It only counts as déjà vu if it’s different.
Video game development is largely an iterative process. Developers make small tweaks to the gameplay of their genre predecessors which moves the world forward one tiny step. Sometimes, a game comes along that takes a giant leap forward into parts unknown. It reinvents a genre or creates a whole new one. These games are treasured for the new experiences they provide. Xenonauts is not one of those games.
For those who haven’t played any of the X-COM clan, the game is a tactical turn based squad game about an international agency fighting an alien invasion. The game is divided into two major segments: the aforementioned tactical fights and a base simulator. In the fights, you control a group of green recruits as they fight through a myriad of locations to hunt down alien forces. Actions cost action points of which each soldier has a limited supply that refills at the beginning of each turn. Using terrain, weapon variation, explosives, and planning, the player must overcome a reasonably capable enemy. The alien force isn’t particularly smart, but they are durable and will overcome sloppy play or bad luck.
Once the battle finishes, you control a global organization bent on defeating the invaders. You start off with one base that can research technology, manufacture equipment, manage personnel, and launch aircraft to intercept incoming alien ships. You feel a constant tension between the previously mentioned needs and so you require prioritization to ensure that you have the technology and equipment to defeat the ever escalating threat. Defeating your foe is not just a matter of personal pride, but of funding. Each base can only cover so much territory and the areas of the world that you miss will reduce their funding as alien attacks go unanswered. Each aspect of the game feeds into each other creating the clever balancing act that made the original game so compelling.
Make no mistake, this is X-COM: UFO Defense. From the base building to the tactical gun play, this is an almost carbon copy of the 1994 PC classic that spawned a streamlined Firaxis remake in 2012. The setting, gameplay, technologies, and so much more are ripped (competently) from the X-COM series. Xenonauts does make a few welcome tweaks, but they are exceedingly minor. You can now assign loadouts to soldiers that automatically equips them with the right gear. Basic equipment is free and light flares are in infinite supply for nighttime missions. Sadly, Xenonauts carries over X-COM’s frustrating percentage based firing mechanic (did two of my soldiers miss a collective 4 point blank shots before they were killed? Why yes. Yes they did) and the graphics are often inferior to the pixels of the original.
In many ways, Xenonauts feels like a menu upgrade rather than a new game. It’s not a bad game, but it does feel like an unnecessary one. Most of its target audience likely already owns the original and will find this version a bit more convenient. What is sad about Xenonauts is that it could have been more without sacrificing its focus on retaining the old school X-COM charm. By changing the story, the tech tree, adding new fighting mechanics, or doing something different to anything major, Xenonauts could have established itself as a worthy successor to its obvious inspiration. As it stands, I’m not sure why I’d buy this with the original in my games list.
Steam Review: I wasn’t wild about Xenonauts, but it’s definitely the kind of game I enjoy. Furthermore, it’s competently executed and well received. This was a good choice and a sign that Steam’s recommendations are doing their job.