There has been a resurgence of some old-school tactical games lately, such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown by Firaxis. Yet, not everyone who knew the old originals would be pleased by the remakes. For one, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has simplified versions of certain gameplay elements which were in the original, such as its system of dual actions and movement grids which replaced the more complicated but more versatile system of Time Units in the original X-COM games.
Therefore, there is a market – however niche – for the recycling of old-school tactical games as they were. Xenonauts, by Goldhawk Interactive, is one such game.
As to be expected of a game which is practically a remake of the original X-COM except in name, the story in Xenonauts is about an alien incursion (read: not “invasion”) on Earth and the effort of a special clandestine taskforce to deal with it. This taskforce has been given the odd name of “Xenonauts”, the naming of which best left for a Goldhawk official to explain.
Initially, the aliens perform scouting runs and other intelligence-gathering activities, but as time moves on, the aliens escalate their efforts. It is up to the Xenonauts to do research on the aliens and develop the means to counter them, while the bickering nations which fund the Xenonauts do their best to suppress panic.
LACK OF IN-GAME TUTORIALS:
Unfortunately, Xenonauts retains one of the less satisfying hold-overs from old-school game designs from the days of X-COM: the lack of any in-game tutorials. Much of what the player needs to know are in the manual for the game. This will not be much of a problem for an experienced game consumer, but for everyone else, reading is not the same as seeing gameplay elements in action.
Bases are the player’s main assets in Xenonauts. The player starts with just one, but can build more as the taskforce gains more funds (which can occur in two ways). Bases are not cheap to build, however, and they take a long time to build, so the player must plan accordingly.
Indeed, wise plans are a must, because expanding carelessly would mean that not enough of the world can be protected from alien incursions, which in turn limit the player’s opportunities to retrieve alien technology and intelligence, among other setbacks. Bases can also be lost due to hostile actions by the aliens.
Bases contain the facilities to support the Xenonauts’ effort. Workshops to build hardware, laboratories to analyze alien technology and develop human ones, garages for vehicles and such other facilities are there to provide believable ways to both limit and nurture the player’s capabilities to counter the aliens.
For example, the player will need to build living quarters so that a base can have personnel such as soldiers, engineers and scientists.
There can only be so many facilities at a base too. Each base is represented with a grid of a limited number of tiles. Most facilities take at least two tiles, so the player will need to learn to be a packrat when utilizing the space in a base. (The arrangement of facilities will also be a factor when executing base defense missions too; more on these later.)
Yet, there are some unbelievable designs concerning base facilities; these may have been put in place for the sake of gameplay convenience. For example, living quarters are not needed in order to support the operation of garages; presumably, there should be people who are running the garages, e.g. fixing and arming vehicles, but if this is so, they do not need living quarters, for whatever reason.
Another example of unbelievable game designs is the wildly varying limitations on the things which are stored in bases. The player only ever needs one storeroom for each base, because each storeroom, according to the game’s in-game documentation, can store “unlimited” amounts of items, whereas a hangar can only support one airplane each.
One can argue about the practical real-world differences between supporting the presence of loose items and the presence of aircraft. However, it has to be stated here that some of the old X-COM titles, such as Apocalypse (the last X-COM title by the now-defunct Microprose), has storerooms with limited space. The inconsistent believability in the base-related gameplay elements of Xenonauts can be a bit disconcerting.
The hiring of personnel would not have been a gameplay element which is worth mentioning, if not for certain safeguards in its designs against exploitation.
Personnel costs money to be hired and also need salaries to stay in the player’s employ. Unscrupulous players might have the idea of firing idle personnel (especially engineers and scientists) before the end of a month, i.e. before payday, in order to trick the game into reducing the costs of maintaining bases, and then re-hiring them when they are needed.
However, any personnel who have just been hired will take three days to arrive; three days can be a long time, and much could have been done during those three days if the player has retained the personnel.
RESEARCH & FABRICATION PERSONNEL - DIMINISHING RETURNS:
It should be easily understandable (especially to any X-COM veteran) that scientists are needed for research work in the laboratories and engineers are needed for fabrication work in the workshops. However, Xenonauts adds a twist to this gameplay element by introducing diminishing returns from assigning more than one scientist or engineer to any project; any scientist or engineer which is assigned to a project after the first operates at 1% less efficiency.
This means that the player must balance between crashing resources (i.e. manpower) into a project and waste some due to inefficiency for the sake of expedience or spreading the people out into multiple projects and taking away opportunities for faster progress from them. This is not a new gameplay design in strategy games with 4X elements, but it is a rare one which improves the sophistication of otherwise straightforward gameplay designs.
The main resource which the player needs is money. As mentioned earlier, there are two ways to obtain it, both of which are dependent on the player’s skill – and luck.
Money is needed for many things, the most significant of which is the maintenance of the Xenonauts’ bases. Failure to get enough to do so will mean that the player’s account go into the red; when that happens, the Xenonauts’ bases work at reduced efficiency, which in turn will further affect the player’s performance. It is a vicious feedback loop.
FUNDING FROM NATIONS:
One way of receiving money is through funding from the nations of the world; the injection of funds from them tends to be in the seven digits. However, there are caveats with this means.
Although the nations have agreed to the formation of the Xenonauts to deal with the alien menace so that they do not have to, they have not made concrete agreements on the funding for the taskforce. Rather, the funding which each group of nations will provide depends on how impressed they have been with the player’s performance.
The player’s performance is in turn affected by two factors. The first one is the severity of the trouble which the aliens’ UFOs can cause. When they appear in Earth’s atmosphere, they will linger around, randomly causing trouble with no predictable frequency.
Small trouble, such as getting themselves spotted by civilians, will diminish the funding from the affected nations by a relatively small amount, whereas nasty ones, such as shopping malls being bombed, will diminish funding by a lot. This can get out of hand, as will be elaborated later when UFO incursions are described.
The other factor is how thorough the player has been in dealing with UFOs. UFOs which are shot down will (understandably) impress the affected nations, as is successfully raiding and capturing intact UFOs which have landed.
Yet, there is also a maximum limit to be had for the funding from any group of nations. This means that the player must keep the maintenance costs of the Xenonauts in mind, because there is no limit on the maintenance costs.
ALENIUM & ALIEN ALLOYS:
Like the original X-COM (and Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within), the player will be salvaging alien materials from downed/captured UFOs. These materials are needed to fabricate advanced hardware which otherwise could not have been made with human-manufactured materials.
There are two types of alien materials: “Alenium” and alien alloys. Alenium is of course Goldhawk’s take on Elerium, which belongs to the XCOM trademark. Anyway, like Elerium, Alenium is the power source for the aliens. Story-wise, the nature of Alenium appears to be better explained; Alenium is a very stable fissile material, which only releases energy when deliberately fractured.
Gameplay-wise, it is needed to build aircraft and ground vehicles. In terms of narrative, there are other things which consume Alenium, but conveniently, they use so little as to be negligible.
The other material is alien alloy, which is needed to produce just about any advanced hardware. Alien alloy cannot be produced via human means, so it has to be salvaged from UFOs (which in turn means that the player must go on missions to capture downed or landed UFOs; more on these later).
Of course, the player needs to research and develop the means to use either material first. Indeed, this is the first step to up-gun the Xenonauts.
Alternatively, the player can just sell these resources for money. Chances are, the player will need the money more than he/she needs the alien materials. After all, advanced hardware which needs alien materials still needs money to be made.
There is not much which the player can do until the aliens come down to Earth to cause problems in their UFOs. Yet, this is also the time which dumps a lot of trouble on the player.
As mentioned earlier, the UFOs will romp about Earth at distressingly high speeds; bigger UFOs are even faster. Some UFOs, such as the reconnaissance ones, will do nothing more than roam about, causing trouble along the way.
The others do actually have goals, such as eventually landing to perform tasks, but before they achieve these, they will roam about randomly for a while anyway.
The main problem with the UFOs is not the threat which they pose. Rather, it is the randomness of their roaming behaviors. There is no certain frequency in the incidents which they cause. There is also no way to predict which direction that they would turn to when they do make turns. (However, there are some noticeable factors; for example, UFOs which would be outmatched by an encroaching squadron of Xenonaut aircraft will generally turn away from the squadron.)
Even the UFOs which have the task of supplying bases which are being built will wander around for a while, before making the necessary landings to supply the bases.
The most which the player could do without incessantly saving and reloading save-games whenever a UFO goes on an erratic roaming path is to build multiple bases, station aircraft at these bases and launch and recall aircraft whenever a UFO approaches any base. However, the player can do little else to prevent a UFO from going on a random rampage other than shooting it down before it can do that.
Interestingly, some UFOs do land; this is not a good thing however, because they either land to cause trouble on the ground or they want to build a base, which is even nastier than a UFO. However, this also presents an opportunity to the player; landed UFOs will yield more goodies to steal and salvage than crashed UFOs, though the player will have to contend with more defenders.
Speaking of crashed UFOs, a UFO can only crash if it is, of course, shot down by a Xenonaut interceptor; the world’s militaries can do next to nothing about the UFOs. Intercepting UFOs is easier said than done, however, as will be described shortly.
The Xenonauts’ first generation of interceptors, the Condors, are barely capable of matching any UFO, even the earliest ones, in terms of speed. The most which the player can do with Condors is to hope that the UFOs come over to them instead of chasing after them.
Later, the player gains faster interceptors. Gaining these is very much a necessity, because the UFOs curiously become faster as they get bigger. (The game does have an explanation for this.) These interceptors have to be built instead of being bought though, and they are not cheap.
Speaking of costs, any interceptor of any class costs $100,000 a month to maintain. This is an odd gameplay element, but it does provide a reason to replace the increasingly obsolete Condors with other craft.
As for the act of chasing down UFOs, astute players might notice that it is not efficient to have interceptors simply chase after UFOs. The interceptors are likely to waste a lot of fuel, which they will need for combat as well. Rather, the player is better off trying to get the interceptors to where the UFOs are going instead. However, due to the aforementioned erratic paths of UFOs, this is not always a reliable way of intercepting UFOs.
Even after having many bases and much interceptor coverage, intercepting UFOs remains difficult, again due to their erratic paths. This factor of randomness can be vexing, especially in a game where planning is supposed to be an important aspect of the gameplay experience.
Fortunately, after a squadron has managed to chase down a UFO, the squadron will obtain additional speed in order to tail the UFO. Faster UFOs can still outrun the interceptors, but it will take half an hour of in-game time at the very least to shake them off. During this time, the player can choose to have the squadrons engage them or tail them until they are over land, so that they can crash and form a crash site on land later.
Of course, knocking them out is easier said than done (or at least that is so until the player figures out how to utilize the auto-resolve feature).
It is also worth noting here that fighter-class UFOs can initiate air combat against Xenonaut aircraft on their own; the player has no choice but to engage in battle against them when this happens.
The player has two options for having interceptors engage UFOs.
The first, perhaps more convenient option is to have the fight automatically resolved. Unlike the auto-resolve options of so many other games which have them, the one in Xenonauts is curiously in the favor of the player.
For example, as long as the player can outnumber a UFO with aircraft which are equipped to take it down, e.g. amply-fueled Foxtrots with torpedoes for Landing Ships, the game considers the engagement to be one-sided in the favor of the player. The details such as the maneuvers used are not considered.
Of course, the player will need to keep the factors which are used for auto-resolutions in mind. For example, there is the amount of fuel which interceptors have when engaging UFOs (which do not have fuel limitations); if the interceptors still have lots of fuel, e.g. more than enough to return back to base, the game determines this factor to be in the interceptor’s favor.
However, conversely, if the interceptors barely have enough fuel to return to base, the engagement will turn out awful; this will be depicted via the low success rate for auto-resolution.
The other option is to engage the UFOs manually. This option brings the player to a 2D plane view, resembling a LED radar screen of sorts. This also means that atmospheric “combat” only takes in two dimensions, which is a limitation that suggests a lost opportunity for more sophistication.
Still, it is still more complex than what passes for aerial combat in the earlier X-COM games and even the reboot, with the exception of X-COM: Apocalypse.
Anyway, the UFO (or UFOs, in the case of squadrons) and interceptors are to fight each other across a limited region of airspace. The side which initiated the engagement is usually facing the other side already, whereas the vessels of the other side are usually facing the direction which they were moving towards.
Any vessel, Xenonaut or UFO, can only ever fire in front of it, or at least within an arc projected in front of it. Some UFO vessels have more versatile weapons, which give them secondary arcs which are wider. Nevertheless, no UFO can ever fire behind itself – this is something that astute players will notice and exploit.
As for the act of shooting, any munitions that a vessel fires will be represented on the screen; this way, the player will know when they would impact. This is just as well, because this visual design is needed in order to make use of the other thing which interceptors can do in battle: “combat rolls”.
All Xenonaut interceptors can perform combat rolls (with the exception of the ultimate interceptor, but that is a different kind of aircraft entirely). Some UFOs, namely the escort classes, can perform combat rolls too.
Doing a combat roll has a vessel moving sideways in a quick maneuver. Combat rolls are generally intended to have vessels get out of the way of incoming fire. However, the player has not much control over the direction of the roll; the vessel will always move such that it is as far away from incoming fire as possible. This is usually desirable, but it would have been better for the player if he/she can control which direction an interceptor rolls to.
This limitation also happens to apply to UFOs. If a Xenonaut vessel can flank a UFO fighter and fire off a missile, the UFO cannot escape; it can attempt to dodge with a combat roll, but this only puts some distance between it and the missile and it is still in the latter’s path.
For Xenonaut interceptors, combat rolls do happen to consume fuel. They need fuel to not only move about in engagements, but also to return to their bases. Without sufficient fuel, they simply crash on the way back home (unless there are some bases nearby with spare hangars).
AMMO (IN UFO ENGAGEMENTS):
The UFOs do not have limitations on their ordnance. The Xenonaut interceptors do, though. They have limited ammunition for their rapid-fire weapons batteries; some interceptors do not even have them, such as the Foxtrot. Some interceptors can be armed with missiles or torpedoes (which are slower but more powerful variants of missiles), but can only carry two at most.
Running out of ammo in UFO engagements is a major concern; it is also a significant factor for auto-resolutions of engagements. Therefore, the player will need to think carefully about having a squadron engage another UFO after having dealt with one earlier.
Conveniently, the auto-resolution feature will calculate ammo consumption for engagements too. For example, if the Xenonaut interceptors overwhelmingly outclass a UFO, e.g. Marauders against recon UFOs (which will appear throughout a playthrough), the interceptors will only use their weapon batteries, saving their missiles and torpedoes for harder targets. This is a very good design decision on Goldhawk’s part.
REFUELING AND REARMING:
Eventually, interceptors will need to return to base from sorties. They have to be rearmed, restocked on fuel and repaired. This is not an instantaneous process; depending on the percentage of fuel and ammo which the interceptors have used up, they can take more than an hour of in-game time to restock. If they are damaged, they take even longer. Any interceptor which has lost more than 50% of its ammo, fuel or health is grounded, and cannot be launched. This adds further complexity to the activity of intercepting UFOs.
To cite an illustrative example, the player may have a squadron which has spent a lot of ammunition and fuel, but they are close to base. There is a weak UFO and a strong UFO AROUND; while engaging the latter is certainly not wise for the time being, the squadron can still knock out the weak one, but it will add half an hour of in-game time to their resupply time and during that time, the strong UFO can do a lot of mischief.
One of the goals of the UFO incursions is to create bases on Earth. An observant player might notice that some UFOs, such as the Landing Ships and the Carriers, may flit around and land on certain places in the world across multiple incursions. They are actually supplying would-be bases with the materials they need in order to be completed.
Unfortunately, there is no way to knock out these bases before they are completed; the player will only know of their presence after they have been completed, after which they can already be causing serious trouble. Alien bases can do a lot more harm than UFO incursions, and they can even launch UFOs of their own (albeit the smaller ones).
Attacking an alien base is different from attacking a crashed or even landed UFO. There tends to be relatively more defenders, and the alien-made environments, which are made from tough alien materials, do not support many tactics which work in (the generally destructible) human environments. On the other hand, Alien Bases tend to yield more complete alien goods than UFOs do, such as their power sources and reactors.
Dropships are the main means of ferrying an attack force to alien bases or downed/landed UFOs. The player starts with a heavily modified variant of a human heli-transport, but can eventually unlock two other types of dropships with higher capacity, greater speed and more fuel. Interestingly, the dropships with higher speeds and capacities are not always straight upgrades.
The Shrike dropship has two large exit ports instead of just one, which may or may not be desirable; the two large exit ports make it easier to disembark en masse, but they also make the dropship less reliable as a piece of cover that can be used during the first turn. (A mission can place aliens very uncomfortably close to the dropship, right in the first turn.)
The Valkyrie dropship does not appear during missions as a piece of nigh-indestructible cover. As compensation for this, the player is given the convenience of setting up his/her forces within a small zone in the deployment phase; there will be more elaboration on deployment phases later.
One gameplay element about dropships which Xenonauts does not inform the player about is that a dropship is automatically attacked if any UFO crosses path with one, even if the UFO is not deliberately trying to chase it down.
It can be argued that the game’s documentation does mention that dropships are vulnerable. Yet, it has to be said here that an engagement does not happen if a squadron of interceptors cross a UFO’s path, unless there are fighter-class UFOs which are trying to interdict them. A player would have assumed that this applies to dropships too, until he/she learns the hard way that dropships have additional special rules to remind the player that they are vulnerable.
Anyway, any dropship which is attacked is immediately brought down, killing most of the troops which it is carrying. This can be a painful lesson to learn the hard way.
In certain scenarios, the player is given the opportunity of deploying his/her squad within a small zone. This opportunity is usually associated with the Valkyrie dropship; any UFO assault mission which involves one will always start with a deployment phase.
This would have been useful, but the game holds the advantage of this feature back by limiting the player’s view of the level to just a few cells beyond the deployment zone. Normally, the player will not be able to fully utilize the deployment phase if he/she cannot see beyond the zone. However, in some scenarios, such as base defense missions, the player gets to see all of the level and thus place troops such that they are a bit close to where they need to go.
There is a hole in the programming of the deployment feature that an unscrupulous player can exploit. The fog-of-war can be expanded if the player makes a game-save during the deployment phase and reload it afterwards. This can be of incredible use in UFO assault mission, especially if the player has soldiers with flight-capable armor. (There will be more elaboration on the fog-of-war mechanism later.)
To perform missions, the player will need to send forth squads of soldiers. Xenonaut soldiers are of course human, and unlike the soldiers in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, they will remain, for better or worse, human.
Xenonaut soldiers are technically little different from each other. Any human soldier can use any piece of gear. If there are any significant differences between them, it is the variation in their starting statistics, though any soldier which has survived for a long time will eventually have just about the same statistics as other soldiers who have survived just as long.
Speaking of which, the statistics would be quite familiar to veterans of squad-based turn-based tactical games. These include staples like hitpoints, accuracy and strength. There are others which are less immediately relatable and are not necessarily self-explanatory, such as Reflexes and Bravery; these will be described later in their own sections.
Soldiers generally gain improvements to their statistics at the end of every successful mission which they survived. However, many factors determine the types of statistics which are improved, and the magnitudes of the improvement. For example, making use of a lot of aimed shots (more on these later) would increase the chances of obtaining an accuracy improvement.
Unfortunately, luck is a very significant factor too. Sometimes, the player might notice that a soldier that has not done much in a battle would gain considerable improvements, whereas another soldier that has done a lot more would get nothing.
Even If the player manages to nurture soldiers with statistics that are as high as possible, bad luck can still lead to them flubbing some actions which they usually succeed at. One example is shooting things at point-blank range, which is affected by a deliberate limitation which will be described later.
Observant players might notice that there are limits to the numbers for some statistics. For example, Strength can only ever be improved to 76, whereas Hit Points and Time Units can be improved to 100. The limitations on these are not exactly clear; they are only mentioned in passing in the documentation of the game, if at all.
To a player who is not already smitten with gameplay elements of the past, all these designs about statistics may seem like a lot of unnecessary baggage. To say that they add to the complexity of the game is also an overstatement, because the bulk of the statistics are only ever used as factors in RNG rolls.
GEAR & LOADOUTS:
The success of missions will hang greatly on what the Xenonauts bring into battle. Indeed, it is important that the player replaces their gear with newer stuff, for the default gear will rapidly become obsolete as the aliens bring in better-equipped troops. To obtain newer gear, the player will need to perform research and development of more advanced hardware and then manufacture them; this will be described later in their own pertinent sections.
Anyway, the user interface which is used to kit out individual soldiers with would be quite familiar to people who have played the first two X-COM titles. For example, each soldier has two weapon slots, though these will generally be occupied by just about any gun which the player uses, with the exception of handguns and grenades.
Each soldier also has grid-like clusters of slots for items which he/she presumably carries in his/her backpack and belt. There does not seem to be any practical difference between keeping items in the backpack and keeping them in the belt, e.g. taking from the backpack or from the belt into any weapon slot appears to use identical amounts of Time Units.
It is in the player’s interest to fill up as many slots as possible, so that the soldiers are well-supplied. However, each soldier has a limited carrying weight which is dictated by their Strength rating; for example, a soldier with a natural Strength rating of 76 can carry up to 30 kg of gear. Any load beyond this capacity will inflict penalties on the soldier’s Time Units, so the player will need to make a decision between having all kinds of gear for any situation and having the Time Units to perform just that one more action. (The latter choice is perhaps wiser.)
(76 is the highest Strength rating which any soldier can achieve without the Predator Assault armor, which is the only piece of gear that can affect Strength.)
Any soldier can use any kind of gear; this contrasts greatly with Firaxis’s reboot of X-COM, which restricts the choices of primary weapons for soldiers according to their classes. This is the only complexity to be expected from the combat capabilities of Xenonaut soldiers, however; they lack any differences which are more sophisticated than differences in their statistics and their load-outs.
MUNDANE WEAPONS & ADVANCED WEAPONS:
Interestingly, mundane ballistic weapons are always available for soldiers. The story-related excuse for this is that the nations which back the Xenonauts have agreed to make their weapon stores available, though they are not as generous with their funding. Anyway, if these weapons are destroyed during missions, there are always replacements available.
The same does not apply for more advanced weapons, such as the laser guns and (imitation) plasma guns which the player would get later in a playthrough. These must be painstakingly manufactured; a MAG gun would take around one day and a half to make, and that duration is for when 30 engineers are used. Having an advanced gun destroyed can be troublesome.
One could argue that these limitations are understandable; after all, these advanced guns are far more than just state-of-the-art human-developed weapons.
UNLIMITED ADVANCED EXPLOSIVES & AMMUNITION:
Yet, the same narrative argument could not be made for the advanced ammunition and explosives which the Xenonauts use. The game tries to make some excuses, such as the technology for these being somehow easier to replicate than the parts for guns, but it is hard to believe that the Xenonauts can make missiles with micro-fusion warheads in “unlimited” quantities.
Gameplay-wise, these conveniences do make it easier to load Xenonauts full of grenades, just for explosively aggressive tactics.
MUNITION & ORDNANCE PROGRESSION:
The R&D of weapons leads to straight upgrades for the Xenonauts’ primary guns and explosives. In the case of primary guns, the progression starts with regular ballistics, proceeding to laser, then plasma and finally MAG guns. In the case of explosives, they start with regular explosives, proceeding to Alenium-fracturing ones, then plasma and lastly fusion. Each subsequent stage yields weapons with higher damage output; that is all the player needs to know about the R&D of guns and explosives.
Goldhawk Interactive may have had plans to further differentiate the classes of weapons. For one, there are at least two different types of damage; these are “kinetic”, for regular ballistics and MAGs, and “energy” for laser and plasma. There were also R&D reports which suggested that plasma weapons have reduced effectiveness in rain.
Yet, if there were any such plans, they were not implemented in the official builds of the game. There are upcoming third-party mods that would increase the complexity of the weapons, but credit for these should not go to Goldhawk Interactive.
Like Xenonaut weapons, Xenonaut armor for soldiers follows a progression which renders earlier armor generations obsolete. There is a bit more complexity to be had from armor though.
Xenonaut soldiers are equipped with “basic armor” by default; this is nothing more than fabric uniforms, which offers next to no protection from alien weaponry.
After the player has researched alien weaponry and armor technology, the Xenonauts have the opportunity to develop and manufacture better armor. The first iteration is the Jackal armour, which consist of ceramics which are inserted in heat-resistant polymer. As to be expected, it is heavy stuff, which also becomes obsolete rather quickly as the aliens escalate to the use of more advanced plasma guns.
Soon, this is replaced by armor which makes use of plates of alien alloys. This iteration of armor also introduces flight movement, via the Buzzard suit; flight movement will be described later.
The last iteration of armor is practically video-game powered armor; the powered mobility is depicted via the conveniently low weight ratings of the armor suits. The Sentinel suit practically renders all earlier armor suits obsolete, with the exception of the Predator armor. The Sentinel suit also grants 360-degree vision, which is perhaps the best reason to use this suit.
The Predator armor makes the use of rapid-fire heavy weapons much easier, albeit at the cost of a much reduced vision cone. The Predator armor also has some oddities, such as being able to crash through light cover and doors (whether or not the player intends it to).
If there is any other significant gameplay issue with armor, it is not due to the designs of the armor, but rather the vagary of the RNG rolls for the damage output of weapons. Weapons have a 50% variance in the damage that they can inflict, so the protection which is provided by armor can vary wildly in effectiveness.
Shields of the arm-held sort are part of the gear which is available to Xenonaut soldiers. It can seem odd that there would be such gear in a game which has plasma weapons and UFOs, but their worth would become evident to players with an affinity for video-game tactics.
The behavioral/decisional scripting for the aliens will have them shooting at any exposed Xenonaut soldier, regardless of whatever he/she is holding. This means that the player can have a shield-wielding soldier draw some fire, if only to reveal aliens which the player suspects are waiting in ambush. Such a soldier is also useful if the player can park him/her in front of another, otherwise exposed soldier.
The shields are not indestructible, however; the default shield can only take at most two solid hits from alien weapons. The upgraded one which the player gets later can take more shots, but it retains the same vulnerability as the previous one: it only protects the wielder from shots which come in an arc in front of the wielder.
Most importantly, the shields are large items; the backpack slots for any Xenonaut soldier will not have the space for spare shields.
There is also another drawback with shields. As depicted in an earlier screenshot, a soldier with a shield cannot vault over low obstacles. This is partially understandable; the shield will make vaulting quite difficult.
Yet, having a shield is not an issue when using the flight capabilities of the Sentinel suit. The player can have a shield-wielding soldier fly through the air with the Sentinel suit, but the sprite for the soldier is the same as the sprite for when he/she is standing on the ground with the shield.
Some missions consider the region of the world in which they occur. Speaking of which, the world map (called “Geoscape” in-game) is separated into zones, with each zone conforming to one of the several types of terrain which are used for missions in the official build of Xenonauts.
Before elaborating on these terrain types, it has to be said here that some players might find that this “sectioning” of the world may seem unbelievable. For example, any zones which have been designated as “urban” zones will always look like an amalgam of the downtown and metropolitan districts of a typical Western city, regardless of the geography of the zones.
Anyway, the terrain type of the region of the world can affect the challenge of the missions which take place in them. This is most apparent in Terror missions, in which aliens are marauding about and the Xenonauts must stop them. In Terror missions, the terrain will be a major factor in locating and eliminating the alien aggressors, e.g. the amount of cover which the Xenonauts and aliens would get and the number of hiding places which civilians can use.
Indeed, it would be in the player’s interest to learn about the intricacies of each terrain type. For example, desert terrain often has clusters of cacti which make for unpredictable arrangements of light cover. In tundra environments, there are often pools of water which prevent the movement of characters which are not equipped for flight, but pools of water do not block shots.
Urban environments are the most interesting due to their destructibility, which will be described later.
UFO ASSAULTS AND UFO INTERIOR:
If the player is doing well in keeping up with the aliens, the bulk of the missions which the player would do are assaults on crashed or landed UFOs. A landed/crashed UFO will occupy a sizable chunk of the mission area.
The hull for the UFO is for all purposes, completely indestructible (even if they had crashed earlier due to being shot down by Xenonaut interceptors). No amount of weapons-fire from troops on the ground, even fusion missiles, will make holes in the hull of the UFO (even if it has been wrecked earlier).
This means that the player will need to have Xenonaut soldiers enter the UFO through its fixed entrances, which makes the player’s approach to the UFO quite predictable. The aliens do know this, so the aliens which have been assigned guard duty within the UFO will, more often than not, be quite prepared for the attack.
Furthermore, the walls in the interior of the UFOs are also indestructible; only the doors can be destroyed. This also means that the Xenonauts will often be forced to go through chokepoints if the player is attempting to storm the UFO’s rooms, especially the bridge.
Moreover, the interior of the UFO has plenty of cover, ranging from terminals to pallets for alien hardware. When the Xenonauts enter the UFO, the aliens are already occupying this cover.
By now, it should be apparent that assaulting a UFO is not an easy matter. It can be made easy, but only by exploiting certain flaws and oversights in the gameplay designs of UFOs. These will be described shortly.
UFO INTERIOR ODDITIES:
There are some noticeable oddities with the designs of the UFOs which appear in UFO assault missions.
In a nearby screenshot, it can be seen that Xenonaut soldiers can look into the interior of a UFO at certain angles. Presumably, this could be explained away by holes in the hull for crashed UFOs, but this oddity also occurs for landed UFOs. The explanation also does not explain why characters cannot shoot through these holes. Nevertheless, being able to look into UFOs and see the positions of the defending aliens will be helpful.
Another exploit is shooting rockets or tank shots into floors which are immediately above. This is associated with the odd gameplay design of destroying floors, which will be described later. However, unlike human-made floors, alien floors are indestructible, so they are not destroyed when hit with explosives. Yet, the ordnance still goes through the floor and explodes within the level above anyway.
The main reason to do UFO assault missions repeatedly is the opportunity to loot the UFOs of any significant alien hardware, such as the power sources of the UFOs and esoteric devices such as the hyperdrives of larger UFOs. The player will need them if the Xenonauts have not analyzed them in their research yet. Even after they had, any excess alien hardware can still be sold for some cash (presumably through illicit trade).
Getting alien treasures is easier said than done, of course. Unlike the hull and floors of a UFO, these are fragile and can be easily destroyed, even without the use of explosives. Furthermore, they explode after taking too much damage.
If a UFO has crashed, there is a chance that the interior of the UFO may be on fire. In this case, a significant amount of the hardware in the UFO may already be destroyed. There should be no way to know that a UFO is on fire until the player sees it, but due to an oversight in audio design, the player may know about this as soon as the second turn.
There could have been additional behavioral scripting for the aliens to have them deliberately destroying any assets in a downed UFO. Fortunately, although this would have made UFO assault missions feel more urgent and believable, it would have been frustrating.
UFO FIRES & STUPID ALIEN DEFENDERS:
As mentioned earlier, a downed UFO may have its interior on fire. One would think that the aliens would at the very least avoid the fires, buy they will not.
The default behavioral scripting for the aliens who are defending a UFO will switch their positions from turn to turn, if the player’s soldiers have not entered the UFO yet. Of course, such a behavior was implemented to ensure that the aliens are not in completely predictable locations.
However, in the build of the game with which this review was made, the aliens do not consider the presence of tiles which are on fire; they will move through the fire, taking damage and possibly dying before the Xenonauts even enter the UFO.
When this happens, it might be hard to believe that in other circumstances, the aliens usually act in an intelligent manner.
As mentioned earlier, UFOs sometimes land around the world, either to unload supplies, or offload terror teams. The latter often occurs if the UFOs land close to cities.
Unlike most other mission types, terror missions can only be won by eliminating all alien forces; there are no alternative ways to win. This would be nothing special, except that the player will face a few enemy types which are rarely, if ever, found in other missions.
These are the Medium and Heavy Combat Drones. Presumably, narrative-wise, the aliens have to land their UFOs in order to assemble the drones, so they are not encountered in most other missions (especially UFO assaults).
There is often no benefit to be had from encountering and eliminating Drones. There does not appear to be any practical R&D to be had from researching them, and they do not leave behind anything when they are destroyed.
Encountering them is usually a sign that the player has not been successful in countering the aliens.
BASE DEFENSE MISSIONS:
Another sign that the player is not doing well is that the player has to do base defense missions. As mentioned earlier, some UFOs have the goal of finding a Xenonaut base and landing an assault force on it. If the base has no soldiers, it is automatically destroyed. However, if it does, a Base Defense mission will commence.
This type of mission is perhaps the only type where the player has some degree of control over the layout of the level. The layout of the level is based on the player’s decisions in placing the facilities in the base. A denser base will be more difficult to defend, because there will be more entry points for the aliens and there are more facilities to protect. Speaking of which, the facilities will come under attack by the aliens; they cannot be permanently destroyed, but they will be disabled for a number of in-game days.
Furthermore, even though a UFO has attacked the base, the player cannot counter-attack the UFO.
It should be apparent that there is little to be gained from base defense missions. Fortunately, barring bad luck (e.g. a UFO appearing in the Geoscape immediately on top of a base), careful interceptor coverage can prevent such a mission from happening.
Curiously, the only Xenonaut personnel to be found in a base defense mission are the soldiers. Presumably, the base has been forewarned so that the other personnel have been evacuated. There may be a lost opportunity here to implement a secondary objective of keeping scientists and engineers alive, but that would have made such missions terribly complicated.
MULTIPLE LEVELS OF HEIGHTS:
The advantage of height can be considerable. Characters at greater heights can see over obstacles, and at certain angles between them and whoever they are looking at, they may be able to draw a line of fire to the latter without the latter being able to do so.
This advantage is balanced by their inability to see anything which is immediately below them, at least without standing on the edge of any structure or platform that they are on. Standing on edges of course exposes them.
BLASTING THROUGH FLOORS:
In missions where there are multiple levels of height, there may be buildings with multiple floors, each floor being contained within one level. Larger UFOs also have multiple floors.
Xenonauts with rocket launchers or vehicles with explosive weapons can fire on upper floors; the damage is applied against anything on the upper floors. As mentioned earlier, this tactic becomes incredibly useful for dealing with the last few aliens in the bridge of UFOs in UFO assault missions. This can also be used against aliens who are lurking on higher floors, or aliens who are perching on the roof of buildings (namely Harridans, and sometimes Wraiths).
Of course, the player will need to have some soldiers look at places on higher levels so as to place optimal shots, e.g. avoid harming aliens which the player wants to capture, or hurt multiple targets with a single rocket.
However, the player will have to be mindful of obstacles which reside in the same floor as the character (or vehicle) which fired missiles or shells. Due to the inherent inaccuracy of such ordnance, they might hit these and kill characters which are on the same floor instead.
TRANSPARENT FLOOR GLITCH:
The floors of human-made buildings can be destroyed. As expected, destroying floors remove them as visual obstructions. However, their hitboxes which are used for the purpose of moving are not removed. This means that characters can still walk on the destroyed floors, as if they are transparent solids. However, the floor will not protect them from being seen or shot.
Considering that much of the game seems competently designed, this glitch is a rather stark contrast.
As mentioned earlier, Xenonauts makes use of the old-school X-COM system of Time Units (abbreviated to “TU” in-game). Every (surviving) character starts with a pool of TU at the start of their faction’s turn. Almost any action will consume TU. Once that pool is dry, the character can no longer do anything.
The more nuanced complexities of Time Units will be described shortly.
Any character will use TU to move across any hex tile in mission area. Moving across one plane of height takes a handful of TU, whereas flying from one plane of height to another takes a bit more. Soldiers who are not equipped with shields can vault over low obstacles and soldiers with Predator armor simply crash through them, but both take a bit more TU than it would have if there had been no obstacle. Opening doors also cost TU.
The amounts of TU used for movement are always fixed, so characters with more TU will cover more ground than those with less TU. This is the only advantage that they have though, because there are balancing elements that prevent these characters from overwhelming those with lower TU. These will be described later.
One peculiarity with this old-school Time Units system (and the original X-COM’s) is that turning a character’s facing also consumes time units. This is rarely seen even in turn-based games which use similar point-based systems.
This would not have been an issue if the Xenonaut soldiers do not have limited vision; however, they do. This will become a factor when the player has soldiers entering a room which has not been cleared of aliens; the player will need to turn the soldiers to look at corners, or even off to the sides of the doorway. This is because the aliens have a tendency to lurk at these places, which is a behavior that would have been comical if it was not so tactically effective for them.
As mentioned earlier, characters with higher TU reserves would have an advantage in being able to cover more ground. However, their advantage does not extend to their offensive capabilities. This is because the use of any weapon, e.g. shooting a gun or throwing a grenade, always consumes a percentage of any character’s maximum TU reserves. To paraphrase, characters with higher TU reserves cannot outshoot those with less TU, if they are armed with similar weapons.
Speaking of similar weapons, different categories of weapons have not only different shooting profiles, but also different costs in terms of the aforementioned percentages of TU. For example, snapshots with shotguns/carbines and handguns use only slightly more than a quarter of a character’s TU reserves, meaning that characters which have them can shoot more than twice in their turn, assuming that the enemy is close enough that these snapshots would be effective.
Speaking of snapshots, these are the default shooting mode for non-heavy weapons. Snapshots are the least accurate of shots, but the player can choose more accurate firing modes, which typically take more TU.
Indeed, one of the key factors of the player’s skill at Xenonauts is how well the player can keep this rule of TU use on weapons in mind – both of those of the Xenonauts and the aliens. However, there is a lack of clarity on the statistics of aliens and their weapons. It would take considerable observation to figure out how much TU that the aliens use when they use their own weapons, and that means exposing soldiers to fire.
Interestingly, reloading guns does not take percentages of TU; they always take a fixed number of TU, meaning that soldiers with high TU reserves may be able to fire their guns and reload them within their own turn. This is an obvious advantage over characters with lower TU reserves.
However, the player should not get carried away reloading incessantly; when a gun is reloaded, the current magazine is completely discarded, regardless of how many rounds that it has left. It can be challenging to decide whether to keep semi-depleted magazines so as to utilize every available round or to replace them with fresh ones in anticipation of a prolonged firefight.
The aliens obviously start with superior weapons; long into a playthrough, the aliens will retain an advantage in firepower, even after the Xenonauts have made their own plasma weapons (which a character will consider as imitations of the aliens’ own). It will be a while before the Xenonauts’ own firepower surpass those of the aliens.
Therefore, it may be tempting to attempt to use the aliens’ own weapons against them; after all, in-game, they are said to operate with the same aiming and loading mechanisms as human weapons. Indeed, Xenonaut soldiers can just pick these guns off the corpses of aliens and use them. However, these guns have physical designs which are better suited for alien hands and body structure, and consequently are too awkward for humans to use; this translates into terrible to-hit rolls. Alien weapons cannot be stockpiled either; they are always disposed at the end of a successful mission.
Nonetheless, alien weapons are there for the player to use, if the Xenonaut soldiers have run out of ammo for their own weapons. That is, assuming that the player does not accidentally destroy them.
Throughout the game, the player will be encountering plenty of doors, both human-made and alien-made ones. While they may seem mundane – especially the humans’ – they do actually contribute to the tactical significance of any mission.
Firstly, the human-made ones are plenty destructible. Considering that some aliens do have the tendency to lurk off the side of doors, blowing the doors – and the walls next to them – can be tactically useful.
There are two types of human-made doors. The first type is the hinged one, which should be quite familiar to any player; it can be closed or opened and vice versa, and remain so. The other type – a sliding panel – can only be opened once, and remains open. This can have ramifications when the player ends his/her turn and the aliens get theirs.
The alien doors, which appear in UFOs and alien bases, have a common trait: they will always close at the start of any side’s turn. It is important to keep this in mind, because it takes TU to open an alien door too; this usually favors the aliens more than the Xenonauts. This is not told to the player, however – learning this the hard way can be a bit annoying.
Interestingly, the aliens will not always try to have one alien open a door so that others can shoot through it; this only happens if there is an alien that is lurking just off to the side of the door. Usually, the aliens would choose to fall back behind cover and wait for the Xenonauts to move into the room.
Every character has a meter of hitpoints for absorbing actual damage and another for absorbing “stun damage”. Running out of hitpoints for the former has the character dying, while running out of the latter means that the character faints and becomes permanently incapacitated (but can be killed later).
A few weapons inflict stun damage. The most prominent of these is the stun baton, which will likely be the player’s main method of capturing aliens alive; it is risky to use of course, due to its obviously short range. There are others, such as stun grenades which release gases that inflict stun damage at the end of the player’s turn.
The feature of stun damage may appear to inject some complexity into the game, but its contribution to the tactical sophistication of missions is actually limited. This is because the maximum amount of stun damage that a character can sustain before fainting appears to be close to the maximum amount of actual damage that they can take before fainting.
This in turn means that, for example, a bulky character that is capable of taking a lot of actual damage will be able to take a lot of stun damage too. This is particularly the case for Sebilians (more on them later). In other words, it is unlikely that the player will be able to resort to inflicting stun damage if a target can absorb a lot of actual damage.
At best, this system of stun damage appears to have been implemented only for the sake for capturing aliens. This impression becomes stronger when the player realizes that the aliens do not appear to have anything which can inflict stun damage.
BLEEDING & HEALING:
When a Xenonaut soldier is wounded, there is a considerable chance that he/she would start bleeding. When this happens, the soldier’s hitpoints will deteriorate from turn to turn; his/her bravery also starts to sink. To staunch this deterioration, the player must apply a medical kit to the soldier.
Using a medical kit also restores some of the hitpoints which have been lost, specifically half of them. Even if healing via a medical kit is not applied to a soldier by the end of a mission, these hitpoints will be restored to the soldier anyway.
It is also worth noting here that medical kits have limited supplies. Specifically, each medical kit can only heal up to a hundred HP, though this should be more than enough (assuming that the player has been careful in directing the advance of his/her soldiers).
It is not clear whether the aliens can bleed or not. The Sebilians are said to be capable of closing their wounds quite easily, but this reviewer has never seen any other alien bleed. If they cannot, this is an additional gameplay feature which works against the Xenonauts, artificially compounding the challenge further.
For better or worse, there is a system for what passes as hand-to-hand combat in Xenonauts. By pressing a button, a Xenonaut soldier will spend 10 TU to damage whatever is in front of him/her with a low strength attack which inflicts both actual and stun damage.
Presumably, as the game’s documentation suggests, it is meant to smash windows in front of a soldier, so that the window does not get in the way of aiming. It can also be used to attack enemies with, but there are also to-hit rolls which are applied on melee attacks, meaning that they can indeed miss.
Unfortunately, the roll percentages are not shown to the player. There are also no animations for melee attacks at all. All these design gaps give a strong impression that melee attacks have been implemented as an afterthought instead of a fully realized gameplay element.
As mentioned earlier, windows have a tendency to block shots fired by Xenonaut soldiers. The soldiers must get them out of the way, usually by smashing them.
However, this does not appear to stop the aliens’ own shots. Indeed, the player may find that the aliens can fire astoundingly skilled shots which go through multiple windows before hitting a Xenonaut.
Incidences like these can further strengthen the impression that the odds are stacked against the Xenonauts.
Pieces of terrain which provide cover have been mentioned a few times already; now, their mechanics will be described further here.
Obviously, any piece of terrain which is between the shooter and its target is a piece of cover. However, how opaque this piece of cover is can differ greatly from object to object; there is no simple way of immediately knowing which piece of cover allows shooting over or through it.
Waist-high fences and rocks are obviously cover which allow shooting over them, but cacti and lamp posts also count as such.
Then there are corners of buildings and walls. Characters which are at these corners are considered to be able to look around them without exposing themselves to any enemies which are next to the wall around the corner.
In addition, any waist-high piece of cover – which includes crouching soldiers – will not block the shots of anyone which is immediately next to it.
Having mentioned these examples, it should be evident that there is much to learn about how cover works in Xenonauts.
It has been mentioned already that human-made environments tend to be destructible. To a ruthless player, this will be useful knowledge, because for all the advantages which the aliens have (which will be described later), they never think of destroying walls in order to expose their targets (at least in the unmodified build of the game).
Anyway, a human-made building can only take so much punishment before it collapses into piles of smoking wood (regardless of what the building was made of). Some buildings, such as those which occur in the urban zones, can take a lot of damage, i.e. the player can put many holes into them, but those in farms can only take damage to about one-third of its structure before it collapses. Smaller buildings, such as storage sheds, take even less.
This will be of particular significance because anyone – that includes any alien – who is still in the building when it collapses is immediately killed outright, regardless of their HP reserves.
This gameplay element is not told to the player in any of the game’s official documentation. Learning this the hard way can be either an entertaining experience (if the player wrecked a building with many aliens in it), or a very frustrating one (if the player had been using the building as cover for the soldiers).
FOG OF WAR:
Almost any mission will have the player going in blind without any intel on the mission area. When this happens, much of the mission area will be pitch black. Even if the player cannot see anything in these pitch-black regions, things are still happening in it.
The player can have Xenonauts shoot into these pitch-black regions, but the player will not be given information on any obstacles which may be in these regions, much less anything on enemies.
As the soldiers advance through the mission area, these pitch-black regions will be peeled away, revealing objects, terrain and any characters within the vision cones of the soldiers.
In the case of encounters with aliens, specifically aliens which have not been encountered within the same turn, the game will pause any action which a soldier is performing, while an icon which depicts an alien appears on the right edge of the screen. This is convenient.
After a region of a mission area has been scouted and left behind by the Xenonaut soldiers, they are shrouded in the “fog-of-war”; the Xenonaut soldiers will not be able to see anything within it. Generally, this is not a problem if the player has been thorough in clearing out places, but aliens like the Wraiths can sneak in behind the soldiers. This is a lesson that is very unpleasant to learn the hard way.
For better or worse, the aliens are not affected by the system of “fog-of-war” at all. They are always aware of the locations of the Xenonauts, as well as any civilians. An example of an incident that exemplifies this is that if the player has the soldiers stay in their starting locations, there will eventually be aliens who find them.
Another example is that attempts at flanking, even with troops that the player is certain has not been “seen” by any alien, will be discovered anyway, and the aliens will react accordingly, such as ceding ground and falling back to more defensible positions.
One can argue that the aliens are psychic and thus this advantage is justified, but to more skeptical players, this can seem like a cheap game design which artificially raises the challenge.
As characters take fire, including friendly fire, they will take suppression “damage”, regardless of whether the shots hit them, zipped past them or landed somewhere near them. Once they have taken enough (the threshold for which is not particularly clear), they will be suppressed, which causes them to lose half their TU when their side’s turn comes up.
As mentioned already, it is not clear how much suppression damage that a character can take before he/she is suppressed. It is noticeable that Xenonaut soldiers with higher Bravery can take more and that Androns are impossible to suppress, but there are no other signs that are just as clear.
Interestingly, it is possible to apply suppression de-buffs twice. If a character that is already suppressed receives more fire (without dying), that character may be suppressed again; this results in that character being completely unable to move in the next turn.
Generally, the player might want to have soldiers spend as many TU as necessary in order to get closer to defeating the aliens. However, there is a reason to keep some TU left over from the player’s turn, if the player does not have a problem with a luck-dependent gameplay element which makes use of this TU.
When a character ends his/her/its turn with enough TU to fire his/her/its weapon in Snapshot mode, there is a chance that this character will be able to shoot any enemy which comes into his/her/its field of view, even during the enemy’s turn.
More TU means a better chance at making this shot; this chance is further modified by the Reflexes statistic. This probability is further modified by the amount of TU which the enemy character has, as well as his/her/its Reflexes rating. This shot is always a Snapshot, so it is not particularly accurate, but it may be useful in deterring enemies from entering the character’s field of fire. Reaction shots which are made will reduce the amount of TU left, so the probability of firing more of such shots reduces.
Yet, as sophisticated as reaction shots sound, they can only occur through RNG rolls. The player may plan ahead by setting up ambushes so that they occur during the aliens’ turn, but bad luck can mean that a bunch of aliens can saunter into view without triggering a single reaction shot.
LIVE ALIENS & DEAD ONES:
Capturing aliens and/or gathering their corpses has always been a tradition of X-COM titles and its ilk. The player needs them for interrogation routines and autopsies, which in turn unlock research projects. Xenonauts is not any different.
However, titles like XCOM: Enemy Unknown has raised the bar of sophistication with its use of alien corpses as materials for certain hardware and substances which soldiers can use.
Xenonauts will not do anything as complex as this. Rather, after having interrogated a type of alien, any alien of the same type which is captured afterwards is immediately executed; there is no benefit to be obtained from the execution, not even a morale boost. The most which the player can get is a medal for the soldier who dealt the incapacitating blow on alien officers or leaders, but that is it. As for corpses, after having done the autopsy on a type of alien, any corpse of the same type is outright destroyed.
TYPES OF ENEMIES:
Like the original X-COM, the aliens who are threatening Earth are not of the same species. Rather, they are a conglomerate of humanoid species, seemingly working in unison to Earth’s detriment. There are also drones and androids thrown into the mix.
Nevertheless, they can be categorized into two overarching sets: the core/mainstay, and the support. The first few of the mainstay types to be encountered are the Caesans and Sebilians, followed by the Androns (androids). The support types are Drones, Reapers, Harridans and Wraiths, in that order.
The mainstay types form the bulk of the alien force and are encountered the most compared to other types of aliens, whereas the support types usually do not outnumber the mainstay and can vary from mission to mission.
Interestingly, the mainstay types are rarely seen with each other. For example, UFO assault missions will usually have Caesans, Sebilians or Androns as the mainstay, but never a combination of two or all three. Likewise, the same can be said about the support types.
An astute player who realizes these limitations in the aliens’ taskforce can usually formulate a (mostly) reliable battle plan after encountering one example of the mainstay types and one example of the support types in any mission.
The Caesans are the weakest of the mainstay types, but are generally some of the best shots in the game. Furthermore, they have psychic capabilities, which will be described later because it is a major gameplay element (and not for the betterment of the game).
The Sebilians are the brutes of the alien mainstays. They appear to be capable of firing only snapshots, meaning that they are terrible at long-range engagements. They compensate by having a lot more hitpoints than most other aliens, and they regenerate lost hitpoints over each turn too.
The Androns come about sometime later. They are effectively a reminder that the player should be upgrading the Xenonauts’ combat gear; their thick armor can reduce a lot of damage from incoming fire, and later higher-ranking Androns can simply shrug off regular bullets and even laser shots. (There will be more information on ranks shortly.) Being robots, Androns are also immune to the effects of stun damage. However, the Androns are completely incapable of crouching, and does not appear to benefit from cover as much as the other alien types.
The first support-oriented enemies to be seen are drones. Specifically, the light ones will be seen first; these are armed with weak but rapid-fire plasma fusillades. The light drones are meant to apply suppression fire; they are quite worthless against soldiers which are armored with Wolf suits or better. As mentioned already, the medium and heavy drones are only ever found in Terror missions.
The second support aliens to be seen are the Reapers. They actually do not provide much of any support to the mainstay force, but Reapers are based on the infamous Chrysalids in the original X-COM, meaning that any human that these beasts stab are infected with their genetic stuff and gets turned into more of them. No Xenonaut-developed armor can stop their stabs.
It so happens that the Reapers have an additional ugly effect: any infected human is turned into a zombie, which will shuffle towards any other human. Killing the zombie releases another Reaper into being, though this Reaper is always a regular strain, regardless of the strain which created the zombie.
All these traits about the Reapers mean that the player will want to be particularly wary about places where Reapers can lurk. Indeed, Reapers, beasts as they are, will still try to stay behind cover or in places where the Xenonauts cannot easily shoot into.
When the support aliens known as the Harridans appear, the player will realize that the aliens have definitely raised the ante. If the player has not developed the flight-capable Buzzard suit yet, the aliens will have a significant advantage because the Harridans can fly. More often than not, the Harridans will get onto higher ground, especially if they are armed with the Alien Precision Rifles. If they are not armed with these, then they are armed with Heavy Plasma guns, and they will try to lurk behind tall obstacles while waiting for Xenonaut soldiers to come close enough.
Finally, there are the Wraiths, which can spend most of their TU to teleport to anywhere they want, usually behind the Xenonaut soldiers, if they are armed with short-ranged weapons. If they have more accurate weaponry, they often teleport onto roofs.
There is actually another type of alien, but these appear to have not been developed as much as the others. These are the Praetors, supposedly the leaders of the aliens. They have incredible psionic powers and a powerful energy cannon, but they appear to be incapable of moving from where they start during any mission in which they appear. This makes their implementation in the game seem more like an afterthought, despite their importance to the story.
Each type of alien also comes in several variations, called “ranks” in this article for lack of a better word. Each variation which comes after the previous is generally tougher, better equipped and more skilled than the previous one. For example, an Officer-rank Sebilian is tougher than an Elite-rank one, and is encountered less frequently.
In the case of the Caesans, the higher ranked ones generally have psionic powers. They even have an additional variation, simply called the “Psionic”. (This one may well have been a design prototype for the higher ranked Caesans.)
There are some odd naming conventions for the ranks, such as “non-combatants” for the lowliest of Sebilians and Caesans. To elaborate, a “non-combatant” alien is one who is armed with little more than alien plasma pistols, and have next to no armor. In other words, they are the weakest sort of aliens to be encountered, but they are certainly not as helpless as their rank suggests.
The story of Xenonauts will eventually reveal that many of the aliens express psychic capabilities in one way or another, the most common of which is that they share battlefield information. This is perhaps the excuse that can be used to explain away their ability to somehow know exactly where the Xenonaut soldiers are.
However, the aliens also have more tangible psychic abilities, which happen to affect gameplay directly. These are psionic powers that can attack the minds of humans. This gameplay element comes into play when there are Caesans and Praetors in the mission area.
The implementation of psionic powers is not unlike that in the original X-COM, but Xenonauts have a difference, which is not for the better. The main difference is that the Xenonauts have no reliable way to counter them, other than luck-dependent RNG rolls. (At least in the original X-COM, the humans can obtain some dependable means of fighting back, though these were purportedly exploitable.)
To elaborate, psionic-capable Caesans and Praetors can execute psionic attacks on Xenonaut soldiers, without needing any line of sight to the latter.
This can mean that psionic attacks can come at very inopportune moments; this is something that the aliens will deliberately demonstrate, more often than not. For example, if there is a soldier with a rocket launcher that is quite close to a bunch of his/her comrades, chances are, the aliens will make a psionic attack on that soldier in order to turn him/her berserk or worse, mind-control him/her to enact a very explosive disaster.
Someone could argue in support of the game that there is the Bravery roll that allows Xenonaut soldiers to resist psionic attacks, but this is a luck-dependent gameplay element. There is no threshold point where Xenonaut soldiers with high Bravery are able to automatically resist these attacks.
The most which the player can do is to reload a saved-game and cross one’s fingers that the attack fails.
The Xenonaut soldiers are humans, and the game will frequently remind the player of that – often not in kind ways.
The “Bravery” rating of a soldier determines how close he/she is to the breaking point during a mission. Bravery ratings always start at their default levels at the start of the mission; the default level can be increased, though as mentioned earlier, stat increases at the end of a mission are often random. (It is noticeable that soldiers who survive panic attacks do have a higher chance of increasing their default Bravery rating.)
A soldier’s Bravery rating increases when the soldiers kill or incapacitate aliens; whether the soldier saw this happen or not is not important. However, the rating will decrease if the soldier takes fire from aliens, and it will decrease even more if he/she is actually hit and hurt. The worst drops are from having soldiers die, so a mission that is going bad will often go from bad to worse. However, given enough time, a soldier’s Bravery will return to the default rating (even if it is higher).
Once a soldier’s Bravery runs out, that soldier will break. He/She might go berserk and shoot at the nearest character or object, or panic and drop his/her weapon and then lose his/her turn, or get scared, drop his/her weapon and run away to cower behind the nearest piece of cover.
Furthermore, once a soldier’s Bravery rating drops below half of its default level, every turn forces the soldier to make a roll against that rating to determine whether he/she breaks or not.
There is no benefit to having a high Bravery rating, other than having a higher threshold to make the break rolls against.
PERFIDY OF LUCK:
RNG rolls have been mentioned a few times in this review already. There are to-hit rolls, damage rolls, Bravery rolls and rolls to determine whether a soldier bleeds or not when hurt. These are just some examples.
With so many RNG rolls involved, luck is a major factor in the gameplay. It can be infuriating to watch an otherwise well-executed plan come apart because of poor rolls.
Furthermore, there are deliberate limitations to make sure that there is no guaranteed success. For example, there is a max ceiling of 95% of chance of success for to-hit rolls, meaning that any soldier can miss even at point-blank range.
Fortunately, the game does not appear to make use of seeded rolls (seeded rolls are rolls which have already been made at the start of a turn), so the player can attempt to reload a saved-game and reattempt anything which bad luck made a mess of.
Of course, this is not doable if the player has enabled the “Iron Man” mode, which restricts the player to just the auto-save slot.
Another sign that Xenonauts have spotty user-friendliness is that the game has rather small text, which cannot be made larger without the use of third-party mods.
Being an indie title that is certainly not backed by X-COM’s copyright holder (that is, Take-Two Interactive), Xenonauts does not benefit from cutting-edge graphical designs. However, Goldhawk Interactive is able to produce functional animated sprites which generally make it easy for the player to recognize characters at a glance.
For example, the higher-ranked aliens are often kitted out with more imposing armour, making it easier to know how tough an alien is just by looking at it.
However, the artwork that had gone into modeling the sprites for weapons is not as good. For any weapon that is not already a heavy weapon, it can be difficult to differentiate between it and another gun. This is especially the case for the default human-made weapons, and some alien weapons such as their plasma rifle and slightly heavier variants.
The general-purpose, carbine and precision variants of Xenonaut weapons are also difficult to differentiate from each other without closer examination of their sprites; instead, the player will need to look at the bottom of the user interface to know that, or commit to memory which soldier has what.
Some of the less impressive parts of the game are the grid-like layouts of the mission areas. While the parallelogram grids are visually appropriate for buildings and urban zones, they are also applied on rock outcroppings and copses of trees. This makes these supposedly natural edifices look rather awkward. Most of the environments seen in mission areas also happen to be quite static.
Perhaps the most disappointing visual designs in the game are the artwork for the soldiers when the player is in the loadout screen. When they are equipped with their default “armor”, the soldiers look nonchalant and very plain, even more so than the artwork for the soldiers in the original X-COM. Moreover, each and every soldier practically has the same body build, with their heads swapped out between various persons.
In fact, shortly after the game was released, the first few third-party mods for the game are replacement art for the soldiers.
There is no voice-acting whatsoever in Xenonauts. The most which the player will hear are the illegible utterances of the human soldiers and the aliens when they get hurt.
The music is also quite limited. There is one track for the main menu, some for the Geoscape and several for missions. Hundreds of hours into a playthrough would eventually diminish any aural appeal of the music in the game, though it has to be said here that it is not unpleasant to listen to.
Thus, the only sounds which are worthwhile listening to are the sounds of weapons-fire and explosions. Fortunately, they are quite satisfactory and varied. For example, MAG weapons will sound more brutal and metallic than the default weapons.
OTHER GLITCHES & CRASHES:
More than a year later after its debut, the latest build of Xenonauts still has the rare random crash. However, the causes for the random crashes do not appear to be replicable, so they are isolated incidents.
There is a glitch regarding the location of aliens. Very rarely, the player might land a hit on an alien, only to have it displaced to somewhere else in the level. This reviewer has not been able to replicate the causes for these glitches, however.
Xenonauts, as one of Goldhawk Interactive’s officials has stated in a certain interview article, is a “faithful” recreation of the original old-school X-COM: UFO Defense. Much of the sophistication of that title has been retained.
Yet, Xenonauts’ gameplay is marred by its RNG-laden gameplay, which caused luck to become an unavoidable factor. It is unfortunate that Goldhawk Interactive does not recognize the problems with turn-based tactical games of yore, namely their dependency on RNGs and limitations such as the maximum to-hit chance of 95%. The aliens also have a lot of advantages which the player cannot counter with careful strategizing, at least not without depending on good luck or reloading saved-games.
Although these caveats will likely not deter fans of old-school turn-based tactical games, they make Xenonauts daunting for newcomers, though perhaps one can argue that Goldhawk Interactive never was targeting such consumers in the first place.