XCOM 2 is set twenty years after the events of the last XCOM game but to spite humanity's best efforts (and many months of late nights) the aliens won the war and now rule the earth with fear, propaganda and sheer brute strength. It was an interesting plot choice to settle on and while makes sense to align all players back to the same state of play - it's still galling to see everything you fought for in ruins (well almost everything).
In the introduction of the game we witness a successful rescue attempt of a VIP which actual turns out to be you - this rescue also serves as a basic introduction for anyone who hasn't played XCOM before (hang your heads in shame). As the various cut-scenes end it's clear humanity is not in a good place but that is not going to stop the resistance taking the fight back to the aliens in one last attempt to retake the earth.
Home is where you hang your plasma rifle.
So this time around we still have a base of operations to govern and develop but we are now mobile in a stolen alien transport ship: retrofitted to act as a mobile HQ. I'm glad Firaxis have kept the 'ant farm' look from the previous game but then refined the aesthetics and systems that occupy its ginormous hull. In many ways old players who have played XCOM will feel right at home, we have scientists, engineers, soldiers and lots of empty slots to build new facilities. The main difference to the recipe this time is that engineers and and scientists can be individually assigned to the various tasks around the ship. This system works really well and affords you a new degree of control over your resources, need a few more bars of power? Get an engineer in there to crank up the generators.
Like in previous games the Sky-ranger is tasked with ferrying your troops back and fourth from the various theatres of war. What didn't initially occur to me was that this time your base (The Avenger) is airborne and thus must travel around the various locations on the geosphere, scanning for a set amount of days to complete whatever that location has to offer.
On your marks...
I am guilty and should be punished - there I said it. Yes I am one of them XCOM players who cannot bear to lose a single soldier, especially if they have been given a name of a friend, ergo I like to creep across the battlefield sweating every single move. For the most part XCOM let me do this and then Enemy Unknown (the follow up to XCOM) tried to ruin everything with their pesky Meld canisters. In essence players were given a set amount of turns to complete their objective. This concept has been embraced in XCOM 2 and so my shuffle and shoot days are well and truly over: joking aside this is probably a good thing.
Every amazing game series there is always that secret sauce that makes it so good and here it is quite simply pressure and the knowledge that any second one of your best soldiers could be liquefied. If there is one thing that the previous games have fallen down on is late game challenge. Yes in the initial few months it has always been a struggle but I remember that in enemy Unknown once you had two fully decked out Mechs and Psychics nothing could touch you. In XCOM 2 I have found the challenge does remain consistent throughout the game and this is down to the excellent way pressure is kept high. The aliens are moving their project Avatar forwards that will end humanity for good and each time they have success the red bar at the top fills until it is time to start a new game. The main goal of XCOM is to stop this happening by contacting the various parts of the underground resistance across the globe, thus gaining resources and bringing the red bar down. Dark Events also add an extra level of tension and can really affect how the aliens play on the battlefield: all Avent troops having poison rounds for a month is a very bad thing indeed. For the most part this system works really well and thematically fits with the fact XCOM is now on offensive.
Way way back before the internet was a thing and smartphones were powered by steam the original X-Com (or UFO) became my favourite game of all time. You can read about my obsession in my XCOM review, but what was it that stood out about this legendary game? One aspect was that walls actually broke when using explosives, this blew my mind (trust me this was advanced stuff for the time). Fire would spread through levels, smoke would make your troops lose consciousness and if a buddy was down but not dead you could pick them up to carry them back to the Sky Ranger. In XCOM 2 we finally get these systems showing up in the game again and it's glorious to behold. Already I've had to carry fallen friends out of missions, ascending into the Sky-ranger just as enemy forces were ready to swamp our position. Sometimes after a prolonged engagement between you and the enemy whole buildings will be flaming shells, the way concrete crumbles away even after the initial explosion looks organic and how it would in real life. The sheer destructibility of the combat zones has now gone off the chain and when you see it in action it's clear now why Firaxis went exclusively for the PC.
What is immediately obvious is that the game's visuals have been given a good overhaul, not only in terms of resolution but also the way they are put together. Many aspects of the missions are now procedurally generated so in theory you will never play the same map again. Once you have been playing for a few hours you will also notice some really excellent use of lighting and reflections like in puddles on the street when it is raining. As I've already alluded to the fire and destruction in this game are sublime and for someone who really loved this about the original it's a treat. It's especially impressive to see the bigger aliens literally walking through buildings while the wood and plaster all breaks away. Once fire catches it spreads and can also pose a real danger to your troops (and the aliens).
What is impressive is that all these shots are in engine.. and they move as good as they look.
The aliens themselves have also had a lot of work done to them in terms of visuals, with plenty refined or even totally re-designed: like the snake men who were actually the Thin men but now parade in the open. Some of the animation is exquisite and this has been used to great effect, like how they climb ladders, react to missed gunfire from your troops and even they way they expire is gorgeous thanks to the rag-doll physics. Another great addiction are the Faceless Ones which do not show any vicissitude from their human appearance until they are within melee range or receive damage: this is yet another element that ratchets up the tension when on missions rescuing civilians. I also love how some of the bigger aliens such as the Behemoth will twitch even after being brought down.
Once you realise just how cool the destructible environments are you can start to use advanced tactics, like luring aliens next to petrol pumps or oil storage units: lob a grenade and watch the fireworks. In one game I was literally about to get riddled by two turrets on top of a building and in desperation I threw my last plasma grenade: five damage was not enough to take them out. However what did happen was the roof holding the turrets up collapsed thus taking out both turrets in one go! These moments are epic and really show how advanced damage models can really add a lot to the experience.
Once you start to pick up new skills for your troops you can really start to use them in interesting ways. Like in the last game there were certain combinations that were so satisfying to use together and coupled with some interesting gadgets you can really set your inner general free. One gadget that has saved me countless times is the holographic 'mimic' grenade: which draws attacks away from you for one turn. This time around we have the Grenadier, Sniper, Specialist and Ranger: all with their own distinct role on the battlefields. Ranger for example are your forward scouts, staying in the shadows and eviscerate enemies with their swords. Specialist are pretty cool additions as well, they come with high-tech drones that can either heal or hurt. Hacking is also a fun part of the game now, hacking into security towers to gain advantages or even disabling/controlling enemy droids.
Your Sniper and Grenadier are a little more akin to their previous iterations but still have enough new tricks to justify their existence. Once you get some better armours developed the EXO suit for the grenadier looks awesome and has clearly drawn inspiration from the battle suits in films like Elysium and The day after tomorrow. Old classic items do make an appearance again and having a spider suit on your sniper is highly recommended. Another fairly big improvement in your troops is the level of customisation you have been given this time around. For players like me this is exactly what I was looking for as having versions of my friends and family in my squad has always added to the tension of losing them in the field. There are also psychic powers to unlock again but don't do what I did and leave it until the near end of the game: they really are very powerful and look awesome.
There probably isn't ever going to be a perfect game due to perception and varying tastes, to some gamers a night in with XCOM would be like pulling teeth. So while this is an astounding game there are some problems here and there.
This might sound like a small thing but in actual fact has started to drive me up the wall - I'm talking about the constant interruptions from HQ regarding your mission status. In one mission I had to save a number of civilians and every time one became human popcorn the guy with the funny haircut from the base would start moaning about it. What makes this twice as infuriating is that the game seems to lock until he's finished blabbering, right at a time when your just want to get back to the fight and see what mess you are in. A mod to turn this off will be my first action once I've finished the review.
As has been mentioned by a few of the reviews I've seen there are quite a few graphical and engine problems: In some some instances buildings will collapses but the effects on people is alone shown after five or ten seconds. I have read somewhere that this may be linked to the action camera and turning it off can solve the problem, but I hope they fix it soon as the action camera is one of the best parts of the game. These points are all minor and I'm sure Firaxis will patch the hell out this game: because that's just how awesome they are.
Is it PC?
Well for once I'm reviewing a PC exclusive so there obviously isn't any need for port reviews or performance comparisons. However it's worth mentioning that the fact this was PC only has some console owners up in arms. I'm genuinely sorry these players won't initially be able to play the new XCOM and in a perfect world this wouldn't be the case. However as you all know I'm very pro PC and our platform needs games (and developers) like this that show what can be accomplished when they are not tethered to a closed system.
XCOM by its very design is not a good game for consoles because it needs very fast data transfer (ideally SSD), a decent sprig of RAM and the crisp zing of a PC monitor. On top of this I would imagine playing XCOM on a controller would be like masturbating with boxing gloves on. The steam controller does an ok job but given the choice I assume most players would go for the fast and precise control of a mouse and keyboard.
XCOM 2 is an amazing game that has one of the best gaming heritages in the industry. Firaxis are a developer who know how to make amazing games and really do have their finger on the pulse of their fan base - this was a game that cut its teeth on PC and it's what the developers know best. I also want to applaud them for making some pretty brave decisions in recent times: not only taking a chance and reviving the old classic but having the guts to push into innovation. Anyone could have made a cardboard cut-out of the original and dressed it up with a new skin - but Firaxis didn't shy away from the challenge and that is because it is made from the heart, not for shareholders or a pushy publisher looking at the bottom line. There are still so many nice details to this game I just haven't got room to go into, like how images of your actual troops appear on warning signs in the towns and cities you fight across
As with most games on PC mods are now part of the landscape, again Firaxis know this and have embraced this side of the game with open arms. As projects like Skyrim have shown us - a healthy modding community can keep a well loved game going forever. So where will the series go next? Well my own wish is that we now get an aquatic XCOM akin to the sequel to the original: Terror from the Deep. The art team could go wild with an aliens adapted to hiding in our oceans and (assuming we win this time) it would set up the story for the alien counter attack. I'm pretty sure I've seen a few nods to the classic sequel so XCOM 3 confirmed? Here's to hoping.
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