Review: Xenonauts (PC/Steam)

I always held a certain appreciation for X-COM: UFO Defense, the cult mid-90s strategy hit that pits humanity (in the form of paramilitary organisation X-COM) against a classic alien invasion. X-COM was a devilishly-deceptive game, and notoriously difficult. When Firaxis recently-ish rebooted the series, I was, once my nostalgia cloud dispersed, fully on-board. With my enjoyment of the 2012 reboot cemented, I was intrigued to try Xenonauts out, for a more classic experience and hopefully some innovation.

Xenonauts, however, does little to excite my sense of nostalgia, despite being essentially a carbon-copy of the game that came 20 years prior.

While Xenonauts does indeed replicate X-COM’s tactical difficulty well, it falls into the trap of merely impersonating the older game – which would be fine, but the strategy genre has changed significantly since X-COM was released in 1994. Where the XCOM: Enemy Unknown game does take a few liberties with “classic” X-COM, the re-imagining of the game is done in a sympathetic and, ultimately, pragmatic manner, to appeal to a modern audience, whilst capturing the essence of X-COM. I can already sense fond memories blasting off to the stars just thinking about it…

… with an abrupt crash back to Earth, Xenonauts does no such thing. I found this game, in the brief time I played it, utterly derivative; there is no evolution on the original 1994 game’s core mechanics, just a bland and sterile replication of them. Xenonauts purports to be inspired by X-COM; indeed, the inspiration manifests itself as nothing more than a photocopy. The core gameplay remains the same – sure, there are a few token gestures such as “tactical air combat”; whatever that is – it remains easier to just let the CPU decide the battle, and the ability to “air-strike” crash sites to avoid ground battles, but these are mere cosmetic buttons on a dated UI than anything significant.

Ground battles have suffered the most from the lack of innovation – they play out and act exactly as they did back in 1994, but without the charm or even technical limitations that Micropose would’ve had to face in the mid Nineties. I ask again – where exactly does Xenonauts go to further the genre? All I see in Xenonauts is a pale re-heating of the classic X-COM formula with bland, 2001-era graphics layered atop of it. Xenonauts clearly trades largely on rosy-tinted nostalgia (a common trait in both professional and indie games lately) while clearly exposing itself as a design anachronism. I fail to see any examples of where Goldhawk Interactive have actually improved, or heaven deviated at all from the classic X-COM games at all.

Xcom-Xeno-HM

The lack of any movement from the original X-COM games in Xenonauts couldn’t be clearer than in the game’s UI. This especially struck me as personifying Xenonauts as a “shot-by-shot remake” of X-COM (as a Kickstarter-funded game, why is this of no surprise); with a few token alien race names changed to no real consequence, Xenonauts serves to merely insult my intelligence. There’s a perfunctory effort to differentiate Xenonauts as taking place in an alternate history of 1979 but this adds little o the actual game besides explaining some of the barren  and generic graphics. The manual is has the appearance of a PDF typed up in an afternoon in Word; this shows me the character of the developer and ultimately is an exemplar of the amount of actual effort they put in.

If I wanted to repeat the classic X-COM gameplay (which is still enjoyable in context); surely I would overlook Xenonauts’ uninspired graphics and horribly dated gameplay and experiment either with a DOS emulator or an Open-Source reimagining of the original game (complete with personality and colourful graphics). Xenonauts closely reminds me of Shovel Knight, another recent game that exists in a curious time-warp where modern production standards, fuelled by blind nostalgia, hark back to an era of games that, as an uncomfortable truth, were left behind a long time ago. Games like this aren’t made anymore, and it’s about time indie developers realised that before hopping on the nostalgia train again.

I won’t be playing it any more when there’s better nods to the original game available.

Buy Xenonauts on Steam

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