In another timeline, XCOM was successfully rebooted into an FPS series, to the chagrin of the X-COM (with the dash) that were hoping for the return of this punishing, yet tactically sound strategy game series.
It was in that timeline that Goldhawk Interactive announced the original Xenonauts, a modern attempt at recreating Jullian Gollop’s first X-COM game.
Yet somehow, our timeline saw the original idea of an XCOM FPS (which later became the third-person shooter The Bureau) flopped, but it ushered in a hugely successful reboot in the way of Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Yet the original Xenonauts still has its fans. It is faithful to the original UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-COM: UFO Defense when the game launched in full in 2015.
And now in 2023, we have the sequel Xenonauts 2. Though fascinatingly, it’s not a continuation of the story of Xenonauts. But don’t call this a remake, the devs insist that this is a reimagining of that alternate timeline Cold War setting the first game started out, but now built on a 3D engine and other finer improvements.
If you ask me, Xenonauts 2 is the developer save-scumming to make Xenonauts again, now with more experience, and support from publisher Hooded Horse. We’re entering a new timeline.
I approached Xenonauts 2 from the perspective of someone who deeply adores Firaxis’ take on XCOM, but never played any of the hyphenated titles or the original Xenonauts. But I am aware of the series’ history to know what sort of hardcore, more mechanically-rich systems the game will make me tussle with.
And yet, somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that Xenonauts 2 isn’t just taking inspo from X-COM, but also XCOM. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing! What it means is that, if you’re a fan of either XCOM spellings, Xenonauts 2 is worth checking out if you fancy saving the world against an unknown alien threat.
Purge The Xenos
Xenonauts 2, at its core, will feel familiar to any strategy tactics fan. There’s a strategic layer where you manage bases (plural), build facilities, recruit people, select a research project, and have the engineering department make things. All while time speeds up as you watch the Geoscape, a world map in which you must defend from the alien threat.
From time to time, you’ll find UFO sightings within your radar range and you can choose to engage or not. You’ll also get pinged on threats around the world from time to time. And there’s also a subplot about the Cleaners, humans sympathizing with the aliens and destabilising the world through their covert schemes, which must be dealt with.
As far as the story and setup go, it feels very much XCOM. Or maybe that’s because X-COM is just like that as well. The early game feels eerily familiar, down to the objectives which progress the main story. The Cleaners is very similar to the EXALT from XCOM Enemy Within.
Obviously More X-COM Than XCOM, But…
Xenonauts 2 should feel somewhat at home for players who played the Firaxis XCOM games. But every once in a while, you’ll be get hit on the head by not thinking enough. There will be a good chunk of time spent unlearning some of the unhyphenated XCOM assumptions and become more tactically aware of your surroundings, as it can, no, will, bring peril.
Instead of the simple and intuitive way soldiers can move and shoot, we have Time Units (TU) that govern how every single action a soldier does. From opening a door to crouching. Soldiers even need to spend TU to turn around, so they can uncover the fog of war. If you don’t do that, you’ll easily be flanked by enemies unknown.
Every time a solider takes a step outside of the dropship, there’s a chance that you may get immediately shot at from an unexpected angle. And don’t you dare assume that the dropship aligns your soldiers in the right direction of where you should be heading. My first mistake was assuming that I should just march forward from the dropship exit as the objectives should be heading that-a-way. Only for a group of aliens to strike on the flank, injuring and even killing a few good folks.
Another thing that keeps tripping me up is how overwatch works. In Xenonauts 2, it’s an automatic thing that soldier, and enemies, will do if they have unspent TU at the end of their turn. I’ve sent too many good folks to an early death from this blunder, not taking into consideration that every unsuppressed enemy can fire a reaction shot.
And you know what? That’s great! XCOM’s streamlined gameplay has resulted in too many assumptions where players can safely autopilot before things get hot. Xenonauts 2 channels the X-COM of yore in saying that you should always be on your toes. And checking your flanks.
As a result, Xenonauts 2 is a slower game where you should take time to ponder all your moves before committing any of them to action. There are so many ways to mess up. And in that way, it takes the heat out of the RNG aim. In Firaxis’ XCOM, RNG became the mortal enemies of players because it’s the only system that can frustrate you and ruin the current fun run you have. But in the context of X-COM and by that extension Xenonauts, the evilness of RNG not being on your side is just the tip of the iceberg of how the game will make you suffer.
Instead of figuring out how to pile on enemies quickly, something that’s very effective in vanilla XCOM, Xenonauts 2 has made me use smoke bombs to cover an out-of-position soldier and have another soldier repeatedly shoot down a wall so that the sniper can have sight on the enemy and shoot their shot. Does this work every time? No. But the fact that I’m thinking of doing these tactical decisions, using every tool the game offers to try and eke out an advantage rather than just overpowering with sheer numbers, is a great experience.
And there are other little extra touches the game includes to tie the strategic and tactical layers together. You can see the local time of the location you’re at, and if you arrive at the mission spot at night, it becomes a night mission where visibility is slightly reduced. Biomes mostly match the area of the world. I said mostly because I did have an instance where the mission loads a desert map when the crash site was supposed to be in the Philippines. But other than that, you can expect to land on Tropical biomes in Southeast Asia, the Borreal if you land somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.
I have not much to say about the strategy layer itself other than it feels good. I still need to grasp handling budgets where multiple bases are needed to be online, but the good news is I’m not as struggling as much as I was expecting due to inexperience.
The extra systems and mechanics aren’t too complicated to learn. A good ten hours or so and any XCOM player can feel comfortable Xenonauting. You can make use of save scumming, though even on an SSD I find the loading times to be a good deterrent from making this a habit. And you can force yourself to play on Ironman mode (only autosaves, permadeath) should you’re up to the challenge.
And no, there’s no need to fear about difficult spikes. From my playthrough, the aliens get progressively stronger at a rate that you can catch up to. The first Terror mission won’t go awry if you’re not fully geared up with higher-tech armour and weapons, thankfully. Though I’m not sure when exactly should I start clearing out Cleaner Cells, because right now, they seemed to unlock too early on.
What Can Be Improved
There are some little issues I find with the tactical layer, which overall is in a solid place right now. Trying to aim shots from different building levels is a bit clunky as you need to remind yourself to change to the level of your target every time, and you can’t click on a soldier from a different building level just by selecting them.
Another is there’s no UI indicating that there’s loot you can gather on the ground. I know you can loot the corpse of a fallen soldier, but didn’t know you can do that with other enemies as well. But it took me a gander from the reviewer guide I was provided with to discover this. More work should be done to signal to players about lootable items on the ground. Have the inventory glow a different colour, or something like that.
Also, it’s easy to waste TU from a misclick. I want to right-click to collect intel on a computer, but despite the cursor changing to indicate right-clicking will collect intel, the soldier turns.
The UI in general is actually decent. They even have the nested tooltip as seen in At The Gates and more recently Old World, which is always neat to have. But there are places where such tooltips aren’t appearing yet like the Main Base screen (tooltips appear on the buildings built/currently building, but not on the list of buildable items on the right).
Xenonauts 2 should be on the radar of any strategy tactics player, not just diehard X-COM fans. It’s a bit trickier than a typical XCOM-like, but the extra complexity does translate into a deeper game that demands and rewards you for understanding its rules and making use of all the tools you have.
The Early Access release still is 65% complete, story content stops appearing on Day 180, but you can keep playing the repeatable missions. The Early Access release here covers the early and parts of the midgame, with more than 10 hours of playtime of a campaign that is expected to take only 20 hours to beat.
Xenonauts 2 is looking pretty solid even in this Early Access launch. Here’s hoping the rest of the content the devs are cooking up will deliver when the game launches in full.
Xenonauts 2 launches in Early Access on PC (Steam) on July 18.
Played on PC. Review key provided by the publisher