Embracing tactical depth, Xenonauts is the X-COM remake we’ve been waiting for.
Xenonauts began life as a reimagining of the classic turn-based strategy game X-COM: UFO Defense. But where 2012’s excellent XCOM: Enemy Unknown modernized the setting in broad, easy-to-read strokes, Xenonauts throws itself headlong into the details. Every game mechanic has been reinvented, rebuilt, and given an extra layer.
The year is 1989. An alien invasion has interrupted the apocalyptic bickering of the USA and the USSR, and the international forces of the Xenonaut project are Earth’s only defense. Placing a base and building a radar station enable you to track and intercept incoming UFOs across a continent, but unlike Enemy Unknown, satellites and sci-fi won’t help you on the other side of the planet. Here in 1989, you need to run supplementary bases.
It’s frustrating to watch abductions and other alien activity happen beyond your reach, but part of some excellent world-building. Xenonauts makes me feel besieged and horrified in a way X-COM never did. A passenger airliner has been shot down; 128 dead. A military helicopter disappeared; 11 dead. By the end of my first month, over 1,000 casualties have been reported in the areas that my radar doesn’t cover.
As time goes on, the many nations start to complain. It’s a familiar balancing act to X-COM players, but Xenonauts represents this tension with a fantastically granular system using dollar figures. Every time a crop circle goes unanswered, that might be one less jet fighter you can put in the air.
Once you spot a UFO, you scramble your nearest jets. This is Xenonauts’ largest single addition to the formula: an overhead, strategic air combat map that plays out in real time. Each fighter can be individually ordered to move, use evasive maneuvers, and target, with an auto-resolve option if you’d rather get straight to the nitty-gritty.
After a UFO has been brought down, you send in a dropship with an assault squad. This phase, which makes up the majority of the game, plays out in classic turn-based style. Each soldier has a reserve of time units they can use to move, check their inventory, open doors and shoot. My favorite improvement here is a time-unit reserve slider. If your soldier can move 70 units this turn at a dead sprint, you can tell them to move less and reserve enough time units for a quick shot, or even an aimed shot. You can use these time units in any order, one or two steps at a time, and you’ll still reserve a chance to shoot back when an alien flanks you by surprise. It’s an incredibly useful addition that fits right in with the classic game.
Another welcome addition: capture the UFO and hold it for five turns, you win the mission. The days of scouring the far corners of the map for the one alien hiding behind a rock have been left behind.
If you’ve never played X-COM, however, you may have a hard time getting up to speed. An in-game tutorial would’ve made it more accessible for new players.
I do like the flexibility to manage my soldiers, especially in regards to equipment and class. The biggest frustration in XCOM is taking a rookie into the field and having them randomly promoted to a soldier class that you don’t need. Xenonauts ditches that system and lets you assign any weapon to any soldier. Class designations (assault, rifleman, sniper), are for your organizational purposes only. If you need another assault trooper, hire a rookie and hand them a shotgun.
Equipping your squad also gives you the opportunity to bring gadgets such as demolition charges, heat-resistant riot shields, smoke grenades and flashbangs. Adding these to your kit opens up new ways to play in Xenonauts’ fully destructible environments. I never imagined a version of X-COM that would encourage me to use C4 to blow apart a wall, toss flashbangs, and charge into close range with shotguns. Now that I’ve found one, I never want to go back.