When Xenonauts development started all the way back in 2009, it had a simple mission statement: to be a modern update of the X-COM series, giving things a new lick of paint but otherwise preserving the mechanical core of the game. This was very much a good idea at the time. X-COM had been criminally neglected for over a decade, with only Altair’s excruciatingly mediocre 1 UFO: AfterX series carrying the torch in the meantime, and there was definitely a gap in the market for an X-COM remake — especially after 2K announced that their own X-COM reboot would be a third-person shooter (this was the game that would eventually become the insipid Bureau). Thus it was that Goldhawk Interactive was formed, and work began on Xenonauts.
Unfortunately for Goldhawk their inexperience with game development meant that this work dragged on and on, running into difficulty after difficulty. Five years passed. Against all odds, the market changed. It turned out that there was a proper update of the X-COM series in the works, produced by none other than perennial Civilization-peddlers Firaxis. With their turn-based pedigree and a lead developer who loved the series and knew what he was doing, initial scepticism turned to critical acclaim when the game was released in November 2012. Xenonauts was now releasing into a world that already had a resurgent XCOM franchise, and so that initial mission statement had to change slightly: its unique selling point is no longer that it heralds an X-COM revival, but rather that it’s more X-COM than XCOM itself. Boot up Xenonauts for five minutes and it’s far easier to see the X-COM DNA, and while there are substantial under-the-hood changes, particularly on the geoscape layer, the tactical combat and the progression towards the endgame hew far more closely to the precepts laid down in the original game more than twenty years.
So in as far as Xenonauts is supposed to be a more faithful remake of the original Enemy Unknown, Goldhawk can consider that mission statement as fully accomplished. There’s TUs, automatic reaction fire, beating the shit out of aliens with shock sticks and dragging them back to the laboratory, multiple bases whose construction is identical to that found in the original, a research, engineering and personnel system that’s also pretty much a full-on clone, base assaults, base defences, losing your best soldiers to being shot in the back by sneaky alien assholes you somehow didn’t spot – pretty much everything you’d expect from a game whose quest was to replicate the core experience of the original in its entirety. That’s not to say that Goldhawk have just copied X-COM outright, though – if they had, I’d be pillorying the game far more harshly than I’m about to. They’ve attempted to streamline the twenty year-old UI (inventory and store management in particular), make the geoscape layer less braindead by beefing up the UFO interception and funding elements of the game, and close some of the game-breaking loopholes you could exploit in the original. I respect Goldhawk’s motivations and their ideas for improving each of these elements of the game; having spent 25 hours finishing a campaign on Normal, however, I have to say that where Xenonauts falls down significantly is in execution and balance.
I suppose we should start with the basics. For anyone reading who doesn’t even know what an X-COM is: Xenonauts is a game where you defend the Earth from a massive alien invasion. It has two layers. One, the geoscape, is where you manage your bases, direct your research and engineering efforts, and send out squadrons of interceptors to shoot down UFOs who are encroaching upon the airspace of the nations who are providing you with your much-needed funding. Once a UFO has crash-landed, you then send a dropship full of soldiers to assault the wreckage, kill any surviving aliens and secure their technology so that you can reverse-engineer it and develop new interceptors, weapons, armour and – eventually – a way to defeat the invaders once and for all. The geoscape is real-time with a variety of speed-settings, automatically pausing to flag up any events of note like a UFO being spotted or a research project being finished, while the UFO assault missions take place on a turn- and tile-based battlescape that pits a squad of 8-12 soldiers against anywhere up to 20-odd aliens.
Historically the battlescape has been the meat of X-COM’s gameplay, with the geoscape providing some much-needed context and control over how you approach the battlescape segments, but otherwise not having a huge amount of impact on the eventual outcome of the game unless you somehow chronically mismanaged everything on it. UFO interceptions on the geoscape were totally braindead affairs – either your interceptor was good enough to take down the UFO it was attacking or it would get blown out of the sky, with little you could do to affect the outcome – and the only real decisions you had to make involved what to research next. Even the Firaxis remake suffered from this malady to a degree, with its stripped-down geoscape only being difficult (to begin with) because it didn’t explain how important satellites were to the player. Xenonauts attempts to redress the balance between the geoscape and the battlescape by making UFO interceptions more important and more involved, while at the same time paring back the importance of the battlescape by essentially making it an optional followup to the interception: not only are you no longer penalised for not assaulting a UFO crash site, but you’re actually given an “Airstrike” option that clears it from the map and gives you a small amount of cash into the bargain.
This means that once you get used to this new way of doing things you only send your troops out to clear crashed/landed UFOs if you know it’s a new variant with some new tech inside. If you already have all the goodies from that UFO type, all you get from a successful assault is experience for your surviving soldiers and a lump sum of cash from selling all of the alien artifacts that your scientists didn’t need. A lot of the time that’s a good enough reason to send the dropship in the first place, but it’s good to have the option to just ignore crashed UFOs; battlescape fatigue has been a huge weakness in every single X-COM game, and I do appreciate that Xenonauts at least tries to introduce a remedy.
Being able to pass on battlescape missions comes at a cost, though, and it’s a price that’s paid in a lot of stress and frustration on the geoscape layer. Once you get past the very beginning of the game Xenonauts’ UFOs do not spawn singly, or even two or three at a time. Instead six or seven UFOs will spawn at once and try to overwhelm your air defences; until you get on top of things in the endgame you have to make multiple sorties with your interceptors expending their missiles shooting down one UFO, flying back to base to refuel and rearm, and then flying out again to take down a second UFO. There’s a much wider variety of UFOs in Xenonauts with drastically differing combat capabilities, and much of the strategy in interceptions comes from knowing the capabilities of your interceptors versus those of the UFOs, what they can take down singly, and what they’ll have to gang up on.
Figuring out what to commit against which bogey was a pleasing brain-teaser, and one which convinced me that Goldhawk were on to a good thing with this retooling of the geoscape, but like I said a few paragraphs back it suffers badly in terms of execution and balance. There’s a new interception minigame where you control your interceptors as they fly around a 2D map, but the UFO “AI” isn’t even worthy of the term; it picks a target and flies straight at it until either it or the UFO is destroyed. It’s a bit of a shame because once again there’s the core of a good idea in this minigame – it’s far more interesting than anything we’ve seen in an X-COM game – but thanks to that AI you can win with the same tactics every single time, turning it into an experience that’s just as braindead as its predecessors.
There’s a couple of external factors, though, that turned this interception minigame from a flawed idea into the bane of my time with the game. One of them is the way the UFOs affect your funding; money from the funding nations is your primary source of income through at least the first two thirds of the game, and they really don’t like it if you just let UFOs fly through their airspace willy-nilly. Unfortunately for you, until you get three bases up with four cutting-edge interceptors at each one – a task that will take most of the game to accomplish – you’re going to have to let at least some of them fly around for a while because so many of them spawn at once and you just don’t have enough interceptors to take them all down. As UFOs travel about the globe they crap out little event markers ranging from inoffensive phenomena like crop circles to shooting down military and civilian aircraft. I thought these were neat little bits of flavour until I realised that every single once of these events was decreasing my funding in the region in question, and after that realisation it was absolutely infuriating to see the single UFO I hadn’t taken out with the first sortie of interceptors generate four or five negative events in the time it took them to refuel and rearm.
This setup means that it’s quite literally impossible to avoid funding decreases in the first few months of the game; you simply don’t have the coverage or the raw numbers of interceptors to do a proper job of it. If you don’t start building extra bases as soon as the game starts you’ll probably lose so much funding that it becomes impossible to recover, since a funding decrease means no money to expand which means no coverage which means another funding decrease. Once again, I’m keen to stress that I think it’s a fundamentally good idea to make both funding and the geoscape important, I just think that the way its been balanced is messed up both in terms of difficulty and gameplay tempo. There’s a wave of UFOs every five or six days, but because UFOs don’t turn up outside of these waves there’s sod all to do in between except choose your research and press the fast-forward button. Because there’s no build-up in UFO numbers – the UFOs themselves get bigger and scarier, but the same amount shows up in every wave – the geoscape at the end of the game is basically the same as the geoscape at the start of it, with the only difference being that by that point you should finally have enough interceptors to kill everything in one go.
Because you’re so worried about funding decreases, then, you tend to stretch your available interceptor resources as far as they’ll possibly go. This means sending them out to deal with the UFOs one-on-one if you think you can at all manage it, which in turn usually means doing the interception manually instead of relying on the overly-pessimistic autoresolve. The UFO AI is so bad that you know you can kill the entire flight of enemy fighters with just a single Corsair even though the autoresolve says you have a 0% chance of victory, but you still have to spend a minute of your time locked in this idiotic tail-chase as you maneuver to stay out of their firing arcs. It’d be both easier and more interesting if you had more than one interceptor to play with, mind, but because of your limited resources this only happens if there’s a big UFO that you don’t think your interceptors are good enough to take on on their own.
Taken separately the flaw in each of these systems – the UFO AI, the wave system and the impact on funding – isn’t so bad, but the way they feed back off of each other is borderline catastrophic, forcing you to play the game in one particular way to even have a chance of making it through to the end. It’s a problem that’s hugely exacerbated by the sheer number of UFOs you have to deal with in the course of the game – by the time I finished mine I’d shot down more than 230 of them. Even if we generously assume I autoresolved half of those (mostly towards the end of the game) that’s still 115-odd minigames played, ensuring Xenonauts ends up with the opposite problem to the X-COM series; instead of battlescape fatigue you now suffer from geoscape fatigue, dreading the “UFO detected” popup because you know there’ll be six more of the bastards all of whom will tank your funding if you don’t take them out in a series of tedious interceptions.
Speaking of the battlescape, though. I’m going to do some complaining here too but at the end of the day I thought the issues with the battlescape were much less pronounced and more the product of technical limitations on the part of the game and the developer rather than a game-ruining design fuckup. What Goldhawk were shooting for here was something which captured the feel of classic X-COM with a lot of new toys thrown in, and while the end result is ugly as sin it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. The one major mechanical addition is a suppression system whereby you can stop enemy units from reaction firing at you by firing automatic weapons or lobbing flashbangs at them – the latter is great for storming UFOs, at least until you research the stun grenade which acts as a sort of bug bomb for UFO control rooms. Otherwise Xenonauts concentrates on streamlining and improving the old experience while handing you a bunch of new toys to play with. Soldier progression has been divorced from their kill count so they’ll level up just by doing all the things they’d usually do in a mission, which in turn means you can use vehicles to kill aliens without worrying that they’re depriving your troops of much-needed experience. The vehicles themselves are juggernauts of destruction – not the most accurate, but who needs to be when you’re firing a laser cannon that obliterates anything in a four-tile radius of the impact point? They’ll succumb to massed fire so you do need to keep them supported with your infantry squad, but being able to rely on vehicles in this way dramatically increases the survivability of your troopers and cuts down on the number of bullshit deaths to practically zero; if somebody dies in Xenonauts it’s probably because you got sloppy and didn’t check all the corners, or went too far forward with your scout. Survivability is also helped by innovations such as the riot shield, which automatically blocks eighty points’ worth of damage from the front and is invaluable for anyone heading through the UFO entry door first, as well as heavy weapons that are genuinely useful – they take the entire turn to fire, but are pretty much a guaranteed kill on whatever you’re firing them at.
The battlescape, in short, is an incredibly slick piece of work, and despite (or perhaps because of) the attempt to improve the geoscape it’s still by far the funnest part of the game. My complaints about it range from the superficial (UFO hulls are now indestructible and I really miss breaching them with demolition charges/blaster bombs) to the annoying (the game’s line-of-sight system is somewhat inconsistent, with shots being blocked by invisible walls and aliens shooting past cover that has a 100% chance to block your return fire), but its biggest problem is actually a knock-on effect from the geoscape: in a game where you shoot down over 200 UFOs, even if you airstrike 75% of them you’re still going to end up doing 50-odd battlescape missions. That’s far too many, and it’s a problem that’s exacerbated by the very uneven ramp-up in alien types. There’s perhaps eight enemy types in the game, and for some reason Xenonauts did not see fit to introduce half of them until I was into the final stretch. This meant that the first thirty battlescape missions were spent fighting the Caesans, who are supposed to be the game’s Sectoid equivalent but who instead look (and fight) like old men in jumpers. There’s a Chryssalid analogue, but I saw maybe a dozen of these out of the thousand aliens I slaughtered during my campaign. In the twenty-five hours I played it, there was precisely one terror mission and two alien base missions. Everything else was UFO clearance on static maps that were recycled far, far too often. What I’m trying to get across here is that there simply isn’t enough variety in the battlescape to sustain interest over the course of the campaign, meaning that despite Xenonauts’ best efforts the sense of battlescape fatigue still remains – to the point where it’s a palpable relief when you reverse the funding decline on the geoscape and no longer feel like you have to clear UFOs for cash money.
That’s Xenonauts, then. It’s a game that, despite that mission statement of being X-COM, actually needed to be more than X-COM in order to justify its existence, which is why I’m a little sad that this review has ended up being mostly bitching; it did try, and it succeeded in as many places as it failed. It’s just that its successes are relatively low key and difficult to talk about – it’s hard to write anything about streamlining the store system beyond saying “It streamlines the store system”, even though it’s a massive improvement over the original – while its failures are far more high profile and nearly sabotage the entire game. However, there is a silver lining for Xenonauts: my issues with it are largely matters of balance, and the balance of the game can easily be changed by altering the game config files via a text editor. If you found yourself getting frustrated by the funding system, as I did, you could easily alter those files so that each negative event only resulted in a tenth of the funding loss. While this isn’t an excuse for the game’s flaws, Xenonauts’ moddability is such that I suspect it’ll end up being the cure for them in the long run. I’m not sure I’d recommend the base game to anyone who wasn’t seriously into X-COM, but if you’re happy with either waiting to see what the community comes up with or else modding those files yourself it’s probably worth picking up at some point.
- I actually quite liked the first one, up to a point. That point was when I assaulted a UFO and spawned with my squad clustered in a small chamber surrounded by three aliens with rocket launchers. I never went back to the series after that. ↩