The game of Xenonauts got its start as a game that was going to re-imagine the amazing strategy game known as X-Com. Xenonauts, however, has decided to dive deep into the details within this type of game. From individual inventories with a grid system to a line of sight cover system with destructible environments, every area is given an additional layer of depth not really seen in the X-Com series. The result is a greatly engaging, indie variation of an alien invasion that stands toe to toe with XCOM, both the reboots and the classic game itself.
An alien invasion has interrupted the apocalyptic bickering of the USSR and the USA, and the Xenonaut project’s international forces are there to defend Earth. Constructing a radar station and putting a defensive base down enables you to monitor and intercept UFOs across a continent. Here in 1979, you must construct and handle more and more bases to help you to shield everyone, much like the X-Com of old.
It is frustrating to watch alien action and abductions occur beyond your reach, but it is part of some superb world building within the game. The world in XCOM is at war, true, but Xenonauts makes me terrified with this war in a way that XCOM never did. A passenger airliner was shot down; 128 dead. A military helicopter has gone missing; 11 dead. A boat floated to land with no one left on it; 14 lives lost.
The many countries involved with Xenonaut begin to whine as time goes on. Too many of their citizens are losing their lives, and you are not everywhere to stop everything. It is a continuous balancing act that’s recognizable to those who’ve played X-COM, but Xenonauts shows this tension with a fantastically granular system using dollar amounts rather than star-based “panic” metrics. They reduce their backing in small increments at a time as a nation loses confidence in you. $5k here, $10k there, but it can add up quickly if you don’t find ways to do your job and keep everyone as happy as possible.
Once you see a UFO, your closest jets scramble to go meet it. This stage of the game is Xenonauts’ biggest single addition to the classic formula: an overhead, tactical air battle map that plays out. The on-railings button-pushing of the air battle mode that X-Com: Enemy Unknown had is much more fleshed out in Xenonauts. Each fighter can be independently ordered to use evasive maneuvers and target particular adversaries. It is a piece of enjoyment that is actually nicely complex, but there is an auto-resolution choice if you prefer to get in on some boots on the ground action.
So, a ship goes down and you send in a squad; very similar again, obviously. Each soldier has a reserve of time units they are able to use check their gear, open doors, move around, and of course shoot. Xenonauts stays quite close to the origins of XCOM here, but a favorite touted development of many is a time unit reserve slider. X-Com actually had this as well, but not in a slider form. They had time unit reserve buttons that occasionally didn’t reserve your time units, so this is definitely an improvement.
Another welcome addition: if the UFO is captured by you and you are able to hold it for five moves, you will end up winning that encounter.
Xenonauts also has a comprehensive on-line guide for the game, but it is a little retro throwback that neglects to take the position of a hands-on, in-game tutorial into account. If you have never played with anything of X-COM’s kind, you might have trouble getting up to speed in Xenonauts with little of in-game guidance to be found. For diehard devotees of these types of games, though, the game plays much like XCOM, and should be pretty easy to pick up.
I enjoy the flexibility Xenonauts gives me with my soldiers, notably when it comes to their gear and classes. The largest discouragement in Enemy Unknown was having my soldiers, at random, promoted to a class that was unwanted. When this sort of thing happens, shortly you find your barracks full of snipers who can not replace your recently killed heavy weapons specialist. Xenonauts allows you to assign any weapon to any soldier. There are class appointments, but they are for your organizational functions only.
Adding explosives to your gear opens up new methods to play in Xenonauts’ totally destructible environments. I never envisioned a variant of X-COM that would support me using a C4 charge on walls so I could get into close range with shotguns after throwing flashbangs. I have to admit, its pretty enjoyable.
New attributes like these add lots of pleasure to the game, but in duplicating and enhancing what made XCOM amazing Xenonauts additionally duplicates some unforgiving failures. Things like the steep initial learning curve, and occasional frustrations. The Geoscape is definitely daunting for first-timers, and becoming used to the time unit system will take time for a lot of people new to the concept.
If you are an old fan of X-COM then playing Xenonauts is the perfect way to relive those glory days. If you are new to X-COM, Xenonauts will allow you to investigate the joy that so many of us have already enjoyed with X-Com, but with some added depth.