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It Started With A Kick: A Xenonauts Preview

Golloping along

I know exactly what I'm doing. Including when I screw up. When I screw up in X-COM, I invariably know that I've screwed up long before the results of said screwing-up actually come to pass. My soldier is out of action points and left standing in the open while an alien silently eyeballs him, or a yet-to-explode grenade lands casually at the feet of an innocent civilian. Next turn, I will pay for these mistakes. Pay in blood.

I make exactly the same mistakes, and knew exactly why they had come to pass and what punishment would follow them, in Goldhawk Interactive's indie remake/reiminaging Xenonauts, which after three years of preorder-funded development today climbs about the wheezing Kickstarter bandwagon for its final furlong.

I also did all the same right moves, and climbed through the research and construction trees with steady, knowing purpose.
I knew exactly what I was doing, what I needed to do next and exactly where I was. Hell, I even put alien corpses in my soldiers' backpacks just to check that I still could. Xenonauts is X-COM, and while it has made some noise about being its own game there's simply no question that this is the purists' take on the old Gollop classic, while 2K's XCOM as an experiment based around some of X-COM's major organs.

This might sound like caution, and I suppose it’s true that I would ideally like to be surprised as well as indulged by Xenonauts, but it's also praise. Heartfelt praise. The single greatest compliment that I believe I could pay to Xenoanuts is that it takes the vast majority of X-COM and recreates it in a more modern interface in such a way that I was barely even conscious that the interface had changed at all.

Sure, it’s a little rough and ready in its current pre-alpha state, but it does what it needs to – helps the game flow rather than, as I must painfully admit, impedes it as the original X-COM’s monstrously-sized buttons do. Xeno’s UI is functionally very similar, but it’s the layout, the crispness and the neatness that gives it the modern look and feel it so needs. It’s possibly a bit too small and thus fiddly at high resolutions (i.e. 1920x1200, as I played it at) and I found a couple of teething issues, but I don’t doubt that’ll be in for a tinker in the months to come.

The overall look and art style, recently blessed with more detail and variety, has very much grown on me. I’ll confess that I did worry it was veering towards the bland in earlier glimpses of the game, but with more visual density in there, the addition of huge crashed UFOs sitting in furrows of apocalyptically-ploughed earth and most of all subtle but fluid and characterful animation on the soldiers and aliens has made Xenonauts’ battlefields into far peppier places to visit/explore/hide in. I'm really glad it's 2D. It allows a sharpness and a detail that really suits it.

The major criticism I’d still level at it is that the aliens don’t seem especially characterful at present – higher resolutions again aren’t helping, as they look tiny and somewhat featureless at that kind of scale, but more tellingly I’m having to force myself to remember what looks like what and what’s called what, rather than having it organically lodge in my brain. Or perhaps I’m just too chained to the X-COM’s outerspace bastards and am subconsciously resisting replacing them.

There’s much that’s missing in the build I’ve played (which was a slightly earlier version of what’s been put out as a free demo to promote the Kickstarter), but more than enough is in there to prove that this has gone far beyond proof of concept. Even knowing I’d hit the wall of what was in the build, I kept playing because it felt so comfortable and I was slowly forming a certain attachment to my perma-scowling soldiers.

The core bones of X-COM are present and correct, from base to air combat to ground missions, and it’s possible in this build to go home from levels with a small haul of alien tech to research, then be toting laser weapons on your soldiers and Alenium Warheads on your Interceptors a little while later. Most of all, disaster and fatality is regular and swiftly-dealt, even though this demo build’s AI probably isn’t at finalised levels. X-COM has to be cruel, and Xenonauts is indeed cruel.

While I don’t doubt there’s all sorts of balance and mechanics programming to be sorted in terms of later aliens and weapons, art assets are, I suspect, the vast bulk of the remaining work. In this build, I didn’t see more than two types of ground level or UFOs, I hit a dead end in terms of what was left to research and my base never seemed under threat of invasion, and I guess that’s why devs Goldhawk have taken to Kickstarter.

I do have mixed feelings about existent projects doing that, but unlike Carmageddon or Leisure Suit Larry I suspect there really is no other funding recourse for a non-branded game like Xenonauts beyond the already-employed preorder system. If it helps them ensure a game that looks and feels more vibrant and varied, and takes away the very real issue of wage worries, then I guess I’m all for it even if I’d been hoping the game might have been closer to release by now.

It does feel like a cop-out to lean on the ‘hooray, it’s so much like X-COM!’ angle when writing about Xenonauts, but that is, after all, its raison d’etre. Before Firaxis’ game was announced, the possibility of ever seeing an X-CMlike as high-polish and faithful seemed to be practically zilch. As it is, they do seem to me like two very different games, ones that can sit comfortably alongside each other rather than battling for old strategy gamers’ attentions.

Much like we didn’t have any issue with X-COM and Jagged Alliance co-existing back in the day, these are, I think, two very different views of the same landscape. And two that I’ve been waiting for for what feels like forever. Finally having one of them sat on my hard drive – demo of a ludicrously early build or no – is truly exciting.

Xenonauts is now on Kickstarter, having pulled in $7,700 of its desired $50,000 at the time of writing. A substantial free demo of a pre-alpha build is also available here.

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