Si vis pacem, para bellum
When XCOM: Enemy Unknown came out in 2012, I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, I love strategy games; this is evident by the litany of reviews for real-time strategy games I’ve written for this very site. But from my memory of attempting to play UFO Defense XCOM was another creature: An unforgiving, bloodthirsty, hardcore beast, one which would feel no guilt or pity in ambushing your squad at the outset of a mission and murdering every last one. All told, it ended up being my game of the year that year, beating out Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and Fez, both of which I thought extremely highly of. Then, in 2013, Firaxis released an expansion to EU, titled “Enemy Within,” which introduced important and game-changing features like gene mods and mech suits. It wasn’t without its problems, sure — the story was non-existent, ambushing enemies was impossible (literally), and I always got the distinct feeling that there weren’t more than one or two maps for each tileset. In spite of those things, it remains one of my favorite games of the last console generation (even though I played it on PC), and indeed one of my favorite games of all time. Then XCOM 2 was announced, and I got worried. “It looks like Firaxis is just making the same game again, but this time they’re adding swords? No, this can’t be happening.” Fortunately, not only does XCOM 2 tighten up the tactical moment-to-moment action of the original, but also manages to expand on the Geoscape meta-game which has become a staple of the series.
Assuming that humanity surrendered to the aliens from Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 takes place 20 years after the events of the previous game. The invaders have occupied and essentially re-colonized Earth, turning it into a faux-utopia where resistance is dealt with through disappearances and silencing. The commander — the player character — is essentially awoken from cryosleep and tasked by Central with once again leading XCOM against the alien threat. XCOM 2 winds up portraying a far meatier narrative than that of Enemy Unknown, with far-reaching implications that old-school fans will find incredibly appealing.
It’s also way more brutal. Every mission has a turn timer until forced retreat, at which point you lose the mission. It doesn’t become a chore, though, instead adding some much-needed tension to the early parts of a mission, especially with XCOM 2’s new mission setup. You start most missions concealed, and are only revealed to the enemy if you fire a shot or walk into their line of site. It makes for some interesting ambushes, where you’re carefully perching your snipers on roofs and on cliffsides, while your rangers are moving within melee range and your specialists attempt to get closer to the objective. The aliens have received some upgrades too, though: The Sectoid, the basic enemy alien from the previous game, is now basically a super soldier with the ability to mind control individuals in your squad or psychically resurrect any dead unit as a zombie. Thin Men, annoying but frail poison cloud-spewing human effigies, have revealed their true form: Vipers, a race of snakes which can grab your squad members from across the map and constrict them until staggered. Even the basic human-alien hybrid footsoldiers — the ADVENT — have a few dirty tricks up their sleeve. XCOM 2 doesn’t care if you die. In fact, unlike most games (especially modern ones), XCOM 2 actively wants to kill you. I had a mission go fairly well until the last turn, when I was attempting to extract a civilian. I nearly reach the extraction zone with the VIP, smartly wedging him behind cover in between two of my best operatives. With only one turn until my victory is assured, ADVENT reinforcements arrive and murder him. Mission failed. I laughed it off, and restarted. Roll with the punches, right? I hate save scumming.
The Geoscape, the world map meta-game, has received a huge overhaul. Instead of starting with the world’s nations at a base approval level, you don’t even have contact with them. You’re required to reach out to them and build radio towers in order to access other continents and, ultimately, the story missions they have to offer. Additionally, you no longer automatically gain a sizable chunk of cash each month. Instead, you gain a negligible amount, and the rest are dropped in a supply cache that you have to go retrieve yourself. Also, you have an ultimatum: Stop the aliens from completing “The Avatar Project” by clearing out alien blacksites and completing other objectives. Complacency is punished with a tighter schedule, because at various intervals, the aliens gain progress towards completion of The Avatar Project, indicated by a series of red boxes at the top of the world map.
The level design in XCOM 2 is exquisite. It constantly amazed me that most (if not all) of the maps were procedurally generated, because each new operation — even ones on the same tileset — had a completely different layout. In one mission, I was in an urban city park, surrounded by offices and businesses. In another, I was in the same urban environment, but instead was presented with an overpass and several apartment complexes. This extends to every single aspect of XCOM 2, including starting position on the world map. My first (failed) game saw me positioned in the deserts of New Mexico, whereas my second run through I began in the southern reaches of Russia. The bonuses for continental approval are also random, and there are more bonuses than continents, so each run through the game feels fresh and interesting. It absolutely feels like every change made to every aspect of XCOM 2 is in service of making it a more random, more tense experience, while lessening the frustration of constantly feeling like you’re at the whim of a dice roll.
It’s sad to say that the initial release suffers from some extreme technical issues which actually substantially hindered my ability to play the game normally. Game-breaking bugs — like not being able to load certain saves — and the absurd time in between actions and ends of turns really put a damper on my enjoyment of XCOM 2. It also hitches in seemingly random spots and the framerate chugs, even on low on a PC with substantially higher-than-minimum requirements. It’s fortunate that Firaxis seem to be set on fixing these issues, with one patch already out which has improved performance and fixed some bugs, but it’s unfortunate that a PC-only release didn’t see a better launch.
I wasn’t sure I needed more XCOM. After I completed Enemy Unknown three or four times and then another two or three after Enemy Within released, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go back in. XCOM 2 changed my mind. I’m definitely going to be making another run through on a harder difficulty (I played my second save on Commander difficulty after learning the ropes in my first save). I’m also excited for the future of the modding scene, since Firaxis released mod tools alongside the game and even gave the team that made The Long War, the most popular mod for EU, some lead time to create some cool stuff that released at the same time.
Ultimately, I enjoyed XCOM 2, but find it difficult to recommend at the moment to anyone but those with extremely beefy PCs. A host of technical issues and some substantial bugs cause issue, despite the game being better than its predecessor in literally every regard possible. I also really wish the damn thing had controller support.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: 2K Games ; Developer: Firaxis Games ; Players: 1-2; Released: February 5, 2016; Genre: Turn-Based Strategy ; MSRP: $59.99