Going into Xenonauts, I had the first impression of it being akin to the XCOM series. In fact, it even gives nods to XCOM when selecting the game difficulty. I will admit my expectations were very low, as I've been with the XCOM series since the very beginning and other games that have attempted to achieve what it has, have more often than not crashed far short of their target.
I'm going to admit from the start, that my initial thought going into the game was wrong. Entirely wrong. Xenonauts, is in fact, more classic XCOM than one would expect in this day and age and is a great throwback for anyone who missed the far more brutal days of the original installments in the series.
Set in the late 1970's, Xenonauts sets the stage for the first contact with an alien race; and they do -not- come in peace. As you start the game, rolled out in front of you is the interactive Geoscape in which every mission in the game is initiated through. Your first few in-game days will be spent seeing strange occurrences pop up here and there across the globe, and then you'll make your first contact with a UFO. Deploying your fast attack fighters called Interceptors, your goal is down the target and make way for your ground team to clean up.
Playing on a harder difficulty, you have to be very careful about engaging in air-to-air combat because from the start, on all difficulties one thing reigns true: The aliens outgun you, and often outnumber you. So a jet versus a piece of alien technology can be very fatal if you're not careful. If you are new to games like this, Easy difficulty is the way to go until you get the hang of the play style at the very least, as it will save the lives of many soldiers, and many of your pieces of valuable equipment as well.
Identify, Engage, Eliminate
As far as the actual missions go, they always begin with your team being deployed to the sites of Alien contact. Whether those are crashes, landings, or active invasion sites also determines the type of resistance you're going to be meeting as well as how many civilians and local armed forces are potentially in the cross fire.
Turn based combat is the name of the game. Each of your soldiers only has a certain amount of points per move so spend them wisely! If you push up too quickly, you may find yourself face to face with an alien and you've pretty much just sealed the deal on that soldier's fate. Xenonauts really brings back the tactical aspects of the mid 90's, as there is almost no chance that one or two surviving soldiers can complete an operation; each soldier is vital and part of a well-oiled machine to use to get to victory.
Since it is turn based, it may perhaps feel like it's at a much slower pace than most games at the beginning but if you stick with it, each little break in the turns to plan out your movement is a gift as you progress further through the game. Things don't stay calm and tame for long after the first few alien encounters.
Visual and Audible Contact
Something very striking about this game is the art style. While it's clearly a callback to the days of old, you can spot the modern day hidden in it with the way the character sprites are animated in a 3D to 2D manner. They stand out quite a bit against the backdrop especially when moving, which is honestly good considering older games sometimes suffered from losing sight of the characters far too easily against the background.
The environments are both varied and not plagued with the grays and browns of many of today's games, but rather a pretty expansive yet restrained pallet of colors. Plain and simple, the visuals pop, are pleasing to the eye, and for the most part it holds true for both environments and characters.
I say 'for the most part' because, I wish there were a bit more variation on the player controlled models. Perhaps I'm pampered by the ability to actually customize my entire squad in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but I do wish that they didn't all look the same when in uniform. Sure there are skin color variations, but that doesn't exactly count.
Extraction and Debriefing
When you're not out in the field, you'll be at your base organizing your facilities and dedicating your time and men to research and production processes. It is a simple, yet delicate balancing act between your funds and your time as you try to maximize the effectiveness of your team as a whole. From researching new weapons and vehicles, to optimizing your squad's strengths and minimizing weaknesses, the base portion of the game is downtime without necessarily feeling like downtime.
The story itself may not be award winning, but it doesn't try to be the focus either. It maintains just enough narrative to show why the aliens are attacking, and how Earth responds to it. Everything in between? That's a story best left up to the player. In a way, I would honestly say that Xenonauts is the prequel to the XCOM series that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified should've been. That ranks Xenonauts pretty high in my book, and given that it essentially feels like the close cousin to XCOM it is more than appropriate.
Taking everything into consideration, it's safe to say that Xenonauts is a must play for any fan of turn based strategy games, as it is one that I'll be playing for some time to come. It rises above the rest that have tried the same formula, and comes to stand side by side with XCOM. I even dare to say, that it is more XCOM than some of the lesser known XCOM titles and certainly more appropriate than The Bureau.
Challenging missions across a variety of scenarios, varied enemies, high replayability
Missed opportunity for true character customizations, could've used a stronger narrative