While Hollywood and the movie industry generally have a terrible reputation for terrible remakes, video games have had remarkable success with remaking fan-favorite classics. One reason is that video games are still rapidly developing, like casino jackpots.
While movie techniques over the past twenty years mostly still use the same tech, software, and formats, video games from twenty, or even ten, years ago radically differ from what’s being released today. Resident Evil 2, Demon’s Souls, Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy 7, Pokemon Heartgold / Soulsilver, and Half-Life: Black Mesa all show what companies want to show just how far they’ve come can do to breathe life into these beloved IPs.
However, if there is one remade series I love above all the rest, it must be X-Com. The X-Com franchise has a long and sordid history that dates back to 1994 when Julian and Nick Gollop released UFO Defender, or as fans would later remember it, X-Com: UFO Defense.
However, my introduction to the franchise would only happen years after the IP bounced between several different companies, landed in the hands of 2K, and was given to Jake Solomon to remake- and I only started playing once the sequel to the remake of the original came out! X-Com 2 is now one of my favorite games of all time, and still my favorite out of the X-Com games that I have played, having gone back and played X-Com: Enemy Within and X-Com: Chimera Squad.
Yet, fans of the original games have some fair criticisms of these remakes. For one thing, they’re remarkably simplistic compared to the originals, which required manuals an inch thick so that you could understand the primary user interface.
The newer games strip back many mechanics to ease players into the experience and replace complicated systems like “time units” with more intuitive designs and action points. So for fans that loved the depth of the original, is there no hope?
Why, yes, there is! Where the big studios fail, the fans themselves step in. Chris England founded Goldhawke Interactive, is based in England, and is presumably English. He is also the lead developer for Xenonauts, a spiritual remake of the original X-Com: UFO Defense, far closer in terms of gameplay than Jake Solomon’s X-Com: Enemy Unknown is. The question is, does it succeed?
Now, before I start making my comments about it, I should warn you that I have never actually played the original X-Com: UFO Defense, nor do I really intend to. My point of comparison is the later games, and clips of gameplay I found online. With that out of the way…
Xenonauts absolutely seems like a true remake of the original X-Com. While Jake Solomon’s remake focused on simplifying gameplay for the sake of a broader audience, Xenonauts streamlines and polishes the original mechanics instead.
From the outset, we can see this philosophy bleed into just about every mechanic in the game. Instead of a geoscreen showing a globe, Xenonauts just displays a map of the continents. The basebuilding mechanics are back, but with clear icons and symbols.
The combat brings back “time units”, large squads, inventory management, the isometric tilesets, and the oppressive atmosphere of the original game, while making the user interface, the weapons, and the mechanics more intuitive and easier to understand.
That’s probably what makes Xenonauts stand out, is how faithful it manages to be while simultaneously implementing modern sensibilities.
That said, this is very much an indie game, and even in my extremely limited
There are also other technical limitations, such as the lack of an introductory cutscene. I think even a simple one could have gone a long way for the immersion, since the I already really like the lore Xenonauts sets up…
Lore and Narrative
One area that I think Xenonauts does well in is the setting and lore. First and foremost, unlike the later X-Com games, Xenonauts is set during the cold war. While the United States and the Soviet Union are ideologically and politically enemies, behind closed doors, the two superpowers have set aside their differences to combat a new, existential threat: Aliens.
Xenonauts also sets up in the lore a reason why the aliens don’t just send in their most giant ships immediately. Instead, the aliens need to reconfigure their boats to handle the conditions of Earth’s atmosphere, and the bigger the ship, the longer the retrofitting takes.
It still doesn’t explain why the aliens bother sending any ships until the big ones are ready to go, but maybe I’ll find out more once I sink more time into it.
Regardless, I applaud the effort, even though reading through the Wikipedia-like lore entries makes my eyes glaze over. Furthermore, I appreciate the digs at the engineering department written in the notes by the scientists, which adds much-needed flavor and character to them.
I don’t know what it is, but the art style really works for me. The character art we see in the base management screen is really nice. I like the visceral looking alien autopsy drawings, and all the 2d art in general really.
The art in-game goes for a style similar to the original X-Com’s, but with muddier colors and a higher resolution. Honestly, I really like it. The human soldiers appear to be 3d-models that user a shader to give a 2d effect, which makes their animations extremely smooth and fluid.
Still, its the kind of technical detail only a nerd like me would point out, I think, although the fact that it isn’t consistent for both the humans and aliens might put someone off the art-style without really understanding why.
Overall, my first impression of Xenonauts is very positive. I absolutely intend to continue playing this game, and maybe even after I finish writing this article about it, which is always a good sign. At the same time, I worry that because of the scope of the game (tiny, tiny studio), there won’t be enough novelty to keep the mid-game from becoming a drag / grind. I’m optimistic, but we’ll see. If you’re looking for something akin to the original X-Com experience, my gut tells me that Xenonauts in the game for you.