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Xenonauts 2 review – extra tense extraterrestrial tussling

Xenonauts 2 sticks to a winning formula, a love letter to XCOM that is close to its source material, but with some handy improvements to the genre.

Xenonauts 2 - menu screen

Our Verdict

Xenonauts 2 is strategic and exciting - while this early access build doesn't take tremendous strides in terms of innovation, it confidently proves there was no need to fix what wasn't broken.

Do you enjoy the more sandbox alien-fighting action of classic XCOM? Did you like the first Xenonauts? If so then you will undoubtedly have a good time with Xenonauts 2, because it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Rather, it expands slightly on the foundations laid by the first Xenonauts game, providing a more polished tactical experience – even in its current early access state.

If you’ve never played a game like XCOM before, welcome! And don’t be afraid. Xenonauts 2 is probably the easiest game in this genre to jump into, though the gameplay itself is still hard as nails.

In fact, before I jump into the meat of the game – base management interspersed with back alley brawls with little green men – I want to praise Goldhawk Interactive’s commitment to accessibility.

Xenonauts 2 - soldiers squatting in a building

It provides a useful tutorial – featuring nested tooltips, my new favourite strategy game feature – and an array of difficulty options, letting you customise exactly the alien invasion scenario you want. You can pick everything from starting funds, how accurate enemies are, whether health bars are visible, and more.

While I’ve played a lot of XCOM and Xenonauts, I happen to suck at it. My frustration when disaster strikes leads to risk taking, which only leads to more disaster. In my last session I brought a guy along on a mission, and then realised I’d forgotten to give him a weapon (happily, one was provided momentarily, when his mate was gunned down).

The upshot is that after foolishly opting to play on Ironman for the true Xenonauts experience, I haven’t gotten all that far through Xenonauts 2’s campaign. I have had a blast playing it though.

There are two sides to fighting the UFO threat in Xenonauts 2. The management part of the game provides a litany of things to consider, from storage space and power, to research and equipment. You’re refreshingly free to pursue things at your own pace, deciding which technologies to prioritise, when you need new buildings, and when to start constructing new bases beyond the one you set out with.

Xenonauts 2 a screen showing many soldiers killed in action

As long as it fits within your monthly budget, you can try it. On the flipside, there’s little hand holding here, so it’s easy to make mistakes and not realise it.

Meanwhile, the bulk of your time will be spent directing your soldiers in life or death encounters with the alien threat. Here, fans will probably be pleased to learn, Xenonauts 2 is unapologetically brutal. A soldier can go down in one or two hits, right from the very first mission. A single mistake, and your soldiers will die – name them after pets and loved ones at your own peril.

The gameplay itself takes a recognisable form. Line of sight, time units, hit chances, and cover: that’s your bread and butter as you come face to face with new and interesting types of extraterrestrial visitors, and then waste ‘em. It instils a familiar feeling of white knuckle tension, creeping your squishy squad around corners, and panicking when you come face to face with an unexpected foe or can’t quite save an ally.

Xenonauts 2 map screen

What impressed me most in Xenonauts 2 is the amount of granularity to the decisions you make. Each weapon has multiple different firing options that cost different amounts of time units, you can use flashbangs and smoke bombs to get out of a tricky spot, and terrain is fully destructible, providing all sorts of different options for dealing with each encounter. The aliens have a great level of variety too, with lots of special abilities requiring a bespoke approach.

Some of the scripted missions are really good. An early one where you have to raid an office block and grab some files, fighting your way into a well-defended building of human enemies, scooping up USBs, then fleeing as reinforcements arrive, stands out in particular as a truly tense and almost cinematic moment.

One of the biggest changes between Xenonauts 1 and 2 is that the game’s now 3D and you can rotate the camera. This actually doesn’t make a massive difference to the playing experience – which is a shame since I’m sure the amount of under the hood work it took was enormous. What it does ensure is that you have a clearer idea about your situation, since you can swivel and look at it from all angles.

This feeds into another quality of life upgrade that has a more drastic impact. Before making a move, you can check what your hit chance will be with any weapon on any target enemy or terrain piece from that new position. You never have to chance it therefore; you always know exactly what the odds are for any move you’re about to make.

As a result, Xenonauts 2 is harsh but never unfair. Your mistakes (oh god I made so many) are your own, and there’s nothing to be done but accept the consequences and try not to flinch before the accusing stares looking out from the casualty list screen.