XCOM 2 Review
I've held off on reviewing XCOM 2 for quite some time now - mainly because I wanted to give the game a little time to settle in with a patch or two, given that the game appears to have suffered from some performance problems for some users. Instead, I wrote about why RPG fans should care about this brilliant tactical strategy game - but at this point I've gone as far as I can without putting a score on it.
2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown might well be one of the finest franchise resets in video game history. It somehow managed to maintain the overall nail-biting spirit of the often cruel, obtuse strategy classics it was based off while merging that feeling with controls and moment-to-moment action that was acceptable by modern standards. This was also accomplished without the difficulty being hugely compromised. If Enemy Unknown suffered from anything, it was power creep rather than difficulty creep - the early-game where you're a scrappy, struggling organization is far more difficult than the late game, where you're equipped with hefty armor and alien weapons.
XCOM 2 is a natural progression from that game, but near enough everything has been refined and tweaked from a design perspective to what feels to be creeping ever-so-close to perfection.
With the reboot already successful, some of the shackles of being attached to a classic series have been loosened - so where Enemy Unknown simply had to have an underground base because that's what classic XCOM is, XCOM 2 drops you into a repurposed alien ship that travels the globe at your command. This makes sense with where the narrative has been taken, too - the aliens won the war depicted in Enemy Unknown and have had control of the planet for decades. XCOM is now a guerilla operation, flying in with their mobile base, striking alien interests, then retreating.
In truth, this twist in the XCOM story actually makes the title's resource-scraping mechanics make a lot more sense. Why XCOM would be struggling for funds when the very governments they're protecting are under attack and screaming out for help, I don't know - but now XCOM is pulling together scant resources from sympathizers in a struggling resistance movement. Where before aliens would often be staging an incursion into a human area, now XCOM is dropping a small strike force in behind enemy lines. The series is essentially turned on its head, but everything makes more sense and feels more urgent for it.
The plot quickly trends towards XCOM finding a fatal weakness in the aliens' grip on humanity, and then you're striking to halt the ticking of an ever-present doomsday clock and further your own destructive plans while managing your base and performing vital research in between missions, all while criss-crossing the globe to avoid being detected. There's more polish to the narrative now with more fully-directed cinematic sequences, though the story is still limited to interactions between a few key players. What's there is quality, and certainly instills an excellent sense of urgency, but there's not too much of it.
The villains never really feel very fleshed out, for instance. Early on, a human-looking character who collaborates with the aliens (Voiced by Mass Effect's Garrus) is introduced and seems like he might be an interesting foil for XCOM, but he doesn't get to address you directly until the final mission, when he taunts you over the radio. It seems a strange omission, but at the same time XCOM has always been more about telling your own stories than experiencing a pre-defined one.
In that XCOM 2 excels just as its predecessor did - you've still got permanent death and the crushing impact it has on your crew. The manner in which you recruit feels a little more sparse, and a more evenly-spread difficulty curve (though it is still harder earlier on) means late losses hurt more than ever.
As explained in my other article, it's here where XCOM 2 most appeals to RPG fans. Everybody leaves this game with their own stories of lucky escapes, tragic deaths and heroic charges. You become attached to your characters not through some story cue, but simply through using them, watching them - more than anything, through suffering with them. The soldiers aren't just limited as whatever the game generates, either - you can adjust their appearance, names, nationalities, voices - you can make them truly personal.
Alongside this is a turn-based strategy layer that in truth isn't that different to a Final Fantasy Tactics or a Fire Emblem - sure, characters level up in a much more basic way with a simple "X or Y" skill tree choice for each class at each level, but between that, gear and actual squad choice it's still possible to have some wildly different builds. The combat feels good, and there's still nothing quite as exciting or nail-biting as seeing if that vital shot with a 51% hit rate will actually hit - it's back to basics; D&D style rolls at their finest.
Almost every mission now also comes packing a sub-objective, the goal no longer often merely 'kill all the aliens'. The need to rush to an objective, plant a bomb or safely extract a VIP puts an additional strain on missions, often with turn-based time limits in place. Some players have found this too much, with mods on Steam raising time limits - but generally speaking, I found it quite manageable and, more than that, enjoyable. XCOM is meant to be hard, and the time limits are just another welcome bead of sweat upon the players' brow, another plate to spin, and that's where XCOM is at its best.
For my money XCOM 2 is one of the finest strategy games out there. The free-form nature of its plot and its surprisingly seamless randomly generated mission maps lends itself perfectly to replays and speed-runs - to cut a long story short, there's a lot of different ways to play this game - and a few game overs on the way to your first completion is also all part of the plan.
Where XCOM 2 struggles and falls down a little is mostly in execution, in elements hopefully likely to improve with a few patches and newer PC hardware. It runs terribly on older machines, and even on my PC, which blasts through even the most modern stuff with ease, the CPU was taking a real hit during enemy turns as the game crunched the numbers and figured out what the AI should do. It's strange, especially since Enemy Unknown ran so well and this seems like an evolution, rather than a revolution, of that title's systems.
My other criticism is of the enemies - there's a solid spread of old and new aliens, plus new alien-augmented humans who actually make up the bulk of the forces. That's my problem - while mechanically I learned to fear the Stun Lancer ADVENT troops as much as any alien, fighting so many more humanoids is just, well... less interesting. I would've liked a few more alien designs instead - but I also fully understand these troops are essentially a necessity of the title's brilliant 'earth occupied' plot - there would be collaborators.
Even with those smaller issues noted, it's telling of the quality of XCOM 2 that I put some 80 hours into it over such a short period of time. It twists what players know about the series in brilliant new ways but also remains familiar enough that it certainly isn't throwing the baby out with the bath water. It takes one of the best games in recent years and makes it better on almost every front. Even if you have to endure performance issues, what XCOM 2 has to offer is well worth fighting through them for.