XCOM 2 | Principal Platforms: PC | Developer: Firaxis Games | Publisher: 2K Games | Genre: Strategy | Year: 2016
XCOM 2 continues on from the events of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and things play out in much the same way as they did before. Players once gain assume the mantle of commander and must oversee an entire war against the alien menace, organising strike teams, and researching better weapons and upgrades that will (hopefully) result in victory.
The aliens rule Earth now though and they’ve installed their own Orwellian world government that regulates every aspect of life on the planet. XCOM is no longer the sanctioned anti-alien outfit it used to be either; now it’s a downtrodden rebel alliance intent on ousting the ADVENT council through covert tactics and guerilla warfare.
It’s a fresh setup that brings new pressures to the planning phase. Your role as commander is as all-encompassing as it was before and your duties have expanded to include some interesting new responsibilities. You’ll need to make contact with rebel settlements across the globe and construct communication relays in order to improve your network of resources. The aliens are more proactive too so you’ll need to work fast in order to counter their battle plans whilst reserving time to investigate the numerous points of interest that appear on the world map.
This simulation side to XCOM 2’s wider gameplay makes a good first impression and it provides some of the most thoughtful, if a little vague, decision-making moments that the game has to offer. The aliens’ ominous Avatar Project acts as a game-ending timer for your actions at large. Answering distress calls and investigating supply sites costs valuable time and with each passing in-game month the project’s completion bar ticks forward another space. Not wasting time is critical to your ongoing success and it means knowing when to make sacrifices in order to focus on the big picture.
The character classes of previous games also return with new additions such as the melee-orientated Ranger and bonus SPARK robot adding extra nuance to what was already a robust system of cover-based warfare. There are still plenty of combat abilities too and they tie in nicely with the new character customization options and the expanded armoury of hi-tech gadgets.
The turn-based battles themselves have undergone dramatic changes with all of the showy muzzle flashes and tactical manoeuvrings being right where Firaxis left them. And yet, combat is also the first noticeable area where XCOM 2 as an experience begins to completely break down.
Before I get into all of that though, I want to highlight a concept from XCOM: Enemy Within called Meld. In that game Meld was a collectible that granted your troops superhuman abilities and access to cybernetic enhancements. However, Meld could only be recovered from time-sensitive containers that randomly appeared during battlefield encounters. If you didn’t secure a Meld deposit in time then it would self-destruct, removing it from the map permanently. Collecting Meld therefore represented a key strategic concern: would you break formation and hustle directly towards it before time ran out? Or would you forgo the potentially amazing benefits in order to focus on the primary objective?
Meld was a fine way of upping the game’s pace by encouraging players to be a bit more proactive in their advance. However, whereas XCOM: Enemy Within presented this timed facet as an optional concern, XCOM 2 enacts similar concepts in a more aggressive and ultimately frustrating way. Put simply: nearly every mission in XCOM 2 is timed and success will often be measured by how quickly you can complete objectives before the timer expires.
Whilst the objectives themselves are varied enough (kidnap a VIP, disarm an explosive etc.) the whole approach of limiting turns is completely at odds with the game’s otherwise methodical turn-based gameplay. Carefully positioning your snipers and moving your forces between cover spaces is no longer a vital tactic as much as it is a luxury. Missions too often devolve into a mad dash towards another arbitrary point of interest and in a game that features character permadeath as a core gameplay mechanic, players will be re-loading their saves constantly.
This change in direction also highlights the new concealment system which masks your squad’s position until the first bullet is fired. As a pseudo form of stealth, concealment allows your soldiers to get close to an enemy’s position without immediately prompting return fire.
Once concealment is broken though, it’s pretty much lost for the remainder of the battle and any new enemies that enter line-of-sight at this time will be immediately alerted to your presence. This is incredibly annoying when your squad has already exhausted their actions for that turn as it leaves them completely wide open to attack and with XCOM being XCOM, you can always bet on losing at least one soldier in the crossfire.
Adding to this difficulty are several early game enemies that will happily wreak havoc upon your squad. The vicious snake people and Sectoid powerhouses have upwards of eight health points a piece and they have no qualms about binding, disorientating, or even mind-controlling your troops into submission. The ADVENT Stun Lancers are even more obnoxious in this regard as their huge movement pool allows them to cross the length of the battlefield (often ignoring retaliation fire) to strike your troops down, often in a single blow.
Enemies of this ilk are indeed a fine challenge when you consider how blissfully overpowered humans can get after a few levels, but when you’re meeting these game-changing foes as early as mission 2 – a point where your squad can barely muster together a basic medkit – then it makes for a very unpleasant difficulty curve. Hearing that this is a very hard game probably won’t come as much surprise considering the series’ reputation for brutal difficulty, but XCOM 2 always feels cheap before it does challenging.
It’s also worth mentioning that whilst the variety of enemies is strong (maybe even too strong), their anthropomorphised designs seem a tad stale. The new foot soldiers fit snugly into that ‘dudes in armour’ category, the existing Sectoid enemies have completely lost their quirkiness, and the snake warriors actually appear to have breasts for some reason. Similarly, the design of the infuriating new Codex enemy is so nonsensical in this regard that Firaxis Games should really be charged with first-degree Deviant Art baiting.
The “scarier” alien designs in XCOM 2 are also indicative of how seriously everything is treated this time around. Your communications manager called Central is a walking microcosm of this shift; his newly grizzled face and loss of charisma gelling awkwardly with an inability to keep his mouth shut. Like the world’s most annoying project coordinator, he is always on your case. Everything is “ASAP” with this guy and he rarely stops explaining to you how “time is running out”, or how “civilians are dying”, or how you’re presently doing a shitty job at spinning all of these plates he’s put in front of you.
Sadly, the writing doesn’t fare much better. An XCOM airship called The Avenger seems a bit on the nose for one, but really the long road to liberating humanity just seems rather humdrum. And that’s without mentioning how much the writing resorts to awkward pauses in order to sound provocative. Seriously now, is this some kind of weird XCOM tradition that I’m not aware of? It’s so tiring listening to NPCs who all talk the same. Whether it’s sound bites like: “Your…recent…activities”, or “It is time to take a more…direct…approach”, or “some of our more…theoretical…experiments.”; it just sounds silly.
Now in some ways XCOM 2 does improve on the formula established by its prequel. The base-building system is leaner for one, it’s much easier to heal troops in the heat of battle, and the achievements are more interesting this time around.
It’s a visually impressive game too especially during those cutaways that show the soldiers (or aliens) gunning down their quarry in a blaze of plasma fire. And yet the game can be dreadfully slow when in motion. There’s a noticeable delay upon issuing orders to your troops and transitioning between menus at XCOM HQ is tedious, especially when you consider how frequently the different departments request your attention.
Amid the odd performance concern (I experienced a few stutters and one CTD) there are a few mechanics that just seem weird. Damage indicators sometimes fail to display, troops can’t seem to climb into trucks that have had their housing destroyed, and I’m still not sure how how a Viper at street level is able to grapple a sniper crouching atop a three-storey building.
The XCOM 2 Digital Deluxe Edition is a mixed bag too. Included in this version are several bonus DLC packs that add more missions to play and equipment to use. Extra weapons and costume parts are always welcome, but the idea of adding more missions is hilarious considering how much BS you have to deal with already. Your attention is always being diverted by another alert from XCOM HQ or by another distress signal or by another painfully slow update to the Avatar Project track.
The inspiration taken from boardgames is quite evident here. The Avenger moves about the map like a playing piece, players spend time as they would action points, and the so-called Dark Events are rendered as cards with their own flavour text. And yet all it really boils down to is tiresome bookkeeping. There are too many individual tasks and alerts to keep track of and some, like the civilian rescue missions, just needlessly soak up time that you’d rather spend actually forwarding the plot.
It feels as if Firaxis Games went too far in satisfying the upper 1% of their playerbase. This is an unforgiving game at the best of times and it relies far too heavily on its brutal difficulty to provide a wider sense of character and appeal.
XCOM 2 had the potential to be a bigger and more accessible game than its predecessor, but this sad fact only makes its resulting mediocrity all the more disappointing.