Previews

Xenonauts 2 – Early Access Look

A modern take on a retro classic

While the XCOM franchise took to the skies with a complete reboot of its series, Xenonauts 2 tries to capture the charm and essence of the original 90’s classic. Developed by Goldhawk Interactive and published by Hooded Horse, Xenonauts 2 is a turn-based tactical strategy that’s all about that military management and hardcore tactical gameplay. Sporting a unique retro aesthetic mixed with modern design crispiness, the game does a great job in taking the role of a spiritual successor to the classic XCOM games.

Xenonauts 2 Overview

Xenonauts 2 is a turn-based squad tactics strategy game mixed with base management elements. Set in the year 2009 in a world where the cold war never ended, you play as a commander of a secret organization codenamed, Xenonauts, tasked with intercepting, containing, and neutralizing a looming extraterrestrial threat in the midst of escalating international tension.

Despite being a sequel to the original 2014 Xenonauts, the game retcons everything from its predecessor and takes a more grounded approach to its sci-fi elements. Instead of having a few elite specialists, you, the commander, are responsible for an entire squad of normal soldiers each having a high chance of returning in body bags. Xenonauts 2 isn’t for the faint of heart because losing your characters is an inevitability. 

Xenonauts 2, workshop

Retro Inspired Look, Modern Polish

Before we go into the nitty gritty gameplay stuff, first I would like to feature Xenonauts 2’s visual style. The game’s overall look comes as oddly nostalgic. Describing its artstyle, Xenonauts 2 has a certain retro vibe to it, albeit the graphics actually looking crispy or modern, compared to actual retro graphics which are known to be pixelated or blocky. Perhaps it’s the game’s flat splash arts. Character art that resembles standees. Vehicle art that looks like cardboard cutouts. And even the in-game aesthetic reminiscent of PNG textures in flash games back in the day. But I’m not saying these things like it’s a bad thing, in fact, these elements are what gives Xenonauts 2 that peculiar charm while also giving it its uniqueness. 

Xenonauts 2, gameplay

Fight Against An Extraterrestrial Invasion

Hardcore Tactical Gameplay

Xenonauts 2 at its core is a hardcore turn-based tactical strategy where the lives of your soldiers and the fate of the world lies in your hands. For the most part, you’ll be commanding a squad of up to 16 units in the field. Not elite special forces with bullet defying reflexes but normal foot soldiers constantly putting themselves in risky situations. Your soldiers can easily die from getting shot, bleeding, explosions, and will definitely not survive a shot from an alien blaster’s high energy beam. Your soldiers are as normal as they can get, and the game won’t fail to remind you about it, especially in ironman mode. 

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And as if the overall difficulty wasn’t hard enough, Xenonauts 2 also makes you work with insanely intricate systems for combat. The game will seriously test your wits in a lot of different ways you can imagine. During my entire playthrough the one recurring theme is the game catching me when I’ve become lenient to its mechanics, which often end up with me losing some soldiers. 

Line of Sight

Xenonauts 2 puts a really strong emphasis on vision. With fog of war and object obstructions constantly clouding your line of sight, missteps will often occur resulting in a lot of frustration. Each of your soldiers can only see a limited number of tiles in a cone in front of them. Because of this, entering buildings without checking corners may result in injury, or in most cases, death. Although this system is deliberately designed to help pose a challenge to its players, it currently feels unbalanced when it favors the enemy AI way too much. Perhaps a system similar to XCOM’s stealth and reveal mechanics would help increase the combat dynamic as well as add a little bit of balance to the game.

Time Points

Every action done in the game uses what the game calls “Time Points” which are essentially movement and action points but for everything. Moving, Shooting, and even turning and crouching all use valuable time points. And speaking of crouching, all your soldiers are able to crouch for better accuracy and increased cover effectiveness. Each soldier has Time Points as a stat and the number varies between each unit. This mechanic was a bit confusing at first considering I got way too acclimated to tactics games having movement and action points as separate values. After getting used to it though, it was actually quite intuitive in a more micromanagement intensive way. 

Shooting

As for the shooting, you may recognize the resemblance to the many other alien vs secret military organization tactical strategies. However, Xenonauts 2 features some more intricate features that add to the luck based shooting. For one, each weapon now has distinct fire modes, with each mode having their own benefits and use cases. It may be tempting to just go in spraying and praying but sometimes, a single well placed shot is all you’ll really need. It’s also worth noting that friendly fire is a thing in this game so if you’re not careful soldier injuries may come from the back rather than from the front. 

Taking Cover

Despite how it sounds, killing enemy aliens isn’t the first thing you have to concern yourself with when going on missions. Rather, constantly taking cover is arguably the most important aspect of this game. The cover mechanic is simple enough, simply position soldiers adjacent to anything that looks like it can stop a bullet in its tracks and of course, on the side that’s away from the enemy. 

There’s mainly two types of covers that you’ll be thinking about: Half-covers and Full-covers. Half-covers provide some protection from enemy fire but it’s not entirely a guarantee, but at least it’s better than having no cover at all. You can also have your soldier crouch to take full advantage of the half cover, there’s simply no reason not to crouch in such scenarios. The Full-cover on the other hand safely protects your soldier from incoming fire, so it happens to be the most ideal cover to aim for, or in this case, to aim from. However, even full covers aren’t immune to explosives so players will have to keep that in mind. 

Mission Briefing

Xenonauts 2 features various mission types from the simplest clear all enemies to much more complicated data gathering missions. For the most part, every mission plays very similarly just with different objectives. You land your squad from the troop carrier, complete whatever objective needs completing, then extract your soldiers back to safety. 

So far, the only missions that felt entirely different from the rest of the other missions are the ambush missions which lets you place your units around a convoy of enemies with the objective of wiping them out. Despite the only difference being you’re able to place your units virtually anywhere, it actually serves as a nice satisfying refresher that only takes a few minutes compared to the longer grittier missions that you’ll get accustomed to. 

Although there are a few different mission objectives, the variety of the maps and levels start getting pretty stale after a few hours of play. However, considering that Xenonauts 2 is still an early access in development title then this is at least to be expected. But despite that, the subtle variations to the levels still offer an intense challenging playthrough.

Intercept Enemy UFOs

Aside from the ground tactical missions that you’ll be playing with for the most part of the game are air interception missions which consist of your modern day aircraft trying to shoot down alien UFOs. Contrary to the game’s main method of play, the air interception missions happen in real time rather than turn-based. Although, players will have control over the speed and time of which this aerial battle will take place, even allowing you to pause the confrontation entirely.

But even though the air interception missions are completely playable now, it is stated in the game that the system is still under heavy development and will most likely experience a bunch of changes in the future. That said, the air interception missions currently feel pretty primitive, it’s usually your aircraft shooting head to head against enemy UFOs which comes across as very unrealistic and obviously not how the final air combat would probably work. And if you’re not too keen on participating in a senseless air combat simulation then an auto resolve button is also available. 

Research, Development, and Progression

Pretty much a staple of the XCOM-likes are the research and workshop systems. Having quite the limited amount of time to do everything you need to do before the big battle happens, you’ll be researching various things to aid you in your squad’s alien killing prowess. If you’ve played any of the new XCOM games then you might as well be overly familiar with how this works. Fight aliens, research new technology from loot, then retrofit your own weaponry courtesy of some alien tech. Pretty much identical to XCOM’s.

The story also gets slowly unraveled by researching plot related things. Although to be honest, I’ve played this game and restarted way too many times than I even bothered to count. It’s also worth noting that I did read the dialogues and the memos but somehow, I’m still unsure of what exactly is going on. And the research tied to the plot was also very underwhelming and didn’t really change much of anything. It would’ve been really nice if after researching plot related technology, the game would actually introduce new mechanics and another layer to play with in the game. But that’s just not the case in its current state. Well there are a few elements that encourage you to play differently like when you unlock the taser gun but it really doesn’t have any impact at all and for most players, they might as well completely ignore the fact that you can capture enemies rather than killing them by knocking them out.

What I do like about this system though is the visual progression. Starting out, your squad will be geared up with the usual military grade modern human stuff like bullet proof vests and ballistic firearms. But after a research or two, your squad will be sporting some alien alloy armor and laser beam weapons. All of which visually affects your soldier’s look and the newer guns even have their own sound and visual effects. Witnessing the visual change to your squad creates this gleeful experience of discovery that helps in immersing players into the game. However, with the game still being in early access, some stuff are still simply not in the game yet, like the alien plasma weapons for example. They exist as an available research but they’re not available in the game as of yet. But despite that, with what the game has to offer right now I still had quite a bit of fun playing Xenonauts 2.

Base Building and Management

Another staple of the XCOM-likes are its base building and base management mechanics. For this one, we can say that the base building closely resembles that of the original 1994 XCOM game as opposed to the more recent ones. However, it’s easy to forget that Xenonauts 2 is also a sequel and the base building between this and the first game are pretty much almost identical. You’ll be building facilities like generators, storage rooms, living quarters, hangars, laboratories, workshops, and whatever else the base needs to keep Xenonauts operations running. One distinct feature that Xenonauts 2’s base building plays around with though is the ability to build multiple bases of operations.

Final Thoughts

With the game being dubbed by fans as the successor to the classic XCOM games, developers Goldhawk Interactive certainly have their work cut out for them with Xenonauts 2. As the game is still in its early access stages, it’s still missing huge core components which become glaringly obvious the deeper you are in your playthrough. Although, the game makes up for it with a fresh revival of a retro game design sprinkled with modern quality of life features. 

Xenonauts 2 oozes that retro inspiration with an oddly appealing artstyle that looks dated but deliberate, enhanced with modern visual contemporaries. All of these while cementing itself as a hardcore turn-based tactical strategy. The game is planned to have modding support, which means the game has the potential to get even better after release once the community gets their hands on the game’s modding tools. And as for myself, I simply just can’t wait on what the community has in store for this potential tactical sandbox. 

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