Thursday, 28 May 2015

Xenonauts: I Want To Believe

Previously on this blog, I've written at length about my feelings towards UFO: Enemy Unknown (also known as X-COM: UFO Defense). It's a great game, that should have spawned more sequels and imitators than it did. Of those that have been made, Xenonauts is perhaps the purest of those successors.

It's entire reason for existing is due to the love for that original game, truly a game made by fans for the fans, and it certainly shows. It doesn't blindly recreate, nor wildly re-imagine it's ancestor, but rather seeks to create something very similar and yet with a myriad of improvements and refinements.

Rather than the colourful near-futuristic and exaggerated style of the original, Xenonauts is set during the Cold War, and works wonderfully well. The fragile nature of the funding council and the project itself fits perfectly with the tension between East and West, more so than a modern setting for which the funding limitations seem more of a gaming convention than a thematic one.

The drab, militaristic nature of the starting troops (and indeed their glum expressions) all reinforce the nature of the game. At the start, you are fundamentally weaker than your opposition. Your soldiers can easily be killed by the more advanced alien weaponry, and in turn your weapons are of reduced effectiveness against the enemy.

The game sets up an arms race between your group and the aliens, again perhaps a nod to the arms race and space race of the Cold War. In this case, the aliens are slowly altering their craft from interstellar vehicles to weapons of war suitable for the atmosphere of our planet. This grants the Xenonauts time to research and upgrade their operation in order to meet the escalating threat.

Your aim is to prevent the destruction of human civilization and the enslavement or annihilation of the human race, and to this end you are given money from the various countries of the world (handily grouped by geographical location for the benefit of the player). You begin with a single base of operations, but it is imperative to spread your forces around the globe as best as you can. If you lack radar and aircraft cover for a region, it will quickly fall prey to alien attacks and reduce funding accordingly.

The invasion itself begins slowly, with waves of smaller alien craft and can be more easily dealt with by your limited forces. As the game progresses, these waves become ever more deadly, with larger ships and more destructive intent. You quickly realise that you need better arms, armour and aircraft to have a chance at countering this threat.

You begin by using the funding provided to set up your bases and expand your organisation, but it quickly becomes more important to gain certain special resources: Alien Alloys and Alenium. These alien materials are crucial in the war against the extraterrestrial threat, and they are in very short supply. The only way to gain these resources is by capturing them from crashed alien ships, a task easier said than done. The arms race begins quickly and can be quite brutal, requiring your troops to assault as many crash sites as you can manage. Choices must always be made: do you invest in better armour, or do you believe attack is the best defence and upgrade your weapons first?

Even though I considered myself an experienced UFO/X-COM player, the difficulty curve on Xenonauts caught me by surprise. I quickly found myself struggling to upgrade both my aircraft and my soldiers to face the ever growing threat. The resource requirements for some of the weapons and armour can feel too punishing, especially when contrasted with the requirements for aircraft.

To a certain extent in the original UFO, you were able to send large numbers of soldiers to counter a particular threat, whereas your initial troop transport only allows for eight soldiers in Xenonauts. This makes many of the combat missions very much more tense, as you cannot cover every angle as you seek to explore the map and counter the alien threat. More than once I ran into problems with the Reaper, which can turn any civilian or soldier into another Reaper in a single hit (after a brief zombie stage). They are unnaturally quick, and some of the ground combat zones are filled with narrow corridors and obstacles that impede vision.

The upgrades themselves are handled very well. Certain upgrades are freely available after the appropriate research, giving you an instant boost to your chances. Others require manufacturing time, which can be in short supply. The gaps between waves of UFOs can feel quite small, and you really need to respond to such threats quickly or face decreasing funding and alien bases to deal with.

So far, I feel like I'm about half-way through a playthrough, I have completed a first round of upgrades in their entirety (laser weaponry and similar), and have just started to upgrade my soldiers with Plasma weaponry and more advanced armour (and the slow and expensive process of upgrading my aircraft). As the waves of alien craft increase in size and power, I am finding it hard to keep up with the resources needed to compete. Every alien alloy and unit of alenium is vital and the starting equipment and aircraft are quickly rendered obsolete.

I've decided to restart and give myself a cash boost by editing some of the game files. This change should helpfully alter the difficulty in my favour, and remove the basic money issues allowing me to concentrate on gaining alien technology instead. I know this is cheating, but grinding through it for cash and resources was draining the fun out of the game. Even with this change, there will be plenty of grinding for alienium in order to build the later weapons and aircraft.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, I've yet to play Xenonauts but it's waiting on my harddrive :3