XCOM 2 review: Unfairly good

Reviews

Reviewed on: PC

There will be few moments in your life when you’ll be required to make decisions as huge, and under the same amounts of pressure, as ones you’ll make when playing XCOM 2. Will you take the 50/50 shot to kill an enemy pinning down a team mate, hold your ground and only fire defensively or relocate to a better position but also expose your flank? Could another team mate bail you out of that new danger? If so, what’s the statistical likelihood that they will given every option has a chance to fail miserably?

XCOM 2 is a constant string of these kinds of choices, framed within an epic story of an underground resistance fighting back against an occupying alien force. That’s right, XCOM 2 follows on from its predecessor, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, by assuming you got the ending where the aliens defeated you and took over Earth. It has jumped forward 20 years to where the humans are gearing up for round two, no longer the hunted but now the hunters.

xcom 2 soldier minigun

Crazy, hooded, EXO-Suit wearing, mini-gun toting hunters.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

XCOM 2 keeps the simple turn based system of Enemy Unknown, where players take control of squads of four-to-six soldiers on a variety of missions to combat the alien menace. Each soldier can take two “actions” per turn ranging from movement, shooting, reloading and various class-based special abilities/items. Once every soldier has used their two actions, the alien side gets a turn and so on and so forth until you reach a glorious victory, a crushing defeat or a combination of both.

Trust me, perfect victories are almost unheard of in this game. Why? Because a lot of XCOM 2 comes down to chance, as cold hard statistics are at the centre of everything you do in combat. Every time a soldier aims at an opponent, a statistical likelihood of success is displayed, and these stats are based upon the kind of weapon being used, the skill of the soldier using it, the elevation of the attacker/defender and what kind of cover they’re behind. This is how XCOM becomes so brutal, because even if you do everything right, things can still go horribly wrong and good soldiers will die. Just take a look at my experience in Enemy Unknown and you’ll see how shockingly bad even a guaranteed win can go.

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88%. Knowing this game, I reckon she’ll miss.

As in the original, the wide variety of mission types in XCOM 2 make for a plethora of stressful experiences, whether it be rescuing civilians, extracting a VIP in a certain number of turns or just wiping out an entire alien base. Further more, there are plenty of new enemy types to encounter, each one with a range of evil abilities that will decimate your team if you’re not careful.

Seriously, you’ll come to hate encountering all the enemy types. The “Faceless” can hide as civilians until the time to strike, the Vipers can reach you with their long tongues, and the goddamn Codex can clone itself as well as remotely disable your troops’ weapons. The enemy AI seems to have been improved to include sense of self preservation, with lone survivors knowing to retreat and join another group instead of standing their ground.

xcom 2 muton

There’s also the Mutons, they’re equally as douchey.

But while the core mechanics of XCOM 2 have remained the same, the smaller parts that make it up have changed considerably.

Doing your best work in the shadows

The most major change is the new “concealment phase” at the beginning of most missions. Since XCOM soldiers are now the guerilla fighters attacking the occupying alien force, often they are sneaking into a guarded location to achieve their objective. As such, you begin your game in concealment, where enemy soldiers won’t react to your presence unless a soldier enters their field of view, opens a door or is flanked.

While this change removes the horror aspects of Enemy Unknown where you were cautiously looking for the alien monsters lurking ahead, the new strategic opportunities it opens up really turn the tide of a lot of battles. The concealment phase is designed for you to move up quickly, having no fear of activating opponents just by exposing them on the map, and set up ambushes. Trust me, there is nothing more satisfying then carefully placing your squad around a group of enemies and then wiping them out with one round of attacks.

I got ‘dem skillz

The skill trees for each soldier class, the Ranger, Grenadier, Sharpshooter and Specialist, have also been completely revamped. The Sharpshooter and Grenadier are newer versions of the Sniper and Heavy Weapons class from Enemy Unknown, while the Ranger is a new blade wielding, close quarters class and the Specialist brings with them a remote drone that can dish out attacks or heal troops depending on their chosen skills. Paying close attention to what skills you choose is incredibly important, as now they can be used in tandem to almost cheat at the game, granting advantages like an extra shot at an enemy or a movement bonus etc. Heck, with the right skill choices a Sharpshooter can shoot a pistol for free, then move up to a new position and take more shots at everyone in their sight-lines. That right there has saved my bacon many a time.

The skills are also separated into two columns per soldier, meaning for every skill you choose you are closing off another one, encouraging choosing different skills for different soldiers in the same class, granting more options to take into combat. And again, soldiers can be named after friends and family for that extra level of attachment.

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A squad of my mates, with my buddy Jorge looking far too cool in the middle there.

Home is where the logistics are

This point leads into the other aspect of the game: base management. The XCOM resistance has a mobile command centre where between missions you can research new technology, build items/weapons, soldiers can recover wounds and you can travel around the world scavenging for the supplies and build your resistance network. While it is easy to think your success out in the field is the most important part of the game, and it is certainly important, your decisions while managing your base can either make or break your entire playthrough.

If you haven’t been building enough resistance contacts, or the radio rooms to allow for such expansion, then you will struggle further down the line when it comes time to assault Avatar Facilities, which are crucial to lowering the game’s doomsday clock. When soldiers are injured out in the field they need time to recover before they can be used again, so if you haven’t got a backup supply of trained troops then your next mission will be a nightmare.

These necessities, and more, are all tied to the passage of time as they take in-game days to achieve. And the more days you wait to build/research things and heal troops, the more likely a random event will appear or the doomsday clock will advance. There’s no way to get everything done when you want it done, so tough choices have to be made. This is XCOM, it’s all about risks.

Developer Firaxis have at least thrown one bone to players when it comes to upgrading gear. Where in Enemy Unknown you would need to research new technology then manufacture individual weapons/armour for each soldier, XCOM 2 opts to just ask you to research, pay once for manufacturing and then grant you an infinite supply of that new weapon type. There was nothing worse than only having two good guns for a four person team in Enemy Unknown, so this change is most welcomed. Don’t worry, it certainly doesn’t make the game any easier.

xcom 2 viper 2

“Did they think something would make this easier?! BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA”

Optimisation? Never heard of it…

XCOM 2 does suffer from some optimisation issues, both in terms of performance and in gameplay.

In regards to gamplay, the base management system is clunky to navigate. Going from browsing the world map, where a majority of resource gathering is done, to the engineering or research labs requires clicking out of several menus that each have flashy animations that just unnecessarily prolong the experience. Actually browsing the world map can’t be done via just moving the mouse to edges of the screen to move perspective, but instead require highlighting objective icons that then lurch the camera to that particular objective. All of these don’t stop you from getting anything done in too timely a manner, but the constant camera zooming and panning just feels unclean.

But in terms of performance, the game looks great and runs pretty well, providing you turn off the anti-aliasing and ambient occlusion settings. I was running the game on an i7 CPU, GTX 970 system above the recommended specs and got a pretty consistent 60 frames per second once I turned those settings off, as having them on halved the frame rate. That’s not to say I never suffered frame rate dips with those settings, as large pieces of action or sudden enemy reveals did put me in the low 40’s now and then, but it was never unplayable.

If anything the only major performance issues I encountered were some walls occasionally disappearing leaving me or an enemy without cover suddenly (which was totally NOT COOL) and some serious lag when it came to be the alien’s turn to move. I don’t mean frame rate lag, I mean the game just sitting there doing nothing for up to 20 seconds after revealing an enemy squad before it would register they were actually in play. Again, not unplayable, just annoying.

Although not as annoying as these buggers…

Conclusion

I could go on forever about everything that is amazing in XCOM 2. I have countless stories to tell of my soldiers’ amazing acts of valour and their tragic losses, and that’s the real beauty of this game: that other players will have their own stories, forged by the bond they have with their own comrades. Yes it is hard, at times unfair, but that’s because it is like an actual battle where not everything is within your control. It’s simple to pick up but loaded with choices and depth that open many different strategies and tactics, which combined with the procedurally generated levels gives it endless replayability, especially with a multiplayer system to boot. If you have a PC that can run XCOM 2, you owe it to yourself to play it.

Pros: Simple, solid mechanics; wide variety of missions; lots of tactical customisation options; personalisation of soldiers; different enemies with smart AI.

Cons: Clunky base controls; frame rate drops; lagging enemy turns.

The verdict: 9/10

Find Tom when he’s not playing XCOM on Twitter: @tomdheath. For more gaming stuff, follow LoadScreen on Twitter, @load_screen, and Facebook

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