Xenonauts – The Good Kind of Remake

About a decade ago in internet years I made a video with terrible mic quality talking about X-COM: UFO Defense, a game that we all know is good but don’t always remember why. While I still stand by most of what I said in that video, I feel like I really didn’t give a fair shake to Xenonauts, the spiritual successor/remake made by Goldhawk Interactive. At the time, I said that the times had changed so much that it just couldn’t quite get the same feel as the original.

I have a confession to make. At the time of that video, I hadn’t actually played a single Xenonauts campaign for more than ten hours or so, which in X-COM terms is barely getting past the introduction. I’d tried to get into it about three times but every time had lost interest. Since then, though, I’ve finally managed to crack the code and get into it. And it’s advantageous that I did, since I’ve really been trying to get this Portal 2 video done and it’s also been a while since I posted anything I’m sorry for being late guys please enjoy this video.

I find Xenonauts particularly fascinating as a remake because, unlike most official remakes, it’s not bound by expectations to recreate the original exactly. While you always hear some vocal minorities claiming that a remake is an opportunity to re-examine what didn’t work the first time around, generally the demand is for a “warts and all” style remake, that preserves all the original design decisions even if they really didn’t age well. I can totally get the appeal, though. Many people just want a trip down memory lane, rather than a genuine second go at an old property. There have also been cases where remakes HAVE attempted to change things, only for the results to fall quite short, or so the Homeworld community would have me believe.

Xenonauts opts for the “improvement” style remake, and what’s crazy is that they kind of pull it off. This feels like something that could only have been made by genuine fans of the original, because the issues that it addresses are all things that are universally agreed upon by fans to be the shortcomings of UFO Defense. Let’s take a closer look at how exactly they changed it, how it worked, and in some cases, how it didn’t.

When you look at a list of all the changes Xenonauts makes to the X-COM formula you can practically see it come together into a core set of principles that the remake set out with. These include: increased ease of use, improve balance, fill in gaps in the original design, reduce needless micromanagement, and justify the mechanics within the lore.

The first one is pretty obvious to see and also the least controversial. The user interface of UFO Defense is almost impossible to use if you haven’t read the manual. It’s just one of those things that comes with the passage of time. Less obvious but still uncontroversial are those coveted quality of life features. It’s almost never a bad idea to add quality of life features, since they don’t actually impact the core of how the game is played. So you’ve got visualizations of time unit use, saveable soldier roles, a way to use grenades that doesn’t take years, that sort of thing.

If you’ve played UFO Defense, these are all improvements that seem fairly obvious. It points to an encouraging trend I’ve seen among certain developers lately in regards to these features, called listening to the community. QA testing is a big part of it too, obviously, but community feedback is a unique sort of QA testing because after a while people settle into a routine, and anything that sticks out can be quickly identified.

There is always the possibility that someone just won’t like one of these features, so it’s generally a good idea to make them optional to use or at least turn it off. OpenXCOM was great about this with its huge list of optional features. Otherwise this is something that you can’t really overdo, especially in a game where you’re doing the same thing many times over.

Then we come to addressing balance issues. This would likely be more controversial in any other game, but one of X-COM’s other major issues was that the tech tree was just not balanced at all. The cannon and stingray missiles for the fighters were completely useless because avalanche missiles outranged all but one of the UFOs, and the relatively easily accessible plasma beams had the same range and effectively infinite ammo. About half of the ballistic weapon options were situational at best, the heavy laser was outright awful, and the heavy plasma was so good that there was no reason to use the standard plasma rifle at all.

Balancing a game is, sadly, not as straightforward as quality of life features. Game Maker’s Toolkit just did an excellent video just scratching the surface of what such a pursuit can entail, but the short version is that it’s a whole lot of trial and error and necessitates a really good understanding of what the core principles of the game are. Xenonauts could have potentially gone a little crazier with the ground weapons, but ended up going with the rifle-pistol-machine gun-shotgun-sniper options on every tech level, like the Firaxis XCOM games.

Some part of me wishes they were a little more adventurous, but if there were too many unique things per tech level that could potentially make leveling up tech not worth it. For a couple in-franchise examples of this going wrong, think about the upgraded swords from XCOM 2, where the tier 2 sword’s stun effect was far superior to the tier 3 sword’s burn effect. There’s also the Long War mod for Enemy Unknown, where many players stay on the third of five tech levels due to that level’s special ability ignoring a significant chunk of enemy armor. They do make up for it a bit with armor variety, offering such curiosities as the walking tank-like predator armor, the jump jet buzzard armor, and the hovering, 360 view sentinel armor.(more?)

Third, there’s filling in gaps in the original design. And hallelujah, praise the Lord, we have air combat now! After game after game in this franchise and not a single one with good air combat, Goldhawk has pulled through for us!

(ahem)

Ok seriously though, the new air combat is pretty great. It was probably quite difficult to design too, since it’s entirely original to this franchise but still had to work within its overall framework. This probably isn’t something that most remakes could or indeed should go for (especially since it seems to prolong development a bit) but it’s quite astounding that it worked out so well.

Next, there’s culling the micromanagement. This is where things get a little more subject to taste. The original, being effectively a sim game, had you doing EVERYTHING. If you don’t sell the useless but valuable artifacts you acquired, they sit in your store room forever. If you forget to buy or manufacture ammunition, looks like you’re going into a fight without bullets. This is very thin ice for a remake to tread on, because you never know for sure what everyone is just as tired of as you, and what people consider to be integral to the experience.

Personally I think their improvements are good for the most part. Not having to buy or manufacture the most basic items is a good choice, because they were never challenging or something to build a strategy around, just something you could possibly forget once in a while. There’s just one itsy bitsy tiny thing that we’ll get back to later but otherwise, good job Goldhawk.

And finally, the lore. Playing any XCOM game might give you some questions, like “why does this interstellar empire start its invasion with puny little flying saucers?” or “why don’t the aliens just bomb cities?” or “do we really have to put ourselves in plasma vaporization range to capture aliens when the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply to them and we can just gas them instead?”. Xenonauts is happy to answer these questions for you.

A lot of this is just window dressing that I acknowledge not everyone is into, but it’s something I appreciate a lot. Like with the whole starting with small UFOs thing, it feels a lot more immersive and, to use a word I typically prefer to avoid, “realistic” when the game explains that their crafts need to be adapted to flying in atmosphere so it takes a while to retrofit the larger ones. But when things are kept more internally consistent, it does present some interesting ideas for how to expand the game. The bombing one is obvious, just throw in a new type of terror mission that you thwart with interceptors instead of soldiers, but the whole capturing question actually presents an interesting new remix of the game’s balance. Capturing aliens in this franchise has always been a fairly straightforward affair: just give a taser to your most disposable guy, send him in, and hope to god that it works. There wasn’t much extra strategy to it beyond having backup guns at the ready and maybe a little suppressing fire. But the addition of a less reliable but safer gas grenade opens up for a little more strategy. Maybe you could try to pin an alien down while the gas does the heavy lifting, maybe you try to weaken them a bit (but be careful not to kill them!), or use the gas as suppression when you don’t want them coming out the door just yet.

So with the most outstanding issues in UFO Defense addressed with this remake, Xenonauts must be the superior game, right?

Eeeeeeeeh…

Obviously there’s always the question of taste. You never know what little aspect of a game will appeal to you or push you away. Personally I had a hard time getting into this game because the art style was pretty sterile, with a few items and armors looking downright ugly. The original may be pretty low-res, but I found that there was a certain appeal to its art style. Someone else may not like the new air combat (cause something that’s new and fun isn’t necessarily balanced), or the new suppression mechanic, or the humor in the xenopedia entries which I find generally funny but occasionally tries my patience.

That’s all details, though. A much bigger issue with improvement-style remakes is that sometimes something that might be considered a flaw in the original from a more impartial standpoint ends up becoming something that defines the experience. For example, in Dark Souls, some of the distances between bonfires could get a little excessive. Anor Londo in particular had some really long hikes often filled with peril but just as often filled with nothing. If you’re coming back from, say, Bloodborne, where almost every area has internal shortcuts so you’re never too far from the lantern, it may seem like a lot of grueling combat gauntlets and hikes through picturesque scenery but not much else. But as someone who played Dark Souls first, it’s these long hikes that lend Anor Londo its sense of grandness, and make the inside of the big cathedral feel like a true test of mettle that won’t cut you any slack. See this other GMTK video exploring the same idea with Metroid 2 and its remakes.

Now we can go back to this little note I left here. The biggest example in Xenonauts of this kind of issue is a massive simplification of the economy. You no longer directly sell your alien artifacts and the sale of manufactured technology is nerfed to the point of being useless. Stuff that you recover from UFOs like flight computers is sold automatically and there’s nothing that can be sold for more than half of its creation cost. And if you ask me, this is by far the biggest blow to Xenonauts when it comes to the question of which game is better.

The thing is, I completely understand why it is the way it is, because it matches up with several of the goals I mentioned at the beginning of the video. By making flight computers and UFO power sources not act as resources anymore, micromanagement has been cut down, because they’re no longer considerations in building advanced craft so you don’t have to keep track of half a dozen resources anymore. You also don’t have to continually check up on your storage screen to make sure you have enough space and that you aren’t holding on to all those useless yet valuable mind probes. Selling XCOM technology could also be a bit of a balance breaker, since in the late game you could have effectively unlimited funds if you planned ahead and set up some bases purely for manufacturing and selling. It even kinda makes sense from a lore standpoint, and the Lore+ mod makes a point of expanding on this. It’s the height of the Cold War, and if we started selling laser rifles to keep the lights on, they might fall into the hands of the aliens, or worse, the Russians.

And yet, at the same time, this feels like a huge aspect of the X-COM experience that’s gone now. I talked quite a bit in my old video how managing your operations is so critical to X-COM’s identity, particularly since funding your endeavors are just as critical as shooting down UFOs. It wasn’t perfectly balanced, but it was a system that occasionally demanded tough choices out of you, like skipping on out supplying your more vulnerable side bases with better equipment in order to manufacture more sellable equipment because you just really need the cash right now. Cutting out the system entirely just doesn’t feel like the answer, especially when it’s clear so much work has been put into rebalancing the other aspects of the game.

If that same effort were put into making the economy a little more balanced so there were more ways to make your own money, I think Xenonauts might actually close the distance and become a fully valid replacement to the classic alien killing masterpiece. It would take some work to make sure that it’s streamlined but doesn’t lose too much of its critical complexity, but the rest of the game has proven that Goldhawk is quite capable of that. And with a Xenonauts 2 somewhere in the distance, I really hope that this is something that they can pull off.

Despite some of its last-minute shortcomings, I still view Xenonauts as proof that an improvement-style remake is not only possible, but it even can be great. For that reason, I don’t think that we should be scared of asking for this kind of thing more in the future. It may seem like an overly risky proposition, especially when certain developers just can’t leave well enough alone, and I understand that sometimes, you just want to experience the good old days again. But even more recent evidence has shown that just wanting the same old thing can fall much flatter than we expect.

We’ll probably need much more evidence before we can make a solid conclusion, but maybe good improvement-style remakes can only come in the form of spiritual successors from other developers. That way, it’s from fans who know what fans like and dislike, and they’re more free to do what they want without as much public expectation. But then again, I haven’t played everything, so maybe there are other examples of these fan-made improvement remakes out there that went really well, or really poorly, so let me know about more of those and how they turned out. In the meantime, I have to go drop off the face of the earth for several months before appearing out of nowhere with a new video. I’ll be sending occasional messages back to this planet via the tweeters, so check me out if you want the abyss to gaze back every once in a while. I’ve been Rycluse, your favorite Caesan. Thanks for watching.

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