Em­brac­ing tac­ti­cal depth, Xenonauts is the X-COM re­make we’ve been wait­ing for.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Ian Birn­baum

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.

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