Roguelike Highlights: Xenocide

EDIT: A WordPress update seems to have messed up the screenshots in this post, and re-uploading them isn’t helping; they do not show up properly in WordPress at all anymore. Plus the original link to the game is down. So you’ll just have to trust me that this game exists at all.

New readers may want to read my introduction to roguelikes first. Previous roguelike highlights can be found here.

Xenocide is not finished. And with no updates since 2007, it seems unlikely that it ever will be. There is no ending, with things simply trailing off if you get far enough, and there are many item descriptions and even some gameplay features that haven’t been implemented. As such, it’s not a game that one will play for very long. But it has a lot of really clever ideas, and I think some of the more popular roguelikes could learn a lot from Xenocide.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Xenocide is very traditional in its graphics, opting for simple ASCII characters. So it’s not much to look at. But that’s pretty much where the traditional elements end. It has music and sound effects, for example, which is even less common in roguelikes than graphical tilesets. It is also one of relatively few science fiction themed roguelikes (as opposed to the far more common fantasy settings), and it mixes in some horror elements too. Taking place in the far future, the player must escape a cargo shuttle that’s become overrun with aliens, and then explore the colony on the planet below to find out what happened.

In keeping with the sci-fi setting, quite a lot of the combat happens with ranged weapons, and Xenocide has the best ranged combat system I’ve ever seen in a roguelike. It’s even better than that in DoomRL. DoomRL requires players to pres “f” to fire their weapon, and then to select a target to fire at. Xenocide instead does something that seems so obvious, I can’t believe that other roguelikes haven’t adopted it: auto-targeting. When an enemy is in view, it is automatically targeted, so a single press of the “f” key will fire at it. Targeted enemies have a red cursor over them, so it’s always clear where one is aiming. If there are several enemies in view, the player can cycle targets easily to make sure the correct enemy is targeted. Simple. It makes the ranged combat in all other roguelikes I’ve played seem clunky in comparison.

The rest of Xenocide’s interface is great too. There’s an auto-explore function, which is fantastic. And rather than adopting the usual plethora of keyboard commands to use inventory items, everything is designed around context-sensitive menus that can be understood immediately. Simply view the inventory by pressing “i”, then select one of the items you’re carrying, and a menu pops up with options to examine, use, equip, or drop the item. Other options might appear depending on what the item is; for example, guns can be loaded or unloaded, and grenades can be primed and thrown.

Oh yeah, the grenades. They’re a great riff on standard roguelike design. Rather than the potions and scrolls in most roguelikes, which are randomized each time you play, Xenocide has pills and grenades. Pills generally have positive effects, like healing, curing poison, or boosting strength, whereas grenades vary from standard explosive devices to stun grenades, smoke grenades, and EMP grenades designed to damage robots. Another cool touch is that depending on your character’s class, certain items are auto-identified; characters with military training can identify grenades on sight while those with medical training can identify pills.

I mentioned robots. Well, robots are another excellent feature of Xenocide. To replace traditional character classes like necromancers or summoners who rely on lots of friendly AI units to fight for them, Xenocide allows players to be engineers and build friendly robots. This system is really cool. Robots are constructed out of several component parts, including a chassis, locomotive devices (wheels, treads or legs), weapons, and a CPU which determines the robot’s behavior. Different CPUs can turn a robot into a melee fighter or a stationary sentry gun, for example. Swapping components in and out of robots is done through a simple menu, and it’s a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I’ve found engineer characters to be quite difficult to play in practice, as there’s often no easy way to tell your robot to run away when it’s outclassed and they’re too heavy to simply turn off and carry. To make matters worse, the early options for robots are very limited, and if your robot gets destroyed you’re in a lot of trouble. I would have loved to see the robot-building mechanic expanded and further balanced to make things more interesting; my non-engineer characters were able to make it far enough to face some seriously deadly enemy robots, but they lacked the skills necessary to reprogram the enemy CPUs into friendly ones. I would have liked the chance to play around with the more powerful robot parts but I was never able to get an engineer that far.

In terms of the role-playing system, Xenocide seems heavily influenced by Fallout. The first hint is the list of character skills, which include Small Guns, Big Guns and Energy Weapons, immediately recognizable as the main weapon skills in Fallout. And like Fallout, guns are fairly weak, especially early on, with enemies often taking several shots before they go down (Fallout, of course, was famous for letting you shoot a bandit in the head for 4 damage out of his maximum of 60 hit points). There are other similarities too. Xenocide lets you equip two weapons at a time and instantly swap between them, just like Fallout does. Early on, players will want to engage in melee combat often to conserve ammo, but later will rely primarily on guns. There are many different ammo types, and guns can be switched between single-shot mode and burst fire. And, for the most part, character stats do not increase as you play, unless you manage to find the genetic lab and mess around with the gene-splicing machine. There, players can combine their DNA with that of the various enemies to do weird things like grow claws or tentacles, and of course boost or weaken their stats. This system is fun to play around with, but with perma-death in place it can be frustrating when one guesses wrong and ends up weakening their stats rather than boosting them. I also found that stat-boosting with the genetic machine was essentially mandatory if one wanted to survive the toughest areas in the game, which is a bit disappointing; it would have been cool to be able to make the decision to stay fully human.

As I said at the beginning, there’s not enough to Xenocide to keep players going for long, but it has so many ideas that I’d love to see expanded upon. There are a few weaknesses; the early shuttle levels are much less interesting than the areas on the colony surface, and the relatively few keyboard commands are not as well thought out as they could have been, with too many corresponding to capital letters when there were plenty of lowercase letters available. But the combat system, inventory interface, and robot design are all really interesting and worth checking out. Here’s hoping someone will pick up on some of these concepts for a future game.

Xenocide can be downloaded for free here.

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