caused a splash but still not tickled that X-Com: UFO Defense itch for hardcore fans. Thus Xenonauts still has a place in the world as long as Goldhawk develop a more faithful remake than Firaxis’ effort. Rather interestingly though the team decided to make the setting the Cold War, giving a neat style and level of technology whilst separating it from the modern day remake.

"You go first", "No, you", "It’s your turn", "Fine, I’ll go first" BLAM

On booting up Xenonauts Goldhawk have certainly achieved faithfulness in at least one area – if you’ve not played X-Com before or read the manual you’ll have absolutely no clue what you’re doing. After choosing a difficulty mode (out of four, with Iron Man Mode optional on all except ‘Insane’ difficulty) you pick a base location from the Geoscape Earth map and boom, you have a fully operational base… now what the [Sectoid] do I do? Play about with the interface mainly and try to get your feet.

While tutorials and the like will be available for any new players to the hardcore X-Com experience in the final game, the Early Access is only equipped with a somewhat barebones online manual that leaves out key details, such as how to heal soldiers with medkits (equip it on the inventory, move to the soldier you want to heal, and use it on them as if you were shooting them), how to pick up items on the ground (stand on the item or corpse and open your inventory), and how to get goddamned started. Seeing as I was put off the original X-Com games by the lack of any in-game explanation this was not a good start, fortunately however Goldhawk have made things far more easy to get to grips with than the baffling icon-heavy original and I was soon happily clicking away.

The mechanics and general gameplay of Xenonauts are directly like XCOM, with or without hyphen, although clearly closer to the less-flashy UFO Defense. Choosing a base location and name is the first point, but unlike Enemy Unknown you’ll need to build more than one base over the course of the game since there aren’t any Satellites to watch out for aliens here. Ever wondered why in Enemy Unknown you could station Interceptors in other countries but the game never explained where they were going? That’s a holdover from the multiple-base-building exploits of the original, reinstated in Xenonauts. Not that this is possible right at the start though as you’re probably better off pimping the base you have – spending literally all your starting funds buying an unmanned empty building on a different continent isn’t going to help. As I found out 10 seconds into my first play. Restart.

The base is arranged in a top-down map much like the original, except is all much easier to navigate once you know where everything is and what it does, and Xenonauts does provide pretty good tooltips to let you know just that. You have the base on one side, straightforward stats on the other (along with a big ‘Construct New Building’ button), and a row of icons on the top representing the different base rooms. These are Research, Workshop, Hangar, Storeroom, Personnel, Vehicle Bay, and the Equipment page for your soldiers. You can mess around with your soldiers and maybe construct a new room, but at the beginning the automatically-started ‘Alien Invasion’ research project is the only thing going – and all that needs is time.

Xenonauts is an equal opportunities alien murdering squad

Going back to the Geoscape map and speeding ahead, it’s rather cool to note that small alien-related news reports pop up periodically. They add an extra air of this being the real world, with more going on than just UFOs scaring you. They’re still the main point of speeding forward time of course, either landing or ready to be shot out of the sky by your interceptors. If a craft appears a box pops up asking what you’d like to do, with the usual option being ‘intercept’. One of your fighters will head towards the saucer and activate the Air Combat minigame where the object is to try and take down the ship by getting it in your fighter’s sights (which you have direct control over) while avoiding the aliens ship. You can also choose not to engage the craft until it goes over land, since if it crashes in the sea it’s no good to you (although you may lose it before that happens). If you shoot it down over land, or a landed UFO is reported, you can send a Skyranger full of soldiers over to capture it or eliminate any of the extraterrestrial crew.

It’s the Ground Combat that simultaneously seems closest to the original and yet, if you play the original now, is clearly a loving update of it too. All the options of UFO Defense have been implemented, yet the interface has been uncluttered. Where Enemy Unknown removed or simplified features Xenonauts instead improves them, yet the basics remain the same. Spread your team out of the Skyranger, keep to cover, watch the shadows, don’t rush, and pray you get to the aliens before it’s their turn. It’s in the mechanics where things differ.

Every action takes Action Points, and while Enemy Unknown basically did away with them Xenonauts returns them. Moving, shooting, even crouching or changing weapons take up AP so you have to really think about every action. There’s no point rushing up to an alien if you’re left with no points to shoot him with, so next turn that soldier’s dead. If you want to do Overwatch, those reflex shots done in your opponent’s turn, you better make sure your soldier has some points to spare at the end of your turn. The game even gives you the opportunity to reserve points for just this reason, which is a rather cool addition. Select weapon and right click a few times and you choose to improve aim at the cost of more AP, which was in the original but done better here – a line that sums up Xenonauts pretty well.

Yes, that’s an alien in those jeans

It’s the cleaning up of the interface and appearance that I most applaud. Playing the original now is awful, since trying to identify a massive batch of low-res icons and their application is very frustrating. Xenonauts is crisp and clear by comparison, although I’m glad for tooltips since I didn’t have a clue what the picture of a roof meant (soldier statistics apparently). Graphically the game improves regularly – it’s still a little drab in places, but the level of detail is improving and it’s obviously a vast improvement on UFO Defense. I’m not quite sold on the fixed isometric perspective however which, while faithful, means that half the battlefield is hidden by buildings. Furthermore it’s quite annoying when aliens can disappear into the shadows yet still shoot your guys and you have to break cover to see them, something that’s even worse when the enemy’s in a building with an open door the soldiers can see through but the player can’t. Problems from the original perhaps but definitely frustrating here too. I’m also not sure about the ‘Hidden Movement’ screen that pops up when the aliens make a move somewhere you can’t see – faithful, but it’s jarring to say the least, and certainly not perfect since my guys sometimes get shot at when the screen’s still obscuring the battlefield.

Still, this is most definitely not a final release, as Goldhawk warn early adopters on the Steam store page that the Early Access version has “inconsistent game balance, occasional missing art and UI elements, and bugs or crashes”. I certainly encountered all of these, including my savegames getting corrupted. Think of the Early Access of Xenonauts as a cheap pre-order that allows you to play an incomplete version of the game right away and gets you the final version on release. A taster if you will, and right now it’s a very good taste. While I was satisfied with XCOM: Enemy Unknown I don’t deny that a tougher and more deeply strategic version closer to the original would be very much appreciated, and Xenonauts is looking to be the best around. I think it’s ironic that after 15 years of imitators never getting the X-Com formula quite right the game that finally does only turns up after the series has returned. Fortunately however there’s still a place for both reboot and spiritual successor in the hearts of X-Com fans, and for the hardest of the hardcore Xenonauts could well be the game they wanted all along.

Most Anticipated Feature/Element: Properly getting to grips with the Ground Combat. Always the fun part.