May 24, 2024
Xenonauts 2 and its rude scientist won me over immediately

It’s a universally recognized truth that when aliens threaten to exterminate your home, only the world’s most insufferable and unhinged scientists can help save the day. XCOM knows it, and now Xenonauts 2 is following suit. For example, your man up there. Look at that smug mullet and his unimpressed raised eyebrow. It doesn’t give two boos that you’re here to save the world from extinction, leading (probably multiple) teams of nine brave (unwitting) souls into the unknown (ie: repeated death by alien overwatch). He has research to do. Organs to marinate. Splicing dead alien carcasses. Yeah, the same ones you literally strapped into your troops’ tactical belts on the last mission so you could take them home. We had stinky brain monsters wrapped around our chests, man! The least you can do is condescend to make us a good cup of tea on our return. Honestly. You can’t get staff these days…

Alright, little apologies to the scientists at XCOM. It wouldn’t be fair to put them in the same smarmy class as the Scientific Director of Xenonauts 2, since they’re both much nicer to you in person. But I’d say XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s Dr. Vahlen doesn’t fall too far from the same tree, as she’s clearly drifting a bit. too joy of his work than perhaps wholesome or wise, and even XCOM 2’s Dr. Tygan has an undercurrent of, “Well, if I had access to the right equipment…” *big sigh, cough cough cough*. And yet, I don’t think these strategy games would be the same without these clashing personalities. It animates what is clearly a very high-stakes situation, and I like that little tingle of bubbling light – the implication that if you scratch my back, maybe I’ll scratch you (but you’re really going to have some work to do for that, I’m not This nice) a trick of sorts.

Like in XCOM, Xenonauts 2 has a big strategy layer focused on building your HQ between missions while you wait for more UFO attacks to occur. You’ll research technologies, have your engineering division craft new tools, armor, and weapons for you, and generally keep control of your soldiers, planes, and eventually upgrade your base with new modules and building types. I’m only a handful of days into Xenonauts 2 at the moment (about 20, out of its current early access limit of 180), so I don’t quite have time to do any building yet, but I’ve had plenty of contact with my new best friend Science Guy, and what fun he is. Look at the things he greets me with after a difficult mission.

I’m sure he has a name, but knowing him, I probably didn’t earn enough respect from him to use it. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

A scientist throws an insult at you in Xenonauts 2

A lovely guy, really. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

In all honesty, he’s probably right to be skeptical. On my most recent mission, all but one of my soldiers returned from a particularly grueling assault on a UFO crash site. The first half of the mission goes well. I managed to get most of my team into decent positions and slowly started shooting down the small handful of wandering aliens in the lush jungles of Taiwan where the UFO had landed after being shot down by my interceptor planes. I had also managed to salvage some of their alien weaponry (and the aforementioned corpses) to take them back to base in the end. Everything was going well and I was slowly beginning to understand how his timeline worked.

Actions are broken down into time units in Xenonauts 2, with movement, shooting, crouching for cover, picking up items from the ground, and even tilting your body for better line of sight all cost different amounts depending on the size of the task. So it’s very much in Phoenix Point’s school of tactical action, rather than the rigid number of moves you’ll find in XCOM. Alas, unlike Phoenix Point, you can’t target individual body parts of your alien enemies, but you can freely aim at the Jagged Alliance 3 to potentially hit other targets that aren’t the skinny bug-eyed boys/big lizards trying to laser fry you.

A soldier prepares to shoot an alien across a lake in the jungle in Xenonauts 2

A green line tells you that an enemy is within range. If it starts to turn orange, it is beyond your weapon’s firing range and its accuracy will be reduced accordingly. Could still strike, however… | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

The great thing about Xenonauts 2, however, is that whether you’re aiming free or targeting specific aliens, your trusty friend Captain Hit Percentage will stand shoulder to shoulder with you. I especially like how it displays your weapon’s line of fire here too, as it will not only highlight obstacles preventing you from shooting (including your own teammates), but it will also show you the likelihood of you hitting. them, too, giving you lots of great information to make informed decisions. You can also select tiles on the map and press shift to see what your probability of landing a shot will be from there as well, before you have to commit to moving. It’s a brilliant touch, though it’s perhaps a little trickier to execute in practice than it was in, say, Hard West 2.

A soldier's inventory screen in Xenonauts 2

Yeah, I’ll just put my dead homie Jimmy in my belt over there… A perfectly normal thing to be able to do. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

So yes, the mission was going well. But I got loose when I needed to approach the UFO itself. The remaining aliens weren’t stupid and sat inside their ship, which meant I must have been the doorbell ringer. Opening doors also costs time units in Xenonauts 2, and any remaining time units you have at the end of a round will automatically turn into overwatch points if you have enough spare to fire your weapon. The problem is that this also applies to aliens, and every time I opened the door I got riddled with bullets.

In hindsight, after my fifth soldier hit the ground in the doorway (surely those bodies should have prevented the door from closing, I’m just saying…) I should have thought about it rather than just standing there and shooting hoping that luck would be on my side to land the last sucker hidden behind the control desk, I should have taken cover and taken things a little slower. I might have brought a few more soldiers if I had been reasonable like that. I also should have paid more attention to the bleed damage inflicted by his bullets, as it did more than two after surviving the initial gate. But in the moment, desperation took over and finally paid the price.

A UFO ambush goes very wrong in Xenonauts 2

Never talk about it again… | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

After this kind of performance, I’m not surprised that Science Guy hates my guts. Maybe I’ll win him over eventually, once I build him a nice lab and give him some more lackeys to grumble about. Really, all I want is for him to look at me the same way my nice engineer does. Really, that’s what friendship at the end of the world looks like.

A nice engineer talks to you in Xenonauts 2

Back to you, buddy. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hooded Horse

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