I decided to replay Xenonauts in the wait for Xenonauts 2, and I can’t say I regret my time spent. The game, which I think copies a little too much from X-com to a fault, still provides a grand old time for X-com aficionados like me. The main standout is the time period. The 80s iron curtain setting is a phenomenal pick for the backdrop and makes the game ooze with atmosphere. It just feels right, story, setting, and weapons/tech. And with the provided prequel novel Crimson Dagger that set the stakes, you just can’t go wrong here. Xenonauts is made by Goldhawk Interactive, and currently, they are busily working on a sequel.
You take the role of commander for the secret organization Xenonauts, tasked to fight the increasing threat of extraterrestrial visitors. Just like X-com you have to shoot down UFOs, please governments all over the world for funding and go on dangerous tactical missions in turn-based mode to fight the aliens. All with increasing stakes and difficulty, and overall, it’s a fairly balanced affair. At least on normal. Even when I had high-tech armor and weapons, I took plenty of casualties. The aliens will put up a fight, all the way right up to the end… well, the end for one of you, that is.
Now the thing that makes the game a little less in my eyes is that it follows the X-com formula a bit too close. It has the same structure, and the same kind of aliens, even if the graphics and names do look and sound different. Any veteran will be able to point out what represents what, and what it will do. I understand why this happened. It was a high-risk Kickstarter indie project and it was sold as an improved modern version of X-com. Yet, I would have hoped there was more that differentiates the games from each other than the setting. To be fair, there is, but it’s mostly UI things, except for two main things – the added air combat, and combat shields. Now if you want, you can directly control the dog fighting in the air. You are presented with a radar screen where you control your small planes much like an RTS. It is enjoyable, but for those (me included even if I try to change my ways) that suck at it, there is an auto-resolve, like in the olden days.
The shield is another major addition, specifically to the tactical combat. In the original X-com, you have no real approach to breaching UFOs and buildings except sending in your tank, the heaviest armored guys, or the poor rookies if you want to absorb the initial reaction fire damage. Xenonauts solved this elegantly with the added combat shield. While it gives the wearer heavy penalties in weaponry (can only wield a pistol) and carrying capacity, you now have a dedicated guy for breaching and absorbing damage. The shield has separate health points, so you will have to keep tabs on that. Any damage destroying the shield will have damage spilling over to the agent carrying it. The shield changes the combat for the better, now you don’t have to chance it with units you might rather keep alive.
Otherwise, the combat is very similar to X-com. The deadliness is high, and usually, one or two shots will down whatever wants to kill you, and the same goes for your men. This creates lots of tension during missions. As expected, survivors get better, accumulate more experience, and if they live long enough they become true champions of humanity, aka superhumans with incredible stats – which makes it incredibly sad when they finally bite the dust. The agents can gain medals too, and this, I think is a great addition, since it adds another layer of flavor to the progression for your men. I just wish there were more categories of it, like how it works in the modification of The Final Mod pack for OpenXcom. Your men also come with basic background information, like country, combat experience, and age for the additional coolness factor. They also have a profile photo, which makes the unit gain a little more personality than the regular X-com operative.
During the campaign fighting the alien invaders, you will be raiding creepy and dark alien bases, fighting lizards invading farmland for yummy farmhands to eat, and trying to save desperate civilians on city missions from turning into reaper zombies. Mission objectives don’t wary that much, unfortunately. I don’t think it’s a negative per se, though. Sure, there could be more special events, but I prefer the sandbox:y open-ended nature to the gameplay with a minimum of scripts, which usually ends with repeat objectives anyway. Been there, done that – I’m looking at you nuXcom! The gameplay loop of shooting down UFOs, battling aliens on the ground, capturing alien tech, and researching said tech is a very enjoyable loop, especially when that tech benefits your men in some way later down the line. It’s a satisfying line of progression, so it’s no wonder X-com managed to create its own genre.
When it comes to the visuals, Xenonauts has pleasing 2D graphics and most environments are filled with detail. However, the locations/biomes do repeat, but it’s not something only this game suffers from among the similar titles. The visual style is kinda muted. But, I think it fits the realistic setting quite well – it still got a touch of retrofuturism in places, a style I very much enjoy. The artwork for the Xenopedia is remarkable on its own. The artist truly went all in on these, everything from vehicles to equipment, to aliens. The 2D style comes with some issues, though. Switching height levels may look funky at times, and aiming can also get a bit weird since the engine is not true 3D. Everything is flat 2D made to look 3D. But these are minor things considering. Another standout is the music. The soundtrack hits all the notes you might expect – it’s horror, with a slight ting of X-files combined. Definitely, a soundtrack that is worth listening to outside of the game when you want to feel those suspenseful alien invasion beats.
If you decide to give the game a go or are just going for a replay, I highly recommend activating the community edition that fixes some leftover issues and playing it with strict ironman rules. These kinds of games are made for this option. To nobody’s surprise, I highly recommend Xenonauts. It’s a fabulous take on the X-com genre, even if it might share too many things with the original game. Many ask why even play it when OpenXcom exists. The reason is that the setting makes it unique. It’s just a different atmosphere with a well-written storyline that fits, and that alone makes it worth it. I’m glad it was a success for Goldhawk, considering we are getting a sequel next year!
Thanks for reading.