Xenonauts 2 Early Access Review: Fresh Tweaks, Same Great Taste

How did he make that shot?! How didn't I make that shot?!

I knew I was in good hands when the first alien in the first mission got a headshot through 2 windows with a handgun. I did find out there was a gameplay justification and not just “That’s X-COM style difficulty.” Still, it’s a great way to set the tone!

Xenonauts 2 is a Strategy game brought to us by Goldhawk Interactive and Hooded Horse. You take the part of a Commander tasked with protecting Earth from Alien invaders. You must manage your base, direct research, and production, and guide your soldiers through turn-based combat. This Early Access title has some rough edges, but the wealth of improvements makes it a worthy successor.

Spicing up Familiar Gameplay 

Xenonauts 2 kicks off with a combat tutorial, something the first game lacked. Now, sure, Xenonauts was funded by and made for a certain kind of gamer, the ones asking why XCOM Declassified was announced before a proper remake. But the added accessibility is a big improvement for the people who didn’t grow up with this sub-genre.

It teaches the basics of ground-based tactical combat. Soldiers should fight from cover while using flanking and explosives to defeat the enemy. Time management is critical, as every step and shot takes Time Units that could have been used elsewhere. Also important, both sides can retaliate out of turn, based on how many Time Units are left over. Ground combat is a back-and-forth of trying to lock down enemies and get the kill before their turn comes.

Xenonauts 2 screenshot

The game starts with a number of tools that only expand as the game proceeds. You can use modules like jetpacks and scanners to shore up weaknesses or specialize your elites. The new Demo Charge is a great addition, focusing on armor and cover busting to encourage creative solutions. There’s also an option that saves at the start of every turn, a godsend for players like myself.

Even when out-numbered and out-gunned, you can still win through cleverness. 

Every soldier that survives improves their stats for the next battle, and now there’s a training facility for getting new recruits up to speed. Most of your success hinges on maintaining your elites. The longer they last, the easier later missions will be. Even outdated weapons can score kills in the hands of veterans.

The air-to-air combat returns, mostly unchanged from the original. This is another area that needs tutorials; I only won my fights because I remembered some tips from the first game. It is cool that you have actual choices here, but even at the slowest speed, I struggle to make the most of them. Autoresolve is still bad, but now you can switch to manual control if you don’t like the outcome. 

Chains of Commanding

The game also needs some explanations on the Geoscape. The Geoscape is where you manage everything that isn’t shooting aliens. Your army needs better equipment and facilities; you need scientists to develop them and engineers to make them. All of the above needs space in your base, and someone’s gotta pay for all this.

The top-level decision-making means things are tense even between battles. The invaders are very proactive in this war. They’ll shoot down your aircraft, invade your bases, and pester your funding nations until they back out. And that’s just what the aliens will do.

Xenonauts 2 comes with a new hostile faction: The Cleaners. All you know for certain is that they work for the aliens and they hate you. Their related missions are a cool change of pace. Instead of killing all targets you must get in, do your job, and get out before backup overruns you. Combined with some more objective-based alien missions you can’t just wait for your enemies to come to you.

Xenonauts 2 inventory screenshot

I think Xenonauts 2’s biggest accomplishment is how they’ve moved closer to their inspiration without becoming harder to approach. A simple example is Interceptor Weapons. In the original XCOM, a new cannon was pointless until you built and sent it to every base with a fighter wing. It could take days or weeks for your tech breakthroughs to mean anything. Xenonauts 1, meanwhile, automatically refits your bases and gear after most projects.

Now, you still need actually to build the new stuff, but most upgrades are a 1-time project. This leads to more meaningful top-level decision-making. “My troops are dying in a single shot, but I also can’t catch half the UFOs – what do I fix first?”

This is also helped by improvements to bases and staffing. Your head scientist is a proper genius in his own right, so you’re always making some progress. Anyone not advancing your tech will add to your income, encouraging you to build a large staff. Facilities of the same type get bonuses when put together, so making bases with specific purposes is even stronger.

Prettier Apocalypse

The graphics are still not AAA fare but the little improvements make a big difference. Maps and troops are now fully 3D, complete with a camera that can change direction. No more getting shot by someone popping out of a doorway you couldn’t see! It also helps players understand how much cover is actually between you and your enemies. Random civilians still spawn on missions, and their antics are still amusing and frustrating.

Xenonauts 2 screenshot Lt. Russell Thompson

There is some new dialogue but it’s mostly for explaining mechanics. As much as I love the lore entries by your lead scientist, I think they should explore that angle in more detail. There’s very little to emotionally connect with outside of the stories of your individual soldiers. It’s a shame, as the gameplay is as engaging as ever.

Some of the aliens have been redesigned and are much more intuitive. Even before you’ve seen them fight or gotten the autopsy, you can probably guess what their purpose is and play around them. Their sound effects can also be heard before you see them, helping clue you into upcoming fights and trouble spots.

The Sebilians are big and stocky, soaking shots but struggling to land their own. The Psyons are experts in mind trickery but only affect soldiers looking at them, making them strong but not frustrating. And of course, there’s the Chryssalid expy, which is terrifying thanks to its high speed and indifference to suppressing fire.

Bleeding Edge

To Xenonauts 2’s credit, most of the unfinished and unpolished things only show up after a couple dozen hours of playtime. There’s a lack of map variety that makes the ground missions start feeling the same even with new objectives. Some numbers still need tweaking; money is tight even on the lowest difficulty, and your interceptors are always half-repaired before the next fight.

There are some technical issues, too. The game has a RAM leak somewhere that eventually overpowered my machine, and saving and loading is noticeably more time-consuming. And while the new mechanic for checking hit chances before you move to a tile is cool, it doesn’t always work.

Some of the log entries just… aren’t written yet. I’m sure they’ll be wonderful when they’re finished, but it was sad to see the game run out of steam right as the story started getting good. The game feels about 75% finished right now, which is excellent for an Early Access game.

One thing I wish they’d expanded on is the music. The only emotions their tracks convey are “caution” and “creeping dread,” and some added range would be really appreciated. The closest they have to variety is the Interceptor theme, which is still frustratingly subdued. Even massive tech advances and critical victories are met with the same sterile “ping” you’ve heard a dozen times over. It feels like an oversight, given the other tune-ups to the presentation.

Xenonauts 2 is a tense and hectic war-sim. A wealth of minor improvements build upon the solid foundation of the first title. My only complaints are actively being addressed by the developers or have time to be further improved. The game devours my free time, and this isn’t even its final form.

Xenonauts 2 Early Access Review

Zeph Rider

Sound Design


Xenonauts 2 is a tense and hectic war-sim. The core gameplay loop is engaging and fulfilling, making it hard to put down. The devs have come a long way since X1, and if they stay the course, they’ll be a worthy rival to their inspiration.


Xenonauts is available on Steam.

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Reviewed on PC.