PC/Mac Reviews

XCOM 2 Review: Today We Celebrate Our Independence Day

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A lot has happened in the 20 years between XCOM Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2. The alien threat, once mysterious and foreign, has now become our everyday life on Earth. Despite what you may remember about your efforts against the aliens in Enemy Unknown, humans were actually quite unsuccessful and now find themselves in a gray area somewhere between peace and slavery with the new alien regime called Advent. No longer are we a group dedicated for defense and prevention. We are the rebellion. Time to kick some alien ass.

I honestly cannot think of a better way for a sequel to Enemy Unknown to start off than how we start-up in XCOM 2. Humanity is in a bad way and it’s up to you, Commander, to get the ball rolling in Earth’s comeback tour. Most of humanity might be fooled into thinking the Advent are peaceful and wanting to help, but we’re rebels; we know better than that. So it’s on to a scrappy yet familiar campaign against alien occupation. Expect some familiar faces but also plenty of surprises along the way. Expect to have to make tough decisions about who to save and who to leave behind. Expect to lose good men and women to the hells of war. At the end of the day, if you’re brave enough and strong enough – or just good at using saves – you’ll end this war against the aliens once and for all.

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Naturally for a game called XCOM 2 there’s going to be a lot of comparisons to Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, the brilliant reboot and DLC for the classic XCOM series. As a game XCOM 2 does practically everything you would want in a sequel to an already great game. New classes, new enemies, new gameplay and an entirely different base to build are just some of the big changes. Still the biggest change is just in the role you play this time. You’re no longer a shadowy Area 51 organization running around putting out fires and getting entire regions upset when you chose to aid China instead of Brazil. Now you’re a full on rebellion, working to build a network across the globe and making decisions based on potential rewards and potential effects it might have on the Advent government. Everyone knows its way more fun to be rebels (Star Wars trilogy) than it is to be part of the establishment (Star Wars prequels) and XCOM 2 just proves it again.

You’ll be fighting your war from your brand new stolen alien spaceship. Just like Enemy Unknown you have a base to research new equipment, train soldiers, build facilities, etc. but this time when you go across the world to investigate something, you bring your base with you. It’s a simple change that drastically changes how you pass time in the game while not on mission. Before you would sit there and scan, hoping for something interesting to pop up. Now you are actually moving around the globe deciding what to do next. Go scan the supplies that just popped up in Mexico? Make contact with the rebels in Europe? Visit the Black Market? Everything you do progresses time so you are rarely just sitting there waiting for something to happen.

Inside the base it’s pretty much business as usual. You have your engineering and research departments with actual named scientists and engineers to manage this time around, just like troops. Scientists still tend to just sit around and “research” all day but engineers can be put to work in any facility to upgrade its abilities like healing troops faster and increasing power output or you can send engineers to clear out new rooms and build new facilities. It’s a small change that actually makes getting a new engineer an immediate, noticeable difference. Other characters will also be seen hanging out around the ship in the living quarters, armory or med bay, adding a nice feeling of life to your mobile base.

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Researching new tech and building items runs pretty much the same as you remember. Research takes time to complete and when it’s done you’ll receive some exposition and usually a new item to build. Building items will create either a single item for use by one character per mission or sometimes replace an item for every character in the game, like upgraded weapons or armor.

With the change of how you move around the map and get things done, Firaxis also had to change up the impetus of the game to keep you moving at a good pace and not just sitting back waiting for more funds and healthy soldiers. This time around the rebellion has discovered a secret the Advent calls the Avatar Project. It is your job to destroy Advent facilities and disrupt Advent progress to keep them from completing this evil project. There is a literal ticking meter that shows how close they are to completing their secret, with it going up and down based on your actions. The Avatar Project is the main story of the game and uncovering it and stopping it will lead you to victory or certain defeat, both of which seem equally possible.

The meta game of XCOM 2 is certainly an interesting thing to take part in but everyone knows that the real reason we come to XCOM is to get down and dirty with some alien killin’. The turn-based, tactical combat hasn’t really changed all that much from the base level. You still control a squad of humans, moving them around a grid while making sure you keep them in cover and taking into account for sight lines, flanking and other important military strategies. You still get two actions a turn unless your first action is shooting or dashing. This base movement and cover stills works incredibly well and leads to hours upon on hours of addicting gameplay.

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However, pretty much every other aspect of the turn based combat has been overhauled and upgraded. To start with the four main classes of Enemy Unknown has been completely reworked. Rangers are your stealthy front line units who wield shotguns and swords for serious, up close damage. By the way, swords are awesome, just in case you didn’t already know. Grenadiers can shoot grenades farther than just throwing and specialize in destroying the environment and shredding armor. Specialists utilize small drones that can either help your allies out by healing and providing cover or you can spec them out to deal damage to the enemies. Specialists can also hack into machines to provide various advantages. Lastly there is the tried and true Sharpshooters, who can either sit back and rain down destruction with a sniper or get right into the thick of things like a true gunslinger and lay waste with an actually effective pistol. There is also the return of Psionic soldiers, which have an entire branch of abilities and upgrades to terrorize the minds of alien foes.

It may sound like you are given a team of bad asses who are just going to go in and wreck shop but believe me, XCOM 2 is one truly brutal game. Even on normal I found myself running into situations early on where I was getting completely destroyed by enemies. Early enemies include Sectoids, the classic looking aliens who do things like reanimate the dead and mind control your characters. This was end game stuff in Enemy Unknown that you’re dealing with in the first twenty minutes of XCOM 2 and it only gets more fun after that (and I mean that both facetiously and literally). Vipers will pull you across the map and constrict you. Archons cause explosives to come crashing down on the battlefield. Andromedons spill acid all over as they rush to deliver punishing melee attacks. And that’s just some of the new enemies you’ll encounter in the game.

The enemy design in XCOM 2 is overall pretty fantastic, both from a visual aspect as well as strategic. Each newly introduced foe is always exciting to fight and many of them feature abilities that are flat out surprising. More importantly, though, is the mixture of enemies that end up together and having to decide who you want to make your priority and how you want to proceed in each round of battle. It’s turn-based gameplay at its very best.

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What changes the gameplay up even more than the new enemies and character classes is just the feel of every mission. As rebels this time around, most missions in XCOM 2 start off with your team in stealth. You can roam around the map and set up the perfect time and situation to ambush enemies. Putting together a perfect ambush and wiping out an entire enemy squad in one round is incredibly satisfying and the game gives you plenty of opportunity to take advantage of moments like these. However most of the time you’re going to have to be quick about it. That’s because the majority of missions have countdown timers associated with them, making so you can’t just move a couple spots and sit in Overwatch every turn like you are used to from Enemy Unknown. You’re going to have to make rash decisions or sometimes accept bad situations to complete your mission. I was forced to leave people behind to get captured on more than one occasion just because we all couldn’t make it to extraction on time.

The game is actually designed, brilliantly I must say, around the idea of failure. You should really get used to the fact that things are going to go bad and just roll with it. If you have to abandon a mission the game doesn’t punish you too harshly but it usually will mean the aliens get an advantage for the next month of game time. Have to leave someone behind in a mission? That sucks that you lost your high level sniper but wait long enough and you’ll be presented with a VIP mission with a chance to rescue your old squad mate. Even death can be helped by being able to recover their gear and items so not absolutely everything is lost.

The path through the main campaign is fraught with tough moments like these but also plenty of moments where you will feel like a complete badass, such as a particular defense mission halfway through the campaign that is probably the highlight of the entire game. By the end when you have top of the line armor and weapons, max rank squadmates and fully trained Psionic soldiers, you will feel like a team of expert alien murderers. Of course the game responds in form, presenting you with situations and enemies that will push even your battle-tested squad to the limits in an impressive final battle that throws pretty much everything possible at you. When the smoke clears and the last enemy falls, you’re treated to a great final cutscene that wraps up the entire game in perfect form while also taking some time to tease what is coming next for XCOM. It’s such a great ride that I immediately felt a desire to boot it back up and start the whole thing over again.

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In a perfect world, that is all that would need to be said about XCOM 2. It’s a game that is an absolute blast to play. Unfortunately there’s an entire technical aspect of XCOM 2 that’s essentially one big mess. From start to finish the game is littered with visual glitches, poor loading times, frame rate stuttering and what can really only be described as general jankiness. There were countless times during gameplay where you would sit focusing on one area, unable to move or adjust the camera while the game simply…thinks to itself for 15-20 seconds about…something. Sometimes you think maybe enemies are moving off screen but then it happens during the middle of your own turn when surely nothing is going on. You will sit at the post-mission screen for an excruciating amount of time waiting for it to load the next section, until you find out you can hit CAPSLOCK and simply skip the entire load, for some inexplicable reason. You’ll watch guns and people clip through the environment to take shots or bullets coming out of guns at angles that belong in the movie Wanted.

Fortunately for XCOM 2, being a turn-based game means that a lot of these glitches and problems are easy to ignore because at a base level it doesn’t really effect your game. Sure the enjoyment of watching some of the animations are lost when you think you are shooting at something but can’t tell because the camera decided to position itself right behind a wall but at the end you’ll see the result and still feel the near the same amount of joy or despair. And most of the time things look fine and the action is easy to follow, it just begins to bog down over time how little polish the game seems to have. My experience was free from crashes and game breaking bugs, which means my glitchiness comes from a place of inconvenience and ugliness, rather than affected my true enjoyment of the game.

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The lack of polish on XCOM 2 mars what otherwise would be a truly stellar product. From start to finish the changes and improvements Firaxis made to XCOM are smart and enjoyable to the last drop. Can it be brutally difficult? Most certainly. That only makes your decisions more important and your victories more sweet. In a perfect world I wouldn’t have to harp on the glitchiness of the game but I can truly say that is the only thing I would change. Despite all of that stuff, it’s still a fantastic experience that I cannot wait to have again.

SCORE: 8.5 out of 10

A code for XCOM 2 was provided to Pixel Related for review.

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