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Review: XCOM 2

Hello, Commander…

If you’ve played the previous XCOM game(s) you know what voice to read the above in. XCOM 2 follows on from the ‘canon’ events of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM: Enemy Within, and ‘canonically’ we get wrecked. Firaxis Games, the developers of both XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within are obviously aware of their games’ reputation as rage-inducing frustration simulators as when it came to developing a sequel they decided, yeah. You lost. All that work you put in to defend the earth and beat back the aliens? We know how many attempts that took. We know you soft reset every other turn to keep your squads alive… Face it, you lost. Welcome to XCOM.

There is a lovely rumour going around that 90% of players failed their first playthrough of Enemy Unknown, and that’s why we ‘canonically’ lost the War for Earth. I can’t find any evidence for this (other than the game being -really- hard) but it’s a nice thought. At least I’m not alone in defeat!

So back to XCOM 2. You might be wondering exactly how there’s been a sequel made at all if we got our asses handed to us in the first game. The aliens won, took over Earth and made everything a much nicer, happier place. I for one welcome our new overlords. Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for the rest of humanity, not everyone agrees with the sentiment. Led by ‘Central’ the a command centre operator you’ll recognise if you played ‘Unknown, a ragtag band of human resistance fighters is now poised to strike back at the oppressors and take back Earth for the humans! Gruella warfare is the name of the game and let me tell you, the game does a great job of letting you experience the absolute hopelessness of your cause as you play through. Plucky rebels you might be, but numerous you are not. Like the previous games, XCOM 2 has permanent death. Once Sgt McCannonfodder III dies, he’s gone forever. And recruiting someone to fill his boots costs money. Which you don’t have. And the only way to get more is to go out on more missions. Where people die. See what I mean about hopelessness yet? Welcome to XCOM!

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Make no mistake, your soldiers -will- die. Sure, you can ‘savescum’ and soft reset (saving every time your squad moves in order to reset back a turn if someone dies), but 1) that’s cheating, and 2) the game actively tries to prevent you abusing this. Without getting too technical, the game calculates the outcomes of your possible moves/actions in advance, so when you move, find an alien and die, even after soft resetting that alien will still be exactly where he was, will still hit you and will still kill your soldier. Obviously, if you take a different route you get a different outcome, but trial-and-error takes a long time and is by no means guaranteed to ensure everybody lives.

Now that that’s out of the way, I should talk gameplay. Like Unknown/Within, XCOM 2 operates on a turn based system, where you move, then the enemy moves and so on. Each soldier has two action points (AP) with which they can perform actions such as ‘move’ and ‘mis- err, shoot’ or utilise various special abilities. Generally, you’re going to be wanting to move and shoot a lot. Pro-tip: You can’t just turtle up like you could in Unknown, and wait for the aliens to come to you. This is where the biggest difference between XCOM 2 and its prequels becomes apparent. As you’re playing the plucky rebels, rather than the brave men and women valiantly defending the planet, there’s a real sense of urgency to missions now. Most of them are ‘time’ limited – meaning you only have a certain number of turns to complete your objective before you auto-fail, and even those that are not limited by the clock get vastly harder as time goes by. You see, while human gameplay remains mostly the same, the aliens have learned some new tricks. Like reinforcements. Think you’ve killed all the bad guys and can take your objective at your leisure? Think again soldier, I’m reading two enemy dropships closing on your position. In-game, this is represented by a red flare, followed the turn after by a delivery of fresh (full health ect) alien combatants delivered anywhere you have line-of-site to on the map. That means they can appear behind you, or land directly on that objective you thought it was safe to take now!

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Combat is still the same as ever, you select your target and it gives you a percentage-based chance to hit, based on your soldier’s skill, the enemies cover and various other modifiers. Once you hit ‘fire’ it’s in the hands of RNGsus. And yes, it is possible to hit a 0% chance, and to miss a 100% chance. Blame decimals, rounding and XCOM. Unlike the previous titles however, there is now an actual stealth element. Your squad starts most missions ‘concealed’, allowing you to sneak up on the defending alien forces and set up traps and ambushes before opening fire and allowing all hell to break loose. Of course the aliens don’t just sit idly by and let you do this. They take their job as defenders very seriously and will patrol the map looking for intruders. And shoot on site if they find you!

Speaking of ‘blame XCOM’, the difficulty settings and customisation options are back, allowing you to choose exactly how fast you want to die… In all seriousness though, I do enjoy a challenge and with the game giving me options to make it even harder than it already is? Well let me for one say ‘Challenge Accepted!’

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When it comes to enemy variety, it’s your standard XCOM fare with some small changes/additions thrown in for good measure. You still have your familiar alien faces like your Sectoids (although these have hit the gym since the previous game), your Mutons, Bezerkers ect, as well as some new enemy types included to represent the fact this is an occupation force, not an invasion. Thin Men (a humanoid infiltration unit) for example have gone, replaced by their ‘true form’, the Viper. It’s an alien snake that spits acid and generally causes bad times all around. And if that’s not bad enough they now have human help in the form of ADVENT. Your standard evil alien collaborators who have access to all the tech and equipment you have, PLUS most of what the aliens have PLUS the advantage of numbers. Good thing their relatively easy to kill…

Speaking of tech, the XCOM base returns, albeit in a new S.H.I.E.L.D. inspired form. That’s right, instead of an underground bunker, this time we get a helicarrier! Admittedly this is incredibly cool, but it functions exactly like the old base. Clear rooms, build facilities, upgrade your stuff. Simple. Oh, and this base can fly out to suspected alien activity sites and pick up supplies ect on the move. Awesome.

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Returning from Unknown are the science and engineering departments. Here you’ll be able to literally dissect your opponents in order to develop new tech to fight back with. Like those plasma cannons the Mutons are so fond of lugging around? Kill a couple of Mutons, pay your engineer a small fee and voila, now you can have them too! There’s obviously a tech tree, but it’s flexible enough that it pretty much feels like you can just get what you want, when you want it. Providing you have the resources and funding of course, as I said before things like money and alien materials are a lot harder to come by this time around. On the other hand, research is now a one-time-only thing. Once you research the plasma cannon, for example, for a set price then any one of your soldiers able to use one will have one available. That’s nice considering how expensive it got to replace lost equipment last time around.

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Now before I round up and give this thing a score, I have to talk about two final things, both of which come under the same label; Customization.

Firstly, there’s the returning Class system. Fairly self-explanatory, once a soldier is promoted past ‘grunt’ they get assigned a specialised battlefield role, or ‘class’. In Unknown/Within these were pretty generic ‘Sniper’, ‘Support’, ‘Heavy’ and ‘Assault’. Now in XCOM 2, the classes are more diverse, with each containing two different skill trees that you can mix and match from. ‘Sharpshooter’, your sniper equivalent can provide the traditional fire-support role, or choose to get up close and personal with the pistol-based Gunslinger skills. Likewise, ‘Specialist’, the spiritual successor to the ‘support’ class can be your medic, or specialise in hacking enemy machinery and turning their assets into your own with the new Combat Hacker skillset.

I wont go into all the details of all the options as I’d be here all week typing, but the added versatility and sheer amount of options present makes creating the ‘perfect’ team very difficult now. Which is a good thing, as there are no ‘right’ answers as to how to play, and you don’t get punished so hard if you fail a couple missions and get stuck with only one or two different classes available.

The final thing I’m going to mention is the cosmetic options. Back in Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience for me and many others was customising my soldiers to represent myself and people I knew, to make the battle more personal. Unfortunately, the options for customisation were pretty much limited to different helmets and armour colours. That is defiantly not the case this time. As per your expectations of the resistance fighters there’s no end of customisation options. You’re not soldiers in armour, you’re just people making do with what you can get. If that means literally going into battle with a neon green tshirt and shorts, well then off you go!

Character customisation now has its own dedicated mode on the menu, where you can create a ‘pool’ of soldiers who will appear in game as recruitable reinforcements, or as scientists, engineers or V.I.P.s that certain missions have you attempting to rescue. Or, if you’re feeling especially mean, you can make your custom soldiers into ‘Dark VIPs’ – alien collaborators who appear as the targets of sabotage and assassination missions. Yup, XCOM 2 doesn’t just try to murder everyone you care about, it also lets you do it too!

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Final thoughts and Scoring:
Gameplay and Controls: Standard Keyboard and mouse control scheme with much improved camera control compared to the previous title. Gameplay wise its much the same as the previous games, but that’s in no way a bad thing. Tried and true turn-based action combined with the added variety brought in with the new classes and customisation options, as well as semi-random level generation means that no matter how many times you play through no two runs will ever be the same. 95/100

Sound and Music: The voice acting is awesome, enough said. There isn’t much of it inside of missions but there’s plenty of background chatter in the base. During missions all you’re going to be hearing are the screams of civilians, alien grunts and radio chatter and the sound of weapons firing. All of which are layered over an intense set of background music tracks that really add to the atmosphere: 80/100
Graphics: Here’s where I have my major problem. The game is pretty, the character models look good and the textures on the map are an improvement over the previous games. When it comes to animations though, someone dropped the ball. The amount of times I’ve targeted an enemy in front of me, only to have the soldier firing spin 180 degrees and fire in the opposite direction, or shoot the floor or ceiling -and still hit the target- is baffling. As is the fact that you can clearly see your shots hitting enemies sometimes, and have the game tell you that you missed. It’s a bug that was present in Unknown and Within and for the life of me I can’t work out why it hasn’t been fixed. 50/100

Story/immersion and Replayability: This is where the game absolutely shines. The story is excellently presented and not too clichéd, even the opening cutscene making you want to jump straight into the action with a cry of ‘Round 2, you alien piles of…’ So what if we lost before, we damn well wont this time! I’d put the immersion factor almost entirely down to the soldier customisation. It’s a lot harder to make a decision to sacrifice one of your soldiers when that soldier is you. Or your best friend. Or your significant other. Or your boss…

As I said above, the replayability factor is huge for this game with endless customisation options and enough randomness in the level generation and mission variety that you’ll never play the same game twice. 99/100

Final score: If you want a frustrating, difficult turn-based strategy game that is the most satisfying thing in the world to finally beat, this game is for you. If you prefer your action more first-person real time, you’ll probably not enjoy it. One thing I will say is that at the time of writing this review, the game is quite buggy, and prone to crashing randomly, so save often! The developers have said they are aware of the problem and are working to fix it, so if you’re reading this review in a couple of months’ time that problem should be gone.

If you’ve skipped straight to the bottom to look at the score: The game is fun, you’ll lose a lot, the game makes losing fun and that’s really quite difficult. 95/100

XCOM 2 is available now for PC, and on XBOX One and Playstation 4 from September 2016.

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Andy Brown • 24th May 2016

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