Xenonauts Review

STOP EXPLODING, YOU COWARDS!

Let's be honest. If aliens were to invade right now, chances are pretty good humanity would have a tough time of it, but we might have a chance. In 1979, though? Before we had stealth fighters, before we had directed energy weapons, before supercomputers or the Internet as we know it today? We'd be crushed. Xenonauts places the future of Cold War-era humankind on your shoulders, and it's about as punishingly difficult as it should be given the setting. If the brain-melting strategy doesn't scare you away, you'll find a beautifully atmospheric game that evokes the purest dread and desperation.

Any discussion of Xenonauts must make a nod to its clear inspiration, X-COM. While I'd like to say that this is a spiritual sequel to 1994's X-COM: UFO Defense, it's a lot more accurate to say that it's more of a remake than even Firaxis' XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Xenonauts strikes a balance between large-scale, real-time global logistics and small-scale personnel tactics. You must capture and research alien technology in the dire hope that humanity can reverse-engineer weapons to match and ultimately exceed those of the invaders before it's too late. You may also name your squads after friends and family to make ckear the human costs of war. With these parallels, Xenonauts struggles to establish its own identity. There are only a handful of substantive differences between it and the games that preceded it, and while each difference adds a lot to the game, it's also impossible to shake the feeling that you've done this all before.

As you capture alien technology and pass it off to your research team, you learn more about your foes and move closer to discerning their true intentions.

The war for Earth is pretty slow at first. The aliens you face hail from a planet with an extremely thin atmosphere, and they have to modify their ships before they can land. This minor narrative touch may seem insignificant, but it gives the early hours coherence by explaining the slow ramp-up in the enemy offensive. It's apparent that you're living on borrowed time. These visitors aren't friendly, and they have Earth surrounded.

Your main goal is to construct and maintain bases that monitor and guard as much of the world's airspace as possible, as well as to launch ground missions to recover alien technology or capture one alien leaders. And thus rises the multilayered strategy that links everything together. You need cash to run your bases, supply your troops, and keep the aliens from wiping out humanity. Missions help keep the international community happy, which keeps the money flowing. Every mechanic feeds into another, and a weak plan on one front can have a lot of critical repercussions. When starting up Xenonauts for the first time, I attempted to build two bases right off the bat. I wanted to secure a decent chunk of the planet and steadily expand from there. Unfortunately, founding and supplying two facilities rapidly drains your cash and keeps you from being able to carefully invest in the development of new, efficient weapons and tech for your soldiers and fighter jets. That doesn't mean it's impossible, but poorly conceived plans lead to humanity's doom.

It's immediately apparent that you're living on borrowed time.

Failing to protect some regions causes your program to steadily lose funding as those regions lose faith in the Xenonauts project. Because humanity as a whole is on the defensive, downing enemy aircraft is your bread and butter. You need to keep UFOs from bombing cities, abducting citizens, or straight-up attacking your bases. Initially, that's not a tall order. At first, only small craft like probes and corvettes can be modified to enter Earth's atmosphere. Intercepting them carries virtually no risk. You can have battles auto-resolve, with the game using basic aircraft statistics to determine the victor. If you prefer more direct interaction, you can play out the dogfights with a system that very closely resembles Cold War-era radar screens. Ships and planes are represented by green 2D sprites, and their firing arcs and weapon ranges are clearly displayed. If you're careful, manual dogfights can assist you in your path to victory. About midway through the game, I was lagging behind my fighter upgrades and couldn't keep up with the stronger, faster alien vessels, but I could still survive thanks to smart maneuvering. With a few careful clicks and some liberal use of my afterburners, I kept two of my jets in the aliens' blind spots and downed the ships before they could reach Dublin and initiate a wholesale slaughter.

When you can successfully scrap a UFO over land, you have a narrow window in which you can launch an automated airstrike to clear out all of the alien troops and pick up a moderate amount of cash, or you can choose to launch a ground mission. These have you organize landing squads to scavenge what alien tech you can and bring it back for future research. They also give your soldiers an opportunity to accumulate valuable battlefield experience, dramatically improving their stats over time. The surviving extraterrestrial troops and robots attempt to fight you off, making these missions dangerous propositions. The technological superiority of your foes makes itself readily apparent here; the extraterrestrial soldiers can immediately kill one of your soldiers if you're not extremely careful. Your weapons, and later your cheap imitations of the alien weapons, just aren't as effective. These ground missions help distinguish Xenonauts from its influences. Whereas XCOM: Enemy Unknown had small, tight levels that helped clearly identify threats, Xenonauts has sprawling levels with extremely limited visibility. Cover is also of limited use; in almost every case it can be destroyed with a few shots or a stray grenade. During night missions, your soldiers have severely limited visibility. The aliens, once again, have an advantage, with infrared vision. The result is an extremely lethal set of missions that help drive home the overwhelming danger posed by Earth's visitors.

I might be a little paranoid about what's on the other side of this door. But my fear is not unwarranted.

During one excursion, with a squad of battle-hardened veterans, I caught myself screaming at my computer screen, begging them to stop succumbing to a previously unknown line of alien androids for just a few more turns. After the anger and panic subsided, I realized I had no one else to blame but myself for the loss. Yes, Xenonauts is lethal, but never unfairly so. The environments are almost completely destructible with the right gear, and once you've cleared an area of civilians, wanton destruction comes with almost no penalty. Xenonauts necessitates a metered ruthlessness, a barely contained thirst for devastation that you periodically release to ensure absolute dominance. This is ultimately the game's single best design decision. Xenonaut's gameplay ably complements its narrative. You aren't just told to feel desperate; you must take desperate measures to have any hope of victory.

Unfortunately, while Xenonauts creates a network of mutually reinforcing sections, it borrows too heavily from the 1994 X-COM in some not-so-flattering ways. The user interface can be obnoxious and obtuse. Even with an internal game manual, I didn't figure out that right-clicking and dragging would change which direction a soldier was facing until a few too many hours into my first run. Outfitting your squads with the gear and equipment they need can also be a pain. In addition, the game's uninspired visuals lack the panache of its more recent competitor, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which magnified powerful attacks with its cinematic, over-the-shoulder camera. A similar brand of drama could have made Xenonauts' battles all the more thrilling, but the distant camera keeps the action at arm's length.

Completing missions yields experience and war medals for your soldiers, which sets them apart from new recruits and further encourages you to protect them.

Xenonauts is an unlikely success, a challenging clone of a beloved classic with enough tweaks to entice fans and newcomers alike. It might look rather cheap at first glance, but underneath that rough exterior lies something special. Breaking the game down and looking at all of its pieces in isolation would do the game a disservice, because every facet helps focus the true luster of the whole.

The Good
Omnipresent foreboding maintains tension throughout
Hits the highs of its influences and covers some of their weaknesses
Skillful balance between macroscopic real-time strategy and turn-based tactics
Difficulty makes unlikely victory that much more satisfying
The Bad
Subpar visuals diminish the drama of combat
8
Great
About GameSpot's Reviews

About the Author

This is the third time Dan Starkey has used his strategic talents to collect and reverse-engineer alien technology to repel an invasion. He's gotten pretty good at it, but Xenonauts still claimed 61 hours of his life. They were well spent.

Discussion

58 comments
rogerpenna
rogerpenna

Xenonauts is great, but I also suggest picking up the free OpenXCom and then buying the original 1994 game on GOG or some other place (OpenXCom requires the original files). OpenXCom fix lots of stuff from the original game, make it easy to play on Windows, adds several features and has EASY mod support... just add mods to a folder and choose in-game which ones you want to activate. 


Plus, they have an Android version that works VERY WELL! I forgot all my other games on Android. I only play OpenXCom now!

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

Maybe those of you who are clamoring for something more complex should recall that X-COM: Apocalypse came out unfinished.

I personally would want something even more complex than the overly ambitious X-COM: Apocalypse, e.g. political maneuvering concerning the other factions in Mega Primus and colonization of the aliens' planet.

Yet, I am also aware that by increasing the complexity, the game becomes more difficult to develop and it appeals to a smaller niche of game consumers - namely the fastidious ones. That's a small market with questionable revenue potential.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

Just in case some of you are amused by this:

Some of the earliest fan-made mods for this game are changes to the artwork, like Jsleezy's Real Fighter mod.

That would tell you something about how bland the official artwork is.

TheGreatPhoenix
TheGreatPhoenix

Frankly this game doesn't improve on the concept of the original its trying to ape, nor does it do anything different.  Frankly this review really disappoints me.  As the dated mechanics nor the fact that the recreation can only be called mediocre is nowhere to be found.


And the ending of "this is an unlikely success is just blowing your own trumpet mate. Any of the fanboys who have been screaming about this game since its conception were going to love it. unlikely.... right.....

stev69
stev69

The 1994 release of ufo enemy unknown, is far superior in every way than this poor clone.

hitomo
hitomo

what i expect from a new xcom like game is super graphics and up to date Interface ... nothing more


have a look at ufo.afterlight ... and just redo that

gronkymug
gronkymug

Do aliens sit in ufo like idiots when they are shoot at, like in the original game?

Halloll
Halloll

next, remake Xcom apocalypse, with Griffon tanks and real time city scape battles.

Keaze_
Keaze_

Sounds an awful lot like "The Forever War".

Boddicker
Boddicker

I wish this game would get a PS4 release :(

sigmact
sigmact

we need more games like this one

Gwarpup
Gwarpup

Also for those that found XCOM enemy unknown/within a bit limited or linear.  Just try it again with the Long War mod.  Tons and tons of additions and features.  It's huge.

billzihang
billzihang

Where's that console person to tell us PC exclusives are rubbish?

prats93
prats93

With the amount of hours I've sunken into XCOM Enemy Within, I can't see myself getting back into this archaic rubbish.

faizanhd
faizanhd

Good to see a strategy game maintain it's depth and complexity instead of throwing it all away to cater to the non-existent "casual" demographic.

sonicwraith
sonicwraith

@TheGreatPhoenix

I think it's Enemy Unknown that wanted to make a 'new' x-com. Xenonauts developers just wanted to produce a good remake. With that said i personally think the interceptor mini-game is fresh. Also, the fact that you get to see your chance to hit with various obstacles in your line of fire is helpful. It's a good game.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@TheGreatPhoenix 

Maybe you want to realize that Xenonauts is intended as an outright remake of X-COM. I don't think that the developer, Goldhawk Interactive, ever promised that it would build upon what the original has done.

rogerpenna
rogerpenna

@stev69 well, actually, I love the graphics of Xenonauts. Let´s wait and see if they add support to high-res graphics and other graphic effects on OpenXcom.

Battleseed
Battleseed

@gronkymug Yes they do. Making it even worse is they use Psi attacks as well from there with no line of sight or range requirements. Costs them 1AP so they spam it every turn.

rogerpenna
rogerpenna

@Keaze_ What? I read The Forever War and it has absolutely no relation to this! You mean the Joe Haldeman book, right?

Kickable
Kickable

@Gwarpup i didn't even know anyone was modding Xcom, time to reinstall

madgame23
madgame23

@Gwarpup  Where is the long war mod available?  it wont crash my system will it?

aeterna789
aeterna789

@prats93 You should understand that XCOM by Firaxis is a re-imagining of the original XCOM and not a remake. The developers themselves said it out loud in an interview.

SJGSpook
SJGSpook

@prats93 Enemy Unknown/Within is a decent game but it has zero longevity. It lacks depth and most importantly it lacks re-playability due to the levels being constant. 

billzihang
billzihang

@prats93 The game is entirely different because, frankly yes XCOM is a little dumbed down-- for one base building has been overly streamlined (you can only have one); and Xenonauts returns to the more indepth turn points as opposed to move once and fire, or move far.


It doesn't really make sense to call something archaic when it's more complicated.


Yes, the only thing I would like is for a modder to bring us back the comic-book visual style of the original.

PinchySkree
PinchySkree

@prats93 enemy within was a missing feature DLC tacked on to a dumbed down feature incomplete version of the original.

MAD_AI
MAD_AI

@prats93 

I get archaic but rubbish? Something tells me if this was on PS4 you'd be singing an entirely different tune. 

sonicwraith
sonicwraith

@faizanhd 

These guys should remake Terror From The Deep ... cause i never get to finish it. :( Was too hard for me.

hochstreck
hochstreck

@faizanhd 

Creating a fun game is about creating dynamic, yet destilled,  and therefore interesting and elegant gameplay - not about making things as complicated and annoying as you possibly can.  


While I wished for more strategic base-building too, Enemy Within offered for most part more dynamic and polished gameplay than the older XComs.

CoolCamel616
CoolCamel616

@faizanhd No reason it shouldn't be complex, difficult, and easy to play. You are setting your sights too low if a shitty UI is the price of challenging and rewarding gameplay.

Keaze_
Keaze_

@rogerpenna @Keaze_  "Your main goal is to construct and maintain bases that monitor and guard as much of the world's airspace as possible, as well as to launch ground missions to recover alien technology or capture one alien leaders. And thus rises the multilayered strategy that links everything together. You need cash to run your bases, supply your troops, and keep the aliens from wiping out humanity. Missions help keep the international community happy, which keeps the money flowing. "


Yea I guess you could say it's a far-fetched comment but I read the book a few days before reading this article that's why I made the association :P


I liked your comment because you read that awesome book.

madgame23
madgame23

@Gwarpup  Ill pass, there are some restrictions to it and it has the potential to damage your system.  It looks good and until the developer adopts the additions, ill hold off on it.

Stepn2myworld
Stepn2myworld

@alioli @billzihang For the record, Halo and Halo 2 were both released on PC. Furthermore, a PC enthusiast's rig would EASILY run any game in the Halo series released on Xbox 360.

Since the Xbox One's hardware configuration is known, my personal rig is crushing it and would EASILY run the first Halo game released for the Xbox One at 1080p and 60 frames per second.  

hochstreck
hochstreck

@SJGSpook 

You do realise that Enemy Unkown/Within can be set to quite interesting and hard difficulties?


Ironman, higher difficulties, as well as the Second-Wave-Options are there for a reason, you know.

Gwarpup
Gwarpup

@SJGSpook Levels are Random and there's quite a few.  How was the old XCOM different?  It was harder for sure, but only because it was more tedious counting out every AP for every character.  Difficulty on the new XCOM is pretty difficult if set it to be so.

hochstreck
hochstreck

@PinchySkree @prats93 

Being offered 10000 routes - while only three being effective, isn't exactly what I call "complex gameplay". Its just "complicated gameplay" - and therefore thoughtless, unrefined game design.



Gwarpup
Gwarpup

@PinchySkree @prats93 Incomplete how?  I play XCOM the old and even games like Jagged Alliance and HOW could you say the new XCOM was feature lacking?  It had waaay more features?!  And don't tell me "Base Invasions".. blah it's pretty obvious why that wasn't included.  

Kickable
Kickable

@madgame23 @Gwarpup sounds like BS, i can't find anything.  hell i've never had any game damage my system for 20 years  lol

Zevvion
Zevvion

@Stepn2myworld @alioli @billzihang What does the ability to hypothetically run games get you? Even if you could hypothetically run every game that is exclusive to Xbox One on your PC in terms of power, you still can't play them without an Xbox One. Similarly, no console can play Xenonauts, even though they would obviously be able to run it. Facts matter more than hypotheticals. 

Ultramarinus
Ultramarinus

@hochstreck @SJGSpook Challenge level/difficulty =/= complexity/depth

It's the main argument of people defending Firaxis but totally irrelevant.

Xenonauts More Info

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  • First Released
    • Macintosh
    • PC
    • Unix/Linux
    Xenonauts is a strategy game in which you control a multi-national military organisation defending a Cold War-era Earth from alien invasion, using small squads of persistent soldiers to eliminate the extraterrestrials and recover their technology in turn-based ground combat.
    7.4
    Average User RatingOut of 25 User Ratings
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    Developed by:
    Goldhawk Interactive
    Published by:
    Goldhawk Interactive
    Genres:
    Strategy