Review: XCOM 2
XCOM's back, better than ever.
XCOM 2 lets you write epitaphs for your fallen soldiers. It also lets you extensively customise their appearance and give them detailed biographies, but it’s the epitaphs that are important here. One such fallen soldier, a balding, eyepatch toting Squaddie I named Saul Tigh, has inscribed on his memorial wall plaque, “Who knew those mechs had mortars on their back?”
Squaddie Tigh’s sacrifice was Commander Gollan’s lesson learned, and just like me Firaxis has learned plenty from the many successes and few unexpected mortar blasts of 2012’s game of the year contender XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Contrary to how you may have experienced it, the XCOM forces lost the war of Enemy Unknown. Twenty years later, humanity lives comfortably but very much at the mercy of their seemingly benevolent alien overlords. It wouldn’t be sci-fi if that was all there is to the story, and XCOM 2 picks up with the remnants of the XCOM project rising to unite the remaining pockets of resistance, reveal the aliens as the scumbags they are and free humanity from their iron grip.
You do this in the standard XCOM way: rolling dice to shoot at aliens in turn-based, squad-focused combat in between spreading too few resources across too many projects in your home base. If the strategic focus of Enemy Unknown didn’t appeal to you then XCOM 2 won’t change your mind, though to say this is just more XCOM is terribly lazy and does a horrible disservice to the improvements and refinements Firaxis has made. This is the kind of sequel that makes you wonder how you ever loved the original game; and if you didn’t love its predecessor, well, even the most grandiose chocolate sundae ever crafted will still give you the shits if you’re lactose intolerant.
Those who do enjoy suckling the teet of turn-based strategy will find in XCOM 2 the nectar of the gods. From quality of life enhancements to an in mission focus on the strengths of the mechanics, XCOM 2 learns from both the games that came before it and the thriving mod community that gave us the incredible “Long War” to streamline yet enhance the experience.
Most of this improvement comes in the mission variety on offer. Enemy Unknown and its expansion Enemy Within both fell into somewhat of a rut when it came to missions — explore this downed UFO, bust up this EXALT base, save these civilians from horrific Chryssalid impregnation. Move, overwatch, repeat. The difficulty curve was warped; the early game where you are fragile and weak proved the most challenging, if you survived that and built a squad of elite killing machines you could breeze through the later stages.
While you can still build a squad of elite killing machines, XCOM 2 forces you to put them in the path of danger thanks to strict time pressure in most missions and as a result provides just as much challenge in the late game as it does at the beginning. This pressure usually takes the form of a turn counter though sometimes you must rescue a number of civilians or defend a transmitter under alien attack. This forces you into swift action and renders the old “creep and overwatch” tactics ineffective; unlike Enemy Unknown most battles will not be fought entirely on your terms.
It is when your troops are in danger that XCOM 2 asks the most of you. Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within experimented with timed missions and ways to force the pace of the game and break the overwatch cycle but none were as successful as XCOM 2 is with simple time limits. You are forced into compromising positions and reactionary decisions, though luckily you still have all the time in the world to consider your own moves, thinking time isn’t under the same limitations.
The reactionary nature of combat is complemented by most missions starting with the ability to plan a stealth attack. While still under time pressure, you can sneak up on enemy positions, lay a trap with carefully placed soldiers and the overwatch ability, then reveal yourself and massacre the unsuspecting aliens. The truly stealthy can even avoid some encounters, some missions don’t require the complete extermination of alien forces for success.
This variety in mission structure, objectives and method of attack goes a long way to ensuring your 40 hour campaign flies by, as does the procedural generation of maps that made me realise just how limiting those set designs were in Enemy Unknown (and especially Enemy Within’s EXALT bases). Even in failure you will find some thrills; extraction from doomed missions and “considered retreats” from impossible situations provided some of the most tense moments of XCOM 2 thanks to the value of a dead soldiers E.X.O armour and the ability to call for an emergency landing zone rather than having to retreat to the start of the level. When faced with unfavourable odds I often decided to live to fight another day and extract, meaning fewer game ruining squad wipes but plenty more stress as resistance outposts fell due to my failures.
I find so much joy in the stress XCOM 2’s decision making puts you under. Much like in a great board game, you ponder the possibilities, consider your abilities (now conveniently listed in the UI rather than behind a menu, one of the many usability enhancements) and come up with a plan that one missed 95% shot will totally ruin. Battles regularly turned on that single shot, a testament to the balance of some incredibly complicated systems.
The degree of difficulty in this job cannot be overstated; over a dozen enemy types, countless combinations of soldier builds, weapon upgrades, personal combat stimulants and squad makeups would be a nightmare to balance, and Firaxis has succeeded. Extended play will almost certainly reveal ideal builds and strategies, but nothing can take away the epic moments of my first experience with XCOM 2 and I am confident that most players will find the same joy in their first campaign.
For the great mission to mission experience XCOM 2 provides it was its critical path story missions that will most live on in my mind, though much of this is due to the emergent storytelling the framework provides and the steep consequences of failure that inspire you to take risks. The best example is defending your base from alien invasion, improved in every way from the similar sequence in Enemy Within. Here you must lead a sortie to destroy an enemy facility that has disabled your base, then retreat under heavy pressure back to the ship for evacuation.
Commanding a squad of ten soldiers (up from the standard six), an epic battle takes place first to reach the enemy position and then to deal with unrelenting enemy reinforcements that slow your retreat to a crawl. Low stocks of heavy weapons, medical supplies and ammunition forced me into a difficult choice, sacrificing my inexperienced soldiers, many of them heroes of the assault, as a distraction to ensure the survival of my elite troops. Not wanting them to be captured by the enemy and subjected to torturous experiments (a narrative entirely of my own imagining) I led them on a glorious final charge to take whatever they could down with them. At final count my squad had killed over fifty enemies, to put that in perspective a regular mission contains about a dozen, the final mission around thirty. Those were some gut wrenching epitaphs to write.
For every new feature there is also something improved. Panic and satellites are mercifully retired, now you expand your global reach with communications relays and terror missions are replaced by the defence of resistance bases under alien attack. Base management is streamlined but no less complex, it still requires you to make difficult decisions with your limited resources but instead of building elevator shafts and countless laboratories or workshops you are assigning your limited number of engineers to enhance the production of your facilities or deciding what to do with those rare Elerium cores.
Time is a limited resource in the overworld as much as it is within missions. An intimidating counter looms over everything you do, the only way to delay its game ending effects is to uncover and assault alien bases. It removes the ability to grind missions for resources and will force your hand when you aren’t holding great cards, waiting on your best soldiers to recover from injury or for research of new heavy weapons to be completed. Story missions will unlock throughout and can be tackled at any time you think you are ready to move the plot along or really need to stop that red bar from progressing.
XCOM 2 seems to think it is telling a more unique and grand story than it really is. While there are hints as to the fate of Enemy Unknown’s characters and possible motives of your current crew if there are conclusive revelations I didn’t encounter them. As for the aliens, their plans don’t stretch beyond typical sci-fi tropes yet the heavily telegraphed revelations are met with shock by the cast. XCOM 2 hints at deeper motives and more complex characters but never delivers a satisfying payoff, happily leaning on a standard but inoffensive sci-fi tale you’ve probably heard a variation of before, like when you played Enemy Unknown.
Regrettably there are some technical issues. You’ll get the occasional camera angle inside a character model, soldier aiming in the completely wrong direction or interacting with an invisible object, and the occasional failure of damage numbers or status effects to pop up in the interface. Aiming explosives can still be twitchy, several times on particularly fine shots the miniscule movement of my mouse as I clicked resulted in moving my aim and ruining a well judged strike. There are also times when you just can’t get a camera view inside a building regardless of how you raise or lower the angle.
On the more serious side I did get a soldier caught in a position where they were unable to move, luckily I could still complete the mission but had this cost me an elite Specialist in an Iron Man game I would not have been so forgiving. It did only happen the once. The load times in and out of missions were a drag, even from an SSD. None of the technical faults had even moderate impact on my experience with XCOM 2 but they are worth noting.
Multiplayer is included in XCOM 2 but impressions of that aspect of the game will have to wait until after release when an active player base is available. I can safely say that even if multiplayer was an unplayable disaster it would be unlikely to affect my final score, but for completeness sake full impressions will come post release.
XCOM 2 is an incredible strategy game, and for the last week it has consumed me. It had me eyeing off my lounge room as I ate dinner, noting the cover values of the furniture and how the coffee table didn’t fit into the perfect grid of an XCOM level. It stressed me out, made me curse my own stupidity when things went wrong and made me feel like a genius for navigating impossible situations. For over 40 hours I was never bored and was always challenged. Full Steamworks support means the thriving mod community of Enemy Unknown will have improved visibility and more users than ever can make the game harder, longer and more realistic should they be particularly masochistic and this adds just another touch on an already excellent package.
[Update: 4 October 2016] All of the above rings true for the title’s recent release on consoles. While it mightn’t look as crisp and clear as the PC version, console controls are easy to use — after all, we’ve already experienced the franchise on Xbox and PlayStation before. The only thing that really lets consoles down is ridiculously large loading times, which you’ll really feel if you’re relying on deft saves to get out of a tight spot. After playing on Xbox One, I continue to question why Firaxis and 2K didn’t just release XCOM 2 to all platforms at the same time.
XCOM 2 is not more XCOM, but better XCOM. It will make you feel like the original may not have been the great game you thought it was, and for me that is all I can ask of a sequel. XCOM fans will not be disappointed, nor will any gamer with an affinity for strategy and tactical games who somehow missed Enemy Unknown. A brilliant game.
XCOM 2 was reviewed using a promotional code on PC, as provided by the publisher. A follow-up was performed using a copy of the game on Xbox One.
Review: XCOM 2