Video Games Review: XCOM 2 (Windows PC, 2016)

Ask any fan of XCOM for their opinion on the franchise and their stories will all be variations on a theme – wonderful games marred by wild RNG and, in the case of 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown at least, some of the most infuriating, game-breaking bugs this side of an Elder Srolls title. Neither of those criticisms have really changed in XCOM 2, but here’s the thing: it’s so good you won’t care.

The XCOM series of turn-based tactical games began in 1994 with the now-classic UFO: Enemy Unknown. This was followed by a sequel, X-COM: Terror from the Deep in 1995 and X-COM: Apocalypse in 1997. It spun off into other genres during the early 2000’s and saw a run of unreleased or outright cancelled games for nearly a decade until 2K obtained the franchise rights and revived the series, sans hyphen, in 2012 with the brilliant-but-flawed XCOM: Enemy Unknown by Sid Meier’s Civilisation developer Firaxis Games.

With XCOM 2, Firaxis has made a game that strives to up the ante on its predecessors and it shows. It scope is greater, its mechanics are more refined and it’s far more confident than XCOM: Enemy Unknown in every single respect. Even with its technical hiccups, and there are quite a few in varying levels of severity, I would actually go so far as to say that no-one’s ever made a better XCOM game than XCOM 2.

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Set some 20 years after XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s initial invasion and humanity’s valiant attempts to halt it, we find that not only did humanity lose the war, we’ve been feebly picking at our new alien overlords without success ever since. XCOM is a shadow of its former self. What were formerly our military and law enforcement agencies are now swarming with genetically modified alien hybrids. The aliens, who have taken to calling themselves Advent in the intervening years, have made themselves at home, rebuilding our devastated cities with designs of their own to better enforce their brutal totalitarian hold on the planet. Outside of these populous areas, the rest of humanity struggles to survive without water, electricity or the barest semblance of safety.

The XCOM remnant has, rather ironically, found a new home in a captured UFO. This allows them to scoot about the planet undetected before dropping to the surface to cause trouble. From their mobile base, XCOM is holding what remains of their staff – soldiers, engineers and scientists alike – together with both hands. They show up, take what they can, enrage their enemy and disappear into the night but there’s no real end game for them. That’s where you come in.

One of the things that XCOM 2 does best is the building of character. In your troops, in your enemy, in you as their leader. You are brought into the game during a surprisingly intense tutorial mission and are welcomed back into the fold by Central Officer Bradford, a character we last saw in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. He’s a changed man though, made stony by two decades of relentless fighting. An-Yi Shen appears as your new head of engineering, the daughter of Enemy Unknown‘s same staff member. You’ll also have scientific help from Dr. Richard Tygan, a former slave turned science officer for XCOM. These three form the game’s beating heart, growing on you immediately but also providing a wealth of information about how things are going.

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This is all just delicious gravy against what is the main course of any XCOM game – its vaunted turn-based, isometric strategy combat. I’m sure they’re the sort of dream set up any off-site mission commander would dream of – all of the battlefield information provided in real time so that units can be directed individually, making their shots count, hunting the aliens lurking in the fog-of-war, drawing them out and putting them down. There’s still a lot of that. It plays exactly the way you expect an XCOM game to play, except for one critical (and in my opinion, brilliant) difference.

XCOM 2 flips the human/alien dynamic on its head by making you the one who is lurking in the fog-of-war. It’s the aliens that have all the information. It’s you being hunted.

The thing you’re going to need to learn if you want to succeed in XCOM 2 is the perfect ambush. If you’re clever about where you place your troops in-mission, thanks to an overhauled concealment system, you’ll be able to march right up to the enemy and cold cock them without them ever knowing you were there. This single change makes the whole game feel fresh and alive. Your strategic choices are easily doubled, and that extends to mission types as well.

Objectives have also been included in your missions, and they add an extra layer of stress and urgency to the proceedings. Sometimes its as simple as “kill all the Advent” but sometimes you’ll have a ticking clock – there’s important intel with a timebomb strapped to it or you need to move fast because if the team isn’t extracted in nine turns, an Advent ship will blow your transport ship out of the air on the way home. It’s a great mix of old and new, forcing you to think twice about everything you’re doing.

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Add to this mission variety the fact that all of the maps in XCOM 2 are procedurally generated and it makes progression feel rather natural. It also means your game and your story will be different every time you play through it and it keeps the game loop of move, reconnoiter, skulk or attack/defend feeling fresh. The really neat thing that these new mechanics bring to the game is a sense of story and drama that has never before been this pronounced. Each of your troops has a story all their own. They have a background dossier, sure, but its the time and energy you put into protecting them and ensuring their safety that ratchets tension. You never truly know what a given mission is going to look like until you have boots on the ground and the desire to avoid a total party kill is more intense than ever.

Where previous XCOM games saw you spending a significant amount of time managing your resources to keep your war effort flowing smoothly, XCOM 2 focuses more on human resource management. You need your staff to be working on the most pertinent upgrades and innovations but there’s an upper limit and exceeding it could mean your base suffers, exposing it to harm. Your base itself will frequently be sent on side missions to help various pockets of resistance or hoover up resources, but must be careful to avoid Advent detection the entire time. Comparisons to the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier from Marvel’s Avengers universe are inevitable, especially because the damned ship is literally named The Avenger. What’s especially cool about these changes to base management is that Firaxis have found a way to take the tension of the on-the-ground tactical missions and jam it into the management sim component as well. I didn’t know this was exactly what XCOM 2 needed until they did it and now I don’t know how I lived without it.

One thing that I remember vividly from XCOM: Enemy Unknown was that I felt permanently rushed. Everything needed to be done immediately or death was assured. XCOM 2 is far more happy to take its time, periodically feeding you new objectives in the overworld that will allow you to further hamper the Advent’s ongoing domination efforts directly or bolster the strength of your civilian allies who are trying to form a cohesive resistance. It ties the whole game together and is the final step in making its predecessor look like total amateur hour.

There are a few problems though, and most of them lie in XCOM 2‘s final polish. The game can and will be a finicky jerk about where you can accurately land a grenade. The camera will still drop into a cinematic mode periodically to show your troops doing cool shit but it will also cheerfully swing behind the nearest wall or tree to obscure such movement. There’s also the times when the entire game will grind to an screeching, clamouring halt while the aliens ponder their next turn. There were times where it took so long to move through to the enemy phase that I honestly thought the game had frozen up, with the longest being a full minute and a half before the aliens all suddenly took a single, infuriating step forward and it went back to my turn.

In addition to this, the usual large amount of RNG involved in combat means that, even if one of your squaddies is casually sliding their rifle barrel into an alien’s nostril, the game may only give you a 67% chance to hit. An anti scum saving mechanic has also been added that will prevent you from greatly affecting the outcome of a given mission. Scum saving, for those who aren’t aware, is when you reach a crossroads in a game, choosing one path and then reloading a save if you mess up or don’t like it. This may irk some players, but will doubtless overjoy those that want their decisions, good or bad, to count.

Speaking of saves, the old save system appears to be unaltered from XCOM: Enemy Unknown because its still ruining the lives of those with lots of saves. It gets everything jumbled and, insultingly, it mislabels timestamps so you might think you’re reloading a save from 5pm but in reality you’re getting a save from hours prior. It never cost me any game time, but I did have to spend each session searching for where I finished up yesterday. In fact, the only way around it that I’ve found so far has been to go through and manually delete any saves I don’t really want to keep and, lets be honest, I shouldn’t have to be doing that in 2016. The good news is that Firaxis provided mod tools to the community on day one so hopefully a lovely modder will fix this issue sooner rather than later and we can all move on with our lives.

Despite this handful of obvious problems, XCOM 2 still manages to stand head and shoulders above every other game in the series. It contains a genuinely absorbing and emotionally affecting story, it refuses to treat the player like an idiot and its best improvements are the small tweaks and inversions of the formula. Its Normal difficulty setting was challenging enough for me on my best day but the hardcore among you will no doubt be heading back for second and third playthroughs on the harder settings, Iron Man mode enabled.

Firaxis have a lot to be proud of. XCOM 2 is brilliant. Play it immediately.

Review Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Deep strategy; Great story; Mods!
Lowlights: Certain irritating bugs persist
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: February 5, 2016
Platform: Windows PC

Reviewed on PC