XCOM 2 Review
A sequel that remains compelling, despite the moments when fun is abducted by technical issues
XCOM: Enemy Unknown successfully revived an old, mishandled series by taking the core of what made the classics so great and boiling it down into a much more accessible formula. This reboot did a good job of gently introducing its ideas and mechanics while retaining the challenge that is part of the series’ identity. If XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its expansion were a well-oiled but slightly drab machine, XCOM 2 is a relative fire-spewing monster truck that could do with a good deal of repairs. Tons of changes that seem relatively small by themselves add up to make XCOM 2 a significantly different and more daunting game, and while many of these changes hit their mark, others go a bit wide, and the entire experience is hampered by persistent technical issues.
Some missions force you to extract all soldiers individually if you want them to escape
The broad strokes of XCOM 2’s campaign mirror those of previous entries. You fiddle around with managing a base, where you must worry about research, building new structures, recruiting soldiers and managing resources. When it comes time to fight, you will go into a turn-based mission where you order a squad of 4-6 soldiers to move around and shoot at things in service of completing a variety of objectives. Both aspects of the game have seen significant changes.
The main structural change in the campaign is tied to the narrative. XCOM 2 takes place well after the events of Enemy Unknown, with the aliens having seized control of the earth and its populace. You are in command of a huge mobile airship that serves as the main operating base for the human resistance. The story is told through some occasionally over-long cutscenes that serve to vaguely contextualize your missions. Some attempt at characterization is made on a couple of the staff members in your base, but the hammy voice acting and writing mean these elements are serviceable at best, and the story remains of secondary importance here. You now must move around a map of the earth to complete various objectives and make contact with other resistance cells. This is layered on top of all of the familiar XCOM meta-game mechanics and serves to make this side of the game significantly more interesting.
The world-map is divided into regions. You start out with your HQ in a random region, and from there, you must make contact with other regions. How many regions you are in contact with determines your monthly income. Making contact requires a new form of currency, Intel. The further you stray from your HQ, the higher the Intel cost for making contact, unless you build radio beacons in regions you have already contacted. The aliens will also attempt retaliation missions that if ignored or failed will result in losing contacts. Maintaining this network adds an engaging layer to the XCOM 2 metagame and is ultimately one of the smarter changes.
Fallen soldiers will be forever remembered in the memorial
One of the main drivers for contacting new regions aside from financial gain is the constant advances of the Avatar project. Whenever on the world map, an ominous red bar at the top of the screen marks the progress of the Aliens’ secretive work on a devastating weapon that will end your campaign early if you aren’t careful. The bar will slowly fill as the Aliens make progress, though you can attack Blacksite facilities to slow them down. If the bar fills up, you have twenty-two days to make your way to and sabotage a Blacksite, otherwise its game over.
As a result of this, on top of your attempts to complete story objectives, complete council missions and deal with Alien retaliations against regions you have contacted, you will always need to be working towards taking down another Blacksite facility. If this isn’t stressful enough, the Aliens will conduct what are known as ‘dark events’ every month. These range from increased Avatar project progress, to having your monthly income reduced, or aliens getting significant buffs during combat. You can only ever counter one out of the three, so choosing which dark event will be most harmful to your current circumstances becomes another stressful choice you will make.
Overall, the metagame side of XCOM 2 is more engaging than before. It gives you enough ticking clocks to worry about that performing seemingly dull tasks like waiting for your men to heal back at HQ become tense moments of hoping no urgent missions arise while your best guys are healing up. Managing engineers, scientists and choosing various projects and upgrades to research mean you have enough meaningful things to worry about that you don’t get bored.
Ambushes are a great way to start tough missions with an advantage
When it comes time to hit the ground and start shooting at aliens, a few changes have been made but the core gameplay loop is highly reminiscent of Enemy Unknown. The biggest change is that most missions have your squad starting out in concealment, giving you a chance to scout out enemy locations and start the engagement on your terms. It is easy to tell when you will get spotted as tiles on the ground that the enemies can see are highlighted red. This is an advantage you will need, especially early on, due to the challenging missions that often come with time limits for completion.
The time limits come in the form of a specific number of turns you will need to complete the mission in. These limits vary from six to twelve turns depending on the mission, and early on they can seem overly punishing if you are used to slowly creeping forward with your squad using overwatch to cover your advance. Such cautious play isn’t always a viable option given the distances you need to cover in a set amount of turns, and learning how to play more aggressively is a painful but rewarding process. Getting to an objective and completing it on your last turn is thrilling, and I only once failed a mission due to running out of turns. However if you favor a more cautious approach, you might find this design choice problematic.
The amount of gear and customization available to your soldiers has also been increased dramatically. Even early on you can equip fun upgrades like poison bullets and mind-shields that prevent your mentally weak recruits from panicking or getting mind controlled. There are loads of different armour suits and special grenade types that all have slightly different advantages. You can get through an entire campaign without even touching some branches of technology. You can once again name your soldiers, and customization options have been increased significantly, letting you get even more attached to your men before they are torn apart by the enemy.
Good luck can help you survive a tough mission
The classes have been rejiggered as well; the new Specialist class being my personal favorite. You can turn a specialist into a medic whose drone flies around healing or reviving soldiers, or a technology expert who can attempt to hack and take control of robotic enemies or turrets. The Ranger has a shotgun and a sword, both of which make them great for close-combat engagements. Enemy variety has also seen a boost, with lots of different enemy types keeping things fresh through the campaign. The Andromadon is particularly interesting; this brute is an Alien in a huge powered suit; once you kill the alien, the suit comes back to life as a deadly, acid spewing but hackable robot. Even old standby aliens like Sectoids have been revamped into more dangerous versions of their former selves.
When you take into account these new, deadly aliens and the increased amount of options you have for dealing with them, the result is a feeling of increased stakes in many scenarios. You have more tools for dealing with the increased threat, but if you fail to use them effectively, the outcome can be devastating. The result is a rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows; you might pull off a seemingly harebrained strategy to eliminate a group of enemies before they have a chance to react, leading to an incredible feeling of accomplishment.
On the flip side, things can turn against you in spectacular ways as you miss strings of high-percentage shots and take endless critical hits from your opponents. I wouldn’t say that XCOM 2 is necessarily harder than its predecessor, it just facilitates a higher ceiling for success and drops the bottom out on how badly things can go wrong. I did find that later in the campaign on the normal difficulty once I had six-man squads with high-end weapons, some of the challenge faded and a bit of tedium crept in, but for most of the campaign things remained tense and I always felt like I was on my toes.
Bad luck can sink you very quickly
While it is hard to criticize the game for its RNG system that can swing in either direction, the same technical issues that plagued Enemy Unknown return, and are magnified by the increased importance granted to each player turn. Long pauses between your turn and the alien’s actions, crazy camera glitches and unresponsive menus are irritating but don’t directly impact gameplay. On the other hand, being shot through a wall by an enemy who shouldn’t be able to see you, or not being able to target an enemy you are standing right next to, are serious issues that can turn already challenging missions into deeply frustrating experiences.
When luck goes against you and some of these bugs crop up, you might have no choice but to save-scum your way through a mission, something the game almost seems to encourage with auto-saves at the start of each turn going several turns back. Unless of course you are crazy enough to play on iron-man mode which prevents you from going back to previous saves.
These technical issues carry over to the multiplayer as well. This mode is essentially unchanged from the 1v1 standoffs that served as Enemy Unknown's multiplayer component, and it is also in need of some work on the back-end. There is a tremendous delay between when you see an action unfold and when your opponent sees it. The turn-timer has also been tuned so that it pauses when taking an action. There are significant chunks of time when neither player is doing anything while the game is seemingly trying to figure out what to do. The result is that waiting for your opponent to take their 90-second turn can last five minutes. While it is fun to add powerful Alien units to your roster and come up with some crazy strategies that combine the abilities of both sides, these technical issues mean this mode is essentially unplayable for the time being.
Shot percentages can be inconsistent with enemies out of cover
XCOM 2 has seen a significant boost in visual fidelity compared to the drab and unexciting Enemy Unknown. There is good environmental variety, ranging from slick futuristic cities to forests and desert compounds. Particle effects and destruction in particular are rather impressive. Unfortunately the game suffers from significant performance issues. Even with the settings dialed well back from the max, I experienced inconsistent frame rates that made some tasks like aiming grenades unreasonably difficult. Loading times in and out of missions are also a bit on the long end. The musical score is similar in style and quality to that of Enemy Unknown and it works well enough with the campy sci-fi theme. Sound design during combat is more impressive as enemies make distinctive noises and explosions are suitably meaty.
If you enjoyed XCOM: Enemy Unknown and are looking for a bigger, deeper experience with a significantly improved meta-game, XCOM 2 is easy to recommend. However due to the increased complexity and relatively steep learning curve, I would advise newcomers interested in the series to start with the 2012 reboot, as this sequel might be overwhelming to those lacking familiarity with the series’ mechanics. It is a shame that the technical issues are as disruptive as they are since the increased amount of randomly generated variables results in a game with enough depth and replay value to absorb fans for a significant stretch of time.