XCOM: Enemy Unknown & Xenonauts: is a 'dumbed-down' game any less fun?

Both XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Xenonauts are successors to the original X-COM series, but they offer players very different things when it comes to depth of gameplay.

For years there has been debate amongst video game fans about dumbing down, about streamlining games, cutting out features, making them easier to play and less challenging. Players lament the over-simplification of titles like Mass Effect 3, or Skyrim, but the debate is usually hypothetical because we only know about games that exist. There is no complicated version of Skyrim for comparison, ditto for the Mass Effect series. We can only conjecture on what might have happened had Bethesda used the Morrowind systems in Skyrim or if Bioware opted to perfect the cumbersome inventory systems of the original Mass Effect rather than ripping them out.

However, one instance where we can examine this subject outside of hypotheticals has come to light with the emergence of two X-COM games. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, produced by Firaxis, which shares the name and the legal ownership of the IP with the original series, and Xenonauts, an indie title produced by Goldhawk Interactive which is dubbed a re-imagining. Both games have appeared at roughly the same time after substantial development periods: Xenonauts has been in production since 2009, and work on the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown (now hyphen-free) began in 2008.
X-COM games are a genre unto themselves, one that is clearly defined by the original title of the franchise - UFO: Enemy Unknown, created by British developer Julian Gollop, released in 1994.

In the X-COM games you are the head of an agency appointed to protect the Earth from alien invaders. The name of the agency, X-COM, is short for Extra-terrestrial Combat Unit, essentially a global group for stopping little green men from taking over the world. The games feature two main aspects: a campaign element where you build bases, research technology, manufacture equipment and marshal your forces, and a second element which is turn-based combat between squads of your troops and the aliens on the ground. That’s what an X-COM game should be and what the best ones always have been.

That said, the X-COM franchise has got about a bit, the name getting attached to all sorts of ill-fated projects over the years. There’s X-COM: Interceptor, which is a bad space fighter game; there’s X-COM: Enforcer, which is a bad third-person shooter; and recently there is The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, which is like some kind of developmental teleportation accident that we shall not speak of again.

There are also more legitimate offspring bearing the X-COM name. Terror From The Deep and Apocalypse are both straightforward sequels to Enemy Unknown. Terror From The Deep has you fighting against aliens on the seabed - the unforeseen consequence of shooting down enemy ships over the ocean - and Apocalypse has you defending a city from enemies appearing through inter-dimensional portals.

It is perhaps appropriate that the nautical-themed Terror From The Deep, only the second game, is where the series jumped the shark. X-COM is a franchise loved by many gamers, yet possesses arguably the worst ratio of classics to turkeys. Many franchises have done better yet few are so well-regarded by their fans. Make no mistake, UFO: Enemy Unknown was a masterpiece.

Games that have remained true to the X-COM genre have been rare until recently. Other games have attempted to use the campaign coupled to squad level combat idea, such as the UFO trilogy, but in opting for a post-apocalyptic setting the point of actually defending the Earth in that series was rendered somewhat moot.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Xenonauts are the first two legitimate heirs to the vacant Best X-Com Game crown in years, and both make a very good claim.

One key difference that should be acknowledged at the start between the two lies in the setting. XCOM takes place in the modern era, whereas Xenonauts begins in 1979 amid the cold war. This gives each game a somewhat different tone. XCOM is optimistic, warm and visually engaging, set in a modern world of satellites, globalisation and chunky heroic soldiers. Xenonauts has a more calculating and grown-up feel to it - you play in a world that was ready to destroy itself prior to the aliens turning up. The art style gives your troops a fragile, inoffensive appearance, more human than XCOM's armour-plated space marines despite the less impressive visuals.

XCOM does a lot of things right with its simplifications. There is a clearly-defined story and, if you want to chase it, you can. If you want to sit back in a holding pattern for a spell, you can do that too. You lead you team of soldiers, upgrading them as they get better at shooting aliens and as you gain access to better technology. Base building is clean, simple and intuitive, with the main limitations being money and power supply. Expanding your subterranean base complex gets more expensive the deeper you go. You pick where your base is at the start of the game to enable a bonus from the happy host continent. A clean-cut deputy, a wise old engineer and a ruthless scientist provide useful tips and comments as you go along, speculating on the alien threat and helping to provide atmosphere.

In the field you operate with a small team, starting with four soldiers and moving up to six as the game progresses. You fight the aliens on a selection of maps that do get familiar quickly, but manage to look pretty and blow up in entertaining ways. Explosions help to mitigate the repetitiveness a lot and despite the limitations of the game you can still improvise and adapt in combat within reason; cover and walls can be removed with sufficiently powerful weapons, new doors can be made, cars and fuel containers can be blown up to injure nearby enemies. The standard of presentation is very high and this makes the game more engaging to play, characters feel more convincing, the aliens feel more threatening, particularly when they are laying eggs in people, this is important stuff to the tone and feel of the game and XCOM does it well.

The small squad size brings major benefits to the ground combat part of the game. First, it brings pace - turns are short and snappy. Each soldier has two actions, which means any given turn will amount to you having to do at most twelve things. Secondly, it brings drama and tension, because every shot matters. When things start to go wrong things can get hairier quicker than a yeti in Movember. Make no mistake, for all its streamlining and presentational emphasis XCOM is not actually easy. It does get easier with experience of course, too easy in fact, but compared to most games it pulls few punches.

Xenonauts is not yet finished. Release date is later this year, maybe early next, and even in this state it is scary just how much more there is to it.
The campaign map, for example, allows you not just to build your base and choose where it goes as in XCOM, you can also choose to have more than one base. This harks back to the original game which also included multiple bases. You may need more than one base too, because the campaign game is vastly more sophisticated.

The first and most overt difference lies with the business of intercepting the alien spacecraft. XCOM does this by means of a mini-game. When you detect an alien ship the game pauses, allowing you to send up an interceptor, knock the alien out of the sky and send in your team to pick up any pieces. If the first interceptor fails you send another like minions in a Bruce Lee film. The aliens will sportingly only show up one at a time too and though some ships can shoot down interceptors you are normally equipped to deal with them before those ships make an appearance. Xenonauts, on the other hand, takes this part of the game to a higher level; alien ships appear in waves, with ships dropping into the atmosphere at many locations at once. What in XCOM is a rudimentary process becomes a contested front line in Xenonauts.

Air superiority is vital because merely having shot down an alien craft is no guarantee that you’ll be able to claim it. The first time that alien fighters shot down my squad transport en route to a crash site was a massive shock. That’s not the worst that they’ll do in Xenonauts either - if the enemy find one of your bases they will send troops to assault it. In XCOM the alienships will sometimes pick off your satellites but they won’t come round to your house to mess with your stuff.

On the ground Xenonauts is again more brutal than XCOM. XCOM has the aliens spawn in clumps, they do not exist on the map at the start of the game, rather you detect a group, when the group is detected the aliens appear, take cover, and the combat happens. This works well, it keeps the game rattling along, but it feels artificial and forced. Xenonauts has the aliens on the map at the start, usually murdering locals and finding rocks to hide behind. When it comes to the alien craft themselves, rather than spawning in when detected you can usually expect the crew of the ship to be dug in behind consoles, guns trained on the door, waiting to vaporise whichever poor rube you try to send through first. Larger ships and alien bases become a slaughter if approached carelessly.

The flexibility of Xenonauts allows for a variety of approaches. You can control much of the inventory of your soldiers and there are more options, from sniper rifles to breaching charges to armoured shields to knock out gas rockets and electric stun batons. Different size transports allow for more troops but even at the start you have a healthy eight. Despite this though there is still repetitiveness to the game. XCOM manages to mitigate this through its more directed narrative; Xenonauts, on the other hand, can feel like a bit of a slog at times.

Story progress with Xenonauts is less structured; there are no cut scenes to tell you where you are in the campaign and little sense that you are moving along a path. In some ways this helps to build the sense that your enemy is unknown, because you only learn about their patterns and plans from what you can observe yourself. Some of the threat of an unknown enemy is lost when a helpful scientist pops up every so often to tell you what they are up to. This lack of a defined story is liberating, you create your own story, but it can also be more demanding. The game does not hold your hand, not even for a moment. You need to deviseyour own strategy.

In terms of difficulty both games are challenging, yet in different ways. While XCOM can effectively kill you with one bad mission - particularly in an iron man game - Xenonauts offers all manner of ways for your campaign to go wrong but most of them are survivable. That first terror mission in XCOM is almost always something of a bastard, by contrast in Xenonauts the larger number of troops earlier in the game means that you typically won’t have any catastrophic failures.

For all the things you can do in Xenonauts is the game actually any better? Well, simply, yes. The acid test is a simple one, having played both games, which do I go back to? After Xenonauts the boundaries of XCOM loom large in every aspect of the game. It feels confining, and even lazy. Despite the reduced production values there is a sense of consistency and intelligence to Xenonauts that XCOM often loses, questions it doesn’t answer - like, why do all the interceptors have to fly one at a time? Why does the team have to consist of only four soldiers at the start? When XCOM feels most like a game, it loses the suspension of disbelief that, despite the dated visual style, Xenonauts clings to like a terrier.

There is nothing wrong with XCOM per se. Games reviews fixate on numbers, on scores, and ratings, and by any such measure it is impossible to say that XCOM is bad. It is fun and challenging and it kills time in an enjoyable way - would that all games could do that. As a successor to UFO: Enemy Unknown, however, it is a distant second to Xenonauts.

A combat scene from Xenonauts. (Screenshot: Goldhawk Interactive)

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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