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.
Bad tactics will destroy even the best strategy.
XCOM 2‘s tactical combat is mechanically similar to Enemy Unknown, but it has very different pacing. This time around, Firaxis has added a new “Concealment” mechanic, which is absolutely great. In the missions where you’re going in under the radar, your squad starts fully hidden from the enemy as long as you don’t get too close. You can then move your soldiers into the best possible positions before letting loose on an unsuspecting enemy squad. Talk about going in with a bang. Aside from that new mechanic, the feel of combat in this game comes with two more major changes.
The first one is that XCOM 2‘s combat system sets up “mobs” of two to four enemies, in the style of an MMORPG (save for the occasional fixed turret emplacement). For starters, this severely limits tactical choices. For example, splitting your squad in two and scouting out different parts of the map tends to be a bad idea, because you’ll just aggro an entire group in each spot. Adding insult to injury, the enemy mobs get a free movement action whenever they’re found.
Oh, you cleared the area of enemies? It’d be a shame if more just dropped in from the sky.
These mobs often make for frustrating situations. Say you’re moving your squad along the terrain, and you’re moving your last soldier. With that last step, you move into a tile with a mob, and suddenly, a whole enemy squad is ready to take you on. You’ve already burned all your moves, and that leaves you vulnerable to the still-mobile mob unless you already left half your squad on overwatch. Another example of how movement can be punitive in this game are the times when you tell one of your soldiers to hide behind that wall over there, only to reveal some new tiles—and a new enemy squad bearing down on him. Oops.
After the Street Fighting tournaments ended, Guile needed something to make ends meet
The second change is that the vast majority of the missions have turn limits, especially early on. The previous title occasionally had timed missions, but they were few and far enough between that they didn’t feel like a chore. In XCOM 2, you’re on the clock for almost everything. More often than not, the timers limit your ability to scout, and funnel the action into specific spots. Carefully inching forward is basically impossible when the clock is running.
Overall, whether the changes are for better or worse will be up to invidual tastes. Personally, I think that a good part of the original XCOM‘s “hunt and be hunted” feel is lost. XCOM 2‘s reliance on timers and enemy dropships often makes it feel like I just have a role in Michael Bay’s XCOM – The Movie. Having said all that, I’d bet that a good number of people will like the intense pacing, too. To each their own.
All I did was flank an enemy like a good girl, and I pulled another squad. Now I’m toast.
A bigger issue, I feel, is that XCOM 2 does a subpar job of bringing players up to speed. Although the game does offer a fairly comprehensive tutorial, it doesn’t provide enough detail about some of the finer points of gameplay. For example, even though I had researched the prerequisite techs for psionics, I actually had to use Google to figure out how to train my Psi-Operatives. Similarly, I was confused when I couldn’t figure out how to have Random Gal take a medikit because it’s a “utility” item. Meanwhile, grenades can go in both grenade slots and utility slots. Simple, right?
You’re fighting a war you’ve already lost.
Anyone who’s played a bit of XCOM over the years has had his or her run-ins with the probability-based hits and misses in the game’s missions. That’s led to the rise of the colloquial term “that’s X-COM, baby!” around the internet. I’m not going to rant about missing shots with 51% probability, though.
My beef, instead, is with the ridiculously slanted difficulty of the tutorial missions and the game’s first few hours. I have easily thousands of hours of XCOM games under my belt, both official and inspired-by. When it was time to choose XCOM 2‘s difficulty, I went with Commander (level three out of four), because hey, I’ve been around the block a few times, right? If you’re chuckling by now, go on ahead, make it a big laugh.
The tutorial missions at this difficulty are absolutely brutal. You start the game with a four-soldier squad of incompetent rookies who run away screaming at the first sign of trouble. They have no armor, very few health points (less than mot enemies), and their guns aren’t much better than BB shooters. Yet the tutorial’s first actual mission has you racing against a short timer and going up against multiple enemy squads that are several times the size of yours in total.
If that wasn’t enough, you’ll immediately run into Sectoids, which aren’t the tiny, cuddly things from the first game. In XCOM 2, they can mind-control your soldiers, induce panic, and raise dead bodies to fight for their side. You can’t explore the map because you’ll aggro more enemies. You can’t inch forward carefully, because the clock is ticking. And when you do manage to reach the objective, yet more aliens will come charging in from a dropship. If you’re tempted to run because you completed the objective, you can’t, because you’ve been ordered to eliminate all remaining forces. Just bloody great.
This bastard can teleport, clone itself, and create enegy spheres that unload guns and then explode. OP much?
If you’re thinking “just play smarter,” that’s not enough in the game’s first hours. You really need a decent amount of luck. Since rookies panic so easily, a perfectly-tuned ambush can (and will) go like this: you trigger it, but eventually an alien will fire back and kill soldier #1. Soldier #2 will panic and become useless. A Sectoid will then mind control soldier #3, who will eventually shoot the already-outnumbered soldier #4.
Here’s a note to developers worldwide: difficult and cheap are not the same thing. Difficult games should make you play better, while cheap ones just make you lose on purpose. My issue with the game’s Random Number Generator isn’t the fact that exists or that it’s somehow doing the wrong math. It’s that during the game’s initial stages, you’re dependent on it to an unhealthy degree for your successes and failures.
Yoohoo, Mr. Alieeeen!
The game does get a lot better (like, a million times) after the brutal start. Once you’ve managed to run a few missions, promote your soldiers, increase the squad size, and manufacture some decent equipment, you actually have a fighting chance against the greys. At that point, the game comes into its own, and it starts to feel like “true” XCOM again.
And boy, is it loads of fun. The new soldier utilities and special powers offer great counters to the aliens’ surprises, and there are few things more satisfying than wiping out an enemy squad by combining complementary special abilities. Well, that, and saying “how do you like them apples?” as you hack into an enemy robot and make it turn its xenomorph buddy into a sieve.
You’re prettier than most humans. I can’t let that pass.
At this point, you can actually strategize instead of putting out the fire of the hour. Once you make contact with at least a couple world regions and start expanding your base’s facilities, you can give some thought to the next course of action. The whole “Avatar clock ticking” becomes another constraint to manage instead of an annoyance. Do you run a few resource-collecting missions over the next few weeks and let the aliens advance Avatar, or do you strike at that base and stop their progress for a while? Will you bet on researching stronger weapons or better armor, considering the types of enemies you’re seeing? A range of possibilities open up. Thanks to those challenges, there’s great replay value in the game, since players can choose a different path altogether during each playthrough.
Is this gonna be a standup fight, sir, or another bug hunt?
When we talk about XCOM 2’s bugs, I’m not talking about the aliens, I’m afraid. XCOM 2 shipped in a sorry state, and there are no two ways about it. The issues started with the game’s graphics performance. My PC (with an overclocked Intel Core i5-2500K and a GeForce GTX 970) handled The Witcher 3 just fine at high settings and a resolution of 2560×1440, but XCOM 2 is slow as molasses climbing up a hill using similar graphics settings. That issue is especially evident when managing your base. I found that strange, because there’s little in the way of demading graphics in the headquarters view. Some searching around the web indicates this problem is widespread but not universal. Even so, that’s little comfort for those affected.
Graphics settings can be tweaked to make the game good enough to play, but the same can’t be said about the multiple gameplay bugs, some of which can break entire missions, or even saved games if you’re playing in Ironman mode. I’ve seen enemy units disappear and reappear, pending explosions vanishing (leading me to think I was safe, then: boom!). Don’t even get me started on the countless in-game camera bugs. The developers went for a “cinematic action camera”, but they clearly bought the wrong model.
Double-whammy: I can’t pick up the item on the ground, and the action icon is broken.
The issues don’t stop there, though. There are often long pauses for no reason after movement or action animations (there’s even a mod for that). Sometimes you build equipment that doesn’t ever become available for soldiers’ loadouts. The most fun of the bugs I encountered was a black-screen crash at the start of the game’s final mission. Yay. Oh, and missions take forever to load, even with the game installed on an SSD. I mean, you get a nice view of the squad in a ship heading to the objective, but there’s hardly any need to make that journey in real time.
Judging by what happened with Civilization V, which is a now-excellent game that initially shipped in a rough state, Firaxis does tend to support their titles with plenty of post-launch patches. I have hope that the devs will fix the outstanding bugs soon. The game’s lead designer, Jake Solomon, already laid out plans for XCOM 2 bugfixes and improvements in an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, and those fixes should help alleviate my biggest complaints.
It’s not all bad, though. The game’s user experience is quite solid (something that can’t be said for many AAA titles). It starts up at the native resolution with adequate graphical defaults, there aren’t endless “Powered By” videos to sift through, everything that’s important is configurable, and the mouse and keyboard controls all make sense.
Few games have left me as conflicted as XCOM 2 when it’s come time to issue a verdict, so I’ll drop two instead.
On the one hand, XCOM 2 is a fun, addictive, fast-paced game that remains mostly within the bounds of the previous installments in the series. The game’s graphics and sound design are excellent, too, which helps the overall ambience. The idea of leading a floating rebel base that travels from spot to spot in guerrila missions is an interesting twist for the series, too. Individual tastes aside, XCOM 2 does advance the series, and players who like their games fast and furious will feel right at home.
On the other hand, I think the game can be punishingly difficult, even in its easiest modes. In my experience with the Commander difficulty level, the first third or so of XCOM 2 consisted of little more than frustration and begging for mercy from the game’s random number generator. Even after switching to the Rookie mode so that I could finish this review, it remained clear that XCOM 2 wasn’t always going to be a cakewalk.
Other gameplay elements can get old really quick, too, like the proliferation of timed missions and “surprise! you’re suddenly in trouble!” events. As a more personal opinion, much like my feelings about Civilization V and its sequel Beyond Earth, I also think that XCOM 2 could easily have been an expansion pack for XCOM: Enemy Unknown instead. Asking full price for this game’s content ($60 on Steam right now) leaves me with this face.
Anybody tempted to jump on XCOM 2 should wait until a couple patches are out, too. Trust me, as it is right now, the game poses a significant risk of high-velocity contact between mouse and display device. It’s possible that Firaxis could adjust the difficulty curve and other gameplay pain points I had through patches, too. A little polish tends to go long way, and with some tweaking, XCOM 2 could get what it needs to really shine.