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XCOM 2 is out now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Alan Stock brings you this comprehensive review for ComiConverse.
Game Review: XCOM 2
The Skyranger flies back to base, its seats empty save for one: Corporal Julius is bent over, holding her head in her hands. Four squadmates dead, one captured. There’s no experienced soldiers left in XCOM, nothing left to do but to fill the fallen veteran’s slots with inexperienced rookies on the next mission. But there’s no spare supplies to equip them properly. The alien occupiers of earth have just finished another facility advancing their world-ending plans, so there’s no choice, a mission has to be launched, the facility has to be taken out before it’s too late. But, there’s still a glimmer of hope. If the new team survives, XCOMs supplies arrive in a few days, and the lab boffins finish on the latest armour, the tide of death could be halted, the alien’s Advent project could be stalled. There’s still a chance… still a chance.
Anyone who’s played an XCOM game will be familiar with a scenario like this. It’s a series known for its difficulty and desperate odds against success. XCOM 2 is no different. In fact, its events are based on the assumption that the efforts of humanity in the game’s predecessor XCOM: Enemy Unknown were actually a failure. The aliens successfully invaded Earth and now rule the populace through insidious means. The fallen organisation of XCOM, originally formed to combat the extra-terrestrials, has been reformed and now conducts guerrilla warfare against the evil occupiers. The premise is even grimmer than usual for this series. Instead of watching countries collapse to the aliens like the previous games, they’re already fallen. Instead, you expand XCOM’s territory and resources by contacting guerrilla groups around the world. But the aliens won’t just sit around as you get stronger, their game-ending Advent project is always advancing, their troops get stronger as time passes and they’ll continually throw spanners in the works. Business as usual then.
Fundamentally, XCOM 2 doesn’t deviate much as a sequel – in the turn-based missions it looks and feels similar to the original XCOM. Back at base, you still direct personnel, construct facilities and juggle resource management and strategy on a world map. However, developers Firaxis Games have built heavily on the foundations of Enemy Unknown to create a richer, deeper and better game. They’ve looked at almost every area of the original and improved upon it – taking both player feedback, new ideas and lessons learnt from XCOM’s expansion pack Enemy Within. Although on its surface little has changed, after a little play time you quickly realise how much new content and refinements there are here.
The core of the game is turn-based tactics missions set in mostly urban locations around Earth. You control a small squad of soldiers from an isometric perspective and are usually outnumbered by the aliens, who come in all kinds of flavours (mostly the shooty kind). Environment layouts this time around are procedurally generated, in a hark back to the series’ first games (such as classic UFO: Enemy Unknown by Microprose) – a welcome change from the pre-made levels from XCOM. Good positioning of your team using cover, flanking and exploiting the destructible scenery are a must. XCOM 2 relies on “dice rolls” to determine the outcome of successful shots and evasion, although it can sometimes be frustrating if you get repeatedly unlucky, it goes both ways when you pull a miracle out of the bag. Dealing with the unpredictable nature of the combat and maximising your odds through good tactics is a vital part of the game.
The biggest addition to the mission gameplay in XCOM 2 is stealth mechanics – in most missions your squad begins concealed, allowing you to set up ambushes. This changes the dynamic quite a bit and is satisfying to pull off. Once you’re revealed, there’s no more hiding and then the game suffers from an issue from XCOM – when discovering enemy groups they get a free “turn” to move and get to cover, which can result in some brutal moments for you, especially if it happens just before the alien turn. Taking inspiration from Enemy Within, most missions also have a turn limit to achieve your objective, forcing you to keep moving forward and take risks, adding stress but more excitement. Unexpected upsets like discovering a nest of enemies in the building right behind your exposed squad are a hallmark of the series and keeps things tense, however, this time around you have more tools at your disposal to deal these moments.
Your soldiers come in four classes, each with their own abilities to learn as they gain experience. Add to this a wide spread of equipment and grenades, weapon mods and tactics to upgrade and you have a much larger number of options available to you in missions than the last game. The notorious difficulty is still present but feels fairer than before. When your beloved soldiers die, they’re gone for good, and a full squad wipe can be devastating. This is a hard game, especially at the start, when your weak rookies will die in one shot or can easily come under alien mind-control, their teammates likely to panic and the starting squad size of four leaving little room for error. Of course, saving frequently can erase any mistake you make, but this is a series that’s intended to be played in Iron Man mode, where there’s only one autosave, so no going back. It’s entirely up to you whether to enable this, but it makes the game very tense and much more engaging. I’d recommend playing the game for a few hours without it and with tutorials enabled, and then restarting with them turned off and Iron Man on, to avoid being caught out by some nasty surprises that you’ll be punished for if you can’t save.
One of XCOM’s strengths has always been the attachment you feel for your troops as they survive multiple missions and become veterans. You start to care about them and its gutting when they die – which in this game is highly likely. Customisation for your troops has been vastly improved, cleverly unlocking more options for soldiers as they advance in rank – your true veterans can sport scars, tattoos, face paint, armour customisations, accessories and new hairstyles. There’s a renegade vibe to the costumes here, in-keeping with the guerrilla theme of the game. Your team is more likely to look like a rag-tag bunch of heroes than a regimented military squad, adding to the scrappy resistance atmosphere. You can rename your characters, write their own profile and even save the character to re-use in future attempts. The customisation really adds to the sense of attachment you feel for your troops, making it even worse when they take a plasma blast to the head or get left behind in a heroic last stand. But take my advice – don’t waste time customising Rookies and Squaddies – in my opinion they have to survive long enough to earn the right to get a makeover!
As in previous XCOM games, between missions you manage your base of operations, this time a captured alien craft named Avenger, and conduct operations on a planet overview. Wise decisions on the world map are as crucial as on the battlefield, but fortunately there’s a fairer system in place here compared to previous games, which could see you making game-losing strategic decisions between missions that only became apparent hours later. In the Avenger, there’s plenty of new facilities to build, research to conduct, weaponry to make and soldiers to outfit. Strategy on the world map has improved too. Everything takes time to build or research and meanwhile you can move the Avenger around the globe, expanding your territory and acquiring resources. But the Avenger can only tackle one task at a time, making for agonising decisions as you juggle different priorities.
As the days tick by, the aliens aren’t sitting idle either, they continue to progress towards their end-game event, and missions are regularly thrown your way as they terrorise your operations and you discover new intel. A nice new feature is “Dark Events”, where every in-game month the aliens disrupt your plans in three different ways. You only have resources to stage a mission to cancel out one of them making for some hard choices. Resources are also very limited, making each decision on the world map feel consequential. There’s always more things that need doing than you’re able to tackle, keeping tension high and the impression that you’re always clinging on by just the skin of your teeth. As you progress through the narrative, the aliens also get tougher and new enemy types appear, forcing you to adapt and advance your technology to match them.
This is no easy ride.
Despite all the new tools, equipment and options at your disposal in XCOM 2, the feeling of fighting an insurmountable menace is still paramount. Although the game feels fairer than previous outings, in the grand scheme the aliens are always edging forward, one step ahead, getting stronger each day. In the missions, you’re still outnumbered and every turn can mean death for your squad if you make bad decisions, or if luck doesn’t go your way. The new world order only makes the atmosphere more oppressive than usual – the war’s already been lost, this is humanity’s last ditch effort for survival. The alien occupation is referenced through the environments and patter from the Avenger crew, painting the background of this grim Earth. You’ll suffer devastating defeats, maybe you’ll claw your way back, but probably not. You’ll likely see the Game Over screen more than a few times. You’ll watch your favourite veteran squads be ripped apart in some terrible turns where nothing went your way. But crucially, there always feels like a there’s a small chance for success. Against overwhelming odds, if you keep making smart decisions and minimise your losses, then perhaps you can gain a foothold and start to turn the tide. You never feel on top, but when you do manage to turn the odds to your favour, every little victory in the face of defeat feels so satisfying, especially on Iron Man difficulty where there’s no going back. This is a harsh, but rewarding and empowering game – as your technology and troops develop and you feel you can start taking the fight to the enemy instead of always being on the defensive.
This is XCOM’s first console appearance, and the conversion is a good one, with an easy to use interface on PS4/Xbox One and commendably few sacrifices to useability being made. Loading times between missions are quite long though, and whether you are on PC or console, the game still has a few technical issues, mainly visual – with scenery popping in and cameras stuck in walls being regular occurrences. It’s also a game that might get a bit repetitive for some– it’s quite epic and can feel a bit samey in long play sessions if you aren’t advancing the narrative or research – even though there’s much more variety than previous entries. The difficulty may distress even XCOM veterans, but there’s no shame in playing on the easier modes (I struggled even on the default difficulty on Iron Man).
XCOM 2 refines the turn based strategy of the series to punch out a truly excellent showing. Gameplay is better with tactical options in missions improved. It looks great and has some nice new cinematic touches to boot. The new world map adds more depth to proceedings between missions, and the premise is a nice evolution of the plot that previously was stuck in a repeating cycle. XCOM fans are getting a sequel that gives them almost everything they could hope for improvement from the original reboot, whilst also bringing in new ideas and elements from the retro series. For newcomers, it’s a fairly accessible and excellent tactical game to get your teeth into, and great to see it on consoles too.
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XCOM 2 builds on everything that made its predecessor great and makes it even better, if you can handle the difficulty. An excellent strategy game – play on Iron Man for the best experience.