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XCOM: Enemy Unknown vs Xenonauts – The Debate Starts

By on January 21st, 2012 4:11 am

Two of Space Sector’s game’s choices to look for in 2012 are XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Xenonauts. They are both remakes, or re-imagined versions (the difference is only subtle really) of the original X-COM games from the 90’s where your job is to lead a squad of elite fighters against an alien incursion on our planet.

On one side there’s Xenonauts, produced by Goldhawk Interactive, a <24 manpower indie video game studio founded in 2009 based in London, that uses the alpha-funding model to fund their games. On the other side there’s the giant (at least size-wise it is) game publisher Take-Two interactive (that owns 2K Games). Take-Two has given the job to Firaxis Games (a respected game developer studio responsible for game titles like Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and Sid Meier’s Civilization 3, 4 and 5), to build a new X-COM franchise sequel. Take-Two owns the original franchise trademark that belonged to Microprose by the way.

I can’t tell you well enough how excited I am, as surely thousands and thousands of other X-COM fans spread around the globe are, to hear that after a long wait (of more than a decade) this year we will finally be able to get the chance to play a new X-COM style strategy game, that is worthy of the original titles. I’m not referring to one of the games in particular although I have to confess, understandably I guess, that I am a bit more excited to hear that a new X-COM game was going to be produced (the Firaxis one) than when I learned about Xenonauts, a long time before. Firaxis and 2K only announced their game now but Goldhawk Interactive, also due to it’s alpha-funding scheme, have announced Xenonauts many months ago.

We can imagine the shock this new XCOM announcement has caused on Goldhawk Interactive, seeing a “AAA” XCOM announcement for the same year they are expecting to release Xenonauts. In fact Xenonauts people talk about on receiving this news (see Goldhawk Interactive’s recent post about their reaction to 2K/Firaxis’ announcement). See a clip below.

“Mid-January is upon us and the festive season has been left well and truly behind. It’s time for another update on what’s been happening on Xenonauts, plus a few words on a game being made by a little-known studio called Firaxis. I’ll start with the elephant in the room, the Firaxis X-Com remake. I’ll admit that their announcement was not the ideal way to usher in the New Year, but the more information that is revealed about the game the less I worry for Xenonauts. I have a lot of respect for Firaxis and I imagine that their remake will at worst be a good game, but there are a lot of differences between what we are aiming to do and what they are. I therefore don’t think they’ll erode our target audience a great deal. In fact, they may even increase it.” ~Goldhawk Interactive

We have only to gain with this because now there’s a little competition going on between these two to see who pulls it off better, so, we have everything to win with this little dispute :)

Does Xenonauts has everything to lose?

I’m a huge X-COM fan, and I’m sincere, right now my preference, in terms of expectation level is for Firaxis’ “XCOM”. It doesn’t have anything to do with what they promise to offer really, since we barely know anything about the two games at this point. It is just natural to assume that an official sequel product is likely to be a better one, at least more true to the original. But this preliminary preference works both ways really. Although it may seem that Xenonauts starts way behind, they actually have one (well, I’m sure they may have more), one big thing in their favor: people don’t have so much expectations for their game as for Firaxis’ one.

Another Xenonauts advantages is that being a smaller studio in size they may benefit from all the hype behind the new XCOM franchise remake and take the opportunity to cash-in through that hype. Moreover it’s understandable to think that many XCOM fans will also want to try Xenonauts, if not for the sake of pure interest in the game, at least from a pure curiosity point of view, as much as prices will allow of course.

What made the X-COM series fantastic in the first place?

It’s a fair observation to make that there would not be a Xenonauts game if it wasn’t for the original X-COM titles (such as UFO Defense, Terror from the Deep and Apocalypse). But it isn’t less unfair to note that there wouldn’t be an XCOM: Enemy Unknown made by Firaxis either. The true credit must be given first to the original X-COM series, the one that made all this host of remakes, clones and re-imagining “XCOM” games possible.

So, but what made the franchise a huge success in the first place? – you may be questioning now. “What is all this great XCOM thing about? This seems to be one of the most loved sci-fi strategy games ever. But why?”

The answer is: many things. Many observable (the gameplay, the visuals, the music) and probably such as many not so observable (the people and the companies behind the projects). But with respect to the game itself the great characteristics, for me at least, are: the setting, the game’s atmosphere and of course the elegant turn-based and real-time mechanics gameplay mix.

I could be here all morning saying good things about the original games but if I had to choose the best aspects I would definitely say the setting, the game’s atmosphere. It’s that killing suspense, the horror, the surprise factor that so many people neglect how important it is to capture a player’s attention and provide a fun experience that made X-COM great. Examples of these surprise horror moments are “WTF will I see behind this door?”, “What horrors, what alien or number of aliens will be there?”, “WHERE ARE THEY??”, “My GOD, not one of THESE!! I’m F*****!! (Castle Wolfenstein any one?). It’s that tension, the grim and compelling atmosphere that builds and builds the mood higher and higher that glues the player to the screen. Ultimately you could almost feel you’re being part of what’s going on, what we can define as game immersion.

But there are lots of other details worth noting. The music was also special, it had momentum and also helped build tension. Then there’s the tanks and hovercrafts. You could actually move inside tanks and use them to blow up houses, and the poor aliens. Another interesting aspect of the game is that although the game was not linear, in a sense that it didn’t start and ended following a linear sequence of events, it had a story, and a storyline that you would need to follow more or less closely to allow you to finish the game, but you could always make some choices along the way that could accelerate or not the end-game progression.

Another key aspect in the original X-COMs is that you really cared about your squad of men and women. And you had good motives for such because as your men gained experience that would make them experts and very critical assets to have. The loss of one squad member could mean sayonara to the entire game. You really had to look out for your men and protect them from danger at all costs. This tension, this life-or-death confrontation is slowly disappearing in today’s games, where dying doesn’t mean anything anymore and if you’re in bad shape you just need to look around and find some health flask, wait for mana recharge or simply don’t care at all, die and happilly start over. What’s the fun with that? In the original XCOMs you could always save your game yes but if you made some bad moves that could cost you the entire battle or the even the entire game (NOOOOO!!! I killed the lobsterman navigator!! I needed that bastard alive for questioning, I’m F*****!!). Damn, those were good times.

Screenshots Mano a Mano

Now it’s time for some quick comparison show-down between the two titles. In the end it all comes to “what have you brought?  ~Indy 3″.

Remember that these are all “under-development” screenshots, both games only get released by the end of the year (Q3 2012 to be more exact).

Terrain

Terrain look & feel is a very important aspect of these games because thats where most of the gameplay mechanics unfold (there are usually several terrain settings involved in XCOM games, from deserts, jungles, ships and cities). In the next three shots you can see the original game’s terrain look & feel, followed by Xenonauts proposal and then the one by Firaxis.

XCOM: UFO Defense Terrain (1993). shot from electrondance.com

Xenonauts Terrain Screenshot

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Terrain

Xenonauts went on a more “clean and crisp” approach that somehow makes me remember the original games more. XCOM: Enemy Unknown has much more graphical effects, which is nice but ultimately not that critical for me.

Planet Monitoring

The Planet Monitoring screen (aka Geoscape) is where you manage your base and can see the world view. It’s in the Geoscape where you fight the strategic war with the aliens, where the “Battlescape” is where you fight the tactical battles. More info on this in the UFOpaedia.

XCOM: UFO Defense Geoscape

Xenonauts Planet Monitoring Screenshot

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Planet Monitoring Screenshot

It’s really hard to tell anything from the screenshots alone besides the fact that both visions look good. Xenonauts in flat 2D world view, XCOM followed the “3D” (original) formula.

See more XCOM: Enemy Unknown screenshots here. More Xenonauts shots here.

Gameplay features close look

Both games are still in production and are due for release only by the end of the year so it’s not possible at this time to be very exhaustive in features, simply because they are not known yet (firmly at least), and I don’t have access to neither game’s builds at this point :)

In a general sense gameplay will be pretty much the same in both games, as expected if you’ve read this far. The real-time element of both games is set on a global view (the “Geoscape”), where the player tracks UFOs, and alien incursions happening on the entire world. You should also be allowed to conduct research and develop your XCOM / Xenonauts bases at any time (although I couldn’t confirm this yet). This is the games’ real-time strategy part.

Combat is all fought in turns, in a normal turn-based fashion. Both teams have a series of “movement points”. Each unit spends its points and when those are exhausted you pass to the next unit in the team till all are left without enough movement points to conduct any action or till you’re content with your movement. You hit end-turn and now it’s the Aliens time to play.

And while gameplay is basically the same in both games it’s possible already to enumerate a series of details from what I could manage to dig up. As I don’t have first hand information I decided to use some quotes along the way to summarize the features.

Re-imagining vs Remake?

What they say.

The game [Xenonauts] is heavily inspired by the classic X-Com / UFO: Enemy Unknown, released in the mid-90s by the now-defunct Mythos / Microprose. It is not a straight remake; though the core mechanics remain similar much has changed or been updated – so much so, in fact, that we prefer the term ‘reimagining’ to remake’. ~Goldhawk Interactive

“Re-imagining is probably a better term. Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t directly copy the underlying game systems – for instance, soldiers have different stats than they did in the 1994 original – but the concepts are still here. Players still have to manage multiple resources and threats on a global scale in a seemingly hopeless war against extraterrestrial forces with far better technology and capabilities.” ~GameInformer (Game Informer has an exclusive coverage deal with 2K/Firaxis for XCOM: Enemy Unknown)

Squares vs Hexes

The original series featured squares as spatial movement unit. Xenonauts seems to have kept the formula. XCOM: Enemy Unknown apparently innovates this aspect and now uses hexes as spatial movement system instead.

Base Building

In the original series you could see and manage your base from above. Xenonauts keeps the traditional base view, XCOM: Enemy Unknown innovates a little and offers vertical base building.

 XCOM: Terror from the Deep Base (credit: mobygames.com)

From left to right: X-COM: Terror from the Deep, Xenonauts, XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Other differences

In 2K forums there’s talk that XCOM: Enemy Unknown may feature some original gameplay streamlining. Elements like ammo now being unlimited or we now having one main base only to manage (where before you could build sister bases all around the globe). Fog-of-war now prevents seeing an alien from too much distance and something about squads having a cap of 4 soldiers max. Frankly from what I could tell these are all speculations still.

Conclusion

It’s definitely too soon to take any definite conclusions on who will stick closer to the original X-COM formula and conquer more X-COM fans (if sticking to the original formula is the best strategy at all). It all comes down to who will provide the best gameplay experience, and that’s much more complex than knowing only who will offer the best graphics or if one of the games offers some detail exactly equal or not as in the original series. For me the winner, from a nostalgic point of view, will be the one that is able to recreate those classic moments of tension, suspense and that overall horror setting as it was provided by the original X-COMs. All that with believable gameplay and lots of surprises sprinkled throughout the experience should be the winner’s ticket.

We are still 9 months apart from both games release date, since Goldhawk Interactive has announced a couple of days ago that they’re planning to release Xenonauts about the same time as XCOM: Enemy Unknown, (i.e. this autumn 2012). And as if all this would not be enough there’s also Chaos Concepts’ UFO2: Extraterrestrials coming in 2012 :)

Guess this will be the X-COM remakes year. And… I couldn’t be happier.

I hope you had as much fun reading this article as I had writing it :)

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16 Comments


  1. Dayrinni says:

    Wow, this was a fantastic post. Great read. I seem to recall seeing mention of these games in a PC gamer magazine and they were looking forward to the games too.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Thanks dayrinni :) I had a blast writing it!
      Yes, these are 2 of the most anticipated sci-fi games for this year, you’ll see them a lot almost everywhere :)

  2. MammothIL says:

    Great comparison. Though I must say, that this early on, Xenonaut looks better than the Firaxis’s game. It feels closer to the original game, while Firaxis’s screens remind me of UFO: Afterlight.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Hi MammothiL, it’s your first comment here in Space Sector correct? Welcome friend.
      From screenshots I also think that Xenonauts looks similar to the original at this stage. It it looks and feels better …

  3. Nick says:

    Since I’m old and jaded, I’ll just venture a guess that the game not also on consoles will be more complex and like the original. I would love to be wrong and see a proper remake of XCom brought to consoles so a new generation can get exposed to that sort of gameplay.

    The math seems pretty simple to me, Xenonauts is visually simple, made by one program manager and a hand full of contractors. XCom:EA has sophisticated graphics is made by a team at a software company. The latter game likely costs much more to develop, so in order to recoup their costs they’ll need to ensure broader appeal which will likely mean watering down some of the mechanics to keep the game from being too “hardcore” or “niche”. Again, I would like to be wrong, but it’s much easier for a small independent software company to make money creating a game with more niche appeal.

  4. Vadim says:

    Xenonauts > X-Com EU. Still waiting any news about UFO2E.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Will have them as soon as I can get some. The UFO2E devs are very quite … (not much going on on their website). The release date is March 2012 though.

  5. csebal says:

    As with all AAA quality remakes, there is a chance that they will just go too far with streamlining and in the process take some crucial ingredient away from the game.

    For example, UFO: Aftermath – the first title of the UFO series from Cenega – was highly criticized and got way less love than it could have, because of the lacking base / resource management options (even though it’s combat system was – and still is – one of the best out there)

    So yea.. which one is better, the remade / re-imagined / reloaded versions, or the original? Hard to tell really. The original has already proven to stand the test of time, as there are many – including me – who play it to this very day. These pretenders still have to prove their worth. However, given the sheer amount of releases we will get this year, I hope there will be at least one that deserves to be played for longer than a week.

    Alternatively, if everything else fails, there still is the original to play. :)

    Nonetheless: This year is going to be a treat for all of us who love squad based tactical games. (also, not necessarily scifi, but it is worth noting, that Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is about to be released next month, which is a remake of another classic, on par with the X-COM series)

    • Adam Solo says:

      Completely agree.
      And yes the Jagged Alliance is also a very good title to check this year, not sci-fi yes but a goddamn great tactical game, at least the original titles were. After X-COM, Jagged Alliance 2 is my favorite turn-based tactical game. On a side note I don’t know if you played the Rebelstar series for the ZX Spectrum. These games achieved critical acclaim by then and were no doubt the humble (but great!) beginning that led to the X-COM and Jagged Alliance series more than a decade later.

  6. Happy Corner says:

    A great article, Mr. Solo, as I’ve come to expect for you.

    As for my own feelings on the two games (UFO:EU vs. Xenonauts), contests like this can be really unpredictable. I can remember years ago when UFO Afterlight and UFO ET were coming out around the same time. Back then, I would have bet on ET, as the previous After* games were weak, while the ET team – while unknown – seemed like they actually cared about doing a proper XCOM remake. Imagine my surprise, then, when the games came out and I found Afterlight to be the more enjoyable.

    I can see the same thing happening here. You can get excited about Firaxis, and they ARE great developers, but they’re not infallible. I actually liked Civilization IV a lot more than V (or III, for that matter), and I wished they had done a few things differently with Pirates (seriously, how hard would have been to make more villains than Baron Raymondo, so you’re not hunting down the same guy 16 times? And the fricking dancing!). Already, it looks like they’re screwing around with the XCOM formula, and doing that too carelessly is one of the things that wrecks most XCOM wannabes. Maybe they’ll do it right, and all the changes will make for a better remake… or maybe it’ll be like Civilization V, with enough features gone or altered into something bland that you once again prefer the earlier game. Or even something in between, like Pirates (overall a great game, but not without its annoyances).

    As for Xenonauts, again we have a new developer promising to be as faithful as possible, and we’ve been there before. I do like how heavily they’re beta-testing and letting early buyers participate, but I would rather wait until the game is finished and there’s a lot more word of mouth before I pull out my wallet.

    Don’t get me wrong, I look forward to both games… I’m just saying that I wouldn’t yet hazard a guess as to which one will be better.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Yes, it’s too soon to tell. You never know in this things. I’ve seen small indie games shine and great studios fail miserably in the past, so this is definitely not a AAA vs Indie challenge here, and the score is definitely unknown yet.

      What can I say, I love Firaxis. Man, I love SMAC and I love Civ, and I loved the original X-COMs, Master of Orion, Railroad Tycoon, Colonization (all directly or indirectly under Sid’s making or supervision) so I have a platonic love for all that’s Firaxis. But I’m not blind and surely they do made (and make) mistakes.

      Civ 4 is top 3 for me, I admit right here, right now. I probably never extracted so much pleasure from a game than from Civ 4 TBS, and Master of Orion, and X-COM, and RailRoad Tycoon, and Colonization :)

      Civ 5 was a let down I also admit. The game is good yes (1 UPT, city states, social policies), but the way the scre*** the diplomacy, and many more things like the global happiness, the unjustified buildings and the boredom just killed it for me. I enjoyed playing for a while but after some point I knew in my heart that I needed to do something better with my time (and my life).

      This will be a great duel to watch and play. I eagerly look forward to play both titles (Xeno and EU). May the best team win! (The irony would be for UFO2: Extraterrestrials to be better than this two in the end, but something tells me that that scenario is unlikely…)

  7. Matt says:

    Well I never played the OG Xcom games(Hope to get them off of steam today) but from what I have seen so far(and the prices) I will most likely preorder xenonaughts and wait till Christmas to get the two newer xcom games from family.(I only have like $40 and my mom owes me $20)

  8. Fast-and-Free says:

    So ironic to read these predictions after XCOM was released and polarized the fans.

    Then again we haven’t seen Xenonauts yet


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