So, now that my first complete run through of the game is behind me (yes, it was on easy.. but even then, it’s still ridiculously fun and hard at the same time.), it’s time to write a review. We are about 48 hours after it’s release, and I’ve played it for 20 of them. Wow. More below:
The XCOM series had languishied in the doldrums since the 2001 release of X-Com Enforcer. Then 2K games announced a new XCOM game (what would eventually become The Bureau: XCOM Declassified), but didn’t expect the backlash they received on it not being a true XCOM game, but it being a first person shooter. That’s not what people wanted. 2K Games then gave people what they wanted. And boy did we want what they were giving us.
The 2012 release of XCOM Enemy Unknown (and it’s 2013 Downloadable expansion, Enemy Within) basically was the starting point for a renaissance in turn based strategic games. It was fun, challenging and fairly easy to pick up. It had nearly infinite replay value (helped by mod makers, like the “Long War” mod that made it even more difficult and more advanced.) It won multiple game of the year wards, and when the inevitable sequel was announced, we all were excited, and a bit worried. 2K Games had made a misstep as well as a huge step forward. Which would we get this time?
In fact, we took a huge leap forward.
We have Heaven on Earth. We also have Hell.
XCOM 2 is the “bad end” to XCOM: Enemy Within. The aliens have defeated humanity, and have installed ADVENT as the world government. They’ve made good on every promise they’ve made to humanity. The standard of living is high. Many diseases have been cured. Lifespans have been greatly lengthened. Technology has grown by leaps and bounds.
But underneath this level of utopia is an unholy hell. Many humans are abducted, and reduced to their component genes, to provide a new source of genetic engineering for the Ethereal overlords. There is a small, barely functional “Resistance” to ADVENT’s madness, and they need a Commander. Namely, the one who nearly led them all to victory before the aliens somehow kidnapped them. That Commander.. of course, is the player
The tactical game play is very familiar to those who’ve played the previous games in the series. However, there are a lot of changes that take getting used to. Weapons are modular fairly early in the game, as you can install addons that make them slightly better (for example, add more ammo to a clip, or have a small chance of instantly killing an enemy, or granting a bonus action). The biggest change in the game, however, is the limitations of time that the game puts on you. It used to be that you could just sit back, advance a scout, trigger a group of enemies, and then shoot them to pieces, rinse and repeat.
That strategy doesn’t work in the sequel, however. Since XCOM is running a guerilla war, the Skyranger cannot stay loitering around a battlefield forever in a lot of cases. So, you have a certain amount of time to complete an objective, and make it to the evacuation zone. No longer can you just hang back and sit tight. you have a job to do, and not much time to do it. So you have to take risks. However, since you’re running a guerilla war, a lot of the time, you can start the mission in concealment. This is not meant to be a stealth-game, it’s more like allowing you to set up that one big fusillade to take down a group of enemies unaware before the alarms go off. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.
The game offers a variety of enemies to battle. ADVENT troopers are grunts, but there’s enough variety of them, and their related classes that you will have to establish a priority. The ADVENT Stun Lancers can knock unconscious anyone with one melee shot on a bad roll, so they have to be shot, because they can move twice, and still smack you at the end of it. Then we get into the alien enemies, which there are many, the Sectoids have grown up and can still mind control, panic units, or shoot them.. The Mutons are back (in all their different versions), and even the most frightening unit from XCom history, the Chryssalids are back. Let’s not forget all the mechanized units that can bring the pain, as enemy base turrets are the least of your worries, compared to mechanized unit and the utterly devastating Sectopod.
It seems almost unfair that all you have to defend against these enemies are 4 people on your initial squad. Thankfully, you can expand it to six through the military school on the ship (and you can edit files to move the limit up as well).
If we can’t save Humanity, at least we can Avenge(r) them.
That time pressure also applies to the strategic level. The aliens are constantly trying to complete their Avatar Project, and if they do, the game is over. So, there are times you have to put things aside and race to one of the Alien’s project sites and put it out of action before they can advance their Avatar Project. Time management is key here. Unlike the previous game in the series, you can’t do missions world wide easily. You start in a home area, where the Resistance makes it’s headquarters. Then it’s a matter of contacting Resistance cells around the world, and enlisting them in the XCOM cause. That takes time, and you won’t be able to do missions in that area without contacting the Resistance to get key information. Meanwhile, your fortress (the Avenger) needs to be cleared out, and alien technology researched to put your units more on a level playing ground with the aliens. The goal is to never let the player get “Comfortable” or ahead of the game. It’s almost like the game is a sadistic Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master. “So you think you’re hot stuff defeating the ADVENT troopers all over the place? Fine. Here’s some new enemies. Deal with them if you can!”
This game will constantly keep you under time pressure. You need time to gather enemy intelligence, pick up supplies to replenish your stock of weapons (thankfully, now, you don’t have to worry about manufacturing individual units of standard armor and weapons, as they are available to all when you research them, while experimental armor and Ammo is still limited). And time is your enemy in this game. The aliens are racing to complete THEIR projects too, and if you fail to stop some of them, they have negative effects (they may smash the resistance group in a sector you previously visited, for example, causing you to waste time to reconnect), or they may give their enemies an advantage in combat, like extra armor, or poisonous rounds). You will constantly have to make the best of a series of bad choices, while upgrading your units, and trying to figure a way to stop the enemy invasion once and for all.
The right balance of Progression, Difficulty, and Fun
While your units get better in combat, learning new skills, you never QUITE feel like you’re equal to the enemy. You’re going to have to use strategy to defeat them, not overwhelming numbers (that’s the aliens technique, some missions have you facing double your unit size or even more), or weaponry. There were a few moments where the game spiked in difficulty that I was not prepared for. An example from early in the game, they tell you that to gather information on what the aliens plans are, they will need to mind-hack (called Skulljacking) an ADVENT officer. I did that, thinking yay! “Important milestone reached!” They didn’t tell me that this would spawn a new unit that teleported all over the place, drops a psychic doomwell on your troops (you do have a turn to move out), and most annoyingly, clones itself and splits in two when shot. I lost that mission, and I have to admit, I actually said out loud,… “That’s BULLSHIT!”. Next time I was ready however. And eventually, I did reach the endgame (again, this was on easy, so I could see the full content, although there was PLENTY of moments where I was risking utter defeat).
I could go on for hours about this game. But then again, if I did, that would be time I could spend getting back into this game. XCOM 2 is the Strategy Game of the Year, 2016. I’m calling that right now. And it’s a definite contender for Game of the Year as well. Welcome back, Commander. I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here.
And finally, the Breakdown:
The Good: XCom 2 took what was good about XCOM 1, and made it better. They took what was bad about XCOM 1, and made it better. It’s still the same game, with four years of tweaks and twists and turns. Just.. upgraded. Immensely.
The Bad: There can be a feeling of an artificial difficulty spike at times. People bad at time management skills will constantly be behind the 8-ball.
Should You Buy It? If you like Strategy Games, YES. If saving the earth from aliens sounds like a good way to spend tens of hours? YES.
David "SirFozzie" Yellope is the operator of the "An 8 bit mind in an 8 Gigabyte World". (an8bitmind.com) While not QUITE yet at the stage of waving his cane and telling the kids to "get off his lawn", he does admit he owns three canes.