Xenonauts preview

Richard Cobbett

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Games don't normally get tribute acts. Yes, they get their ideas stolen, or at least serve as inspiration for what comes after... but to see a straight copy, made with love, for no grander reason than that the world passionately needs more of the original? That's a rare and beautiful thing.

Turn-based strategy game Xenonauts isn't quite a carbon copy of X-COM/UFO: Enemy Unknown though, especially in the details. The main change is that it's set in 1979 rather than the future-year... um... 1998. This enables it to tie the story into the Cold War, and make the climb from pistols to plasma guns all the more meaningful. Its aliens are also new, as are its toys and its technologies.

Wait, soldiers start with armour instead of jumpsuits now?

The game mechanics, however, are very familiar, albeit updated. You still establish bases around the world, dispatching fighters to shoot down UFOs and squads of handpicked soldiers to dig through the wreckage. You still build bases and do research, and try to fund yourself by manufacturing new toys. If it was in X-COM, it's likely here – with the exception of psionics, which have been cast out for game-balance reasons.

On top of this, Xenonauts brings plenty of its own features and tweaks. Aerial combat is now its own tactical minigame (though not a very enjoyable one at this point) where multiple fighters and UFOs can duke it out at once. On the ground, your units currently have far more action points than their X-COM equivalents, allowing them to cover much more ground each turn, if not actually take many more shots. Both sides also feel tougher, taking at least a couple of hits from anything short of a missile.

We're holding a whip round to buy an actual garage.

It's too early to say how good things like the AI will be (and much of the art and other game assets are still very obviously placeholders), but the basic action is very promising. All the complexity of X-COM's hideous interface has been stripped out in favour of simple 'go here, shoot that, save points for this' controls, but not to the point that it feels simplified. Destructible scenery is still in, along with a proper cover system. Recovering UFOs will be faster, letting you win by holding the UFO for a number of turns instead of scouring the whole map for that one last alien. You'll even be helped out by NPC soldiers on occasion, who handle some of the grunt-work and protect civilians while your elite troops go on the offensive.

Recreating X-COM isn't easy. Recreating the magic is harder still, as proven by the fact that even its creators never fully managed it. Xenonauts still has a long road ahead if it wants to become its modern successor, but the pieces all seem to be in the right place so far. Fingers crossed, and at least we can be sure it'll be truer to the X-COM we love than 2K's upcoming FPS version.

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