The problem with saving the world from an alien invasion is that it can be difficult to know what to do next.
Transforming a clandestine global organization of alien sniper clay pigeons into a force capable of shooting down alien motherships is an experience hard to beat, and every successful X-COM game has struggled to follow a premise so attractive. Julian Gollop looked to the sea for inspiration, resulting in 1995’s Terror from the Deep. Firaxis’ XCOM 2, meanwhile, solved the problem with a bit of clever rewiring. “Sucker surprise, you lost!” he shouted in the bewildered face of the player. “Now you are waging a guerrilla campaign against a human-alien hybrid dictatorship! How do you like THESE bananas? »
Both games were ingenious ways to build a sequel that flowed logically from the first game, while invigorating the whole concept at the same time. In comparison, Xenonauts 2’s answer is “What if you save the world again, but… more?”
This premise has stood the test of time for a reason, and the Xenonauts 2 variant is both wide in its canvas and rich in detail. But as I carried my Nth dropship of soldiers in gray suits to their probable death, I couldn’t help but feel like the novelty had worn a tiny little thin.
The 2014 Xenonauts were born out of a desire to restore all the 90s tactical cruelty that Firaxis’ XCOM reboot surgically removed. Like its predecessor, Xenonauts 2 mocks XCOM’s starting squad size of four soldiers, filling your dropship with nine sentient blood bags on the first mission. Overwatch is not an ability you activate, its range and spread are delineated by an obnoxious blue cone. It’s just something that happens if a unit has enough time points in reserve, making every step towards your alien enemies a breathtaking gamble. Your soldiers must be directly instructed to turn to face enemies and crouch for cover, which costs valuable time points and is the difference between life and death.
As someone who played new XCOM but not old X-COM, I found these differences difficult at first. And by challenge, I mean fucking infuriating. Didn’t you check the corners of that barn you just walked into? Well, there’s a lizard the size of Dave Bautista lurking behind the chipper, so you’re dead.
Forgot to change your sniper’s ammo clips when you gave them that sleek laser rifle? Well, it’s been three rounds out of ammo and is now about as useful as an anal probe.
Don’t have x-ray vision to see through the fog of war that obscures every unchecked box on the map? GOODyou just got shot at from a whole shipyard because you couldn’t predict the future.
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Firaxis was 100% correct in removing this reboot thing. If I had been forced to struggle with such tricky team management in 2012, I would have thrown it away faster than a birthday card from Hitler. HoweverAs classic X-COM fans will tell you at every opportunity, that extra layer is there for a reason, and the more I played, the more I understood why.
Yeah, losing a xenonaut because you didn’t turn it forty-five degrees is boring. But that same system can help you protect your flanks as you advance across the map or skillfully navigate around an alien’s watch, as orientation impacts their ability to react as much as yours. Most game mechanics work like this. An enemy that explodes on death is dangerous to everyone around it, no matter how many limbs, nostrils, or pancreas it has.
There are some elements of the tactical layer that I unambiguously dislike, getting shot midway through the map by an enemy in the black void being one of them. But there are also elements that I like best about Firaxis’ design, like the wide range of fire modes that most weapons have. One of the great satisfactions of Xenonauts 2 is replacing a high-precision single shot with a low-precision three-shot burst and seeing each bullet hit your target, shortly before it hits the ground.
There are also new elements in the tactical layer. The way vehicles are implemented in the game has been adjusted. Replacing the Xenonauts’ bulky, manned scout car is an automated weapons platform that takes up a single square like your soldiers. Easier to maneuver, it is useful for initial reconnaissance of a mission area, while its missile banks are ideal for dealing with large groups of enemies. These platforms are also modular and can be equipped with new and improved weapons, just like your soldiers. They are big metal eyes for aliens and they are easily destroyed, but they are much easier to reassemble than a person.
After your Xenonauts complete a mission (or die trying), the game zooms out to the global Geoscape view. Here, you research new technologies, build new weapons and gear, manage and expand your base (and build new ones), and survey the skies for UFOs and other alien activity. It’s very familiar, a point I’ll expand on later. But one thing that Xenonauts has to its advantage is variety. Missions are diverse, ranging from combating kidnappings and terrorist events to recovering the wreckage of increasingly larger and more dangerous UFOs. Almost every new mission sees you facing a new threat or trying out new weapons and gear. The objectives are neatly summed up in-game too, though many of them are your typical capture of a UFO/alien affair.
You always want to see what happens next, which speaks as much to XCOM’s enduring premise as it does to Xenonauts’ own design.
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There are two criticisms I would make of Xenonauts 2. The first is unfair but nonetheless true: it lacks the dramatic flair seen in Firaxis games. Goldhawk conjures up all the fireworks it can, and there are clever flourishes throughout. The music is suitably eerie, while the textual reports you receive for alien autopsies and major story beats are evocative and detailed. I also love the brief summaries of world events appearing and fading over time on the Geoscape, journalists disappearing, political assassinations, vast “dead zones” appearing in the ocean. It feels suitably strange and menacing.
But I love the XCOM pulp bomb, and the more austere presentation of Xenonauts just doesn’t speak to me in the same way. One issue that particularly bothered me was the meager weapon audio effects. Yes, an M16 rifle is practically prehistoric compared to an alien plasma pistol, but tearing through a Secton with an M16 should still be satisfying. Instead, it’s like shooting bubbles out of a bag of flour. Later weapons are a bit better, but not by much, and none of your xenonauts’ actions make much physical sense.
My biggest concern is the one I alluded to at the start – because all Xenonauts are successful, there’s little here that’s new or surprising. The biggest difference between Xenonauts and XCOM is how it lets you assume control of intercepting UFOs, directing your fighters from a top-down, radar-like vantage point as they dance around commercial alien missiles and gatling fire. But by Goldhawk Interactive’s own admission, this feature is not ready in the early access version. It’s technically playable, but requires considerable balancing and refinement, to the point that the developers are currently encouraging you to skip it.
Meanwhile, Goldhawk also attempts to spice up how familiar the early hours are with the addition of the Cleaners, a mysterious human faction working in concert with the aliens. Much of the beginning of the game revolves around dismantling Operation Cleaner, raiding their offices to steal their data, assassinating their regional leaders to hinder their operations, and ultimately storming their headquarters. . It’s a good idea. The problem is that the cleaners never really feel threatening. All of my encounters with the cleaners put me on the offensive – at no time did I have to respond or defend myself against anything the cleaners did.
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The early access version, launching on July 18, offers an almost complete campaign experience, although it becomes noticeably less finished as you progress, with descriptions missing for some events and objectives, and a final phase that currently seems anemic. Still, if you’re happy to play XCOM again, then Xenonauts 2 is a perfectly acceptable way to do so.
Shooting down UFOs and then sending vulnerable humans to secure the crash site is a loop that always works for me, and the classic Xenonaut tactics are as rewarding as they are unforgiving. But I wouldn’t have said no to something bolder, trying a little harder to put a new spin on an old adversary.