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XCOM 2 reviewed: hit the ground running and never stop

Turning the pace up to eleven and then some

XCOM. I'd wager that sequence of letters rings quite a few bells for a good portion of our audience. For fans of the series, it's about hundreds of hours sitting on the edge of their seats, measuring movement options on tiles, then having their soldiers turn that corner only to run into a Chrysalid. Or maybe it's about taking alien corpses and weighing which autopsy project to undertake. Or perhaps they might even be considering the finer points of fast squad members versus big hitters.

The XCOM series hails from a pedigree that started back in 1994, when MicroProse meant "awesome game" in every language known to man. X-COM: UFO Defense pretty much defined its genre: a near-perfect blend of a management simulation and turn-based tactical combat missions. The game had little in the way of actual story beyond "aliens are invading—defend the Earth." You, the faceless Commander, had to manage an anti-xenomorph organization's resources, research, and engineering to deal with the aliens in tense, one-wrong-move-and-you're-dead combat missions.

The series died off in the late 1990s, but kept a cult following (of which I'm a member). That fan base yearned for a modern remake or reimagining of the series. A few third-party  developers tried to bring the concept back, though in my opinion only UFO: Afterlight and 2014's Xenonauts succeeded. (Xenonauts in particular is an excellent recreation of the original game.) Firaxis eventually bought the rights to the franchise and rebooted the series. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was well-received, and I think it's one of the few remakes actually worthy of that name (I'm looking at you, Syndicate).

Now XCOM 2 is here, and it faces the specter of second album syndrome. The 2012 remake had the previous games to draw ideas from, but how can Firaxis improve and evolve the series without losing sight of what made it great in the first place? Its answer: turn up the radio, slam the throttle, and set nitro output to 11.

Lights out. Guerrila radio. Turn that **** up!
In XCOM 2, the usual "aliens are slowly but surely invading Earth" theme gets turned on its ear. In this game, the curtain opens 20 years past a successful extraterrestrial invasion. The aliens have taken over, and people live in a dystopic, alien-controlled Orwellian society. You're a part of a ragtag team of rebels that's pretty sure the aliens aren't benevolent overlords.

You, the Commander, are rescued from the aliens' facilities, and must lead the resistance and overthrow the xenomorph leaders. No pressure there or anything. Just the future of mankind at stake.

XCOM 2's biggest departure from the original "feel" of the series is one of pacing. The previous games in the series are all slow burners. Get your bearings, do a mission on a small crashed alien ship, start gathering resources and working out your strategic plan, that sort of thing. In XCOM 2, though, you hit the ground running, and you have to sprint from the get-go.

You'll soon learn to hate this guy. He's constantly in your ear saying "GO FASTER!"

The base management has been simplified (again) from the earlier game. You're now in charge of a flying ship and a group of wanted criminals, so the strategy portion of the game now involves travelling from mission to mission, drumming up support for la Résistance, and collecting resources.

In previous XCOM titles, the monthly resource pack that supporting nations sent you was your main source of income. Now, that income needs to be supplemented by successful resource scans (accomplished by keeping the mothership in a certain spot while gathering resources). You'll also need to run missions to gather supplies or perhaps recruit a new staff member.

XCOM 2 doesn't give players a whole lot to do in the way of actual strategic management, though. Base layout has been simplified to the point that players can just build newly researched rooms without much thought to their placement. Staff management doesn't involve ordering a dozen more engineers or researchers and considering their wages in your monthly balance sheet. In practice, all you have to do is buy or rescue as many engineers and scientists as you can, especially because they will be few and far between.

The most management you'll be doing involves your squad of chickens elite soldiers. Since missions happen frequently in XCOM 2 and your soldiers often take a long time to heal from injuries, you'll need to maintain two to three squads' worth of capable soldiers at any time. New recruits arrive without any specialization, and after their first missions or specialist training, they become one of four classes—Ranger, Grenadier, Specialist, and Sharpshooter. A Psi Operative class is available later in the game, too.

The Commander gets a large selection of weapons and add-ons to outfit these soldiers with, though players are no longer required to manage manufacturing of individual weapons or armor sets (apart from exotic models). Once a gun or armor is unlocked, it's available for every soldier, a move that feels more like oversimplifying than streamlining to me.

That yellow spot is where I'd put my Psi Lab... if I had one!

You do have to make some hard choices about missions, though, especially in the early stages. It'll be impossible to catch 'em all at first, and your resources will be spread thin as Mylar. Ship travelling time, area scanning duration, and the proposed mission's difficulty must all be measured against your organization's capabilities. Being a band of ragtags on the run in a flying fortress is glamorous, but it presents real challenges when your group has to put out several fires at once. Supply constraints and time considerations require the player to be a lot more proactive than in previous games.

For about the first half of the game, you'll be racing hard against the clock. The aliens have a sort of doomsday-device thing called the Avatar Project going, and every new tech base that they build adds a mark to a counter that tracks the aliens' progress. Should all of squares be marked, it's game over, man.

Dealing with this pressure is a big problem early on in the game. You only get a handful of soldiers, barely any engineers or scientists, and little in the way of supplies and intel (the game's two currencies). Despite those slim pickings, you need to run missions to gather supplies, intel and staff, deal with alien reprisal attacks, and do your darned best to wipe out new Avatar bases being built.

Those constraints mean that for about the first third of the game, you won't have a lot of freedom to pursue missions. Instead, your squad will be doing only what it can, as you'll constantly be cash- and staff-strapped. Only when you start to collect a variety of alien corpses and technology for research can you start actually thinking of a direction to take with your game style. As a result, the early game feels very much play-by-numbers.