I’d like to preface this article with a tidbit about myself: I’m a perfectionist. As a kid, I’d often reload saves constantly when I didn’t complete a level just so, perhaps some of you can relate? Anyway, I had to really fight the urge to do so again when I played “Xenonauts” for the first time. This game is punishingly difficult, but there’s a reason for that . “Xenonauts”, just to give you a little back story, started development back in 2009 and later sought funding through Kickstarter in 2012. Promising to recapture the thrills of the original “UFO: Enemy Unknown” (a.k.a. “X-COM: UFO Defense” and “X-COM: Enemy Unknown”) from 1994, “Xenonauts” tripled its funding goals and officially released in June, 2014. The question remains, is “Xenonauts” worth your time and money? Before I answer that, I’d like to thank Chris England from Goldhawk Interactive for providing me with a free press copy.
If you’ve never played the original 1994 “X-COM” game by Mythos Games/Microprose, don’t worry, you’re not alone. I myself was first introduced to “XCOM” via the Firaxis/2K Games remake (“XCOM: Enemy Unknown”) in 2012, having never played the original. Like with “Xenonauts”, I was unprepared for the beating I’d received when trying it out for the first time. My troops were practically begging me not to send them on missions and even began to regularly update their wills based on the fact that my squad survival rate was abysmal. They’d look at me with those pleading eyes on the roster select screen as if to say, “please, for the love of god, don’t pick me.” I eventually became better at “X-COM: Enemy Unknown” and its expansion “X-COM: Enemy Within” to the point where I could beat the game with only suffering a casualty here or there, but it took time. “Xenonauts”, it turns out, may take me even longer to master.
I’m probably jumping ahead of myself here. “Xenonauts”, for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with the “X-COM” series at all, will task you with fending off an alien invasion. You’re given a base, the location of which can be manually selected by the user. If you want to start in North America or Europe, for example, you can do that. The base is prepopulated with some troops, planes, and equipment to get you started, but it’s up to you to expand your reach around the globe. To do that, you’ll need to build more bases (at a cost) and populate them with the tools you’ll need to fend off aliens around their immediate vicinity. Recruit & equip soldiers, research technologies, build new weapons and vehicles, customize the layout of your bases…it’s all very in-depth and quite possibly intimidating for the uninitiated.
When you’re not embarking on a ground assault mission (which are turn-based), the game plays out in real-time. You can pause time in case you need to catch up on some housekeeping, but the majority of your time on the base management screen will be spent waiting for troops you’ve ordered to arrive, tech to be researched, or stuff to be built. The excitement (and dread) comes into play when a UFO enters one of your base’s radar range, allowing you to dispatch planes in an attempt to shoot it down. Upon intercept, you can auto-resolve the conflict or take control of your planes via a top-down barebones RTS battle that lasts maybe ten to twenty seconds. If successful, you can dispatch a chinook full of troops (you can assign individual troops to different squads) to the location to try and capture some of that technology for both cash and research purposes. Funding for your cause is also provided by the various regions on a monthly basis, based on their individual relations level. The aliens automatically win if too many regions bail out, so it’s imperative not to neglect them.
Ground-based missions are a bit more difficult to grasp, mainly due to how easy it is for one of your troops to get slaughtered. Each trooper or vehicle has action points which they can spend moving, attacking, crouching, rotating, using inventory items, and so on. Each of your troopers also observe a persistent ranking system…keep them alive and you’ll get to watch them improve and rise in rank. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to really keep anyone alive long enough to see just powerful they could become…all it takes is one wrong move and boom, dead. I’ve noticed that the troopers can die much more easily in “Xenonauts” compared to the “XCOM” Firaxis/2K Games remake. At least in the latter game, my troopers could take two or three hits before expiring. Here, I often get one-shotted before I have time to react, even though I was crouched and behind an object for their respective defense bonuses.
That is admittedly something I don’t like about “Xenonauts”…that is, I seem to have less control over my troopers during combat and am punished more despite my best intentions. There’s also no “overwatch” action from what I can tell, which is a real letdown. While there is an “easy” mode, said mode is still unfair at times. I would have liked “easy” mode to be a bit “easier”, namely by reducing the damage done by alien attacks to give troopers some more survivability. Hardcore fans still have “normal”, “hard”, and “insane” to work with, so it’s not like adjusting the damage on “easy” would break anything. “Xenonauts” is also less flashy compared to the “XCOM” Firaxis/2K Games remake…though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I did miss watching a well placed plasma sniper bolt reduce an alien to ashes via a stunning cinematic, but I still got satisfaction out of completing a mission with only one or two casualties. I also would have liked the ability to rotate the map during ground-based missions, though the 2D isometric nature of the game would probably make that rather difficult.
Editor’s Note: Per the developer, I’m told that “overwatch” (called “reaction fire”) happens automatically if you end the turn with the required TU to fire still available.
On the plus side, “Xenonauts” gives you more control when it comes to the management aspect of your bases. In the “XCOM” Firaxis/2K Games remake, you only had one underground base. Covering other territories and gaining their trust involved launching satellites over their respective locations. Here, you can build multiple bases and customize their loadouts at will. Further, the “XCOM” Firaxis/2K Games remake felt a bit more scripted in that the story moved along in the same way each time. “Xenonauts” allowed me to save the world (or attempt to do so) the way I wanted to and seemed to be a bit more freeform. I also appreciated the extra customization available for troopers under your command, as I could switch out different weapon types at will to anyone I wanted. In the “XCOM” Firaxis/2K Games remake, weapons were automatically assigned to troopers based on their class (though they could be upgraded to their laser/plasma equivalents).
When it comes down to it, “Xenonauts” is a challenging and at times, gut-wrenching experience…especially if you’re a perfectionist like me. Watching each one of my soldiers die was a painful reminder of just how unforgiving this game can be. On the other hand, it makes victory taste all the sweeter. It’s currently priced at $24.99 (as of 6/19/14), which is a good deal all things considered. When you consider the amount of play time you’ll spend on one playthru (twenty to forty hours on average), you’ll realize that you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck. The “XCOM” Firaxis/2K Games remake originally retailed for fifty to sixty bucks, just to put things in perspective. To quickly answer the question posed in the opening paragraph, “yes, this game IS worth your time and money”, though those who get easily frustrated by difficult games should probably remove all breakables from their immediately vicinity before playing.
Final Verdict: 8/10
You can learn more about and purchase “Xenonauts” by visiting the following websites: