XCOM 2 is an excellent game, quite likely to go down as my game of the year for 2016, and it probably could have been perfect if Firaxis had just given it a few more months of development and love. What’s here is the kind of sequel that you want, maintaining the spirit and personality of the first game, advancing the narrative, and refining the design. Its launch was plagued by technical issues, the kind that almost made the game unplayable in parts, and while Firaxis have pledged to keep working on it these issues persist even now. I feel there’s also a problem of content, not from a lack of volume but for a lack of range, and I suspect I know why that might be. For its problems, however, it’s still a great game and will hopefully perform better with some post-release TLC.
“Soldier teleportation was an unintended side-effect of our experiments into improved graphics.”
Twenty years on from the events of the first game, humanity has been crushed, and the alien Elders have conquered Earth. Humans are now ruled by the ADVENT coalition, a proxy government comprised of those most loyal and useful to the Elders, serving their alien masters’ every dark whim. The XCOM project has been all but abandoned, the council of nations having betrayed XCOM command by siding with ADVENT, and those few that are left are leading a desperate resistance. Now, in humanity’s darkest hour, the XCOM resistance force are finally ready to wage a campaign against the aliens after retrieving their greatest weapon: The Commander.
The story of XCOM 2 might seem more dire or grander than XCOM: EU, and in some ways it is, but rarely does the game take itself so seriously. There are a lot of returning characters, or characters with ties to past characters, which make the experience much richer for returning players of the series. There are a lot of pleasant surprises along the way, and the stakes are continually escalating though the gameplay can sometimes slow down the pacing. There were many moments where a significant plot development was within my grasp, only to be delayed by several time-critical missions appearing one after the other. Just as with XCOM: EU, these kinds of missions can hold dire consequences for failure or neglect, and you’re suddenly forced to choose between slowing down the story or hamstringing yourself gameplay-wise.
Jesus Christ, South Africa, AGAIN!? Why don’t you just put up a sign that says “Good Time Probing – Get It Here!”?
I also really dig the way XCOM 2 makes the Commander so much more than just a faceless, nameless avatar for the player to just “fill.” They’re made a central character to the plot while still keeping them entirely neutral concerning gender, personality, and characteristics so that all players can still mentally embody them. About the only thing you know about them is that they kick absolute ass, all of the time, which is consistently used as a reflection of players’ actions throughout the game. At least in this sense, XCOM 2 directly makes players feel great about themselves and their own abilities, instead of just making them seem cool by proxy of whoever they’re playing. Without spoilers, the ending of XCOM 2 is made so much more satisfying than XCOM: EU’s ending for this fact alone, and I don’t think this particular aspect could have been done any better.
If there’s one major drawback of the story itself, it’s that there’s not enough, and this is thematic of a lot of the game. What some might describe as “short and sweet” for a lot of the major plot-related cutscenes kind of left me wanting, and so many “what if?” questions get raised but are never answered. Some of this is to be expected, but one example that stands out would be Dr. Vahland’s absence, how it’s consistently referred to throughout the game, and how it never gets addressed. Vahland was a major character of XCOM: EU and, given the other returning cast members, her frighteningly callous presence was expected. Several key characters even bring up her or her work a bunch of times, but at no point is her absence explained. I believe there’s a reason for this, as I’ll get into later, but this lack of range in content was a big issue for me.
“Man, it sure would be awesome if we knew where Vahland was – wasn’t her work fascinating? Now, let’s not speak of her again until the DLC.”
Unlike its predecessor, XCOM 2 doesn’t spend too much time explaining things and certainly doesn’t hold your hand – unless, of course, it’s doing so to lead you into a trap. Enemy unit designs often riff off of those from XCOM: EU and are far more dangerous to tangle with. The tactics and abilities of new enemy types are barely hinted at during encounters, and can only be learned through some destructive trial and error. It’s made all the more challenging for the improved enemy AI and, if not more powerful, then certainly more capable units to go up against. Even returning units, like the Sectoids, Chryssalids or Mutons have all received significant updates for their behavior, so that while there’s some familiarity, everything is still fresh.
There have been a lot of improvements in combat design that eliminate a lot of gripes I had about XCOM: EU. This is stuff such as having alternate weapons added as hot-key abilities instead of having to swap them out manually. You can now pause during enemy turns, which means you don’t have to sit sobbing through an entire turn before you can resurrect your squad-mate with the ever powerful scum-save. Even small stuff like having soldiers pick targets and take turns during Overwatch to conserve shots, instead of blowing the entire team load on a single, low-health unit. This is the kind of thing that clearly shows some careful forethought and planning along the way, with a lot of consideration given to the weaknesses of XCOM: EU.
“Hey, Willis! WILLIS! You watching? I’m gonna gonna go do the Charleston in front of that Sectoid!”
“Haha, do it, man, do it!”
“HEY ALIENS! DUH-DUH DAH DAH DAH–“
That being said, there are still a few things about the overall design that really should have been addressed. Things like having arbitrary wait times after using certain abilities, or soldiers having the path-finding of your average potato. Being concealed from enemy view at the beginning of each mission is such a great idea, sometimes utterly ruined by soldiers’ inability to move around without dancing in enemy sights. By far the worst thing to be carried over from the first game is the awful beginners tutorial. It does a commendable job of showing you the ropes, which is good because you’ll need those skills when you restart after realising how f***ed you are for the rest of the game. It’s certainly a learning experience, just not the one I think the developers necessarily intended.
The game also had significant technical problems on launch and, while post-release patching has alleviated some of the issues, they’re still present even now. Crashes, extreme lag, animation skipping and framerate drops are just a few of the problems I experienced while playing the game. I don’t exactly have the beefiest machine going right now, so to ensure that it wasn’t just my spud-powered box struggling to keep up I also tested the game on a friend’s machine. His rig was running a few thousand dollars worth of specs released within the last twelve months and, by all rights, should have made XCOM 2 dance like a trained monkey. Despite the heavy-duty hardware, it, too, struggled in parts to deliver a consistent frame-rate and bug-free experience. Having your soldiers act as though they’ve got spoons lodged in their ears is frustrating enough without having to watch it at slideshow speeds.
“DUH-DUH DAH DAH D-D-D-D-D-DDDDDZZZZDDD-DDAH, DUH-DUH DAH DAH DAH-AH-AH-AH-AH, F*** YOU GUUUUUUUUUUY-Y-Y-Y-“*PROGRAM NOT RESPONDING*
The base and world management systems have also received an overhaul, with engineers and scientists no longer being dished out like candy, and no annoying panic meter always barking at you. Instead of a panic meter for each country, the aliens and ADVENT have a constant countdown running towards whatever devious plans they’re working on, which all have different effects on gameplay. Engineers have also upgraded their “useful” status to “vitally essential,” because while scientists might help speed up research, your base simply will not run without enough engineers. You also now have supplies instead of money, which are much harder to get hold of since you have to physically pick them up instead of just having them dropped in your coffers.
Your base is now a stolen alien Helicarrier, dubbed “The Avenger,” flying around to missions, making contact with resistance cells, and recruiting or rescuing personnel. The items and resources you acquire are directly tied to upgrade requirements and vice versa, making your upgrade and construction choices just as significant as mission selection. In my opinion, this whole system is very cool. Base management in XCOM: EU was my favorite part of that game though I loathed some aspects of the world management (particularly the panic meter). XCOM 2 has done well to bring these two systems together in an almost symbiotic fashion while shedding a lot of issues from both. As a small aside, what the game itself lacks in content is being propped up more and more every day by a flood of content from the Steam Workshop.
“What’s that, New Indonesia? You’re being attacked by Mega-Mecha-Mutons? Well stiff shit, because unless you can offer me an engineer I’m going to take care of that Sectoid that’s menacing the New Australian Engin– I mean, the children.”
Presentation wise, I feel like it’s been one step forward and two steps backward. The game is undoubtedly prettier than its predecessor and the overall unit, costume and environment designs are all solid. What’s missing, however, is a lot of customisation, and this is a problem carried over from the first game. A lot of the female faces look suspiciously mannish, and the variation in male faces also leaves something to be desired. You can have soldiers from all over the world, with an accent from different parts of America, or a handful of European languages. There are so many types of experimental armor and ammo types, but few of them have any kind of change in the visual appearance of your soldier, or how they fight.
These are just a few of the complaints, and only the on-the-surface cosmetic stuff. You also have the fact that there are still only five available classes when by the end of the Enemy Within there were seven. The randomly generated maps have been significantly improved, but there are still only a handful of repetitive mission types. Every mission might be unique in that the map is never quite the same, or the NPC’s have different names, but the gist of what you’re doing becomes very samey after awhile. There’s a mission where the Avenger is brought to the ground and assaulted by Aliens, and you have to take out the device that’s keeping you there before you’re overrun. That mission was hands down my favorite in the entire game – and I only got to do something like it but once.
Seriously, Firaxis, what the hell? You give us ten freaking German voices, but only two from Australia and they BOTH sound like they’re from North Queensland?
If you want a quick summation, XCOM 2 is turbo-XCOM: EU with a lot of the problems of the first game ironed out and excellent Steam Workshop Support. If you liked the first game and just want some more, you should totally get it all up inside you – I certainly did, and I had a grand ol’ time. However, it’s hard to deny that the game is hindered by small design oversights, a lack of range in content, and a troubled launch period plagued by technical problems. All this might be forgivable if it weren’t for the existence of a season pass, available to purchase day one, which looks to resolve a lot of my criticisms. That is if you were to consider the $20USD season pass content and this XCOM 2 “base game” as one “whole.” You know, like if they had all been released together, at a later time of the year perhaps? Why, that might have given them time to smooth out the technical problems, too! Hrmmm….