XCOM 2 Review
Long Time No See, Commander
The follow-up to Firaxis Games’ X-COM series reboot ticks all the boxes a sequel should. Though many players will have successfully repelled the alien invasion in the previous game, this installment takes place in a timeline in which the enemy was successful. Earth has now been under alien command for twenty years, with the XCOM unit and anything associated with it dissolved long ago. Our extraterrestrial rulers enforce their laws via an elite peacekeeping organization known as ADVENT, but pockets of resistance still exist scattered over the world, setting the stage for hit-and-run guerilla warfare scenarios. XCOM 2 keeps the first game’s outstanding strategic, turn-based combat system intact while injecting new unit and enemy types, mission varieties, and an all-new dastardly alien plot to uncover and foil. Yet, despite all the nail-biting fun inherent in the gameplay, this is not a game for those looking for an easy ride. While difficulty is adjustable, series veterans — and especially fans of the original franchise — know that it isn’t XCOM if it doesn’t chew you up and spit you out, and this sequel aims to do just that, delivering heaping helpings of hurt by the barrelful.
Being forced to operate out of the shadows causes some changes to the flow of gameplay, even if they are mostly on a cosmetic level. Players no longer need to keep Earth’s governments happy to secure their funding; the general populace is fully drinking the alien’s Kool-Aid, and the scattered pockets of resistance must be painstakingly lured out of hiding before they can be convinced to join up. To avoid alien capture, the newly-revived XCOM unit operates out of the Avenger, an alien ship recommissioned into a mobile base that houses engineering and research facilities. Starting with a rescue mission of the Commander himself, the player is officially given command over the ship and crew, to oversee the global resistance efforts.
Much of the original’s mission-to-mission gameplay remains unchanged in the sequel. Between combat missions, the game offers the traditional “ant farm” view of the Avenger, essentially a cross-section that shows the player all of the various rooms aboard the base. The gameplay is the same familiar war simulation as before, and there is always a lot to do. The onboard scientists are there to run tests and evaluations of objects of interest recovered in the battlefield, and perform autopsies on any new enemy units encountered in the field. This typically results in some benefit to the player, often opening up new weapons or armor that can be created, or even whole new tactical avenues of gameplay as the story progresses. As before, this research takes time; having access to more scientists does speed up the process, but they are a scarce commodity in XCOM 2. Lily Shen, daughter of the previous game’s Dr. Raymon Shen, heads up the engineering team. She’s responsible for creating and updating the gear troops take into battle. This, of course, takes not only additional time, but also resources, which always seem to be on the verge of running out.
There is a myriad of smaller tasks to keep up with on the Avenger. In order to successfully infiltrate key alien facilities, intel from local militia factions is necessary. This, in turn, requires expanding the communications arrays that allow players to reach out to the entrenched guerilla groups. Preparing soldiers to go into the field and dealing with any resulting injuries requires extra facilities to be built and staffed as well. On top of this, the ship has a limited power supply, and the multitude of needs of the campaign all require additional power to be produced. It’s an intricately woven web of interconnecting management aspects, all dependent on each other. Right from the start of the game, this system is a major stressor, and it doesn’t let up until the final credits roll. This is by no means a negative, as most fans of the series expect this level of challenge, but it’s certainly something to be aware of going into the game.
To intensify matters, the game runs on a pseudo time limit. Unbeknownst to the general public, the aliens are putting the finishing touches on their extinction-level event dubbed the Avatar Project. This is represented by an on-screen progress meter that appears on the world map. The game enters a sudden death “last chance” mode if it fills, which leads to an instant game over if it isn’t stopped. The Avatar Project meter can be held up or even set back a few spaces by successfully completing certain missions that strike at the heart of the aliens’ infrastructure, but acts as a representation of imminent death, always just a few steps behind the player and getting closer every moment.
Of course, the whole thing wouldn’t be worth the price of admission if the combat wasn’t up to snuff. Thankfully, Firaxis has made sure this gameplay cornerstone works well and continues to be as much fun as returning players expect. Many aspects of combat are the same as they previously were. As the game progresses, several missions critical to the narrative become available. Often, these require certain prerequisites to have been met, like completing a specific research project, or learning coordinates from the correct resistance forces on the map. The rest of the time, players will be busy sending their squad to complete randomized side missions, which provide experience but also all-important intel, supplies, and other spoils of war. These side missions typically have objectives like defend or destroy a certain location, escort a VIP to safety or extract an enemy sympathizer, or just plain eliminate all hostiles on a map. The latter of these objectives tends to be required in almost all missions anyway, so mission variety is a little lackluster. A base defense mission is new, but it plays out as just another “kill all hostiles” mission in a forested area outside of the base.
Missions take place on grid-like battlefields disguised as city centers, suburban neighborhoods, refugee camps, alien facilities, or more rural areas like patches of forests or rocky canyons. Combat is turn-based, with each member of the XCOM squad acting, followed by all visible aliens. Each soldier is usually given two action points on their turn, meaning they can move a set distance and act, or move twice as far and give up their action for that turn. Alternatively, soldiers can use a point to end their turn on Overwatch, giving them a reflex shot should an enemy move within a certain range. Certain actions use both action points and thus cannot be used after moving. The environment features plenty of obstacles that can be used as cover by ending a turn behind them, and verticality exists for units that can take advantage of elevated positions for specialized actions.
Soldiers can be trained in four classes this time around: Rangers, Grenadiers, Specialists, and Sharpshooters. Each class has its own style, and a squad of up to six soldiers can eventually be assembled to handle anything a battlefield might throw at them. There are options for melee combat, hacking, healing and support, and flushing enemies from cover, to name but a few. As units return from successful ops time and time again, they level up, getting access to more and more abilities. Each class has two possible skills to choose from at each rank, and some of the end-game skills are true game changers that will make even seasoned Commanders giddy to try out.
XCOM is known to offer a hefty challenge. XCOM 2 is no slouch in this department; if anything, it amps up the difficulty a considerable degree further. There are an overwhelming amount of projects and objectives to contend with, while combat missions keep the punches coming in quick succession. New enemy types are introduced frequently; the first time players face down the towering, cover-shredding bipedal weapons platform known as the Sectopod might well be one of the most intimidating moments in the game. When things are running smoothly, players will often barely be able to outfit their troops with newly developed offensive or defensive gear. Even playing on default difficulty, it is very possible to fall behind on research or see troops put out of commission to such a degree as to create a seemingly unwinnable game. My personal playthrough saw three full restarts after finding myself in a dead end with not enough soldiers or gear to successfully push on. A lower difficulty setting is provided, but is sadly much too simple, to the point of being boring for series veterans. For those looking for even greater challenges, higher difficulty settings are available as well, including Ironman mode which restricts players to a single save file with permadeath in place. Players can even play against one another via online multiplayer, creating and customizing a squad for just this purpose, but the mode doesn’t offer much beyond the offline game, and is filled with lengthy downtime during opponent turns.
As solid as the gameplay is, XCOM 2 doesn’t do much to push the envelope forward in terms of visuals or sound design. Considering a full four years have gone by since the previous installment, one would expect the character models used in cinematics to have improved somewhat. Sadly, the graphics seem of the same caliber as the ones used four years ago, which isn’t to say they’re bad per se, but there’s nothing cutting edge about them either. This makes the choppy framerate during particularly heavy combat all the more noticeable on console. The flurry of laser blasts and gunfire in the late game causes the framerate to be appaling at times, as the game nearly skips entire actions in an effort to keep up. Troop customization options return, and spending time to make over the squad into the freshest nineties hip-hop crew certainly helps in forging important bonds with the soldiers that pay off in real pain when they ultimately kick the bucket. Firaxis Games also experiments with random map generation, which stitches together predesigned bits and pieces into new combat maps. This may account for some of the lengthy load screens going into each mission, which can take upwards of thirty seconds to get through. Sound design and music don’t particularly stand out as either negative or positive, with the caveat that the actual combat maps are often accompanied only by the sounds of battle and squad members commenting on their actions and reacting to what’s going on around them. On the Avenger and between missions, players should prepare themselves to hear the same sound cues repeatedly.
XCOM 2 doesn’t reinvent the wheel, which is a good thing. It takes the lion’s share of the gameplay from the last game and embeds it into the new game’s foundation, shifting around some pieces to support the new gameplay fixtures without really altering the heart of the experience. With new soldier classes, enemy types, mission objectives, an all-new base, and a story built on losing the invasion the last time around, the new game provides the same intense combat experience and resource management series veterans expect. It ups the ante in terms of difficulty, and the result is a nail-biting game of close calls and narrow victories. While this may turn off some, it provides an amazing feeling of victory when one finds the sweet spot between keeping troops alive and advancing the long-term narrative-driving projects. The task is a monumental one this time around, but success is possible. It’s time to suit up once again, Commander.
Intense combat and resource management
Visuals haven't made enough of a leap forward
Console port suffers from technical limitations