Xenonauts begins quietly. Very quietly. In the pre-release build there is no objective stated and no opening cinematic, just a map of our pale blue marble half in darkness. Manipulating the time controls, I advance time until klaxons sound and a UFO appears over Ireland.
In the game, it's the Cold War summer of 1979. On my desktop, it's 1994 again.
Xenonauts is the fan-financed indie reimagining of the original X-COM: UFO Defense from 1994. In 2009, before XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released and before The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was announced (then delayed, then announced again), developer Goldhawk Interactive began reviving the X-COM series in spirit. The result is a tightly programmed, intense re-creation of the isometric aliens vs. humans chess match that began a beloved franchise.
That UFO over Ireland is a small scout ship for the main alien invasion. I scramble a fighter jet to intercept and am treated to the first gameplay overhaul in Xenonauts. UFO Defense's shooter-on-rails interception screen is now a tactical map where dogfights play in real time. The interface pauses so you can issue orders, and up to three fighters and three UFOs can tangle at once.
I send troops to capture the downed ship. The squad, Charlie 1, consists of my starting eight soldiers, all fresh-faced and ready to go. These soldiers begin with slightly higher stats (they're corporals instead of privates), so it's in your best interest to keep them alive. There is, of course, the looming specter of permadeath. Raw replacements are recruited easily enough, but they'll be as green as alien blood.
The single biggest departure from X-COM appears at the start of the mission, and it's a welcome upgrade: direction-based ground cover. X-COM focused entirely on line-of-sight tactics, but Xenonauts joins Enemy Unknown in employing a cover system with destructible terrain.
On arrival, the squad fans out to secure a perimeter. As my sniper takes cover behind a pine tree, he's spotted by an alien, a lanky, pale Sectoid, that takes a shot and scampers into the fog of war. Ragged violins start to crescendo, and a familiar knot of fear forms in my gut. Charlie 1 sets off in pursuit of the Sectoid, catching up as it retreats across barren tundra. My machine gunner lays down a burst of fire, and it drops with a scream.
It's at this point, after first contact with hostile life forms and my first kill of the mission, that I realize that I left one of my riflemen aboard the dropship, hidden in a blind spot behind a bulkhead. Whoops.
There's no handholding in Xenonauts, but if you know where to look, all the information you need is presented with a clean, simple interface. My eighth soldier's time units (i.e., action points) have been going unused, and it should have been a tip-off that I left him behind. When lining up a shot on an alien, a target reticle shows the action point cost and the probability of hitting, but a green line is also drawn from the shooter to the target to confirm a clear line of sight and range. This line will also show you if you're about to shoot your squadmate in the back or destroy a vital piece of cover.
Charlie 1 discovers the crashed UFO and steps into an ambush of sniper fire. My sniper sets up his rifle and starts raining bullets on the enemy, keeping the shooter pinned down while the rest of Charlie 1 circles around to flank. Sensing pincers moving in, the Sectoid rushes forward and is shot to pieces by three soldiers. The coast is clear. My assault troops breach the doors and find the UFO empty.
Rather than stomp through frozen forest to find the last alien ambush, Charlie 1 sets up a defensive perimeter and waits. After five turns of controlling the UFO it's ours, and the mission ends on a victory, another departure from the last-humanoid-standing win conditions of the past. Capture-and-control emphasizes Xenonauts' change in priorities from X-COM: it's not about eradication, it's about knowledge. Missions become more about securing the crashed craft and its technology than achieving a 100 percent kill rate.
Xenonauts is poised to deliver the improved X-COM experience fans have asked for since the original began to show its age, but I worry that it will struggle to attract new fans. By assuming that its players will be veteran X-COM fans, Goldhawk has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Xenonauts has an online manual, but a tutorial would go a long way toward smoothing the learning curve.
If you've been clamoring for an HD remake of X-COM, though, this isn't your problem. If you can play UFO Defense, you can play Xenonauts. No more running DOS boxes or low-resolution emulators to relive your original alien-hunting experiences. Xenonauts has no frills, no fancy stuff. It's just X-COM rebuilt, with love, by fans of the original.