Often times, games revived from the early decades of gaming simply aren’t compatible with our modern tastes and technology. Firaxis threw this stigma out the window, however, when they reimaged the 90’s classic XCOM: UFO Defense into a modern strategy experience in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. A successful DLC launch and mod support later made it clear one new XCOM wasn’t going to be enough, so now, we have XCOM 2.
We find out at the start of XCOM 2 that all our efforts throughout the course of Enemy Unknown were for naught. The aliens succeed in conquering Earth anyway, and things now look pretty grim 20 years later. Players again assume the persona of the Commander, a faceless overseer with way too much responsibility for one person (practically speaking). One major difference from Enemy Unknown is that the XCOM project has fallen to shambles, and you are now in charge of a scattered resistance movement. What’s left of XCOM is also no longer located in a secret underground bunker, but instead on a commandeered alien spacecraft called the Avenger. As Commander, you are charged with organizing what’s left of the resistance through base management, while simultaneously issuing orders to soldiers on the ground, trying to make sure the success of each compliments the other. Similar to the last XCOM, you’ll slowly learn increasingly shocking truths about our new alien overlords, and each discovery informs the next primary mission.
The Avenger operates almost identically to your old bunker in terms of the base building mechanics. From a cross-section view of the ship, players will excavate rooms, assign construction or research projects, and otherwise manage every aspect of the project’s progression. The administration of the Avenger slowly becomes one of the game’s greatest highlights, as its gradual evolution gives way to a plethora of satisfying rewards.
Unlike Enemy Unknown, which had you assisting regions of the world from a fixed spot, players must fly the Avenger to the locations they wish to interact with using the command center’s world map. This map is the avenue through which all the game’s missions and resource gathering takes place. A random location on the globe is selected as resistance HQ at the start of the game, and from there, players must spread their influence to different sections across the world. This is done by selecting the region and scanning it in order to make contact. Supply drops and resistance areas need to be scanned for varying amounts of days in order to reap their benefits, but doing so eats up the player’s precious time. As that time passes, the aliens get closer and closer to the culmination of their Avatar project, an ominous agenda whose completion needs to be stalled by XCOM. Failing to keep the project at bay can result in a premature game over, making the tension omnipresent.
Time is not the only commodity working against you. “Supplies” function as the primary currency for base expansion, as well as the purchasing of support. This can be earned by completing missions, scanning supply drops, or selling materials, not to mention awarded through your monthly revenue that is calculated by how well you performed those past thirty days. Scientists, engineers, and extra soldiers can also be obtained through similar means to increase productivity or bolster the ranks, but arguably the most valuable resource is Intel. An actual, expendable substance, Intel can be collected similarly to the other resources, but its purpose is to expand your reach. Contacting new regions costs Intel, but failing to expand your operation will have quick and ruinous consequences.
If the economy, Avatar project, globe trotting, and everything else described above sounds pretty overwhelming, you wouldn’t be wrong. While overcomplexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, XCOM 2 does a poor job explaining these systems outside the context of the narrative. Finding the perfect balance in your management is essential, and even the slightest inconsistency or misunderstanding in your command can completely destroy this house of cards somewhere down the line.
As you play, missions will present themselves on the world map under several different aliases, but objectives can generally be classified into one of four categories: save a number of randomly-located civilians, destroy or hack an enemy or piece of equipment, rescue or capture a hostage or enemy VIP, or just eliminate all targets of the map.
Among the missions that will pop up are requests to destroy Black Sites. Completing these will directly slow down the progression of the Avatar project, as well as counter enemy Dark Events—randomly-activated modifiers that give the game an extra level of challenge. The Dark Events can manifest as reduced resources for a period of time, extra enemies showing up during missions, or a number of other augments to stunt the player’s progress. Specific Resistance missions can be selected to prevent upcoming Dark Events, and Intel can be spent to learn of ones on the horizon. This creates an interesting sub-strategy of calculating the lesser of two evils, while also managing day-to-day problems.
Despite the objective variety and the Dark Events that can modify them, the only main difference that will truly affect playstyle is whether or not you’re on the clock. Approximately half of all missions have a turn counter requiring the player to get to the target in a number of turns. As movement is limited per turn, traveling great distances is an arduous process—and that’s when you don’t also have enemies nipping at your heels. A core problem arises, though, because the time restriction feels counter-intuitive to the game’s intention. The strategy of the experience necessitates careful pace and positioning. When a clock is forcing you to blunder forward, one can’t help but feel like things are a little out of their control. Certainly, the occasional race against the clock is fine—as was exhibited by Enemy Unknown—but its excessive frequency in the latest installment wears down the novelty quick.
Once you’ve committed to a mission, setting up your squad of soldiers is the next step. There are four main classes—Grenadier, Specialist, Ranger, and Sharpshooter—and each are essentially upgrades to classes from the previous XCOM. All classes come with one initial ability, and from there, each has a skill tree with various perks to be unlocked as that particular character ranks up. Soldiers can be recruited with supplies or earned on missions, and can also be fully customized with a unique look, voice, gear, and even backstory. Their weapons can be kitted out with a number of attachments—either purchased or found in the field—and bigger augments such as exo-suits can be acquired by making progress on the project as a whole.
All of this customization comes together to make you genuinely care about a selection of characters that ultimately have no personality. Well, that, and the game’s perma-death system. Once a soldier dies in the field, they are gone for good; the connection you make with your squad may cause you to resort to save scumming if one dies from an unfair cheap shot. It should be said that game does an impressive job of giving you the tools to make a team you care for, so much so that you ironically hate the game when it takes them away from you.
When boots are finally on the ground, once again the similarities between XCOM and XCOM 2 are quite evident. XCOM 2 remains an isometric strategy game, where you and the enemy take turns maneuvering your forces and executing a number of attacks and abilities. Each soldier in the squad generally has two actions they can use to either move, attack, reload, etc. or any combination of such, and moving from cover-to-cover among the several different environments is ideal to set up the most optimal situation for combat. Every attack for either team has a percent chance to make contact calculated by a number of factors such as cover and range. Both XCOM soldiers, as well as the increasingly dangerous alien and robotic enemies they face, can utilize a number of special abilities to flip the table by destroying cover, inducing status ailments (panic, unconsciousness, suppression, etc.), and more. Even if a soldier survives the fight, tanking too much damage can leave them wounded or shaken, which affects their future performance or usability. Stealth is one of the few new mechanics introduced since the last title, but it doesn’t offer a ton in terms of tactical advantage. Particular missions begin with your squad cloaked so you can move without interference, but things get hot eventually and everything goes back to blasting away.
This gameplay of random chance was part of what made people fall in love with Enemy Unknown, yet it feels more frustrating this time around. Taking issue with a probabilistic system is always a dangerous gambit considering the abundance of counter-arguments, but my issue is not the fact that an attack with an 80% chance to hit may end up missing. My issue is that that one miss can quickly snowball into your otherwise sound team being demolished, which in turn can snowball into serious issues for the overall campaign, often in ways that are just too difficult to recover from. This is not a direct criticism of the game itself, but it is something new players should be aware of before they put a huge time commitment into something that can blow up in their face with a luck of the draw. Those truly masochistic among us can choose to turn on the Ironman modifier at the start of our campaign, which does not allow for quick-saving—so every action and consequence is final. It is highly recommended that all but the most hardcore do at least one play-through before braving this, however.
Unfortunately, there are issues in the game that are far less subjective, with countless instances of clipping, freezes, and general slowdown littered throughout the campaign. It’s curious, because it does not come across as that taxing of a game in terms of visual detail or processing demands. Regardless, none I encountered were game breaking, just more along the lines of small irritations.
When operating efficiently, the ground gameplay of XCOM 2 gives me an interesting, almost juvenile impression of being fun when winning, but infuriating when things don’t go my way. Commanding holds a similarly bipolar satisfaction, depending on if all is going according to plan. At its best, XCOM 2is an engaging experience unlike most other games, and despite all that’s been said, don’t take away it isn’t worth a look. There are true moments of enjoyment to be had, but the constant stress as resources dwindled or a squadmate gets taken out due to complete nonsense too often turns the game from exhilarating to exhausting.
Editor’s Note: This review does not take multiplayer into consideration due to servers not being ready. Since we felt multiplayer is only a small portion of what XCOM 2 offers, we felt we would go ahead and give a score based on the primary aspects of the game. We will do a separate, non-scored analysis on the multiplayer once that part of the game is available.
XCOM 2 is a generally solid experience, but it is definitely one of those titles that may not be for everyone due to its punishing game style and occasional unpredictably of success.
T - Teen
|XCOM 2 is available on PC. Primary version played was for PC. Product was provided by 2K Games for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.
Nick didn’t start gaming until mid-2006. Once his parents finally allowed a console into the house, it was all uphill from there. Starting out with a PS2, he grew an affinity for Sony consoles and moved on to the PS3, and now the PS4. He keeps his gaming palette wide, but, gun to his head, he’d have to say shooters are his genre of choice.