Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
There is a class called the Ranger in XCOM 2 that perfectly encapsulates what the game is about; it has a special close-range sword attack that can deal tremendous amounts of damage, usually killing weaker opponents outright. However, if the strike misses the soldier is left in a horrible position, stuck next to the enemy who will undoubtedly unleash a world of hurt as soon as it gets the opportunity. It’s a risk versus reward mechanic, a decision that can turn the tide or seal your defeat, and thus it represents the nature of XCOM 2. This is a brutal game, a direct sequel to Enemy Unknown that canonically states you lost the war against the alien menace, and must now contend with a world controlled by the Advent. It’s everything great about Enemy Unknown with some stunning improvements, and a few slip ups, too.
The game takes place about eight years after the events of Enemy Unknown and simply assumes that the war was lost, regardless of the outcome you personally achieved after hours of slogging through tough battles. The Advent forces now control Earth and spout constant propaganda about how the war was a mistake, and that they really just want to help humanity. As the Commander you will once again assume control of XCOM, but this time with your base being the mighty flying Avenger. You’re fighting a guerilla war now, contacting resistance forces in a bid to stop a mysterious Advent machine. To represent this the game adds a doom clock that counts down to the end game. You may slow the clock down by tackling specific missions, but you can’t stop it entirely. The only option is to attempt the final mission to secure victory.
XCOM is a game that will leave you frustrated and angry at how events unfold, and yet it has just as much power to leave you elated and grinning, such is the whim of chance and the sway it holds over the game’s spectacle. Pure luck can see you defeated soundly, and pure luck can see you emerge victorious with all soldiers intact. Your job is to mitigate luck, to turn the tide through strategy, planning and careful execution. But even the best player can be brought low by the vicious RNG system. I can’t tell you how angry this game made me, how often I quit in disguise. Sometimes it was because of my own strategic failure, a complete failure to anticipate the enemy,m or even just as simple as losing a soldier because I too quickly clicked on a square without realising it would cost me both action points. On the other hand it frequently left me grinning like an idiot, exhilarated at the intense action, whooping as my sniper nailed an unlikely shot that saved the squad. There are times I never wanted to play it again, and others where I couldn’t stop thinking about the next mission. That’s a powerful combination.
On the battlefield XCOM 2 is instantly familiar, largely replicating its forbearer in terms of controls and how everything plays out. This is a turn-based strategy game where your chances of successfully hitting a target are percentage based, meaning you’re clearly shown the likelihood of nailing an enemy before taking the shot and then an invisible roll of the die determines life or death. However, smart use of the cover system, height advantages and of flanking opportunities means that skill still plays a huge part. It’s all about being fast but careful, positioning your squad as well as you possibly can and taking full advantage of their individual class abilities and the environment. You can set up Overwatch positions for a free shot on moving enemies, throw grenades, deploy drones, attack with swords, unleash powerful mental skill and much more to gain an edge in combat. An environmental destruction system has been added into the mix, bringing with it a new layer of tactical thinking as grenades and other explosives can decimate cover, while certain weapons can also be upgraded to either shoot through cover or simply annihilate it. That’s on top of being able to take the high ground and having to worry about your soldiers snapping under pressure and freaking out, potentially becoming mentally damaged in the process, something which takes a little while to fix. Like many of the greatest games the sytems are easy and intuitive to learn, but hide considerable depth. New enemy types are slowly introduced as time goes on, constantly demanding that you adjust for the new threat. The small Insectoids of the past are gone, replaced by bigger, more fearsome versions of themselves that bring troops back from the dead and can mind control your troops. And then there are shape-shifters who pas themselves off as civilians before morphing into their true, towering form right beside an unsuspecting squad member. These are just some of the threats to be wary of. Prioritising which ones need to be dealt with first is key.
A cascade of failures is a common sight, both somewhat amazing in how one disaster flows into another and absolutely horrible when it happens. A soldier, for example, might get knocked unconscious by one of the more infuriating enemies in the game who wields a stun baton. As a result two of your troops might panic, putting them out of your control for a while. One makes a run for it and gets cut down by Overwatch fire, while the other attempts a desperation shot and misses, but now you can’t move her away from the car that’s about to explode…..crap. Disaster in XCOM often begets disaster.
Just like before XCOM 2’s battles are tense, and every decision feels like it counts. A soldier who dies on the field stays dead, and it’s astonishingly easy to become attached to them, especially thanks to a relatively robust customisation suite that lets you name them, type up a biography and much more. Many people customise them to look like friends and family, but personally I tend to leave them as they are and watch as they develop a personality all of their own through combat. Certain members, like sniper Liam ‘O Connor, become war heroes and legends in their own right, before inevitably falling to the enemy, maybe in a dramatic last stand or may just because you opted to move them and they got caught out by a lucky Overwatch shot, the kind that was one in a million. Like real combat death is frequently fast and doesn’t care about letting the combatant go out like a hero. Because of this every move and command you give feels like it carries a great weight, and that ensures each battle has a level of tension unmatched by almost every other videogame. When you finally limp home with a dead soldier and a few severe wounds you replay every moment in your head, pinpointing every bad choice and tactical error. The game stays with you, even when you aren’t playing, and that’s the mark of greatness.
The soldiers that didn’t make it stay with you, too, surprisingly. I lost ‘O Connor, my early game sniper, when a lucky shot dropped him to one bit of health and he panicked, the intensity of combat becoming too much, leading him to dive through a fire and into an alien’s Overwatch shot. Yamada, an experienced grenadier, fell because I hadn’t positioned him well enough and he became the victim of a concentrated assault by three foes. You come to care for your soldiers, while still accepting their inevitable deaths. That preparation doesn’t stop the sting of losing a favorite, though, especially if that favorite was the result of a lot of resources and time. It’s topped only by the loss of an entire veteran squad of troops who had become more than just soldiers to be commanded, a loss that can leave you crippled unless you kept a constant flow of rookies feeding into missions so that they could earn experience. Few things suck as much as trying to field green soldiers later in the game.
This sense of weight behind every choice continues in the base building, where you’re constantly deciding where to spend incredibly limited resources, what research should be done and a dozen other little details. Should you focus on getting some new armor to the field, especially since in the early game troops can be eliminated in a single shot, or do shift research to an Advent datapad or even to performing an autopsy on a newly encountered alien type? Should resources be spent on constructing new armor, weapons and items, or on guerilla training? Should it be used to build a new relay station to open up new contact opportunities with resistance cells, or a whole new room that can provide extra benefits? Some soldiers need promotions, so which of the two proffered skills for each do you choose, when both sound tempting? After that where do you fly your mobile Avenger base? Do you spend time scanning this area or that one? Go for a supply mission, or rescue civilians?
Decisions are constant in XCOM 2, and they all matter. Slip-ups early on can leave you hurting much later. Sometimes it borders on unfair as decisions you could never have anticipated as causing problems later on do so. But you learn from experience, and going into the game you need to expect failure. There’s a good chance that even on regular difficulty you’ll lose the game, eventually finding yourself in a bad situation that the Advent take full advantage of. Unlike Enemy Within, though, there isn’t just one road to success. XCOM 2’s predecessor had a pretty clear path for success with less room for branching out than players might have wanted. Its sequel, though, provides more room for flexing those strategic muscles, making it even more replayable.
Likely the most controversial change is the introduction of missions that are limited by a timer, a constant countdown to defeat that’s been implemented to stop players abusing the Overwatch command. A quick trip to the Steam forums show that this has split opinion, with many players arguing that they aren’t finding the timers difficult at all and that they aren’t restrictive, while others say that they’re struggling or that they find having time limits limiting as it encourages them to be reckless in their aggression and push straight toward the objective rather than flanking the enemy. Personally I fall more into the second camp. Timed missions have their place as they really can serve to ramp up the intensity of a mission and can make sense narratively, but the vast majority of missions I embarked on had a timer and I found it much harder to enjoy them. I’m far from a great XCOM player and thus frequently found myself far from completing the objective before the timer ran down. Tactical thinking started become a secondary thought as I pushed toward the objective, forcing myself to expend life just to stop the damn clock. Other missions, though, I found myself completing well before the clock had reached zero. Had perhaps only a quarter of the missions involved this mechanic it would have been fine. For me there was just too many timed missions.
The problem isn’t so much the timer, but rather how early its introduced and its frequency. Later on when you’ve got a few veteran squads in your roster that can deal with almost any situation these timers are more balanced, making potentially too easy missions more interesting. You’ve got enough time if everything goes well, but a slip-up or two could leave you at the mercy of the clock.
Balancing this out, however, is a a fantastic new addition to the series where you frequently start missions concealed from the enemy, and provided you don’t amble straight into their clearly marked fields of vision you can roam the map, setting up for the perfect ambush by getting the rest of your team into Overwatch and then launching an attack with the last squad member. As soon as he or she attacks the enemy will scramble for cover, setting off a wonderful chain reaction as your soldiers in Overwatch open fire in a devastating display of ballistics. It’s one of the few moments in XCOM where you get to feel powerful and entirely in control of the situation, even if it’s just for a brief moment in time.
There’s other changes, too, naturally. We’ve already covered the Ranger class, which is joined by Specialists who boast a flying drone that can be used to hack distant objects, attack enemies and help out teammates. Grenadiers lug around a massive mini-gun capable of doing a lot of damage, plus a grenade launch for accurate, long-distance explosives flinging. Finally Sharpshooters take the place of snipers, effectively doing the same job except that they also boast a gunslinger tree which can make them especially dangerous. These new classes bring a small selection of new options to the table that’s augmented by a sweet armory of new toys to play with that effectively stop players from just giving everybody grenades.
The game’s performance is simply embarrassing, especially when you consider that it’s far from being a technical powerhouse. Long load times and a framerate that struggles to stay stable even in menus plague the game, painting Firaxis as a clumsy developer that cam create wonderful gameplay mechanics but can’t optimize worth a damn. Turning off anti-aliasing entirely seems to help quite a bit, but that still didn’t help some of the in-game menus where the framerate would occasionally become a slide-show. Since this is a turn-based title the dodgy framerate isn’t as impactful as it would be in most other genres, but that doesn’t stop it from being utterly infuriating. Throw in some overly long pauses between actions on the battlefield and XCOM 2 can feel like it’s deliberately trying to piss you off. I have no idea why the game was released with performance this poor, but Firaxis need to get their shit together.
At least the game does look good. There’s been a pretty substantial graphical update since the days of Enemy Unknown, bringing more detailed environments and character models, plus a reasonably robust lighting model. It’s no Witcher 3 but the game does look very pretty and occasionally even manages to step into the realms of beautiful. The animations are also quite nice, and get shown off by the game’s action camera, although it has a nasty tendency to present weird angles. In fact, quite a fit problems remain from the days of Enemy Unknown, thus sometimes the camera goes bonkers and shows terrible angles or for some reason it gets stuck looking at nothing during the enemy’s turn, so you can’t see what the opposition is doing. Clipping is still a big problem, too, with people frequently shooting through walls. Oh, and don’t be surprised to occasionally see one of your squad die from angles that clearly don’t work.
Usually I wouldn’t recommend a game with performance problems this irritating, at least until a patch gets things running, but because it is a turn-based game and the framerate drops don’t therefore get in the way of the gameplay I can let it slide. Just. As for bugs and glitches that’s more complicated as it seems a lot of players are suffering serious issues like crashing or even problems that stop them from completing missions, while others are sinking dozens of hours into the game without a problem. Personally I didn’t encounter any major bugs or glitches, but obviously based on the amount of people complaining on Steam you need to be aware of potential issues.
Like Enemy Unknow XCOM 2 is one of the most tense games I’ve every played. It’s far from a perfect game, and yet regardless of that fact XCOM 2 is one of the greatest strategy games to be released, keeping me constantly engaged in its endless decisions, all of which feel incredibly important. Do I want to send my Ranger closer for a potentially bad ass sword kill? Do I research better armor or do I dissect a corpse for more intel? And where the hell have all my resources gone and oh my God that doomsday clock is one tick away from smacking me in the face like the bitch I am. Sure, it can also be an impressively demoralising and annoying game, because it’s hard reconcile losing an entire encounter thanks to one twat who couldn’t hit an alien in front of him with a 90% to succeed. These moments will leave you angry beyond belief. But what other games can really evoke such a range of powerful emotions? It’s a better game than Enemy Unknown was, and Enemy Unknown was bloody awesome.