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Xenonauts Hands-On Beta Impressions

By on June 17th, 2013 12:33 pm

Xenonauts is a sci-fi turn-based squad tactics strategy game being developed by indie studio Goldhawk Interactive. The title is highly inspired by Julian Gollop’s X-COM: UFO Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown) from 1994 (X-COM from this point forward), for which Goldhawk wants to create a “spiritual successor”.

So, if you’re familiarized with X-COM, you’ll feel right at home playing Goldhawk’s remake because while the setting and the art styles are completely different (X-COM puts you in a futuristic 1998 where Xenonauts puts you in the middle of the Cold War period), the game concept, and the main mechanics, are basically the same.

If you’re not familiarized with X-COM or Xenonauts, these games let you play the role of the commander of a secret organization assembled to face a sudden alien threat of unknown origin and purpose. You must manage this organization, which, among other duties, includes hiring personal, acquiring interceptor planes and conduct advanced research and development. This is the game’s strategic layer. But, when more direct action is required you also play the role of a tactics officer in charge of controlling a squad of elite soldiers that will face the aliens on the battlefield. The original X-COM is an acclaimed game due to its tense and frightening atmosphere mixed with a sense of wonder when you meet the aliens and get in contact with their highly advanced technology.

Xenonauts - UFO Interception

UFO Interception mini-game - Multiple interceptors at the same time

I played Xenonauts’ Beta version, which is currently available on Steam’s “Early Access” program (Steam’s way to sell games in Alpha or Beta). But, the game is also available as an instant access pre-order on Xenonauts’ website, in DRM-free form, if you prefer it that way.

I played for about 10 hours in the Veteran difficulty (the other difficulties are: Easy, Normal and Insane) with Ironman mode OFF. In that time I progressed for about one month and a half, in-game time. I did plenty of missions, between UFO interceptions and crash site engagements. I faced three types of alien crafts and did one mythical Terror Site mission. Where I got a full squad wipe, and stopped playing :)

Xenonauts | Terror Site mission

Terror Site mission - Those aliens look scary

So, let’s go ahead with the impressions, shall we?

Xenonauts Beta Impressions

At first sight, the game didn’t seem to have changed much since I first played it when it was in Alpha, back in April of last year. But that was just a superficial first impression. A lot of it has in fact changed.

So, while before you could only play on a single map (or couple of maps at most), for probably just a couple of hours (because you were constantly re-playing the same map), you can now play on many maps of different kinds. I encountered tundra, desert, farmland and city style maps so far. The maps are semi-randomly generated, says Goldhawk, and although they look kind of similar, because they use the same building blocks, I never had the feeling of being playing the same map once in this 10h game time period. So, the non-static maps are a nice plus.

Xenonauts | Geoscape

Xenonauts World Map view - aka Geoscape

Also, in the Alpha version, the aliens didn’t seem to move much, or not at all, actually. Well, at least they didn’t give much of a fight. Not a surprise now since I came to understand that the AI was still making the first strides by then. But now, the aliens do give a fight. You definitely feel a challenge there. Nothing too fancy yet, because the aliens don’t seem to move great distances, but only wonder around a specific location. But, it was engaging enough.

The Base

Base management seems to be all there already. I built a living quarters facility (not sure if I got the traditional adjacency bonuses or not though – maybe the game doesn’t support that feature from the original X-COM) and interacted with all the base UI functionality with success. I built a new generation fighter plane, an armored vehicle, a more advanced set of soldier armor and finished many research subjects, including the interrogation of a living alien.

Xenonauts | Base

Xenonauts' Base of operations

All base sections are important, but the critical one is, no doubt, the one dealing with soldiers and their equipment. Soldier equipping in Xenonauts, contrary to what you find in Firaxis’ new X-COM game (XCOM: Enemy Unknown), is very detailed and gives you an enormous amount of freedom. Just like in the original X-COM game. Multiple grenades for everybody? You got it. Switch weapons freely? Sure, no problem. Ammo micromanagement? Hell yes. You can even customize your own soldier’s classes if you want, something I found particular interesting if you want to create your own “Scout Ranger” or “Demolitions Expert” class.

Xenonauts | Soldier equipping screen

Soldier equipping screen - Detail and flexibility

Concerning the base UI, it’s functional but I think Goldhawk can still do better. It’s pretty and slick at places, like the majority of the soldier’s equipment screen (as seen above), but it’s still a bit blurry and clunky in some areas. For instance, sometimes, the UI still gives you a hard time with the drop boxes’ selections, which you tend to miss sometimes. Overall, readability is not very good either, and intuitiveness could be better. For example, the UI doesn’t tell you what a new armor does exactly, besides letting you know that you can carry less weight. A few more tooltips wouldn’t hurt.

But, Goldhawk seems to be preparing to make a major UI overhaul. They seem to have been preparing this change for a long time now. But, at the time of these impressions, between the 12th and 13th of June, these UI changes were not yet in place. But, the UI changes seem to be for the best, although I’m not so sure about the amount of white used, maybe a bit darker would be preferable?

Xenonauts | Soldier equipping screen (part of major UI overhaul)

Soldier equipping screen (part of planned major UI overhaul)

What about the ground combat?

While the strategic layer is, no doubt, a very important and fun aspect of any X-COM type game, the ground combat is probably what the majority of players considers X-COM to be best known about. The tension, the fear, the horror. Guns firing from nowhere. Screams from the terrorized populace. The sounds when people, or the aliens die, and the fact that you can’t see much of what’s going on but only listen. It really is a gaming experience landmark.

Let me say that Xenonauts succeeds in all these fronts, to some degree, in this Beta. You do get a sense of fear when facing the enemy, because they indeed feel powerful (well, at least their weapons do) and their behavior is a bit unpredictable. You get the feeling of chaos when playing a terror site mission. The sounds are immersive and well done. Some aliens look quite grotesque and odd, as they should.

But, I don’t think Xenonauts is quite there yet though.Why? I suspect it’s because of two main things. First, the art style is completely different. X-COM is more cartoony while Xenonauts is more realistic, so to speak. More serious. In my experience it’s harder to get an immersion effect in a more realistic environment. Not impossible, just harder. Perhaps a few more art injections (including more and better music and sounds) could help overcome this lacking.

The other factor why I think Xenonauts is still not quite there in terms of immersion, is due to the maps themselves. Don’t get me wrong, the maps are nicely rendered and all that. From a pure graphical standpoint, Xenonauts is indeed years ahead of X-COM, as it should be. The thing is that the maps still feel a bit, how can I say it, dry. A bit barren, or empty is perhaps the best word.

Xenonauts | Maps - A bit empty, no?

Maps - A bit too empty and simple, no?

The individual map elements are quite nice. The tractors, the vans, the different buildings to some extent, the barns, the cabbage fields and all that. But, right now, everything feels a bit too empty and simple perhaps. I think they can do better with the maps, to give them more flavor and make them more interesting-looking. Perhaps fill them up with more elements or use more irregular shapes.

Xenonauts brings back TUs (time units) as movement mechanic (action points reserve with full movement freedom). To my surprise, I felt the return to time units to be very easy to pick up again, and a very natural game mechanic indeed. This after playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which doesn’t implement TUs, for many, many hours, and enjoying the experience a lot. So, I must conclude two things. First, raw TUs as a movement mechanic for this type of games is really not mandatory. In other words, it’s possible to simplify, or streamline the concept and obtain equivalent results. The other conclusion is that the Xenonauts dev team must have made a very good job with the TUs implementation, because after a little while I was already mastering my soldiers movement like I’ve never used another movement system before.

Regarding the ground combat UI it is very good already. I wouldn’t touch it further. Perhaps a few more hotkeys are necessary, especially one to reset the Time Units reserve to “None” quickly, so that you’re free to use the full action points in an easier way and save mouse clicks. But the rest is very usable already.

Xenonauts | Ground combat UI

Very clean and usable ground combat UI


So, there you go. Xenonauts Beta is looking really nice and it already offers an enjoyable experience. Although it doesn’t feel finished yet (well, because it isn’t) – some art assets are still missing (with placeholders at the moment) and more interesting maps are needed, in my opinion – Xenonauts managed to keep me fairly interested through my 10h play session. Until I faced a Terror Site mission that is, and failed miserably (complete squad wipe).

So, although I’ve been playing X-COM games for years, this was my first serious Xenonauts game where I definitely felt a challenge. This Beta didn’t captivate me as much as X-COM: UFO Defense once did, no. Not the same amount of attachment felt. But, it’s too soon to judge the game to that extent. I only played for about 10 hours, and only up until the first Terror site mission appears. I only saw an armor upgrade and had the first few glimpses on the Alien weaponry and story. And, Xenonauts is still in Beta, so there’s still a lot to discover and lots of room for improvement.

But, overall, I feel that after the new UI and the missing assets are in place, a few more art injections are made, more and better maps are produced, the game will be ready for prime time. And, it will be, most probably, a very enjoyable game. I’m confident on that because Xenonauts is already enjoyable now.

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  1. Ashbery76 says:

    Advanced Aliens races that have plasma weapons but never learnt squad tactics.

    • Miquel Ramirez says:

      The Aliens AI is mostly a place holder at the moment, indeed. The guy Goldhawk has working on it is taking a bottom up approach when implementing it, which is very convincing technically speaking, but takes some time to get done. If we’re lucky, we might get to see something similar to the uncanny behavior of F.E.A.R. NPC’s. Maybe.

  2. Mark says:

    Thanks for the update Adam, the detail, flexibility, depth and simulationist realism that you described seems to be exactly what I’m looking for in an X-com remake.

    I’m so glad that it doesn’t seem to have been dumbed down into oblivion like Enemy Unknown, I was worried they might have jumped on that bandwangon. I’m really looking forward to this game now.

  3. Yeah, the maps feel…barren. I really wish they’d have picked a better engine. Everything is static, trees don’t move, water doesn’t move.

    My main problem with this game is just that it’s not very…well…fun.
    I’ll give it a spin again once it’s officially released, but I played for a couple of hours and haven’t had a single urge to play it again, which makes me really sad.
    I’m glad I supported the developer, this is a game made with passion and a love for the original, and I’m glad he’s making this game. I just wish it had been made with better technology.

    • Miquel Ramirez says:

      The story behind why they’re using that engine is quite interesting, and gives quite some insight into the realities of indie development, in the case when the entepreneur/mastermind behind the project hasn’t a technical background, and has to look for freelancing programmers to get the job done:

      TL;DR the first programmer working for Goldhawk chose the engine – somewhat unwisely – and did a lot of foundation work, which then Chris (Goldhawk) was reluctant to throw into the bin in order to meet the deadlines promised to the early backers (I backed it before it got into KS).

      Was that a bad call? Reading into Chris’ posts, I think this has been for him quite a learning process – becoming a game producer is continuous on-the-job training – and my impression is that he’s realized that he made a bad call there. But he’s also of the opinion – which I do share – that lamenting on past bad decisions doesn’t help much in delivering, so there he goes with his team, biting the bullet and pressing forward.

  4. Jeff P says:

    Thanks Adam for the update. I tried playing the alpha months ago, but bugs and the non-intuitive GUI frustrated me and I gave up. I hope Goldhawk gets their act together by launch.

    Ashbery76: “Advanced Aliens races that have plasma weapons but never learnt squad tactics.” That may not be so improbable. I seem to recall several sci fi novels/short stories in which “technological asymmetry” was a prominent theme. Also, human history is rife with examples of wars between warrior cultures (in which each warrior fought singly) versus soldier cultures (soldiers fighting as tactical units.) I’ll leave it to your imagination which has been more successful.

  5. zigzag says:

    Can you explain the class system? Is it a tool for inventory management? Or does it have other effects?

    • Adam Solo says:

      It’s the former, as far as I could understand. You can create your own inventory configurations and name them for future usage. You can also edit the default loadout for pre-existing classes/roles (Sniper, Rifleman, Assault,…). It was not enough to tell if the roles change the way soldiers progress though. And, you can change roles anytime you want.

      So, apart from inventory management I saw no other function behind role assignment. No perks, special skills or anything like that. Soldier equipping is very flexible and easy to manage but there’s no specialization road ala XCOM:EU, if that’s what you may have in mind. But, I only played for about 10h (1.5 in-game months), so, there may be something else I missed about the classes.

  6. Peter says:

    XCOM: Enemy Unknown from Firaxis was a huge piece of crap. Everyone said it would be an awsome game, It was “The game to buy of 2012”. Never again am im going to buy a game without playing it ever again! I should have never bought it.

    My question: Will there be a free demo of Xenonauts?

    • Mark says:

      I probably wouldn’t use those exact words, but I do tend to agree. XCOM:EU was a lazy, dumbed down travesty of a game.

      Xenonauts sounds much more promising and true to the original masterpiece, but I will definitely be waiting for several reviews before reaching for my wallet.

    • Adam Solo says:

      We had long discussions about this in the past and I think the consensual conclusion reached (at least I feel that way) is that the original X-COM gives you more flexibility, freedom and a more simulationish experience while XCOM:EU gives you more squad attachment, more squad specialization depth (a richer squad progression) and options which make you decide more “by design” than “by a sandbox approach”.

      Of course, XCOM:EU’s aesthetics are excellent and cannot be compared to the original X-COM, but a game is hardly measured by graphics or sounds alone in any case (but they are indeed very nice!).

      I consider myself an X-COM veteran. I played the original X-COM and X-COM: Terror from the Deep games a lot, at the time. The original X-COM is one of my favorite games of all time. And, I also happen to love XCOM:EU. I think it’s an excellent game. I played XCOM:EU a lot, ended the game multiple times, and still play occasionally. And, I look forward for more content.

      XCOM:EU has room for improvement, most definitely. There are still a few important bugs present, maps are nice but are too few (this is consensual), game progression feels a bit too scripted (although the new 2nd wave options help mitigate this a bit) and there could be more inventory-map interactivity (not possible to pick up objects from the ground at the moment).

      So, I don’t think it’s fair to say that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a “huge piece of crap” or a “lazy, dumbed down travesty of a game”. I strongly disagree with those statements. But I can understand why some people may say this. I suspect that they were probably looking for a direct X-COM remake with better graphics, which XCOM:EU definitely isn’t. It’s an excellent game that picks up from the original X-COM, and feels like an X-COM game, but then stands on its own, with its own new design. If you were (or are still) after a more direct X-COM remake, with very little innovation and that sticks more to the original formula, then Xenonauts could probably be a better solution for you.

      • Mark says:

        Adam one of the reasons I like Spacesector so much is that most of the time it seems that the opinions of yourself and your excellent reviewers tend to agree with my own tastes.

        If i read a good review of a game on Spacesector, I can be pretty confident that I’m also going to like it. And the opposite is also true, if I see a negative opinion, I generally tend to agree with it.

        Unfortunately XCOM-EU is one game where we differ. While I respect the fact that you have managed to find fun in this game, I’m afraid that my own experience was one of disappointment and frustration with what – to me – felt nothing like the original. Or if there was any familiarity it was that of a cheap, simplistic, dumbed down knock off. That’s my honest opinion of XCOM-EU, it just lowers the bar for an XCOM game.

        Perhaps if they hadn’t called it XCOM I might have been able to view it with a less critical eye, but that name comes with certain expectations….

        Flexibility, freedom, depth and a more simulationist experience? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m after and what I didn’t see with XCOM-EU. Quite the opposite in fact.

        And yes I’m quite excited by your preview of Xenonauts and I think there’s a good chance that it might be far more true to the original and therefore to my taste. I’m certainly looking forward to your review :)

        • Adam Solo says:

          Ok Mark, we’ll have to agree on disagreeing about XCOM:EU then :) But, I still think you’re missing a hell of an experience though ;)

          Without wanting to sound pedantic, let me just be picky about one thing, that I hope will be interesting and clarifying for others. So, please bear with me. It’s my own way to see this, which you may not agree with, of course. And, I’m also more than open to discuss this further here or in another place if you want because I really think it’s an interesting subject.

          You mention “depth”, and how the original X-COM has it and XCOM:EU does not, you say. That word may be deceiving, and a tricky one to understand also, when the context is not explained. I don’t agree with you there, at least in what I consider the word “depth” to mean in a strategy game’s context. I think XCOM:EU may offer more depth. Let me explain my view of why.

          If by “more depth” you mean more freedom and openness, more freedom of choice, more little choices do make, the original X-COM may be better there with all that inventory and movement freedom. The more simulationist approach we talked about. But, personally I use “depth” on a strategy game not so much for the amount of choices available (which may be quite similar between each other), but more for how meaningful the choices you make are, how critical the impact of those choices are, and how unpredictable their effect is on the course of the game with respect to achieving the game’s goal: have the best squad, the best research in this case, and win.

          That’s depth for me in a strategy game. Possibly less, but bigger, harder and more unpredictable decisions which strongly affect how the game progresses. They make the decisions matter more, be more important, which is what a strategy gamer (or any other gamer) wants in the end, right? To be right! “The game was challenging, I made those hard decisions, and I won! I’m good” ;)

          And that’s why I think XCOM:EU may have more depth, in that sense. Because you’re really forced to make hard, and meaningful decisions. At least in what inventory, squad progression and movement is concerned. So, while I think the original X-COM may have more breadth in the amount of ways you can equip your soldiers for example, and on how detailed your movement choices may be (move, move again, stop, move, duck, move, shoot), XCOM:EU makes you think more about what skill should your soldier take (it’s really a critical, fun and impactful decision) and if your movement decision should be “shoot”, “move and shoot” or just “move a longer distance” and not so much “move 2 squares”, “2 squares more”, “turn around”, “move 2 more”. I think the former is more inline with strategic thinking.

          But, I like both approaches. The flexible full freedom one, more simulationish, and the more decision-making one, the more strategic one. And that’s why I love both the original X-COM and Firaxis’ new XCOM.

  7. Lens Flares Suck says:

    I’m a kickstarter supporter on this. Played the Steam version and was quite impressed. It ‘feels’ like X-Com, which is what I want. I think another six months of work on this and it will be a quite a good game.

    • Adam Solo says:

      My sentiment as well. It definitely feels like X-COM. And, I agree that with some more months of work it can become a very enjoyable game.

  8. Serg says:

    Are all the map planar or they have height variation? That planar maps could be the reason why they look bland, it also reduce tactical depth a lot.Also are there cover to crouch behind? What about destructible environment? (Firaxis implementation practically lacked destructible environment, it was one of the two it’s main failures, another being too few maps)

    • Adam Solo says:

      In Xenonauts there’s different levels, with different floors on a building for example, with stairs, that kind of thing. But, I don’t think there’s fine elevation (at least didn’t find any up until now) in the sense that you may find slight variations of height, which, as you say, is another reason for the bland-looking maps.

      There’s cover and destructible environment. I witnessed shattered glass and other obstacles that disappear upon explosion or just upon shooting.

      You can definitely hide behind cover, which will get you immune or almost immune to alien fire (full cover in that sense) but there’s also partial cover. And, it’s interesting because you get the to hit % of hitting the targeted alien and the cover object itself (two different to-hit percentages).

      Oh, and there’s friendly fire too, perhaps a bit too much of it right now though.

  9. TheFrawg says:

    I can’t seem to complete an entire mission without crashing to desktop. My system is rock solid, latest drivers, state of the art hardware. I was able to play it 6-7 months ago when I bought in on Desura, but now I can’t complete a full mission.

    Oh well, another play through of Enemy Unknown and give this another couple months of development.

    Side note: great site, first time visitor!

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Post category: Game First Impressions, Game Previews