A few years ago, Firaxis gave us a treat: a true, full-fledged X-Com. It was a true breath of fresh air. Well, that is if you consider inhaling the vaporized remnants of your fallen soldiers “fresh.” Nonetheless, X-Com:Enemy Unknown was a remarkable installment that reinvigorated the turn based strategy genre for more than the niche market it typically serves. (Not counting the Civilization series, which is an a beast of its own.) For all the fancy bells and whistles, some of us found the overworld game lacking. The turn by turn tactical decisions that the player can make were brilliant. Unfortunately, it was not a “true” X-Com when one factors in the overworld gameplay. Goldhawk Interactive’s Xenonauts fills that void.
The comparison to the original X-Com is certainly not without merit. On their original Kickstarter, they stated that this was the goal. On the difficulty select screen, experience with X-Com is the primary touchpoint in the descriptive text to help you make the decision. If you want 90’s X-Com with a few added features and crisper graphics, this is a must buy.
The player starts off by selecting a good base location on the world map. One wants to cover as many wealthy, contributing nations as possible, as, much like life, managing your skrilla is the only way to get ahead. (Did I use that right?) So, protecting the rich people is paramount. The poor countries? Screw ’em. If they didn’t want to be abducted and probed, they would move. At least that was the attitude I employed as I desperately tried to keep the invasion in check.
Keeping the oncoming alien interlopers from getting a true foothold remains difficult. The crafts start small. They are easy to shoot down and raid, but the difficulty quickly ramps up. Fortunately, the upgradable troops are up for the task if used correctly. The game starts the players off with better troops that have more skills than what can be recruited. The smart play is to mix these guys and gals in with fresh recruits when on the sorties to ensure that when one troop falls, another is ready to take their place.
And fall they shall. On the tactical portion of this one, the enemy is relentless. They behave smartly. It’s not uncommon to see them make the worst decision possible for your team, digging in when needed, flanking your troops, making smart use of targets of opportunity, and focusing on destroying cover when all else fails. These turn based battles remain as challenging as they were in the 90’s. I would actually argue that this one feels more challenging. Needless to say, if you commit all of your soldiers to movement on a turn, be prepared to spend a great amount of time re-equipping and training fresh troops. Of course, since they are fresh, they won’t be as good. Then begins the downward spiral of grinding meat into barely obtained wins. Long story short: be careful.
The challenge can be mitigated with smart use of the research tree. Just like its inspiration, there is a fully fleshed out tech tree to explore. Featuring expansions on terrestrial and alien technologies, this was my personal favorite part of the game. To perform effective research, one must have something to research. Therein lies another strategic choice. Shooting down an alien craft will reduce the amount of harassment it can induce on that high paying country, but it results in technology being destroyed in the crash. Should the player wait and let it land, there will be more to pilfer for research (or sell off in desperate times.) Resistance will be stronger, though, as there wasn’t a crash to kill off some of the opposition.
The overworld game is what I was really missing in the Firaxis games, and it is back here. Instead of building and upgrading one base, you can have multiple. The outfitting of said heavily armed domiciles is also left for player. Is it wiser to throw the funds at a fully decked out crib or spread out to cover more countries? Either can be a viable option if played right. Be warned, though. Our erstwhile alien antagonists will try to invade your base(s). Spending all available scratch on prepping for field excursions will result in a smoking hole where home should be. I was not able to find an option to purchase insurance. I am rather certain that State Farm does not write policies for protection against star born destruction.
Now, while I gave this game a perfect score, it is not flawless. The game overcomes the following to warrant the score, but I have a couple of niggling criticisms to impart. First, the soldier portraits and models in the field feel like placeholders. Considering some of the fantastic art found in the scientist and engineer portraits, the come off as a tad amateur. Also, the interface does take some acclimation. Due to the sheer breadth and scope of the options available, an initial attempt can seem intimidating. Once I got used to it, I would say that everything is laid out in an intuitive manner. Just be prepared. At least mousing over each button does give a clear description of its function. Without that feature, I would still be lost. Finally, those who have never played classic X-Com will want to do a bit of homework. Many fantastic starter guides exist online, and the new player would be well served spending at least twenty to thirty minutes perusing before jumping in.
Due to the reduced graphical requirements, I would highly recommend this for laptop play on long trips. The play is engrossing and great for devouring time, but it is also suitable for brief spurts when time allows. It’s also easy to wile away the hours at home. All said, the frugal gamers will certainly be able to justify a purchase of this one based on the gameplay to hours ratio. The gameplay itself is top-notch and lends itself well to repeat plays, each time employing a new strategy.
It is with repeat plays that I would actually place Xenonauts above Firaxis’ X-Com iteration. The high-budget, cut scene laden nature of the Firaxis entry was great the first time through. Skipping through them on later attempts became bothersome. While still a great game, I felt that I was playing through a “story” multiple times. Xenonauts truly adopts the board game feel of its forebear and comes out better for it. My strategies built my narrative, unlike X-Com, where I was required to complete certain missions to proceed. In Xenonauts, I was never forced to capture such-and-such an alien if I did not feel so inclined. I imagine that most will disagree with my choice. I don’t care. Either way, both are excellent games and deserve play. For the superior experience, though, choose Xenonauts.