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Rating: 15 votes, 5.00 average.

Xeno... NUTS!

Posted 05-31-2014 at 11:28 AM by jedidia

It's a good time to be a fan of the old game "UFO: Enemy unknown" (or X-COM: UFO defense, depending on where you live). It's undoubtedly the best time for it since the original title hit the shelves. One might be so bold to argue that it's a better time.

It is really perplexing: Ufo: Enemy unknown was one of the best turnbased squad tactics games of all time. What made it so beloved was not just its great mechanics and its unforgivable difficulty, it was also the fact that squad based tactics wasn't all there was to the game. Defending earth in the air by shooting down UFOs with you interceptors, then sending in your groundpounders to get rid of any surviving aliens, packing up their stuff, taking it appart in your lab, using the technology to build your own stuff in your workshops, and then repeating the process with the technological advances while struggling against the ever larger alien ships entering the earths atmosphere, abducting cattle and people and every once in a while terrorising a city was something unique, something addictive.

The perplexing thing is that the formula has been reproduced multiple times since that day, in several unofficial "sequels" as well as some indy studios, and it never worked. It never really reproduced that exact feeling.
The reason for this, people always thought, was that all the copycats changed the core mechanics.

Last year, an official remake came along, and proved that assumption wrong: X-COM: Enemy unknown felt very much like the old UFO, while mechanically being a thouroughly different game. It saw through the mechanics into the very soul of the game, and managed to transport that soul into much simplified mechanics. The real crux of the matter, it turned out, was not changing the games mechanics, it was that everyone that went before changed the wrong things without thinking about the implications enough.

To make a simple example: the UFO after-blabla series changed the turn-based combat to realtime with pause. The reason why this didn't work was that in a realtime with pause system, you loose a bit of oversight. You cannot exactly trace the outcome of every shot. This in turn leads to more forgiving mechanics, making hitpoints more important, and cover less so.

And gone was one of the core aspects of the X-COM soul: The nervewrecking awareness that anyone could die at every step. As a result, the UFO afterlunch series felt boring and uninvolved, although the games were certainly not easy and reproduced most other aspects of XCOM. But the suspense went out the window and the gameplay became exorably slow, which is ironic, as some people always say that turn-based gameplay is slow and unimersive and boring.

But there is another story to be told here, the one this post should actually be about. Some long years before Firaxis announced their official remake, the Indy-developer Goldhawk interactive announced a 100% faithful remake of the old UFO: Enemy unknown (except anything that was under IP, of course, that would just be cloned and renamed). I was somewhat sceptical, because I know enough about game design to know that 100% faithfulness to a 20 years old game (except for the graphics, of course) is not really a cure, but I pre-ordered the game because I couldn't see anything better coming down the road.

Having followed the Alphas and Betas, I now have a pre-release version of the game, while the game goes on to cycle through some more release candidates for release in June.

I was promised maximum faithfulness to the original 1994 game. I can with happyness announce that this promised hasn't be fulfilled.

Since I make that statement happily, you can probably guess that Goldhawk essentially got the right things right. Oh hell yes, they have! They also got a lot of the things right that the original couldn't quite pull off.

To compare Xenonauts to last years X-COM: Enemy unknown is not easy. Xenonauts does play pretty much exactly as the 94 original, only better, while XCOM plays a whole lot differently on pretty much every level, but still manages to feel the same.
A big part of X-COMs success is undoubtedly attributable to cunning scrutiny of the original. The soul was captured in mechanics that would be acceptable to todays audience, and stuff that didn't quite work as well as the heart of the game, like the GeoScape or base managment, were scaled down, trimmed and inserted into the whole to provide a similar challenge and feeling on more simple terms.

Xenonauts takes a different approach. It asked why these parts didn't quite work as well as the tactical missions, and what must be fixed on them to actually be able to play on par with the tactical missions.

They called the result a "Strategic Planetary Defence Simulator". They aren't really lying, either.
The result that Goldhawk interactive produced is a product that play almost exactly like the original when on ground missions, and when researching and building stuff. It is an entirely different game in Geoscape.

Really, in a sense Goldhawk screwed me over. In full anticipation of a faithful reconstruction, I started the game at Veteran difficulty, thinking that it couldn't be any harsher than the original on impossible (which, due to a most infamous bug, was the only difficulty you could actually play it on. No matter what difficulty you selected, the game was locked in impossible. If you have played UFO: Enemy unknown, you have played it on impossible).

The start was slow enough, some small UFOs that didn't stand a chance against my interceptors, ground missions where I outnumbered the enemy at least 3:2, the research tinkling nicely along. Sure I lost a soldier here and there. If I didn't, I'd probably have shut down the game in disappointment.

I'll lose a few words on the graphics here, since we've mentioned ground missions. They are absolutely gorgous. It's not a 3-d projection. It's a good old-fashioned tile engine with sprite animations. The tiles were created from photorealistic textures, the animated sprites probably from high-poly meshes. And then, someone took out his color box and painted over every single one of them by hand. The result is amazing. Xenonauts doesn't have what you'd call "Indy graphics". These graphics are cutting edge, nay, the pinacle isometric tile engines. There's just no way I can think of how graphics done in this way could be any better. Every single tile (and there's a damn lot of variety, I'll tell you) testifies for the enourmous amount of love the developers must have put into this game. With so much love to detail all around me, I couldn't help but to give this game my heart.

Which it devoured.
And then, methodically, it went on to chew off my face and spill my guts all over the floor. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After some time, the second size of UFOs appeared on the skies. I needed it badly, for the smaller UFOs don't have reactors. They run on capacitors, so my research was somewhat held back until I could get my hands on a reactor. Eagerly, I intercepted the thing. To my astonishment, taking it down resulted in rather significant losses among my fighters, which I sent out in a squadron of three, while the enemy was alone. One was lightly damaged, one heavily, one was destroyed. It would be while to repair them and get my airforce back on its feet, but oh well. The losses could have been somewhat mitigated with better tactics for air combat. It might have been prudent to try to get the fighters on the enemy's 6 instead of a full frontal assault (the avid X-COM player will notice several things here, keywords being "squadron of three", "heavy losses in an airfight", as well as "airial tactics". Those things have never been connected with any X-COM clone or remake so far).
But there's my second-size UFO (which is still considered "small" by the game"), so it was worth it. Now get my troops over there and cash in that alenium (Xenonauts equivalent to Elerium 115).

The crew of the "medium scout" numbered eight. One died in the crash. Two waited for me near to the landing zone, one of them in a building. One of my soldiers was assasinated by plasma fire out of a barn window. Annoyingly, the bloody alien didn't stand there anymore when the turn ended. I had to enter the barn and search for him. Another of my guys got shot through another window before one of my assault troops could get into the barn and get rid of the killer by ways of a grenade.
I searched the barn. There was only one alien in that barn. It had fired out of a window and retreated into concealed cover. It had shot out another window during the next turn. It was so well entrenched in the barn that a grenade was the only viable option to get rid of it without risking any more lives.

This wasn't exactly the original game anymore. This was the original game, with all its unforgivable mechanics and punishing difficulty, but it also just demonstrated to have a much more troublesome weapon in its arsenal, one that the original was mostly devoid of: frickin' smarts!

Another soldier bit the grass by the other interloper that was outside before the craft was found.
I stationed my soldiers around the door to prepare for the assault on the interior. I noticed that this particular craft had very inaccessible doors, I had to put my soldiers in suboptimal positions. But finally, flashbangs at the ready, I opened that door. And facepalmed quite vigourously, while my eyes widened in a mixture of terror, surprise and amusement, and my Jaw droped to the table. My Wife, doing some reading not far from me, asked me in a worried tone what happened, and all I could say, under some mad giggling and moaning, not really knowing whether to weep for the inevitable slaughter to follow or to laugh at the shere FUN I'm going to have with this game, was:

"I'm so dead!"

What the door had concealed so far were the remaining five crew of the ship, waiting for me in strategic defense positions beyond the narrow doorway. I did not yet have stun grenades. I didn't bring any riot shields. I was undone. My remaining 5 soldiers died trying to take that vessel. It was not the old X-COM style "dang it, there was another one behind that wall" kind of dying. It was the "We are sitting here outside a fortress, can't get a clear shot at the enemy, and whenever someone moves someone dies" kind of dying. It was terrifying. It was awesome. Sure, I could have retreated, but I really wanted to try to breach this thing for the hell of it. I managed to kill two.

But, as it turned out, this wasn't so much of a problem in the long run. It just forced me to adjust my tactics. Once I had stun grenades, I could take these UFOs without any problems whatsoever. Once I had the collected alenium researched I could build better warheads and could bring down these craft easily. Everything was looking up, and I was almost afraid that it might get boring.
Then larger craft appeared, impossible to down without heavy losses in my interceptors.
Then robotic enemies appeared, immune to my stun grenades.
The dying in my ranks resumed.
The aliens started to bombard cities (a so-called "aerial terror site") outside the range of my fighters, with tens of thousands of casualties. I scrambled to establish bases all over the world to be able to intercept UFOs over different parts of the world, as my funding was dropping fast. But my interceptors were no match for the larger alien craft.
I scrambled to research the next-gen fighter. It could take care of the Frigates, currently the largest vessels appearing. But to construct them I had to bring a frigate down first to get the neccessary handwavium for research available.
It occured to me that the tech-tree was a lot more thought through than in the original. Technology you really desperately need to counter a specific threat can only be obtained by first dealing with that threat with what you have and rise like the pheonix from the ashes from the mayhem that ensued in the meantime with the new technology, hoping that the advantage will last long enough to recoup your losses.

It was a race, and I was on the shorter end of the resources. My funding droped steadily because I wasn't able to intercept the larger alien craft, because the new interceptors were so bloddy expensive to build. The running costs of my interceptor bases, which I built to keep the funind flowing, were furiously cutting into my budget.

Then the terror missions started. My soldiers were outnumbered 2:1. Heavy plasma cannons appeared in the hands of the extraterrestrials, making short work of my until here so effective scout tank. Then the buggers started to throw grenades. Then still larger UFO appeared, and my meager finances were only able to build one of my super fighters, which in combination with the old ones was enough to face the frigates, but was hopelessly outclassed against the now appearing cruisers.
Finally, after a total squad loss during a terror mission, the aliens assaulted and took my main base.

I was beaten, soundly and thouroughly. I had not really lost the game on the battlefield. I lost it on the geoscape, where my inability to maintain air superiority killed my funding. That, for sure, was a very new expierience, provided by none of any of the offshoot of the original game, much less by the original game itself. I'll be playing my next game on normal difficulty, thank you very much. I don't even want to know what happens at the highest difficulty setting...

So, to sum up this little wall of text somewhere between a review and attempt to "talk to somebody" about my trauma: Is Xenonauts the promised faithful remake of the original? Hell no. It goes above and beyond that. Yes, there are a few little things where one might complain that the original had more deptht. The battlefield terrain is flat (there's still multi-story houses, but no hills, probably because there's no way to make them look good in this engine), but everything is still 100% destructuble (except for exterior wassl of alien craft and, thankfully, yours) and cover is more important than ever. Yes, the stuff you collect on missions and you don't need gets sold automatically, because your soldiers can't use it (the alien weapons are ergonomically unfeasible to be used by humans. They can be picked up and used during a mission as a last resort with a hefty accuracy penalty, but you can't equip them at the beginning of a mission), but on the other hand the base storage micromanagment wasn't exactly thrilling. Yes, you cannot carry additional equipment into a mission except for what you have equiped on your soldiers. On the other hand, you have it consistently equiped on your soldiers (and have a great interface for it, too), and for anyone that ever played the original, if you consider that a drawback, you're just plainly insane.

Xenonaut does provide the tense tactical combat of the original, with the same TU-based mechanics and very similar weapons, with a great interface that makes reserving time units practically unnecessary (the option's still there, though). There's plenty of the fear of dying at every possible step that was the trademark of the original.
Except, that fear now extends to the Geoscape. I have not yet found a viable tactic how to maintain air superiority. Building additional bases for interception in other parts of the world immediately is something I will try, but due to the running costs it's very possible that won't work. Also, replacing all the interceptors with new ones to deal with the advancing threads will be impossible, due to finances and manpower. But I have to try something different than in the original. Just shooting down UFOs and looting them is not a viable strategy to survive this game.
And this, really, is the Crux of the matter: Xenonauts is not X-COM: UFO defense. Xenonauts is X-COM 2. What terror from the deep should have been all those years ago: The underdeveloped parts of the game expanded to have more impact and deptht, the interface streamlined and improved with the lessons learned from the first part. Xenonauts is like the good old X-Com, picking it right where it left, but making everything better, and making everything make more sense, and in rare instances cutting an element out where that wasn't possible.

If you loved the original, you absolutely have to play this game. Not in the sense that you had to play the remake from Firaxis, that it was a really good remake and it feels really similar, but in the sense that this is, in fact, the original game, or at least what the original game should have become in its second iteration (instead of what basically amounts to a content patch).

You don't have to get Xenonauts because it feels like the original. You have to get it because is the original, in ascended, but no less recognisable form.

Enough said, indeed probably too much! Release will be next month. You can still pre-order this for a ridiculous 20 bucks. Go get it if you liked the original X-COM, because you want to play this game!
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  1. Old Comment
    Mandella's Avatar
    Well, you successfully sold me!

    And so far so good...
    Posted 06-03-2014 at 02:23 PM by Mandella Mandella is offline
  2. Old Comment
    PhantomCruiser's Avatar
    Same here. I've got UFO Defense in my Steam library, and really enjoyed playing it again. If this is a giant leap, but essentially the same game, I think I may be all in.

    Thanks for the excellent write-up.
    Posted 06-03-2014 at 07:31 PM by PhantomCruiser PhantomCruiser is offline
  3. Old Comment
    SHADO's Avatar
    I loved the original and spent hundreds of hours on it but never enjoyed the follow ups as much. The dumbed down game play spoiled the experience for me.
    Saw this on steam but thought it was probably another poor copy.
    Will definatly buy this and give it a bash on your recommendation.
    Posted 06-10-2014 at 08:18 AM by SHADO SHADO is offline
  4. Old Comment
    PeterRoss's Avatar
    I've heard about the development of this game long ago, but it was your post what convinced me to aquire this game and try it.

    What I like about it:

    1) Yes, it reminds original UFO greatly.
    2) Real life weapons and aircrafts! I was always wondering why they had to invent these weird-looking thick-barreled assault rifles with some weird caliber in original UFO.
    3) UFO fomations, air combat control - this is just cool.
    4) Death toll counter, events - something what makes the atmosphere deeper and scarier.
    5) Different layouts for missions in different parts of the worlds. Civilians in turbans in missions at Middle East, yay!
    6) Armed locals! One American redneck... farmer helped my guys greatly by sneaking behind alien's back and shoting him down with his shotgun.
    7) Description of scientific research results. They tried to explain many things which weren't very convincing the way they were explained (or weren't explained at all) in UFO. Funny too, mocking engineering squad and stuff. Soviet engineer, he-he-he.

    What I don't like:

    1) No sectoids! I dunno, I like little grey men. They're canonical aliens and any alien invasion force without them looks wrong.
    2) Automated research of some articles, automated selling, automated upgrades (yes, I like it all being manual!)
    3) Unlimited flares. Now, I see logic behind the decision of making them unlimited, I'm throwing these in dozens during night missions. I just don't like it.
    4) Weird design of UFOs. It's not saucers anymore, it's weird saucers. I liked round design more.
    5) Nothing connected with Terror from the Deep. I always hoped they will combine two games together, but they didn't. It's partially done in XCOM: Enemy Within, but still not what I wanted.

    I'm sure I've missed some points, but in the whole - I like the game!

    The funny moment here is that although I bought it on Steam I can't download it from there because of some weird reason. So, while I'm waiting for techsupport answer I'm playing the version pirated from torrents.
    Posted 07-05-2014 at 12:25 PM by PeterRoss PeterRoss is offline

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