Let me tell you a little story. A short time ago, X-COM was a mostly forgotten series. It started as a fun (but brutally punishing) strategy game. For those who could make it past the difficulty curve, it was a fun game about fighting aliens to protect the Earth. Then it branched out into mediocre space-flight sims and action games, before finally disappearing. In the time before Firaxis decided to revive the series, some ambitious fans tried to create a more recent entry in the “protect Earth from aliens by nicking their stuff and shooting them with it” genre. Enter Xenonauts.
One more bit of backstory: I actually backed this game on Kickstarter back when it was still going, and hadn’t gotten around to playing it. All the more reason to help give it more coverage now.
While the remake of Enemy Unknown went for a more pragmatic approach- sanding down the rough edges that made the original so difficult to approach, Xenonauts embraces many of those ideas wholeheartedly. Your soldiers still have Time Units to dictate how much they can move, pivot, and shoot in a single turn. You still need to hire additional scientists and engineers to get anything done this year, and have built enough labs and barracks to house them all. It’s not all bad news, though. Starting weapons and equipment are still free, thank God. And your soldiers automatically pack flares for night missions.
Anyway, as in both the Enemy Unknown games, past and present, the goal is to thwart a powerful alien threat with limited starting resources. You prove your worth to the funding nations for more money, research alien corpses, specimens, and equipment to better understand your opponent, before finally building new weapons and armor with your resulting knowledge. It all ties together very nicely, and as a result the game feels comprehensive. You’re not just some unnamed fellow with a rifle fighting on the ground, or some armchair general who gives some basic commands and watches the results play out. You are in total control of this campaign against the aliens, and any screw-ups are ultimately on you.
Admittedly, that can still be off-putting to newcomers, as there are a lot of potential screw-ups to make. Didn’t research new armor in a timely manner? Watch your elite troops die to pistols. Didn’t think to build an infirmary for your starting base? I hope you never have more than 3 men injured, then. Spent all your money upgrading troops, but not interceptors? Well, good luck putting your shiny weapons to use without being able to ground enemy ships. Yet, like the original, half the stories you’ll recount are the screw-ups, the magnificent failures, like the rookie who fumbled a grenade and maimed half his squad on turn 2.
Whether or not you’d like Xenonauts can be answered by your response to the XCOM remake: Did you dislike being pigeonholed into giving certain soldiers certain weapons? Did you hate only having access to 1 Skyranger, and having to neatly fit all your facilities in a single base, because you totally had enough money to build a new one? Then you might appreciate the extra freedom that Xenonauts offers. If you were already dazed at the simplified base and troop management of the remake, well, you might still enjoy this game, but you’re gonna run headlong into the learning curve, I’m warning you now.
The game is available below, as per usual. It’s also available on Steam in the Early Access category for $20. Unlike a number of Early Access games, this one looks mostly complete, missing only some images for research projects and such. As of this post, the developers haven’t halted work on it, which is also a good sign.