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Do you know what I learned by repeatedly having my brave soldiers one-shot by lurking aliens after they went one tiny step too far around a corner? I mean, yes, to move more methodically and carefully, of course. The bigger lesson, my fellow Xenonauts, is to leave the weakness of flesh and humanity behind and to embrace the power of mechs. They have more vision range than humans, they can just drive through buildings to negate cover, and they come with rocket launchers that rain down havoc on any would-be invader from outer space as well as their traitorous human collaborators. They don’t panic either. They are merciless killing machines unaffected by doubt and fear and the sense of loss.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

And so whenever my dropship touches down for a new mission in Xenonauts 2, be it to secure the remains of an alien craft my fighter jets shot down or to storm a base of collaborators, a squadron of MARS combat vehicles is the first to roll out, scouting the area and firing rocket everywhere to deprive the enemy of valuable cover.

Only then will my human soldiers debark, a hardy bunch with various types of equipment, such as a heavily armored shield trooper, whose kit is designed to allow him to get close to objectives to interact with them or even stun aliens so we can kidnap and study them. Look, I know the aliens are doing the same thing to us and you’re not supposed to stoop to your enemy’s level, but this is about the defense of Earth – ethics are secondary in this tactical combat game heavily inspired by the original XCOM that’ll be released on PC in Early Access on July 18, 2023.

Xenonauts 2 MARS combat vehicle in a hangar.

Tracks, an auto-cannon, and a rocket launcher. What more do you need?

Xenonauts 2 isn’t a visually stunning title – it has those old-school CRPG looks and reminds me of Project Zomboid in particular – and that may ward some people off. That’d be a mistake. At its core, this really is a modernized and expanded take on the original XCOM: You have a base that can be built up and must be defended, you’re doing research and development by studying the corpses and materials aliens leave behind in combat, and you get to produce all sorts of fun new weapons with the stuff from outer space. Then you look for some aliens or their human allies and kick their butts in glorious, mechanically sound turn-based combat.

There is a lot of room for customization, an important aspect not only to create a bond with your individual soldiers – I can’t count how many times I’ve let out a sigh of frustration when one of my troopers wearing a specific loadout got downed. It’s important to stay adaptable, because the more you learn about your alien foes, the better you’ll understand their weaknesses. Packing the right equipment for each mission is already making things a lot easier and it’s a lot of fun creating new loadouts for each unit, ensuring that you’re prepared for everything and that everyone has the best possible chances of survival.

You need every optimization you can get, because combat is challenging, as you’d expect from a game emulating the old XCOM. Thankfully, there are plenty of difficulty settings and individual options you can use to finetune your experience, and that’s a big plus – I do like a challenge, but with how mean the ambushes on some of the procedurally generated maps are, it’s a great relief to be able to turn things like enemy accuracy or damage down a notch. Sometimes you can’t even step out of your landing craft without being shot at. Did no one ever tell the aliens that spawn camping is shameful behavior?

Xenonauts 2 battle in an alien facility.

There are various mission and biome types in the game. Procedural map generation keeps things fresh.

Hence I’ve adopted the strategy of rolling out with my combat bots first. They can’t really interact with objectives, making human soldiers still necessary, but they do have a lot of utility and for me are crucial in preventing early losses of life. I can’t wait to see what upgrades I can research for them over the course of the game as more advanced alien tech falls into my hands.

While the official goal of Xenonauts 2 is to save the world from an impending alien invasion, for me the loop of going on missions to find cooler stuff to research and build, which enhances the capabilities of my troops to beat harder missions, which have even more advanced loot to find, has been the most enjoyable aspect of the game so far.

Don’t get me wrong, the turn-based combat core of the game is very fun. Since literally every move your soldiers can make is fed from the same pool of action points – including the auto after-turn overwatch, you’re required to do a lot of planning ahead to get the most out of a turn. This favors a methodical approach and really punishes you for any action point you spent in vain – it could have been a life-saving ducking behind cover, a turnaround to spot a hidden enemy, or that crucial overwatch activation downing an alien.

Xenonauts 2 base layout.

You expand your bases with different modules, adding living space, labs, and hangars as needed.

The mission types have been pretty varied so far as well, sometimes adding a bit of time pressure to spice things up a bit. No matter what the objective is, though, you’re always incentivized to keep your units alive and collect as many resources as possible to further your progress on the strategic layer, where you’re building bases, intercepting alien aircraft, and trying to keep the world from falling into a violent panic.

Speaking of intercepting aircraft, the game will feature aerial combat as well, though the version I played still recommended using the auto-resolve. In general, it’s definitely noticeable that this is an early access title – there are lots of placeholders, missing descriptions, and so on, which you should keep in mind. So far, the strategic layer feels a bit undercooked compared to the tactical part – there are long periods where nothing at all happens and you’re just waiting as time goes by. Obviously, these down periods are necessary for soldiers to heal, research to finish, and so on, but a few random events with decisions to make would be nice to have.

Overall, though, Xenonauts 2 impresses with a very solid core gameplay loop and the strong execution of its ideas. Any XCOM fan will want to keep an eye on this one.