I am, at this point, a broken and hollow shell of a man. I blame Firaxis. XCOM 2 has touched me, psychologically, in a bad way, and I’m going to show you on this Sectoid doll exactly where.
Note that the above is in no way a criticism; if anything, XCOM 2 provides pretty much exactly what I was hoping for. It’s a brutal, gruelling game in which the minutest of decisions – in or out of missions – can have dramatic ramifications that leave you scrambling to recover. Pretty much every decision you can make is a bad one, and working out what the least bad one is (and how to fix the problems that will inevitably result) is basically what the game is about.
In short, I strongly suspect that the working title for XCOM 2 was Unfuck Yourself. It is not a game you play to relieve stress. It’s a game that makes you need to relieve stress.
It’s also a game that results in a lot of hilarious stories, like that time an enemy on the top of a building, in full cover, wound up falling three floors and dying because the floor collapsed underneath him… but every minute of play is completely agonising. Again, not a complaint.
XCOM 2 is set in a sort of post-XCOM world, only the titular organisation failed to stop the alien invasion. Yeah, that’s right, that Ironman campaign which took you three months didn’t count. XCOM lost the war in dramatic fashion, and were forcibly disassembled by the invaders.
20 years on from XCOM’s dramatic failure, a coalition of humans and aliens called ADVENT controls the world. Everybody loves them. They’ve cured all sorts of diseases and life can be pretty cushy and so on! Unfortunately, that nasty band of terrorists called XCOM just don’t trust them, and keep showing up to blow things up.
You play that nasty band of terrorists. Fortunately for your peace of mind, it turns out that the aliens aren’t quite as peace-loving as they might appear, and are involved in some incredibly shady things behind the scenes – not least some sort of mysterious Avatar Project which you should probably stop.
XCOM as a band of underfunded guerrilla fighters making quick strikes against alien facilities makes an awful lot more sense than XCOM as a global defence agency funded by every nation on Earth… which is somehow unable to field more than four rookies with crap guns. A minor thing, but one I like.
It’s also one that adds a bit more to the Geoscape section of the game. XCOM 2, like its predecessor, is really a game of two halves: the tactical combat missions, and the strategic world map where you plot out your next moves. You’re still largely playing a reactionary game, only rather than building up a base and waiting for a UFO to pop up, you have more of an active role.
This time, your base is the Avenger, a crashed alien ship that’s been partially excavated and bodged together with duct tape to act as your mobile command carrier. You use it to fly about and expand the resistance network, making contact with the scattered cells in each of the world’s regions. The bigger your network, the more resources they can cobble together for you and the more targets of opportunity they’ll grant you.
(Said “targets of opportunity” are pretty much this game’s version of UFOs; you wait for the resistance to say “Hey, we’ve found three things you might want to take a look at, pick which one you’re going to deal with and which two are going to completely fuck you over because you didn’t do them.”)
Pretty much everything you can do with the Avenger is done by “scanning”, a nebulous concept that basically exchanges time for something else. Scanning a supply drop will get you those resources. Scanning a region will let you make contact with the resistance cell in that region. Scanning at Resistance HQ will net you one of a variety of bonuses, depending on what you’ve purchased; faster construction, or faster healing, or maybe just a continuous stream of resources. And while all of this is going on, your staff on the Avenger are naturally excavating and building more rooms, researching new technologies, and building new weapons.
That said, the meat of the game is still in the tactical combat. Your squad of four to six hilariously under-prepared soldiers will be dropped into hotspots with distressing regularity, and if you’re lucky, they might actually survive.
On the face of it, this works exactly the same as it did in XCOM. Each soldier has two action points, which can be spent on moving or shooting or using special abilities. Some abilities don’t require any. Some actions (like firing a sniper rifle) require both action points. You have full cover and half cover, both of which make it harder for that particular soldier to be hit, so flanking foes in cover while securing your own flanks is – again – important. It’s familiar.
It’s not, however, the same game. Obviously, there are new enemy types, but even the old aliens act differently. The example I’ve repeatedly given to avoid spoilers is that of the Sectoids, which in XCOM were basically the weakest enemy type in the game. They were fodder with next to no health, crap accuracy, and provided very little threat to anyone who wasn’t a complete rookie.
In XCOM 2, Sectoids are still the earliest alien you’ll encounter (although the first enemies you’ll encounter will inevitably the ADVENT security forces). They also require multiple shots from starting weapons to kill, can raise corpses from the dead as psi-zombies, and can use psionic powers to panic or mind-control your soldiers. And things get much, much worse with the newer types.
The second major change is one befitting your new role as a guerrilla force: your squad begins most missions in Concealment, a state in which – as long as they’re in cover, or don’t blithely wander into enemies – they’ll remain undetected, letting you set up ambushes. Naturally, the instant you open fire or walk into the open, then Concealment is gone and all hell breaks loose, but it gives you a chance to scout things out and maybe take down a group of enemies with no resistance. This, I think, is a Good Thing.
The other change is one that is doubtless going to met with mixed response, and that’s that you are now continually fighting the clock. Not literally – you don’t have two minutes to make your moves, or anything – but almost every single mission has you dealing with a time limit. If you have to hack a console, you’ll have to do it within X number of turns, before it gets remotely shut down. If you’re trying to rescue a VIP, you’ll have a certain number of turns to get them (and your soldiers) to the evac zone before your Skyranger has to flee enemy interceptors.
This is both good and bad. The bad is pretty obvious – people don’t like timers, and to some extent it’s contrary to the idea of being careful and tactical and methodical. When you’re forced to run people out into the big black fog of war simply to meet a semi-arbitrary turn limit, and things go wrong, you’re might well be more pissed off than if you get soldiers killed just because of your own idiocy. And, yes, a little bit of save-scumming (purely to test, honest) proved to me that at least one mission I had was practically impossible to complete on time without a healthy dose of luck and knowing the enemy positions in advance.
The good is that it massively reinforces one of the pillars of XCOM, which is the aforementioned “scrambling to recover.” It is very, very rare that you can now methodically move forward, eliminating enemy groups one at a time, and taking your time scouring the map. You have to press forward. You have to take risks. And when things go wrong – which I absolutely guarantee they will – you have to figure out how to minimise your losses. That’s pretty much XCOM at its best, and it solves the issue of “move people forward slowly and continually in Overwatch” that dominated the tactics of the previous game (although, admittedly, it solves this in somewhat clunky fashion).
XCOM 2 doesn’t actually hand-hold you through a lot of this, which I rather like. It gives you the gist of how the game works, but leaves you to figure out the specifics of what each of the resources does and how best to handle the tactical encounters and the new abilities for yourself. Which, naturally, makes your first runthrough a pretty big learning experience, in which every new alien encounter will destroy you.
One problem that has carried over from the previous game is that enemies patrol in groups, and the instant you spot them, they spot you, and immediately take a sort of “mini-turn” and run to cover. As with XCOM 2‘s timers, whether or not this is a good thing tends to divide the player base. It’s fixed for the first group you engage via the Concealment mechanic, and having a Ranger-class character with the ability to re-enter Concealment can let you scout out enemy groups without alerting them, but it’s still kind of a pain.
Another problem that’s been carried over is that of performance, and this is a really weird one, because it looks like the fixes that worked then also work now. The first time I ran the game, I had horrific framerate problems. Firing it up the next day, for some reason, solved most of these, although it still started limping during extended play. Do the same .ini fixes that solved a lot of these issues in XCOM, though, and XCOM 2 runs a lot better. I have absolutely no idea why this problem has carried across.
And, yes, there are bugs. There’s at least one save-corrupting bug that I know of at this point and I’d be surprised if there weren’t a few more, so attempt Ironman runs at your own risk, but most of the other problems tend to be fairly minor. There are lots of little graphical glitches, like people on rooftops stepping out to take a shot and standing on thin air while they do so. There are occasional positioning glitches, with enemies being shown as standing somewhere that they aren’t. There’s the fact that Central pauses the game to scream about mass civilian casualties the first time any civilian dies in any Retaliation mission (read: after you end your first turn).
But ending on this complain-y note would be a bit sad, because my actual opinion of XCOM 2 is overwhelmingly positive. So first, let’s add that mods fix a lot of these issues already. I’m not basing any of this review on mods – I haven’t used a single one, so far – but there are already mods that zoom out the tactical view further, or increase/remove the mission timers, or add a numerical value to show enemy health. There are mods adding new weapons, new enemies, and a new pseudo-class. There’s a mod replacing guns with dogs. Guns with dogs.
Second, all of these problems are (to me, at least) pretty minor when compared to everything the game does right. Until you start to figure out the limitations of the AI, XCOM 2 has a huge amount of tactical depth, which each class having two wildly different trees, and arguments are doubtless going to ensue over how best to set up your characters. The soldier customisation system is absolutely phenomenal, which is going to make it even worse when your favourite soldier is unceremoniously gunned down in a hail of plasma (and God forbid I start talking about my whiny Irish Ranger or my cheerily British take on Peter Parrish). There are lots of neat little touches, like how soldiers who don’t evacuate on time aren’t killed but are captured and can turn up as VIPs to be rescued in future missions, or how the little display boards in cities show your soldiers’ faces, presumably as a “Wanted Terrorist” sort of thing. There are lots of nasty little surprises which will make you laugh and cringe simultaneously as a hitherto unencountered alien completely screws you over in an unexpected way.
And believe me, I could’ve spent this entire review telling you wonderful little stories about what happened, like when I was horribly pinned down and my Ranger managed to wipe out five aliens in a single turn. Or when my Grenadier got mind-controlled, and… ah, but I’ll let you discover this stuff for yourself.
It’s going to be a few months before I can decide whether I prefer XCOM or XCOM 2, but I don’t really have any hesitation in recommending you pick this up anyway. I hate trotting out the old “if you liked X then you’ll like Y”, but in this case it’s pretty fundamentally true: XCOM 2 manages to recapture the magic of the first game without feeling like it’s retreading old ground, and that’s a hell of a thing for a sequel to manage.