XCOM 2 Review: Bigger, better, and harder than ever
After four years and an understandable but excruciating delay, the long-awaited to sequel to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 is finally here, and it’s making a huge impact for a game that was once little more than a cult classic. Bigger, more polished, and more detailed than its predecessor, XCOM 2 takes the classic alien-fighting formula and runs with it, creating an amazing and truly exceptional game in the process.
Welcome Back, Commander
XCOM 2 starts with a pretty unique twist – the game hinges on the twist that the titular black ops organization, XCOM, lost the fight against the aliens in the first game, and that the world is now ruled by a shadowy, Combine-esque coalition of aliens and humans called ADVENT. It’s not the first game to ever imagine that the bad guys won, but given that most veterans of the series will have, well, beaten the alien invaders the first time around, it’s bound to come as something of a shock.
It’s a smart twist from a gameplay perspective too – rather than hunting down inscrutable and terrifying invaders, you’re leading a desperate and outmanned resistance against an implacable foe. As such, you’re no longer scouring the map looking for aliens engaged in acts of sabotage or abduction, you’re now trying to stealthily abscond with intel, sabotage operations, or rescue captured humans that may be useful to the cause.
As a consequence, most missions now start with your soldiers in stealth, allowing you to set up elaborate ambushes on unsuspecting ADVENT forces. If you thought that this would make the game any easier, you would be sorely mistaken – sure, you now have the initiative when it comes to combat, but your foes are tougher and more numerous, and what’s worse, they are liable to receive reinforcements if you take too long on your objective.
With speed now more essential than ever, veteran XCOM players will have to balance their deeply-ingrained caution with the threat of failing the mission or being outflanked by ADVENT reinforcements. Missions are just as challenging as in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but these elements make them fresh and challenging in new ways.
We Band of Brothers
Base-building and management is back, and much like with combat, it’s the same, but different. There are some familiar faces and some new ones, and the basics of putting your base together are the same – except now you’re clearing out the interior of a repurposed alien craft rather than excavating an underground base. Efficient use of resources and good building priorities are still important, rewarding smart players that plan ahead, though it’s likely that first-timers are going to struggle to find the optimal configuration of their base the first time around.
As with the first game, you start out with pretty standard equipment that you can upgrade through research, salvage, and engineering. Resource gathering during missions is key here: not only will ADVENT foes will leave corpses behind that can be traded or used for autopsies, but they’ll often drop pieces of tech that can be salvaged, if you get to them fast enough.
Of course, the core of any XCOM game is the soldiers that make up your squad.
The ability to arm, customize, and otherwise trick out your troops has never been better. Like in the first game, soldiers hail from all over the globe, with accents to match, providing a diverse baseline of fighters that only get more unique as you play. Customizing armor and loadouts is simple and comprehensive, and you can extensively customize your troops down to the way they stand and act while idle.
Your rookies that survive their trial by fire can be promoted into classes: the close-combat ranger, the support-focused specialist, the heavy-weapons grenadier, the precise sharpshooter, and eventually, the powerful psi operative. There are two paths for each class, representing different strengths, meaning that even with a big squad, you are unlikely to have two soldiers that are exactly the same.
With such extensive customization and developed personalities for your squaddies, the best and worst part of the XCOM series is taken to the extreme – you’ll be more attached to your XCOM operatives, and more heartbroken when they die. Do yourself a favor and don’t name anyone in your first playthrough after someone you care about.
The XCOM series has always hung its hat on the strength of its gameplay – the story and atmosphere have always been good, but they also generally come second to the brutal tactical play that the franchise is famous for.
XCOM 2 places a lot more emphasis on the story and atmosphere, and the effort really pays off. The music is excellent, setting the mood and ramping up the action, and the environments are lovingly crafted and beautiful (if your PC is powerful enough to run the game on high settings). The story, also, has been given a serious upgrade – instead of a mostly tacked-on arc as in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the story is now central to the game, and much more interesting and compelling.
From the get-go, you’re more invested in and engaged with the story of the Commander and his motley crew, and as the plot unfolds, the tension and stakes grow exponentially. XCOM 2 didn’t need a good story to be a great game, but the addition of a solid story line, buttressed with excellent cutscenes, makes it truly excellent.
Unfortunately, there are some oversights in the XCOM 2 launch, and they can be killer. There’s no question that the game is poorly optimized, getting low FPS and excruciating load times even on powerful machines, and eating up system resources well beyond what should be required. Crashes aren’t common, but they aren’t rare either, and while these alone aren’t enough to sink they game, they do take a little shine off of it. It should be noted that the game still looks great, and since it’s turn based, the chugging is a lot less obtrusive than it might be otherwise.
The good news is that performance can be tweaked, and Firaxis has a good record when it comes to listening to their customers – still, if you’ve got a less than optimal machine or if you’ve got little patience for bad performance, it might be worth waiting until some tweaks or performance patches for XCOM 2 come down the pipe.
Good Luck, Commander
XCOM 2 doesn’t just replicate the formula set in place by XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it innovates and vastly improves on it. It’s got polish, heart, and it's challenging in the extreme – and now that maps are randomly generated, even the vanilla game has infinite replayability (I haven’t even mentioned mods yet, and not because they’re not important – it would take a whole separate article to cover everything that mods will have to offer).
If you liked XCOM: Enemy Unknown, then you’ll most likely love XCOM 2, which comes as no surprise, but even if you didn’t play any of the previous iterations, you’ll probably like XCOM 2 (though it might be brutally hard). This isn't just a great XCOM game: it’s a great game, period, and in a genre that doesn’t get enough love. If you’ve ever wanted to try a turn-based squad shooter – or if you’ve been trying to get your friends to try one – XCOM 2 might be your best opportunity yet.