Xenonauts Dev Diary: Exclusive first ground combat screens and walkthrough

Goldhawk Interactive

xenonauts tactical

When 2K Games announced its reimagining of the classic X-COM franchise (now called XCOM), many fans were disappointed to learn that the new version would abandon the 1994 original's turn-based isometric combat in favor of a first-person real-time style. But one X-COM fan, Chris England, seized the opportunity to announce his already-in-the-works homage to X-COM: UFO Defense/Enemy Unknown, Xenonauts . Developed by England's new independent development studio, Goldhawk Interactive, Xenonauts aims to recapture the glory of defending Earth from alien invaders by downing UFOs, engaging the surviving aliens, and capturing their technology to research and turn against them.

Until now, Goldhawk has shown off only the global management and air combat portions of the game, but today, in his first PC Gamer Developer Diary, England exclusively reveals the meat of Xenonauts: tactical combat, in which your ground troops engage the aliens. Click Read More to get your first look - and read the July issue of PC Gamer US for the exclusive hands-on preview!

Ground war

Hello everybody, and welcome to the first Xenonauts Dev Diary. My name is Chris England, and I'm the studio lead over at Goldhawk Interactive, the team working on the indie strategy game Xenonauts. PC Gamer has generously handed me a soapbox from which I can shout about our game, and I'll try and write periodic posts to keep the world updated on the progress we've been making.

The first item of business is to introduce the project – Xenonauts is a PC strategy game set in the Cold War, where the player is handed control of an international military organisation and tasked with defending the Earth from an alien invasion. Fighter jets are used to intercept and shoot down alien UFOs, and small strike teams of soldiers are used to recover the crashed technology and protect the world's cities against alien terror attacks. If this formula sounds familiar to some, it'll be because the game is heavily inspired by the classic strategy series X-COM, which are regularly voted some of the greatest games of all time!

The game has been in development for around 18 months, and we're hoping to have it out later this year. We're a community-driven development team, as you'll see if you visit our website and forums , with the community contributing countless ideas and suggestions to development. Pre-ordering the game on our website allows people to download the latest build of the game, and give us your thoughts on what we could do to improve it.

Up until now, we've only been showing off the strategic, management and air combat parts of the game on our website/pre-order builds, but today we can exclusively show off the ground combat part of the game! We're using our farmyard tileset for this mission, which we built as direct nod to X-COM – the other tilesets in the game will be completely original. We'll reveal more of them with time.

Be sure to click the screenshots to enlarge them and get the full detail!

At the start of the mission, I move the soldiers out of the dropship and spend the turn securing the landing zone. Unlike the original X-COM, there's an exclusion zone around the dropship that prevents "Saving Private Ryan Syndrome" (where your troops are massacred trying to exit the ship) occurring. You may well still come under fire near the dropship, but hopefully not the moment you step off it.

I've brought a mixture of soldiers armed with shotguns and assault rifles, all wearing combat armor. I've also got a soldier equipped with a rocket launcher, a pistol-armed scout, and a sniper, all of which are wearing the lighter basic armor.

A Hunter armored car is also along as heavy support, and you can see the wreckage of the stone wall where it drove straight through it as it pathed out of the dropship. The Hunter has been equipped with rockets, but I could have swapped the rockets out for dual .50cal machineguns if I'd wanted. However, as I wanted to show off the destructible terrain system, I stuck with the rockets.

You can see the map that has been generated for this mission looks a bit unrealistic – there's large open grass spaces between the fields, for example. This is because at present our ground combat missions are randomly generated. Sadly, it's become obvious that we can't rely on this if we want coherent mission maps, so we'll be changing the terrain generation system to only be semi-random in the next month or two. That should get rid of the pointless empty spaces.

A couple of turns after my squad secured the landing zone, I sent the majority of my troops off to the left side of the map in search of the UFO. On the way there, the trailing elements of the strike team strayed into the vision cone of an alien, who immediately started shooting at them. Too low on Action Points to start shooting back, I dropped them into cover and hoped they'd survive the alien turn.

It's probably worth explaining the cover system at this point, as the original X-COM didn't have one. In Xenonauts, soldiers can be placed in directional cover. You can see the three soldiers in the image sheltering up against the hedge, fence, and walls, and this indicates they are in cover – this means any shot that would otherwise hit them has a chance of hitting the cover they are sheltering behind instead. Cover only works in one direction, though – if the alien ran past the soldiers and shot them in the back, they would get no protection.

Two of the soldiers fired uselessly at the alien, only succeeding in hitting the walls he was using at cover. The sniper at the bottom of the screen scored a hit, but didn't manage to kill the alien despite being a relatively high-damage weapon. High-damage weapons also have a higher Action Point cost associated with using them, and he didn't have enough APs for a second shot. Assuming the alien was already badly wounded, I switched the fourth soldier to a grenade and tossed it at the target.

If you're wondering what happened to the battlefield around the dead alien, that's the results of using a grenade. In our current build I think we've probably made grenades a little too powerful – you can see it has destroyed a bunch of the ground tiles, blown a hole in the wall and damaged part of the hedge too. Also, we're still working on the tile blending. Consequently, the black tiles of scorched earth don't blend with the surrounding ground very well, but we'll have that fixed up for the final game.

In terms of destructible terrain, each tile has three states: undamaged, damaged, and destroyed. You can see all three in the image above. A damaged cover tile can still be used as cover (and still cannot be walked through), but this is dangerous. The game's cover penetration mechanics mean that when a tile is destroyed, any excess damage carries over onto units sheltering behind it. Sheltering behind a badly damaged piece of cover is almost as bad as standing out in the open, particularly if the aliens are shooting at you with powerful weapons.

On the other side of the map, the remainder of the strike team comes under alien fire at the end of their turn. The shots came from beyond the visual range of my units, so I scouted ahead with the Hunter and found a barn. I assumed the alien was holed up inside it, as I'd not spotted him on the outside. I arranged my troops to cover the exits and ended the turn, hoping that if the alien popped his head out, my soldiers would blast him with reaction fire, which allows soldiers use any Action Points they've saved at the end of their turn during the opponent's turn.

Annoyingly, the alien didn't make an appearance. Rather than risk my soldiers on a frontal assault, I decided it would be easier just to flatten the barn with rocket fire from my Hunter and the soldier with a rocket launcher (the damage above is caused by two rockets). As it turned out, the alien was actually behind the barn, rather than inside it. Now with clear sight lines to him, I finished him off with a second rocket from my Hunter. That left it with only four rockets remaining.

You may have noticed that there's only one alien type in this mission. This is intentional – the other are all under wraps at the moment! There are actually eight variants of this particular alien type, each getting more powerful and better equipped as they increase in rank. There are also another six alien races in the game (most also with numerous variants of their own), as well as several types of alien support vehicle. We'll reveal some of these closer to the release date.

After we flattened the barn on the other side of the map, the rest of the strike team located a second barn north of the dropship. Believe it or not, this is the mission objective – w don't have our "crashed UFO" tileset done yet, so we're currently trying to capture an evil alien barn on missions. Having surrounded it to make sure there were no unpleasant surprises, I sent a soldier in to check out how much resistance there would be – finding three aliens.

Unfortunately, I hadn't done a very good job on my initial sweep of the battlefield. Just as I was planning to attack the barn, another alien attacked the strike team from behind, nearly killing the soldier with the rocket launcher. Because it usually completely bypasses a soldier's cover, attacks from behind are particularly lethal. I moved my shotgun-armed troops down to help the wounded soldier take on the alien.

One of the shotgun-equipped soldiers missed his target completely and dug a hole in the grass nearby instead, but the second hit the alien with a blast that injured but does not kill it. With his rocket launcher empty and useless, I switch the rocket soldier to the pistol he carries as a sidearm and close in on the alien. With just enough APs for one burst of fire, the soldier has one chance at survival: already wounded and only a few squares away from the alien, he'll almost certainly be killed if it survives the turn.

The first shot misses completely, but the second and third hit their target. The last shot sends the alien lifelessly crumpling to the soil of the carrot field, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

...which was probably a bit premature. In the meantime, the rest of the strike team has been exchanging fire with the three aliens around the barn. One soldier was killed trying to fight his way in, and another was gunned down by the two aliens outside the barn. He was a bit unlucky – the wall he was taking cover behind hadn't taken any damage, so it was lucky shooting from the aliens.

The loss of troops in the early game is particularly painful, as the player starts with a team of 12 experienced soldiers who have significantly higher stats than the fresh recruits you can hire in to bolster your team or replace the casualties. It'll take at least two or three combat missions for the replacements to get up to speed.

The final assault didn't go particularly well, truth be told. I managed to finish off the aliens with more rocket fire (three rockets have caused the damage you see there), which makes me very glad I didn't lose my rocket-armed soldier earlier in the mission. However, this tactic won't be viable in the final game, for two reasons.

First, a UFO is significantly tougher than a barn, and you can't just shoot holes in a UFO with a rocket launcher. And even if you could, you wouldn't want to - all the precious technology you're risking your soldiers' lives to recover in the first place is inside that UFO. Just like the rest of the terrain in the game, it's fully destructible – if you blow it up, you don't get to take it home to base with you. So throwing explosives around inside the UFO is a no-no – you'll want to clear it manually.

Home stretch

There's still some distance to go with the ground combat – we've got several more gameplay systems to add, a number of improvements to the graphics (redoing the GUI, cleaning up the tilesets), as well as a lot of balancing and bugfixing to do. We're on the home stretch now, though – we hope to have the game feature-complete in about three months, and at that point we'll just be adding new art and polishing/balancing what we've already done.

If you're interested in finding out more about the project, or supporting us with a pre-order , please check out our website. We expect to release a pre-order build of the game including ground combat in about three weeks, so if you want to get your grubby mitts on a copy of it, you know how!

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