Though it has its problems, XCOM 2 is the best squad based tactics game to come out in a long time, and if you like thoughtful strategy with a healthy dose of tense action, Firaxis’s newest entry in the series is for you.
XCOM 2 (2016)
Imagine the following (spoiler free) scenario if you will. During XCOM 2‘s final mission, your squad must fight an incredibly mobile enemy who moves every time it takes damage. In my particular case, the last objective I needed to complete the mission and the game was to kill this enemy. The only problem was that I was simultaneously surrounded by an insane number of other units that would wipe my entire squad should I fail to kill this mobile unit by the end of the turn. It was a now or never situation, if ever there was one. As would be expected, this particular enemy has quite a bit of health, so my squad needed to shoot it multiple times—a process that led to it moving all over the tactical map.
My first attack against it was an AOE (area of effect) shot with a Psi-Ops soldier. When it moved nearby, I used the Run and Gun ability for my Ranger class, got just around the corner from it, and hit a double shotgun blast to the face to weaken it even more. The rest of my soldiers either missed their shots (that’s XCOM for you), or only slightly weakened it. At this point, I was down to my last soldier—my best solider, in fact—with my Sharpshooter. Wearing her backwards baseball cap and dark aviators, she was perched atop a small platform, and the objective enemy was directly in her line of sight. I had been nurturing this Sharpshooter character (her codename was “Longwalker”), taking her on almost every mission through the campaign, and even retraining her class makeup one time to get the kinds of skills I wanted. It seemed only right that the final shot of the game should come down to her. She steps out, fires the weapon, and even with a 98% hit chance, XCOM has trained me to hold my breath. The shot hits, the enemy explodes, and the game moves into the final cut scene. Good job, Commander.
Here, XCOM 2—Firaxis Games’s sequel to 2012’s Enemy Unknown and its 2013 standalone expansion Enemy Within—is responsible for one of my most memorable experiences in gaming. Training up a squad, watching them grow, and struggling to keep them alive, that’s what makes that final victory in XCOM so wonderfully satisfying, and the sequel delivers these experiences in ways that even the originals struggle to achieve. Though it has its problems, XCOM 2 is the best squad based tactics game to come out in a long time, and if you like thoughtful strategy with a healthy dose of tense action, Firaxis’s newest entry in the series is for you.
As far as sequels go, XCOM 2‘s plot assumes the player got the bad ending in the previous game; in other words, you lost against the alien invasion back in EW. Remember that time you were posted up on top of a building with full cover and three Thin-Men wiped your whole squad, making you rage quit? Well, imagine that moment was the canon ending for EW. Now, it’s twenty years later, and humanity has been dominated (perhaps colonized?) by the alien presence. XCOM is no longer the entrenched government organization fighting off alien incursions. Instead, it has become a guerrilla group scavenging for supplies while using hit and run tactics against the now governing alien forces. Overall, using a game’s bad ending to set up a sequel is an innovative and original concept these days, and rather than limiting this change to a merely cosmetic difference, Firaxis works it into almost every facet of the game’s pace and mechanics.
Aside from the general context, however, XCOM 2‘s plot leaves quite a bit to be desired. It isn’t bad per se, but it also doesn’t get very creative with the standard resistance narrative. Expect to see a ragtag group of misfits barely keeping their operation together until you show up and set things right. Expect the “where are all the people going?” and the “oh no, it’s so much worse than we thought!” clichés. As such, the moments in the game that should shock and motivate the player fall rather flat. Still, despite a mundane script, the overall plot ends on a pretty satisfying note, and for a game that was never really focused on dynamic writing in the first place, the story here is more than serviceable. Just don’t expect to be wowed by any sort of narrative gymnastics. While introspective narrative is becoming part of more experimental storytelling forms in gaming (see my review of The Beginner’s Guide), XCOM 2 sticks pretty close to the standard formula.
Where XCOM 2 shines is in its deep, tactical gameplay, and in that arena, it is one of the best squad-based tactics games ever made. While both Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within were fun, their higher difficulty levels seemed based too much on luck, rather than skill or preparation. Because of the limited number of ways the different soldier classes complemented one another, tactical situations had to be handled according to one of a few general methods. This brought almost all encounters down to “Will my 85% chance on this shot hit or miss?”. And when it missed, you lost. End of story. With the sequel, however, XCOM 2 has struck what is almost a perfect balance between soldier classes, skills, tactics, and punishing difficulty, and these elements allows for a diverse and complex array of responses to all possible scenarios.
One of the specific ways in which the game has improved over its predecessor is in the areas of research and base building. Instead of the underground facility from EW, this time your base is a procured alien spaceship. Each of the possible rooms is filled with debris and machinery, instead of dirt, and making the rooms serviceable requires an engineer to clean them out. Although you will need to gather engineers from missions and occasionally purchase them, the trade-off is that when you empty the rooms, you are given critical supplies to use in you research (as opposed to spending them in order to clean out the rooms in the first place). This new mechanic keeps you active and researching/building even when those randomly generated missions aren’t popping up. Building weapons and armor has also been streamlined. After you research a new weapon type, you no longer have to buy each individual soldier a new weapon. You buy it once, and that covers all soldiers of that class. The overall result of these kinds of changes is that the game moves at a much faster pace, and it generally removes those long stretches in the previous game where you were out of resources and couldn’t do anything but wait.
Soldier classes also have a better balance this time because they tend to merge the qualities of older classes, while simultaneously including new skills in the formula. Gone are the Heavy, Sniper, Support, and Assault classes. Heavies are now Grenadiers, and while they still pack the rocket and grenade punch, they no longer have to fire their heavy weapons on the first turn alone. Since the game as a whole focuses so much on mobility (more on that later), being able to put heavy ordinance down after a move makes a huge tactical difference. Snipers are now Sharpshooters, and the skill set allows you to favor pistol shots, such that you can clear out three or four enemies in one turn if need be. The “Double-Tap” skill is gone, but there are comparable substitutes I won’t spoil. Support has become the Specialist class, which combines the healing and smoke abilities of the old game with hacking skills that are devastating against tech based enemies. While Specialists can seem useless in the early game, their late game role is pivotal. Finally, the Assault class has now become the Ranger, and it’s a sweet upgrade. While much of this class stays the same, the inclusion of a high-risk-high-reward sword attack, along with the ability to go into stealth mode at any time in a mission, makes this class particularly useful in almost all scenarios. In summary, the class changes here open up tactical possibilities, rather than foreclosing them, and the balance provided by such a broad array of class skills gives players an increased number of options when dealing with an unexpected tactical situation. All of this will no doubt be improved and expanded upon by the player base, since XCOM 2 is fully moddable.
All this is not to say that the game has gotten easier. XCOM 2 retains the difficulty of its predecessors, but that difficulty is not always handled in ways that are germane to the game’s design. In fact, much of the game’s early difficulty stems from what seems an artificial attempt to make it more challenging: mission timers. Unfortunately, almost 75% of the mission types you will encounter are governed by mission timers that designate how many turns players can take to complete the objective. In some ways, such a system makes sense. As opposed to its predecessor, where you were the entrenched home team battling an invading force, in XCOM 2 you are a guerilla operative group, moving quickly from location to location. As such, you can’t hang around after the mission is over. You have to complete the objective and move out before enemy reinforcements arrive. On paper, mission timers make sense. In practice, however, the way Firaxis implemented those timers is often questionable. For most of the missions, regardless of the actual objective you are trying to complete, if you take too long, your entire squad either dies or is captured. That’s it. The timer essentially becomes a magic number you must meet or you will, again magically, lose everything. The game would have been improved by an escalating response system, where overshooting the timer would spawn endless reinforcements, or shift the evac zone across the map, or some other option more creative than what we currently have. This “miss the magic number and everyone magically dies for no apparent reason” concept is lazy at best, and it is certainly out of place in a game that seems so carefully balanced in other ways.
There’s also an unfortunate amount of opacity about how major game systems work. Though there are several examples I could name, the overall metagame known as the AVATAR project is the worst offender. While you’re playing, a little red bar at the top of the screen slowly fills up between missions, and if it fills up completely, you lose. The problem is, the game never explains that if you complete certain objectives, that bar will go back down. There also doesn’t seem to be a clear governing logic about how much the timer builds or lessens based upon what happens. Sometimes, it will jump forward two ticks when it should only be one, and other times I would complete what seemed like a simple objective only to see the timer drop three ticks at a time. I’m on my second playthrough now, and I have yet to figure out the mechanics of this system. Since this is one of XCOM 2‘s main pieces, it is more than careless to leave it unexplained in its entirety.
By far, the most frustrating problems in all of XCOM 2 are its numerous technical issues, which at the time of this review have yet to be addressed. The first patch/hotfix was pushed through this week, and while it did correct some of the major crashing issues, it didn’t do much for overall game stability. Framerate drops, stuttering, freezes, and CTDs are common reports, as well as corrupted save files (though that seems to have been fixed now). These issues are most prevalent in the late game, when lots of enemies (each with their own constant particle effects and animations) are present on the screen at once. I’m playing on a PC that more than meets the game’s requirements, and I still get framerate problems and the occasional CTD, even with the game settings turned down. Unfortunately, Firaxis has now joined the growing list of developers who have decided to ship partially broken games in order to meet deadlines. Though the studio claims to be working around the clock to fix these issues, they have yet to announce a time frame in which to expect a significant improvement in the game’s quality.
As it stands, I would not recommend any Ironman runs yet. With the constant technical problems, you can’t be sure you won’t be killed by a programming glitch as much as a legitimate enemy attack. I had to reload several times because I couldn’t click on a soldier, an enemy glitched through a wall, I couldn’t see an enemy that was standing directly in front of me, etc. I’m not much of an Ironman player anyway though. I like the challenge of running into a difficult situation, then reloading and trying lots of different tactical options to see what works best. I’m an experimenter, rather than an endurer. Plus, this game is HARD, like a lot harder than the previous one. Even a run on normal gave me a lot of trouble in different parts that I can’t really outline here without spoiling something. Either way, I’d say give Ironman a rest until some major hotfixes get pushed out.
Despite these issues, XCOM 2 is a worthy sequel in the series, and especially if these early technical problems are cleared up, it will stand as one of the best squad based tactics games of the last decade. Good luck, Commander.