Xenonauts – The X-Com successor we’ve been waiting for?

Why a spiritual successor to an almost 20 year-old classic was my game of the show.

My visit to EuroGamer Expo 2011 was an awesome day out but not without its annoyances. Mere minutes after stepping into the Earls Court convention centre I was nearly trampled to death by a pair of fat, sweaty men madly stampeding towards some distant booth, without a care for any poor sod in their path. By the time I’d regained enough composure and balance to ask them what the fuck they were playing at they’d already gone. Probably to crush a stray toddler or knock over someone in a wheelchair somewhere, the inconsiderate fuckers.

My friend Leon and I then began a circuit of the expo to get a general overview of what was on offer and where. We soon arrived at the Indie Arcade where my attention was immediately snared by a rather familiar-looking screen. “Is that a battlescape?” I thought to myself. The screen showed an isometric tactical landscape like the ones in the classic PC turn-based strategy game X-Com (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown), only much better-looking and with a clearer, more streamlined interface. Soldiers stood close to their landing craft at the edge of an urban industrial area, awaiting the order to press on into the surrounding fog of war where hostile aliens would be waiting for them. A wall lay in ruins where a rocket hit it a turn earlier, starting a fire that filled part of the building next to it with thick black smoke.

Another monitor beside that one showed a map of the entire world with real-time day and night cycles, similar to the Geoscape in X-Com only much prettier. It was a map I’d seen during a time I religiously followed any and all news I could get my hands on concerning indie and fan remakes of X-Com. I mentally sifted through a list of all the ones I knew, most of which had been abandoned or swallowed up in the all-consuming mire of development hell, and briefly touched on my despair at the news of 2K’s FPS reboot before remembering the one project I knew was still going. A project my cynicism had prematurely consigned to the grave along with all the rest was not just here, now, at the Expo, it was playable too. And that’s when I remembered.

“Oh my god! It’s Xenonauts!”

I might have said that a bit too loudly as project lead Chris England immediately noticed my crazed, wild-eyed enthusiasm and came over shortly afterwards to talk us through it. As a huge fan of the original X-Com I knew most of what to expect from Xenonauts but Chris still took the time to explain the basic concepts and ideas behind the game to my friend, who has never touched an X-Com title in his life. Chris also revealed some of the surprises Xenonauts had in store for jaded veterans like myself.

Set in 1979, at the height of the Cold War, Xenonauts puts you in command of a secret globe-spanning organisation defending the earth from alien incursions. Operating from a secret base situated wherever in the world you choose to put it at the start of the game, your goal is to take down UFOs and send squads of soldiers to secure the crash sites so your scientists can reverse-engineer the aliens’ technology and figure out their plans. Your funding comes from a secret accord of the world’s nations who raise or lower their contributions depending on your performance, along with selling any alien artifacts you recover or equipment you manufacture. This money is used to hire soldiers, researchers and engineers, buy equipment, outfit your interceptors, expand your base and more to better counter the alien threat.

All of this is managed on the Geoscape, a global overview where you can track any UFOs in radar range, send jets to intercept them and despatch ground teams to secure crash sites. Other alien-related incidents like terror attacks on a country’s population centres will also require your attention, forcing you to choose between an easy mission salvaging a UFO with potential new technology or undergoing a dangerous night mission in an urban area full of civilians to keep the money coming in. From here you can also access your base management, research and manufacturing screens or consult the Xenopaedia, an in-game database with some gorgeous artwork and a Wiki-style interface for easy navigation.

Ground missions are turn-based and each of your units has a set number of action points per turn to spend on moving, shooting, throwing grenades and other actions. When your turn ends it’s the alien’s go, and their movements are hidden from you unless they wander into your soldiers’ line of sight. The same rule applies to the aliens, meaning you sneak up on unsuspecting foes or harry them from a sniping position out of sight, in a tactical game of hide-and-seek with heavy ordinance. Soldiers who forgo their movement or have enough action points remaining at the end of their go can take potshots during the alien’s turn at any of the gribbly buggers who foolishly step into their gunsights.

All of this occurs in isometric environments randomly generated from specific tilesets unique to the terrain in which the battle takes place. Down a UFO over a desert and your troops will have to fight across exposed sand dunes with very little cover, whereas securing a crash site in farmland could see your boys and girls coming under fire from an alien snipers on the upper floor of a farmhouse. Nearly all of the terrain on each map can be destroyed if you’ve got enough firepower, so if an alien is hiding inside a building ready to gun down anyone who comes through the door you can make your own door with a rocket and charge in guns blazing. It may make more tactical sense to take out the floors of a building with explosives than risk sending your troops inside to get slaughtered.

So far, so very, wonderfully, gloriously X-Com. Whereas Xenonauts may be cut from the same fine cloth as the original however it’s no cheap knock-off or wholesale facsimile. Goldhawk Interactive, comprised of a handful of core developers and a team of freelancers based all around the world, have stayed true to the core gameplay mechanics of X-Com while updating features to make them more intuitive, user-friendly and appealing to modern audiences. Little improvements like being able to choose where troops are positioned in a transport craft make all the difference, particularly when you need to send out expendable rookies first and don’t want to spend a precious turn or two in-mission shuffling everyone around. Other new features include ground troops automatically taking cover behind low walls and other terrain, and being able to spend additional movement points in a turn aiming to increase a soldier’s chances of hitting their target.

One of Xenonauts’ most significant improvements over the original are new interception mechanics. Aerial combat between fighter jets and UFOs in X-Com was a rudimentary affair in which you spent a few seconds watched a pulsing green triangle and a pulsing green orb exchange shots. Xenonauts replaces this with a tactical air combat overview in which you plot the movements and attacks of your fighter squadrons against UFOs and watch it unfold in real-time. You can also pause the engagement at any time and issue new commands to your fighters as the situation requires. Graphically reminiscent of Introversion’s Defcon or the 1983 movie Wargames at present, Chris told us it will shortly be receiving a graphical overhaul.

If you’re a fan of the classic X-Com who has been left disappointed by the other clones and homages to have come and gone over the years, Xenonauts is shaping up to be the remake you’ve been longing for. Complete newcomers can expect a deep, rewarding strategic experience that combines turn-based tactical gameplay, research and resource management in a way rarely seen nowadays. Assuming Goldhawk can pull it all off of course, and judging from what I’ve seen so far that looks almost certain. Chris told us they hope to have a full release in about 6 months barring any slippages, an infuriating possibility but understandable given Goldhawk are a small team on a tight budget.

You can learn more about Xenonauts at the game’s official website where you can also pre-order it, granting you access to the current developer build of the game and also helping to fund further development. For a glimpse of the game in action and an interview with project lead Chris England you can also check out this video by Brit games commentator TotalBiscuit.

I personally can’t wait to give this baby a go.

Matt McDermott

About Matt McDermott

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com.