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The global map layer showing various alien incursions across Earth in Xenonauts 2

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Old-school XCOM-like Xenonauts 2 doesn’t pull any punches

A richer take on a twice-established formula

Image: Goldhawk Interactive/Hooded Horse

Despite XCOM being a borderline household name at this point (Mario and Warhammer 40,000 have certainly taken note), few games have mimicked the series’ origins as openly as 2014’s Xenonauts. As a love letter to 1994’s X-COM: UFO Defense, it added even more complexity to the already punishing turn-based formula, weaving branching technological upgrades with tense tactical skirmishes. Xenonauts 2 continues that tradition by doubling down on the depth, nuance, and difficulty of both Xenonauts and the game that inspired it.

The premise of Xenonauts 2 sells itself: It’s 2009, but the Cold War never ended, and society is beginning to fray. The ever-increasing UFO activity, which has unfolded alongside global geopolitical tensions, has reached a boiling point. You control a multinational special forces team dedicated to protecting Earth and eradicating the intruders. The tech at your disposal seems slightly dated (including M16s and M9 Berettas), as if the world could not make measurable progress in the absence of peace. That changes swiftly as you begin to assimilate and adopt alien wares. Narratively, the tone is charming, as it vacillates between silly notes and others that are decidedly grim.

If you’ve never played Xenonauts or any XCOM games, for that matter you needn’t flee in terror. One of the great strengths of this sequel is in how well it communicates the inner workings of its overlapping systems. Where the first Xenonauts was a rough experience with little to no hand-holding, this new incarnation features an in-depth tutorial, as well as a wonderful nesting tooltip mechanism that allows you to quickly identify key words and processes in the UI. There is quite a lot to internalize here, and you will need to consult the text throughout several campaigns, especially because of the brutal difficulty level.

Enemy aliens ambush human forces on suburban streets in Xenonauts 2 Image: Goldhawk Interactive/Hooded Horse

In Xenonauts 2, there’s a constant, potent tension upheld by the dual layers of local, squad-based battles and the overarching strategy of the global map. Half of the game is spent in your war room back at base, where you monitor the geoscape, a global map that highlights alien activity and displays the reach of your headquarters’ sensors. As UFOs soar across your monitored airspace, you have the opportunity to scramble fighter jets in an attempt to shoot them down. Success is not guaranteed, and there are often more targets than you have fresh units with which to engage them.

This macro-level combat system is automated. The outcome of fights is randomized and considers the technology, skill, and quantity of your air response in determining the outcome. There is an option for a more detailed approach that allows you to observe the automated fight in real time from a two-dimensional overhead display, but as developer Goldhawk Interactive points out, it’s not yet fully functional in the early access version, so it’s difficult to determine the depth of the feature at this time. Currently, it’s simply an elongated automation where you can watch the encounter play out with abstraction. Still, this lack of finish is not overly concerning, as the game does not dwell on these aerial skirmishes for long. The bulk of play is instead focused on the more intimate tactical ground battles.

The base-building screen showing the various upgrades the player can make to the humans’ base in Xenonauts 2 Image: Goldhawk Interactive/Hooded Horse

Every system in the game is wrapped around the squad-based conflicts. The time you spend back at base managing your roster of soldiers, upgrading their equipment, and determining which research projects to pursue all feeds into this boots-on-the-ground phase of turn-based combat. It’s satisfying to plan for forthcoming tactical challenges while back at base, only to be confronted with scenarios that are equal parts disorienting and exhilarating once you drop into the tactical layer.

There is, of course, the expected focus on line of sight, cover, and percentile chances to hit your alien targets. But there is also a bevy of additional features that encourage you to be flexible in your approach. Terrain for instance, is fully destructible. You can blow down walls and create new pathways throughout the map. The action-point system is extremely granular, allowing you to fire each weapon in one of several ways in order to optimize efficiency versus quality of fire. It can be nerve-wracking determining whether to rely on low percentage snapshots to conserve action points, versus more carefully aimed fire, or even letting loose and going full auto to hit multiple targets. You also have to account for the morale and panic of your troops, along with the occasional neutral civilians that you have to protect or defend. And these are the wrinkles that can arise on simple missions.

A battle unfolds in a desert, near abandoned buildings and dust-strewn cars in Xenonauts 2 Image: Goldhawk Interactive/Hooded Horse

The various mission types add even more texture to the combat. The standard scenario is the aforementioned hunt and subsequent securing of the UFO your fighter squadron has downed. This allows a touch of creativity on your part as commander, as victory can be achieved by eliminating all of the foes on the map or by just locating and holding the alien vessel for several turns in a row. Other mission options will appear as time passes during the campaign, some of which progress the “main storyline.” These include investigating and raiding “Cleaner” outposts — the hideouts of a clandestine human faction that works in opposition to your cause. You sometimes need to steal data off servers, or eliminate VIP targets. It’s all varied and compelling, and, combined with the versatility of different maps, continually morphs campaigns until their (hopefully favorable) conclusions.

Variety and unpredictability are the defining differences between Xenonauts 2 and the original game. There are many more alien types, additional equipment, loads of new research options, and new scenario types. Crucially, the sequel’s skirmishes also take place in a fully 3D environment. You can rotate the camera, which is more than simple novelty, as it allows you to spot new lines of sight or get a bead on a target you couldn’t quite make out previously.

But that’s the thing: These improvements are welcome, but as the hours whoosh by, they end up feeling flat. For better and for worse, the overall loop of Xenonauts 2 is strikingly similar to that of the 2014 title. Goldhawk nudged Xenonauts 2’s graphics in a modern direction, with vivid character models and sharp special effects. The various systems and subsystems retain their complexities and grit. The storyline is a broad rehash. Those content with their hours spent in the original title and looking for something markedly different, such as the leap seen between XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2, or XCOM 2: War of the Chosen after that, won’t find one here.

The screen depicting the upgrades players can make to their UFO-interception aircraft and pilots in Xenonauts 2 Image: Goldhawk Interactive/Hooded Horse

It’s also necessary to reiterate that this is very much an early access title. In addition to the detailed aerial combat layer being unfinished, there are whole pages of text missing in certain sections of the story, instead featuring a prominent “[placeholder]” tag. This is not overly frustrating, however, as the reason to dive into this title is the delightful turn-based combat, which does feel fully featured and potent. But Xenonauts 2, in its current form, does struggle to smooth over its rough edges throughout the campaign.

Xenonauts 2 is not a revolutionary release. It’s a conservative modernizing of an old-school tactical predecessor. It sits comfortably in that weird little niche of a sequel to a love letter of a ’90s classic. The improved variety and demanding scenarios may not push the envelope much further than where it was in 2014, but it was already in a great spot to begin with.

Xenonauts 2 will be released on July 18 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Hooded Horse. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.