Xenonauts – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Brings back the tension and complexity of the original X-COM. Will be a delightful nostalgia trip for fans of the original. Charming artwork and atmosphere. Vastly streamlined interface compared to the original X-COM. Highly moddable.
Failed Basic: Slow pace. Midgame drags. Interface is still somewhat clunky.
A big chunk of my childhood in the late nineties was spent hunting down pixelated aliens in cornfields. They were crafty Grey buggers, armed with plasma pistols, while my own anime-haired troops were frail and unarmored. Every step could be their last, but they were humanity’s best hope . . .
If any of this sounds familiar to you, then you’ll get a nostalgic kick out of Xenonauts. If not, then you’ll likely still enjoy it, but you may not understand what all the hype is about.
Xenonauts is one of those games that is impossible to review on its own. It’s essentially a remake and update of 1994’s groundbreaking “X-COM: UFO Defense” (known outside North America as “UFO: Enemy Unknown”). X-COM is widely acknowledged as a classic and regularly appears in lists of the top 100 games ever created, so Xenonauts has very large shoes to fill. Whether you’ll love it or hate it, though, depends on what you want out of a X-COM remake.
A Brief History of X-Com
X-COM has been remade several times: first there were sequels (Terror from the Deep and Apocalypse), then a couple of ill-advised genre changes (Interceptor and the truly terrible Enforcer), followed by a bunch of “spiritual successors” from other developers (UFO: Aftermath, Laser Squad: Nemesis, etc). In 2010 a new X-Com game from a big name studio was announced, but it was the alternate -1960s continuity shooter “The Bureau: XCOM Declassified,” which provoked howls of outrage from fans of the original and it eventually flopped. After the backlash against The Bureau, 2K finally announced what the fans wanted: a more faithful remake, this time helmed by strategy veterans Firaxis, which would become the excellent (but flawed) XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
I apologize for dumping all that backstory and flurry of titles on you, but, again, it’s impossible to view Xenonauts without understanding the complicated history fans have with the series. Now, back to the future—I mean, back to the present.
Xenonauts is born
The small team at Goldhawk Interactive had been working on Xenonauts, a “spiritual successor” to X-COM, as Goldhawk says in the game overview on its website. Since they didn’t have the rights to the franchise, Goldhawk came up with its own unique universe, setting, and rogue’s galleries of enemies while keeping the original’s turn-based gameplay, base management, and global “Geoscape” view.
The reason some fans (myself included) were dissatisfied with XCOM: Enemy Unknown was because, in the name of streamlining and modernization, Firaxis had removed a lot of control and customization from the player’s hands. For example, soldiers were now assigned to “classes” with pre-defined equipment loadouts and upgrade trees, instead of having customizable inventories and growing their skills organically. Firaxis’s over-the-top “space marine” art style was off-putting for some, too; Xenonauts has settled for updating the original’s graphics while going for a more gritty, realistic aesthetic.
Who are the Xenonauts?
Another welcome change was the shift backward in time from the near future to the late Cold War. In Goldhawk’s universe, the “Xenonauts” were created as a secret NATO-Soviet Union joint venture after a UFO crash-landed in the 1950s “Iceland Incident.” Now, in 1979, the alien armada has arrived and the Xenonauts have been forced to go public, intercepting UFOs and battling aliens across the globe. The authentic weapons and realistic starting aircraft—closely based on the F-16 and the Foxbat—are a nice change from XCOM’s generic futuristic interceptors and boxy assault rifles. The randomly generated maps on the tactical level feel like real places, full of tiny details, helpless civilians, and occasionally helpful local forces. The decision to keep the artwork mostly 2D, with kind of a comic book aesthetic that harkens back to the original is another nice touch. I’m of the opinion that good art direction trumps polygons and 3D any day.
As in both the original and the remake, you are tasked with battling the aliens on two different levels. On the global “Geoscape,” you’re vectoring interceptors to bring down UFOs in flight while managing your budget, growing your bases, directing your research, and trying to keep your funding council of nations happy. Unlike in the Firaxis version, you are free to place bases wherever you want on the map, so there’s a metagame of trying to find ideal locations to provide maximum coverage.
Battling the Aliens
Once you’ve shot down a flying saucer (or caught one on the ground), you send in your troops and the real game begins. On the tactical level, you guide a squad of 6-8 soldiers, possibly accompanied by light armor, around a UFO crash site or a terrorized city, gunning down aliens and capturing their ships. This is the real meat of the game, and when it’s good, it’s terrific. It really captures the intensity and feeling of danger that I felt in the 1990s original. In the beginning, your unarmored troops with their crappy rifles feel horribly outmatched and the loss of each veteran will set you to cursing. Thankfully, Goldhawk has greatly streamlined the interface, making squad tactics easy to employ without wrestling with the controls. This is my favorite squad-level game since Jagged Alliance 2.
Opinions will vary wildly on this game, I suspect largely depending on what previous games in the series (if any) you have played. Veterans of the original X-COM or the Jagged Alliance series and other turn-based games from the heyday of the genre in the ’90s and early 2000s will probably enjoy it as a loving tribute. Players who come to it from the Firaxis XCOM and from more of a modern RTS background may find the game slow and clunky. And that’s because, to an extent, it is. Even with my own fondness for the original X-COM, I found the tactical combat to be a tad too slow.
The Good, the Bad, and the Xenopedia
Because of the high lethality of the action (and preciousness of your experienced troops), you have to be careful sweeping for aliens, cautiously leapfrogging your squaddies from cover to cover. This means that, whereas a long session in Firaxcom would take 15-20 minutes, battles in Xenonauts can take a half hour or more. And you will be doing a lot of ground missions—the mid-game drags, as you’re forced to capture UFO after UFO to keep up your supply of money and raw materials. Mercifully, Xenonauts includes the option to “airstrike” downed UFOs, reducing them to scrap in exchange for cash, but the need for more alloys, Alenium (an alien fuel) and other parts will require you to go after as many UFOs as practical. I found this tedious after a while. I wanted to stop scrounging for debris and just get on with the plot.
On the upside, the game is highly moddable. The Xenonauts community has already come out with expanded lineups of aliens, interceptors, and weapons. I also greatly enjoyed the wry, fatalistic sense of humor, excellent art direction, and the way the Cold War–world of Xenonauts is fleshed out; witness the snarky humor of the Gaius-Baltar-like head scientist in the game’s “Xenopedia.”
As a long-time fan of the original X-COM, this game has been one of my fondest wishes for decades. Even the Firaxis remake couldn’t quite scratch that old itch for a “proper” X-COM game. I’m happy to say that Goldhawk’s charming remake definitely fits the bill, but also reminds me why the rest of the strategy genre has moved on. If you miss the original or found the remake lacking a certain something, be sure to give Xenonauts a try.
Armchair General Rating: 80%
About the Author
Matt Richardson is a freelance social media consultant and web traffic analyst in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has a degree in History from Davidson College, with a special interest in military history and the Civil War. He has rotted his mind with video games since childhood. You can follow Matt at @MT_Richardson and read his blog at Ritalingamer.com.