Review: XCOM 2

Fans in 2012 were anxious to get their hands on another XCOM game after so many years absent. Coming from the creators of the Sid Meier’s series, players were cautious in their anticipation, as while the developer is known for creating strong strategy elements, XCOM was a whole other ball game when it came to combat. Involving complex world building elements and critical decisions through the campaign, Enemy Unknown and its follow-up expansion, Enemy Within, became arguably the best installments in the long running franchise. It featured incredibly hardcore elements with the concern that even the simplest mission could end with a couple of your most invested and powerful comrades coming back in body bags. There was nothing like it on the market, and because of this, Firaxis was far from ready to hang the series up and has been working on a new and greatly improved sequel that will undoubtedly make fans joyous. While it seems XCOM 2 improves upon its predecessor, there are some shortcomings to its execution.

The story takes place decades after the XCOM: Enemy Unknown with the cannon conclusion being the so called “bad” ending. Humanity, as one would expect, suffered an unmeasurable loss being that it was unable to stop the alien invasion and has since been taken over, but not necessarily to the degree a lot of fiction tends to lean towards. This isn’t aliens downright enslaving humanity, but instead helping it off the ground by introducing new and improved technology, among other things. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though, as there are always conspiracies, and being an alien force, their intentions aren’t entirely for humanity’s sake. We liken them towards Nazis in that it’s a far more controlled and brutal way of ruling where, if someone steps out of line, they won’t hesitate to end them, whereas if you’re contributing member of society, they will leave you alone for the most part. They also don’t really have much of a regard for human rights or casualties where they’re willing to experiment on people without any regard for their wellbeing. Because of this new line of dictatorship from the alien invaders, there is a rebellion that has formed. Unfortunately, the sect you become a part of is small, very small, so it’s difficult to make a meaningful impact like you did in the original game. Your resources are limited, your time is short and your man power is usually understaffed. It’s a grueling situation, and for that, the story feels far more intriguing as you progress.

The core XCOM 2 gameplay, at least for those who have played Enemy Unknown, remains mostly intact. This is still a third person, isometric strategy shooter that focuses on dice rolls each turn to determine the outcome of battle. There are times when things will go in the player’s favor, and then there are times when it goes the complete opposite direction. This can be a random experience, and most of the time it becomes very stressful. Unless you save scum all the way through the campaign, the chances of surviving every battle with no casualties is highly unlikely. That problem derives mainly from some occasional confusing hit percentages and reactions. There’s nothing like seeing a soldier stand two feet in front of an enemy with a gatling gun and shoot through the unfazed alien with a big failure text pop up taunting you. At the very least there should be more animations showing the opponents dodging your bullets, not just standing there clueless.

Regardless of these occurrences, Firaxis has done a great deal to enhance the overall XCOM experience by adding variety to its combat. For example, melee is a new feature to the XCOM universe, dealing massive damage to enemies at the risk of having a character exposed out in the open. This generally does significant damage in comparison to standard projectiles, which adds a new layer of strategy outside of hunkering down or providing cover fire. This also ties somewhat into the improved character class system that allows for additional customization outside of the rather robust selection of aesthetics. Just as Enemy Unknown contained, each character has their own class tree that will be accessible based on promotions on the battlefield. The higher a character traverses in their class, the more powerful and capable they become, learning additional traits and abilities. There are some deviations from the traditional format in that the classes are specialized, and their traits feel like they provide far more assistance than ever before. For example, the new Ranger class that can wield a sword can pick up a skill that ensure concealment even after your party initiates a battle, or straight up do greater damage. Depending on their skillset, they can be completely different from a character in the same class, which can lead to some interesting pairings, especially later in the game when more party slots open up.

One feature that could have been great for Firaxis to implement is stealth. At the beginning of most missions, your team is concealed and unknown, so getting the drop on at least one enemy is fairly easy to accomplish. Unfortunately, there’s no way to actually keep concealment once an attack lands, so going back into the darkness to get the jump on another group of aliens is absent. As mentioned before, there are some characters such as the Ranger who has a skill that allows her to not be revealed when things go off, but after everyone in the vicinity is cleared and you progress further, enemies will instantly become aware of your position as they patrol their routine programming like nothing is going on. This is more of a half of a step rather than a full step in the right direction, something that could have benefited the core gameplay enormously. All-out war with your new alien overlords is fun, but a stealth component could have allowed for even more combat variance other than exchanging gunfire and hoping your shot hits every round.

XCOM 2 is not a game for those who think about what’s going on in a single instance. Everyone will need to think three turns ahead in every aspect of the campaign, and even then, it’s mostly about luck, creating an incredibly random experience in the process. Even from the beginning, players believing they’ll be able to keep everyone alive will run into a harsh reality check, whether they’re on the easiest or hardest difficulty settings. It’s not primarily the combat that can be difficult though, it’s the world management that can be a bit stressful. Similar to Enemy Unknown, there’s a time component to XCOM 2, ensuring you don’t take your sweet time to level up characters and accept every side mission that becomes available. There will be crucial choices to be made, but instead of ruining reputations based on countries and risking resources, these are classified as larger reaching outcomes to alien progression in the world. There’s so many systems at play that anyone could easily see themselves overwhelmed, and it doesn’t help that there’s an unfortunate lack of explanation on the various mechanics.

Unfortunately, the biggest and most heartbreaking problem with XCOM 2 is from the technical side of things. For one, after almost every turn concludes and there are aliens on screen, the game will stall for upwards of a minute until finally giving you back control of the squad of characters. It could very well be unidentified aliens moving around in the background, but considering you don’t know how many there are, it will test your patience to an unfortunate degree. This combined with load times that hang for far longer than they should create an experience that will artificially extend your playtime clock. This isn’t even the worst part, though as we also ran into various crashes, enemies being able to shoot through geometry they shouldn’t be able to, out of the ordinary performance issues and some of the visuals going haywire. The controls can also be a little clunky at times when trying to select an enemy to fire at, although it’s far from the worst problem here.

Closing Comments:

We really wanted XCOM 2 to be something amazing, but unfortunately it falls short. From highly customizable characters to deep and meaningful combat that has been improved over its predecessor, there’s a lot here to like, at least on paper. Unfortunately, this is only when it all comes together properly. We ran into far too many technical issues to count that taints the experience and puts even more frustration on an already stressful campaign. If the game wasn’t so demanding in its design, then a lot of these issues wouldn’t be a huge concern, but that would require cutting out what makes XCOM so appealing in the first place. Unless you plan on save scumming your way through the campaign, the outcome will ultimately end poorly. XCOM 2 truly has the makings of a great game, but it’s hidden in the bloated technical issues that drag it down.