Welcome back, Commander.
It’s been 20 years since the fall of XCOM. The war has been over for some time. The aliens now control the world and all of its affairs through its puppet world government, the ADVENT Coalition. It spreads lies and pushes propaganda 24 hours a day to keep its ill-gained peace. The Council that once funded XCOM and allowed your operations on their soil now pledge allegiance to the aliens. Who knows what sinister plot the aliens are forcing our former allies to do? Your former team is gone, although Central Officer Bradford remains. Chief Engineer Shen gave up everything to keep XCOM alive and Dr. Vahlen has vanished without a trace. Although there is resistance scattered throughout the world, you are our last hope. Bring XCOM back from the brink, unite resistance around the world, wake up the human race, and save the world! XCOM 2 is the ninth game in the series, and a sequel to 2012’s quite good XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Unlike other sequels where you carry on after a gung-ho victory, XCOM 2 begins with the assumption that you lost the first game. Badly. You never got laser weapons or jetpacks. You never discovered the true nature of the invasion. You never even got to perform an autopsy on a teeny tiny Sectoid. Humanity, it seems, is all but doomed to eternal servitude to the aliens. A guerrilla campaign awaits you in XCOM 2 with your ragtag band, but can the game deliver the killing blow to the tyrannical aliens or at least be an improvement upon the last game? Yes and no.
The first thing you’ll notice is the distinct visual upgrade. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, even if it still uses the same engine as Enemy Unknown. Explosions look fuller and meatier, the enemy design is more radical than ever, the destructible environments perfectly capture the setting and it’s just pretty good all round. The sound design too is incredible. The magnetic rifles that soldiers of ADVENT use to turn you into swiss cheese make a sound that is simply unmistakable in its menace, and the other weapons sound bombastic as well. Not that Enemy Unknown had bad visual and sound design, but it really doesn’t hold up against the raw beauty of everything in its sequel. However, all is not peachy. The UI has lost some of its neat little touches, like clicking the weapon icon in the bottom right to reload (although there is a hotkey for it), and the available targets are now displayed as small icons on the top of the command bar, as opposed to the in-your-face right-hand side icons from Enemy Unknown. These aren’t deal-breakers, but it’s sad to see little touches like these go.
While the visual and aural upgrade is welcome, many players have noted that these improvements may have come at the cost of performance. As of this article’s publishing, XCOM 2 suffers from severe optimisation issues. Even people with high-end rigs are having trouble running the game, and those with middle-tier computers are even less likely to get an acceptable framerate or a bug-free experience, even with severely gimped settings. For a PC-only developer, Firaxis certainly dropped the ball in terms of playtesting. But is the game defined by its bugs? Is it a PC-exclusive Sonic Boom? The game doesn’t have nearly as many game-breaking glitches as that abomination, but when it bugs it sure does bug. Let me put it this way: A popular fix to loading times when returning to base can be solved by pressing the Caps Lock key. Not even joking. In my first playthrough, enemies simply didn’t move or shoot even when I shot them. Yeah, I abused it to complete the mission but it’s the principle of the thing, man! Exiting the game and reloading the save fixed this though, but the frequency with which these small issues appear is more than a nuisance. Some bugs are…just plain bizarre. If you’ve yet to buy this game, do yourself a favour and wait until these issues are patched out.
Don’t move. ADVENT soldiers can’t see you if you don’t. Move.
“This is RuptureFarms.”
They act tough, but they haven’t got any balls. No, seriously, look.
He’s thinking about all the stuff he’s gonna blow up with this baby.
XCOM 2‘s changes come through best in its gameplay. Instead of living in a static underground base, you now travel about the world in your giant goddamn fucking flying base called the Avenger (which is less a reference to an obvious comic series and more a continuation from the game that fans fondly remember as “meh”: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified). Whipping around the globe in the Avenger you’ll be collecting resources while answering various distress calls and exploring tipoffs from resistance cells. These resources can subsequently can be spent on all kinds of stuff: Weapons, equipment, facilities aboard your awesome flying base, buying flowers to help you ask the new Chief Engineer (Shen’s daughter Lily) out on a date because she’s pretty goddamn cute; anything to help you pull the planet free from the grip of ADVENT and their alien masters (except asking Shen out, damn you Firaxis). You also gather other important resources, like the Alien Alloys you need to build certain things, a new resource called Intel that you need to make contact with resistances in different regions and reveal nefarious alien plans, and more staff to increase productivity. While this sounds somewhat familiar to Enemy Unknown (and it is), the real changes are in the details. Reloading is now a single action, meaning it no longer ends your turn when you reload at the start of one. The air game is now gone, completely abandoning tedious skirmishes with the likes of interceptors and UFOs. This is a great thing indeed as the air game was the dullest part of Enemy Unknown, even with the Long War mod. The new Character Pool allows you to create a list of custom characters that are automatically and randomly added to your campaigns, saving you time customising new recruits. Some missions now operate on a turn limit which either limit your options or create a sense of urgency, depending on who you ask. If you asked me, I’d say just extend them with some file tweaking or simply download the mod for it. Units now start missions in Concealment, allowing them to sneak about the map and start firefights on their own terms, making the game much more tense. New classes let you lob grenades great distances, command a teeny floating drone to kill enemies and hack lamp posts, cut aliens a new one with swords or let your snipers make like Revolver Ocelot by ensuring that six bullets from a revolver is enough to kill anything that moves. Maps are now procedurally generated, as opposed to the pre-made maps in Enemy Unknown, which makes the game much less predictable and helps it stay fresh. Enemies now have a chance to drop loot (which is destroyed if said enemies are killed by explosives), which can upgrade weapons and soldiers to add another distinctive tactical edge. These changes, and many more like them, help to set XCOM 2‘s combat apart from its predecessor but fans of the original game may find them either daunting or too miniscule to mean anything, especially if they’re coming from the perfection of Enemy Unknown‘s incredibly popular Long War mod. Personally, I think they’re changes that are long-needed. As for the multiplayer, it’s the same as in Enemy Unknown: Build a squad of XCOM operatives or aliens (or both!) using a simple points system and battle other players. Simple, yet still fun.
Speaking of mods, XCOM 2 is far more moddable than the last game. As such, many gripes about the game’s design choices and questionable programming have been rectified with mods. There are also a whole lot of custom tattoos to choose from, and you can replace your guns with corgis. They even have little ties on! While I’d hate to see the game go down the Dark Souls route of being fixed by its userbase while the developer sits idle, I’ve yet to become worried from what the publisher has been saying. As for what mods I’m using, you’ll just have to hack into my account and see~. And when I say there are mods to fix everything, I do mean everything. The guerrilla warfare aspect of XCOM 2‘s setting sort of becomes invisible, when you start overpowering the enemy due to the game’s currently silly pacing. Even on higher difficulties, the game needs serious work in terms of how quickly you can increase your killing potential and outgun your opponents. This is especially a problem if you know what you’re doing and what will help you rise through the muck of mediocrity the fastest. For newer players, this won’t be as big of a problem. But if you’re a fan of the series, consider a mod or two to make the game harder. Otherwise, wait for the inevitable expansion or simply slap on Ironman mode and kiss falling back on your precious save files goodbye.
The aliens have not been idle. In the 20 years since the demise of organised human resistance, they’ve created new enemies and made old ones more powerful. These include the Viper, the original form of the Thin Man and the most desired alien on the Internet (seriously don’t google it with safe search off), the gigantic walker known as the Sectopod that can shower you with lasers and destroy cover just by walking into it. The new and improved Sectoids now have human height, greater psychic power and chiseled arses and there’s a creature resembling naked Zoidberg that can disguise itself as a civilian known only as the Faceless. You’ll also meet a creature called the Codex which is seemingly made up of physical data that can clone itself upon taking damage and can teleport at will. The enemy variety is simply immense and adopting strategies to take down combinations of them takes real skill. The aliens will also draw from a ‘Dark Events’ deck that can hinder your operations in a variety of ways, from sending a UFO to shoot your base down and trigger a base defense mission to simply hiding the Faceless amongst the civilian population on a group of missions. A Dark Event might also simply involve the aliens inching themselves further toward victory. The aliens achieve game victory through completing a dark and mysterious project known only as the Avatar Project. If they fill the bar at the top of the macromanagement screen, a timer will start. If the player does nothing to stop this timer and it reaches zero, you’re treated to a dull ending cutscene and a Game Over. Enemy Unknown‘s honestly very creepy Game Over cutscenes are replaced with something that could be misinterpreted as any other cutscene in the game and it’s quite underwhelming . It makes losing only matter if you decide that it matters, and I don’t know how to feel about that. I’m all for player agency, but come on guys are you even trying shiiiiiiiit
“Aah, the fresh air feels good!”
A tight fit, if you know what I mean.
So, where does the game really fall apart? Besides the bugs, that is? The story. Enemy Unknown didn’t have the best story in the world, but it didn’t really matter because it was a background element. It took more of a cue from B movies than Michael Bay military porn. In XCOM 2, it’s as front-and-center as an explosion in TRansformers: Whatever New Villain Bay Introduced to Sell Toys. Characters interacting with each other as you manage your base is a nice touch, but I felt that the game took itself a little too seriously this time around. Barely using its characters to their fullest potential and simply using them as a means to interact with the game is a common crime in video game writing, but it only becomes apparent in games like XCOM 2. For example, a character that features somewhat prominently is The Speaker, an advanced Thin Man that provides the public with propaganda when they need it. Essentially, he’s the face of ADVENT. He’s in a couple of cutscenes throughout the game, so you’d think he wasn’t Too important in the game’s story. However, in the final mission he’s used in a way that makes him out to be a very important antagonist-lite character. Where did that come from? The ending is fine enough, and fits with the teased elements from Enemy Unknown‘s final cutscene, but it’s promptly ruined by a Halo 2-style cliffhanger. It just left me wanting more and I grew frustrated, not excited. Enemy Unknown’s ending was as conclusive as it needed to be, which is why it really made you stand up and shout “Fuck yeah, humanity!” While XCOM 2 has those moments in its story as well, they’re played down a lot less which is a shame considering that I consider myself an optimist when it comes to the core concepts of humanity. I hope that one day we will be able to conquer the stars as one people, become literal gods, and make waifus real. It’ll happen, right? Right?
So through all this, through all the new changes, through all the bugs and glitches, through all of the conflicting design choices, is XCOM 2 still a good game? Well, I have almost 50 hours played already and am currently playing a Commander Ironman campaign. Yes, this is still XCOM. Yes, this is in nearly every aspect a huge improvement on Enemy Unknown and its expansion. Yes, it’s still the incredibly satisfying and addictive experience you know and love. Yes, this is absolutely worth your money and yes I am judging you for not buying a buggy product. And if I ever recommend a product like that, you know it’s incredible enough to make you not care.