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Xenonauts 2 and its rude scientist have instantly won me over

The real secret of any great X-COM-like is having a smug bunch of brainiacs to come home to

A scientist with a gnarly mullet looks sceptically at the camera in Xenonauts 2
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when aliens threaten to exterminate your home, only the world's most insufferable, unhinged scientists can help you save the day. XCOM knows it, and now Xenonauts 2 is following suit. Case in point, yer man up the top there. Look at that smug mullet and his unimpressed raised eyebrow. He doesn't give two hoots you're here to save the world from extinction, leading (probably several) teams of nine (unwitting) brave souls into the unknown (i.e.: repeated death by alien overwatch). He's got research to do. Organs to pickle. Dead alien carcasses to splice. Yeah, the same ones you literally strapped into your troops' tactical belts in the last mission so you could bring them home. We had stinking brain monsters wrapped round our torsos, guy! The least you can do is deign to make us a nice cuppa when we get back. Honestly. You can't get the staff these days...

Okay, small apology to XCOM's scientists. It wouldn't be fair to put them in quite the same smarmy class as Xenonauts 2's chief science officer, as they're both a heck of a lot nicer to you in person. But I'd argue that XCOM: Enemy Unknown's Dr Vahlen doesn't fall too far from the same tree, as she clearly derives a bit too much joy from her work than is perhaps healthy or wise, and even XCOM 2's Dr Tygan has an undercurrent of, "Well, if I had access to the right equipment..." *big sigh, cough cough cough*. And yet I don't think these strategy games would be the same without these clashing personalities. It livens up what's clearly a very high-stakes situation, and I like that little frisson of light seething - the implication that if you scratch my back, maybe I'll scratch yours (but you're really going to have work for it, I'm not that nice) sorta thing.

As in XCOM, Xenonauts 2 has a grand strategy layer focused on building out your HQ between missions while you wait for more UFO attacks to arise. You'll be researching technologies, getting your engineering division to make new tools, armour and weapons for you, and generally keeping on top of your soldiers, aircraft and eventually upgrading your base with new modules and building types. I'm only a relative handful of days into Xenonauts 2 at the moment (20 or so, out of its current early access limit of 180), so I haven't quite got around to doing any construction just yet, but I have had plenty of contact with my new best pal Science Guy, and what a delight he is. Just look at the things he greets me with after a hard mission.

A scientist looks quizzically at the camera in Xenonauts 2
I'm sure he has a name, but knowing him, I probably haven't earned enough respect from him to actually use it. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse
A scientist hurls an insult at you in Xenonauts 2
A lovely chap, truly. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

In fairness, he's probably right to be sceptical. On my most recent mission, all but one of my soldiers returned from a particularly gruelling UFO crash site assault. The first half of the mission was going well. I was able to get most of my team into decent positions, and slowly set about taking down the small handful of wandering aliens in the lush jungles of Taiwan where the UFO had landed after being shot down by my interceptor planes. I'd also managed to recover some of their alien weaponry (and those aforementioned dead bodies) to take back to base at the end of it. It was going well, and I was slowly getting to grips with how its time bar works.

Actions are doled out in Time Units in Xenonauts 2, with movement, firing, crouching to maintain cover, picking items off the ground, and even angling your body to get a better line of sight all costs different amounts depending on the size of the task. It's very much in the Phoenix Point school of tactical actioning, then, rather than the rigid number of moves you'll find in XCOM. Alas, unlike Phoenix Point, you can't target individual body parts of your alien foes, but you can free-aim a la Jagged Alliance 3 to potentially hit other targets that aren't the bug-eyed skinny boys / large lizard lads trying to laser fry you.

A soldier prepares to fire on an alien across a jungle lake in Xenonauts 2
A green line tells you an enemy is in range. If it starts going amber, it's beyond your weapon's firing range, and will have reduced accuracy as a result. Might still hit, though... | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

The great thing about Xenonauts 2, though, is that regardless of whether you're free-aiming or targeting specific aliens, your trusty friend Captain Hit Percentage will stand shoulder to shoulder with you. I particularly like how it displays your gun's line of fire here, too, as it won't just highlight obstacles standing in the way of your shot (including your own squad mates), but it will also tell you the likelihood of you hitting them, too, giving you lots of lovely info to make informed decisions. You can also select tiles on the map and press shift to see what your likelihood of landing a shot from there will be, too, before having to commit to moving. It's a brilliant touch, even if its execution is perhaps a bit fiddlier in practice than it was in, say, Hard West 2.

A soldier's inventory screen in Xenonauts 2
Yep, just gonna pop my dead pal Jimmy into my belt there... A totally normal thing to be able to do. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

So yes, the mission was going well. But I came unstuck when I needed to approach the UFO proper. The remaining aliens weren't stupid, and were sitting tight inside their ship, which meant I had to be the one ringing the doorbell. Opening doors also costs Time Units in Xenonauts 2, and any leftover time units you have at the end of a turn will automatically turn into overwatch points if you've got enough spare to fire your gun. Problem is, this applies to the aliens, too, and every single time I opened the door, I'd get riddled with bullets.

In hindsight, after my fifth soldier hit the ground in the opening doorway (surely those bodies should have stopped the door from closing, I'm just saying...), I should have twigged that rather than just standing there and shooting and hoping luck would be on my side to land the final sucker hiding behind control desk, I should have chuffing moved them into cover and taken things a bit slower. I might have brought back a few more soldiers if I'd been sensible like that. I should have also taken more notice of the bleed damage its bullets inflicted as well, as that did more than a couple of them in after they survive the initial door barging. But in the moment, desperation took over and ultimately paid the price for it.

A UFO ambush goes extremely wrong in Xenonauts 2
Let's never speak of this again... | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

After that kind of performance, I'm not surprised Science Guy hates my guts. Maybe I'll win him round eventually, once I build him a nice lab and give him some other lackeys to snarl at. Really, all I want is for him to look at me the same way my nice engineering chap does. Truly, this is what friendship looks like at the end of the world.

A nice engineer talks to you in Xenonauts 2
Right back at ya, pal. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

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