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Posted on May 9, 2012 in Electronic Games

Xenonauts – PC Game Preview

By Charlie Hall

Xenonauts. PC Game Preview. Publisher: Goldhawk Interactive. Price: Varies http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/69341191/xenonauts

A True Classic
Most gamers of a certain age have a relationship with X-COM: UFO Defense (or UFO: Enemy Unknown if you grew up in the UK). Mine started when I was 14; a friend and I were given the keys to an underground bunker, millions of dollars in cash, and a menu of small arms, explosives, and air-to-air weapons that would make even a successful dictator blush. We needed it, because the earth was under siege by aliens.

Our small air force engaged and eventually brought down increasingly larger UFOs. Highly trained scientists reverse engineered their weapons, their armor, and eventually their ships. Our infantry platoons grew in skill and expertise, and their performance in turn-based, isometric battles successfully improved our relationship with foreign governments. There was a personal connection to every ship and every soldier that mixed with the deadly tension of each encounter to create the perfect "one more turn" time sink.

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Reinventing The Wheel
Many other games have broken themselves against the rocks of X-Com‘s legacy. A recent iteration goes by the name Xenonauts and, while it makes no claim to the actual X-Com license, producer Chris England’s goal has been to make a better X-Com, more finely tuned and balanced—a smarter, sophisticated alien invasion for the discerning, modern gamer. But he and his team have met with more than their fair share of stumbling blocks.

Chris took his life savings and rolled it into founding Goldhawk Interactive. The money went quick. To build the team and keep the momentum going he resorted to selling preorders of Xenonauts very early in the development process. He met with disaster last year when PayPal put a hold on his account (http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/110437). Around the same time 2K Marin announced their triple-A title XCOM, a kind of Mad Men meets Men in Black first-person shooter. But turning the game into a shooter turned off many who, like me, had fond memories of hunting mutons, chrysalids, and floaters turn by turn. What initially seemed like a deathblow to Xenonauts was really an opportunity.

From The Ashes
Chris calmly struck a deal with Desura to start up pre-orders again. Riding the wave of dissent brought about by 2K’s seeming bastardization of the beloved franchise, he was cruising along there for some time when another bomb dropped. No other than Sid Meier’s Firaxis Games would launch a new turn-based strategy title based on the X-Com license. XCom: Enemy Unknown will come out later this year. It will have a triple-A budget, and small turn-based infantry engagements. Now the landscape was clogged with three contenders to the X-Com crown. For a while it looked like Xenonauts might end up little more than a footnote in the history of this franchise.

While one fire team to the right maintains contact with the lizard man, a second to the left stacks up to breach a door. In my experience aliens will flee the map when given the opportunity.

Over the last few months I would ping Chris, and he would have cheerful things to say about his progress. But there’s never been public talk of a release date until today. Chris has launched a Kickstarter account, and before you decide to fund his project you have the chance to download and play his latest build. He claims that the game will come out this year one way or another, but if you like you can help him make it better by donating.

I had the pleasure to spend the last week with Xenonauts. What I’ve noticed so far in my play-throughs is how much more refined an experience the game is over the original. It’s as though Goldhawk took a detailed inventory of every single annoyance baked into the 1994 masterpiece and worked to smooth them out.

Situational Awareness
Among the many critiques of the original X-Com was the fact that the world map was pretty bland. Xenonauts opens on the classic geoscape, a map of the globe wherein you watch the skies for alien activity and vector in your air forces to intercept. As the clock ticks by and you wait to sight your first UFO on radar, little white dots appear and slowly vanish over time. They ominously read "Alien Abduction" or "Tidal Disruption," "UFO Sighting" or sometimes "Freak Storm." Bits of flavor text appear in the lower left corner of the screen, telling you the story of the fisherman who now refuse to take to sea near New Zealand. They alert the player to alien activity and encourage you to build more bases. But these anecdotal events are there to help flesh out the story of what the aliens want with this world, and how they’re going about getting it. If your bases are close enough, perhaps you will be able to land troops and investigate. Here Goldhawk has found an underutilized area of the original and is turning it into a blank canvas to be filled with story.

Top Guns
Another area of the original that felt poorly implemented was air combat. You always attacked a single UFO with a single fighter jet. Your three potential orders included the request that the pilot attack aggressively with guns, from a distance with missiles, or flee and return to base. In Xenonauts you can attack a single UFO with an entire squadron of jets, and you can steer each one around a simple grid and influence what weapons they use and from what direction they attack. This opens up an entire mini game as you dogfight with alien scout ships across a simplified 2D sky. You can see the beginnings of something special here, and inside this demo you get the feeling the game is building up to titanic conflicts in the air. Perhaps the end game will include fighting multiple UFOs or a single, massive base ships with multiple weapon systems.

You have never had so much control over how your men stack up inside their delivery vehicle. This should cut down on the opening round game of musical chairs that plagued the original X-Com. Click for larger view.

It was here that I first realized that the game was set during the cold war. An early scientific development is the Mig-32 Foxtrot, a close approximation of the Mig-31 Foxbat. This is the high-speed fighter you will take down UFOs with in the early part of the game. Looking back, I now realize that the original X-Com is timeless in a way. The weapons you fought with, as well as the locations you fought in, are so generic that the game could take place in any time period. The alien technologies are so advanced that they easily outmatched anything a modern force could dream up. Here it is possible Goldhawk is making a mistake with the inclusion of period-specific technologies. Painful incongruities could come from the political climate of the era. For instance, I find it hard to believe that NATO and the Warsaw Pact would each be jointly funding an extraterritorial band of extraterrestrial defenders.

Boots On The Ground
Where Xenonauts really hits its stride is in the squad-level infantry engagements. From the very first round I felt like I was back playing the original X-Com, but with a new coat of paint. Finally soldiers maintain their gear loadout from mission to mission, and you can even arrange them in the landing craft before the ramp drops on a new map. The venerable Skyranger has been replaced with a period accurate Chinook helicopter. Instead of a single fatal funnel at the rear, the Chinook allows your troops to exit from the sides as well, a luxury granted much later on in the original X-Com and only in exotic craft built from alien technology. Cover matters much more in this version, and crouching behind solid objects is the very best way to maneuver around the battlefield while keeping your enemy in sight. The battlefield is also populated with friendly military forces. Playing through an engagement you get the feeling that you have arrived on the scene of true disaster, with civilians and troops trying to fend for themselves while only your team has the skill and the leadership to pacify the enemy.

Overall Xenonauts seems to take the best parts of the original X-Com and remains faithful to them, while at the same time polishing off the rough edges and removing minor annoyances. What I’ve seen so far has me confident that the gameplay will satisfy fans. What excites me is seeing the story unfold and turning to the new pages of a new UFOpedia. You can only play through a game for the first time once, but Xenonauts is helping bring back some of the mystery that hooked me back in 1994. That’s the best we can hope for in any remake.

About the Author
By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs (www.GamersWithJobs.com). His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games, to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, or send him hate mail at charlie@gamerswithjobs.com. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois.

2 Comments

  1. “You always attacked a single UFO with a single fighter jet.” – Actually, not true. In the old game you could have up to four (maybe it was six?) fighters attack one UFO at the same time. Basically, you told the fighters to trail the UFO as they arrived until ALL your fighters had made the intercept then you ordered them all to attack at the same time. Even the largest UFOs could brought down this way.

  2. If only they could make the civilian AI Less dumber.
    In any confrontation, civilian forces are told to stay indoor or in evacuation are told to stay behind the military lines.
    It would be interesting if the civilian Ai would gather around the Chinook or run toward our soldiers (and past) when they see them instead os running like rockroaches with less than 3 seconds short time memory.

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