Along with our group-selected 2014 Game of the Year Awards, each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen another game to commend as one of 2014's best.
If Xenonauts were receiving a proper award, it would be X-Com of the Year. It is, in its design, structure, depth and challenge, utterly X-Com. It's blatant in its similarities, almost flagrant. Not even XCOM, the Firaxis reboot, was this much like X-Com. That's why Xenonauts could never hold a place in our Game of the Year Awards proper. It's intentionally derivative. It's not forging a bright, new future for PC gaming. It's not even proving that new design innovations can fit snugly into older templates, a la Divinity: Original Sin or Endless Legend. It is, pretty much, just X-Com again.
That's a good thing, to be clear—or, at least, a thing that I'm happy has happened. Every year PC Gamer picks a fresh Top 100. It's a round-up of our favourite 100 PC games, judged from a present-day perspective and unfettered by nostalgia or reverence. X-Com made it last year, but didn't place highly. It came 83rd; XCOM: Enemy Unknown came 6th. It's easy to see why. XCOM is the better game, able to more cleanly express the core idea and hone in on the most relevant and engaging systems. But X-Com is the more interesting game. It's deep, complex, brutal—all the things that can make a game so satisfying to master. It's also 20 years old, and it shows. That interface still gives me nightmares.
That's why Xenonauts is a success. It has the same complexity and depth, and, as such, is filled with impossible situations that so effectively punish even the smallest of mistakes. But it's all wrapped up in a package that works. The interface is clean, and the graphics are crisp. That, it seems, is all it takes to revitalise such a well-proven template.
I'm being somewhat unfair. Xenonauts does do more. It's like a really good cover song: familiar and comfortable, but given a fresh twist and its own distinct personality. You can tell how fond its developers were of the Gollop brothers' game. The things they've fixed and tweaked are the sort of things that only dedicated fans would think to fix and tweak. The changes feel born of people who have spent long enough staring at an isometric battlefield to think "yeah, you know what? This is bullshit."
For instance, you are no longer responsible for every aspect of administration. You have an unlimited supply of medkits, grenades and stock weapons, because you are in charge of saving the goddamn world and maybe buying basic supplies is not the best use of your goddamn time.
The peculiarities of the setup that do remain intact are there because they're vital to what the game is. You're the world's last line of defence, and so even if North America does have a shitty time under your watch, it makes no sense for them to pull their funding and go it alone. But then, that's the key challenge: that's what keeps the world map screen such an integral and tense part of the game's strategy layer.
That's only one half of what made X-Com—and thus what makes Xenonauts—such a lasting classic. The turn-based tactical assaults are an almost paralysing web of choice and consequence. Xenonauts nails these missions. They're completely open ended in how you choose to approach them, both in the tools you take, and the decisions you make on the ground. You have a broad array of options, and many of them will result in catastrophe. Xenonauts does catastrophe right. It's version of Chryssalids are bloody terrifying—a near unstoppable force that colonises the map, turning civilians and soldiers alike. There's nothing that tells you you've made a mistake than being forced to gun down the mindless zombie that was once your top sniper. There's also little that's more effective at giving you the motivation to do better.
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