Dismissing XenoMiner as just another one of the countless Minecraft clones flooding the Xbox Live Indie Games market would be easy. But this engaging new voxel game from Gristmill Studios doesn't just rise above the sea of uninspired copycats; it differentiates itself from Mojang's indie hit with a sci-fi theme and some clever tweaks to the tried-and-true gameplay formula. Read our impressions to see what makes XenoMiner stand out, complete with developer quotes that hint at where the title is heading next.

A Dangerous New World
When you start a new game in XenoMiner, you wake up in the wreckage of a spacecraft on a moon called Xenos. Like in Minecraft, this world is procedurally generated and completely unique to your game.

In order to survive on your new desolate planet, there are two gameplay mechanics you need to keep an eye on. The first is radiation; in a reversal of Minecraft, night is the only time it's safe to freely travel across the surface of Xenos. Once the sun comes up, the planet is bathed in deadly radiation. You can tolerate a fair amount of exposure (Gristmill is still tweaking how much) before succumbing to its effects, but in general you'll want to find shelter as soon as it starts getting light out.

The other mechanic you need to keep track of is your air supply. No matter what you're doing, you're always sucking down precious oxygen, and will need to refill your supply by breaking down and converting ice blocks. Luckily, strange tree-like ice structures litter the landscape, providing the necessary resources to stay alive.

Still, these mechanics create more of a tense survival tone than most voxel games, a feeling XenoMiner developer Jesse Nivens says the team plans to foster in future updates:

"We do want to add more survival aspects to the game, and right now our focus in that area is in adding aliens. We also want to improve the survival experience by allowing the player to build shelters that can evolve into something much bigger, and the first step in bringing that to the game is with sealed rooms with breathable oxygen and environmental protection."

The Right Tools For The Job
Unlike other voxel games, XenoMiner streamlines the mining process by providing players with an all-purpose Particle Information Conversion Kit (P.I.C.K.) extractor. Instead of switching between multiple tools for different ores, your extractor allows you to mine and place any block type (though some of the high-end ores require upgrading to a better extractor), and has a greater range than Minecraft's tools.

Unlike Minecraft's tools, extractors don't degrade over time. Instead, they consume energy from your battery, which can be recharged with solar panels. This provides its own unique gameplay mechanic, as solar panels must be placed on the surface of the planet and have great vertical range (you can be any distance above or below them and still receive a charge) but poor horizontal range. You can boost your solar panel's signal by building relays; build and place enough relays as you expand your mining operation, and you'll never have to worry about your battery levels.

XenoMiner features a number of other unique tools, including upgradeable environmental suits and helmets, gravity boots that allow you to walk on any surface, and grav pads that send you hurtling upward when you step on them. Creating items requires building a centriforge and upgrading it with AI cores, which provides a deep and satisfying crafting tree.

Gristmill plans to add more crafting items to the game, and recently announced that the first content update will feature retractable doors, switches, and conduits. However, there's one more tool that vastly differentiates XenoMiner from other voxel games.

Meet Your New Best Friend
When you start a new game, you'll find an abandoned alien ship nearby your crash site. Inside of it is the most valuable item in XenoMiner: a programmable bot.

Figuring out how to program the floating droid requires some guesswork, but once you understand the hieroglyphs, you can write your own complex macros and scripts. After that, you simply activate your little robot friend and let it go; the bot automatically transfers the ore it mines to your inventory, and you're free to go about your business.

After spending some time messing with the bot's programming, I managed to come up with separate scripts for digging stairs, building towers, and creating elaborate systems of branch mines – perfect for finding rare ores.

Having a programmable bot is like having a second miner at your disposal, and XenoMiner developer Rod Runnheim says the team has more ideas for them in the future:

"There is a whole family of technology to explore based on alien technology. The challenge is to make it accessible, and introduce it in a way that flows with the game. We have plans to introduce more bots, and not just mining bots. We have also been exploring an entirely new alien technology that is more advanced than the bots. Another of our devs has had marvelous luck with an early version of that."

A Better Balance
As a gamer who has spent countless hours exploring worlds in Minecraft, I enjoyed many of the ways XenoMiner differentiates itself. The all-purpose extractor simplifies and speeds up the act of mining ore and building structures, and the crafting tree already has a satisfying number of items to build. I also love the sci-fi setting, though XenoMiner's higher resolution textures don't mesh as well with the blocky nature of voxel games as Minecraft's charmingly retro visuals.

Additionally, with no multiplayer or enemy mobs right now, XenoMiner feels as barren as you might expect an alien moon to be. Gristmill is working to change that, however, and its first patch released earlier this month should give players hope. It fixed a variety of problems players were complaining about, including the rarity of ores, lag problems, and a field of view many felt was too narrow. Listening to player feedback is an important goal for the team, says Jesse Nivens:

"We love including our players in the process of developing XenoMiner. From the day we published it we've been getting hit up from fans around the world wanting us to add different features. Several fan suggestions have been brought into the game, with more on the way."

If you're on the fence about giving XenoMiner a try, taking the plunge won't cost you much; XenoMiner is currently on sale for 80 MS Points, and Gristmill intends to continue updating the game for free. You can buy it now from the XBLIG marketplace, and get status updates from Gristmill's website.

Head on to the next page for the rest of our developer interview, which reveals more Gristmill's plans for XenoMiner's future.