Xenonauts 2 is a terrifying strategy game. This is a good thing, honestly. As a child, I remember being truly terrified of X-Com, Microprose’s phenomenal 90s strategy game. I used to send my tiny soldiers cowering into crashed alien spaceships or ostensibly abandoned buildings with an armed demolition charge in their pocket so that if they were splattered by the alien menace within, they would go out with a bang. “Victory at all costs” was the motto my 12-year-old self lived by.
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In the sequel, the impossibly hard X-Com: Terror From The Deep, I’d run into a tank-like Lobsterman in the corridors of a cruise ship and retreat back to my ship, leaving the crustacean cruiser free to do whatever the hell they wanted. It felt impossible to overcome, so I would declare missions as not my problem and get out of there. I didn’t make a lot of progress.
Over time, that fear has diminished. These original games are still terrifying, but Firaxis’ reboot of XCOM made you feel less like a squad of desperate soldiers trying to fight back the darkness, and more like an arse-kicked S.W.A.T team. It’s full power fantasy, and while it’s very cool to have a sniper that can drop into the middle of four aliens and take them all out with a pistol, as your sense of power grows, the fear wanes.
Every one of the spiritual X-Com successors falls into this trap, even Phoenix Point made by Julian Gollop himself. So, this aside is a long way of saying that it should be very exciting that Xenonauts 2 scares me. That I don’t want to walk into buildings without a stack of soldiers backing each other up is a good thing, I tell myself.
This core loop involves slowly spreading out from a ship to clear a map of the alien menace, using your friendly forces to cover as much ground as possible while also staying within eye-line to help each other out when you run into contact. Different weapon classes are good for different things, too, so you can have a sniper in overwatch while shotgun-wielding troopers charge from cover to cover trying to put enemies down with minimum fuss.
Because every soldier is different, you’ll be playing to the different strengths of each too. A strong soldier with good aiming stats is a natural fit to tote an M60 about. Later weaponry starts to offer tradeoffs: different ammo types and different weapons in the same class weigh different amounts, giving you a lot of options to customise troops for the role you want to put them into.
So you do the best job you can in preparation, logistics and research to ensure your troops have the best chance at survival. Then you land on a mission, dropship ready to vomit soldiers all over the alien problem the locals are having. At this point, all of the preparation and strategy melts down into a game of chance. There’s a 70 per cent chance that this shot will hit, there’s an 80 per cent chance your armour will disintegrate. A 10 per cent chance of survival.
There’s all of this to consider while you’re also trying to avoid getting your face eaten, or taking a burst of fire from a plasma rifle. One wrong move, and they’ll eat shit and die. Therein lies the fear. It’s not a fear of the unknown, it’s a fear of what will happen when the fog clears and the threats become very known indeed.
At the moment, Xenonauts 2 seems to be as much a love letter to the series as its predecessor. You kill aliens, research their’ equipment and then use it to create weapons, armour and vehicles to turn the war against the extraterrestrial threat in your favour. Every enemy round could be lethal, while at the start of the game most enemies can soak up several shots from your team.
So, Xenonauts 2 is scary as hell, and I can’t wait to play the full release when it launches on Early Access later this year.
Xenonauts 2 will be available on PC.