Welcome back Commander. Things have changed around here…
XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and the expansion Enemy Within, is easily one of my favorite games of all time. Still holding a place on my PC, it is a game that I often drop into when I need a break from other, less familiar games. It is a game that I feel incredibly comfortable with, so obviously I was incredibly excited to get my hands on the sequel, XCOM 2.
While still feeling incredibly comfortable for series veterans, there has been plenty changed in XCOM 2, and perhaps most obvious is the setting. XCOM: Enemy Unknown saw the player fighting back against an alien invasion in the most valiant way. However, it would seem that all of that was for naught, as in XCOM 2 the tables are turned. Set some twenty years after the first game, it would seem that the player failed in their attempt and the aliens won. The Earth is now controlled by the Advent, and the player will be taking command of the rebel force that are trying to liberate our planet. The narrative runs through the game and actually contributes to the sense of immersion and enjoyment.
Outside of this new setting, there is the same two part game where players manage their base and units in between controlling those units in turn-based tactical battles.
The base this time happens to be in a UFO, providing maneuverability while at the same time putting limits on the players expansion. Time in the base, which is given an ant farm view, is spent managing all aspects of the Human uprising. As before, there are a myriad of choices when it comes to research and engineering, and as before these choices can spell the difference between struggling further down the line and, well, not struggling quite as much. The different projects take varying amounts of game time, and as each of the projects bring new options into play, either out in the battlefield or for the base management meta game, it is very possible to make bad choices.
Unit permadeath returns in XCOM 2, once again giving the player a chance to form a bond with their various troops, which can be customised for added recognition, and watching in admiration as they level up and become more capable. Of course, when they die in battle, grief counseling is required. But damn, it makes the game tense. As units experience the alien threat on the battlefield, they level up and take on one of the various classes, which have been tweaked in XCOM 2 to make them a little more interesting, while also providing new abilities for the player to experiment with. Much like the resources that the player needs in the game, new units are less plentiful than before, making the loss of a soldier in the field that bit more devastating.
Going into battle is not for the faint-hearted commander, although the reversal of roles does give the player a slight advantage this time around. This time, the aliens are on the defensive and the player is attacking for the most part. This means that the player can set ambushes on alien units, striking before they have a chance to react. Of course, the element of surprise is lost once a shot is fired or a unit is spotted, but occasionally it gives rise to some incredible moments where the player controlled units strike a decisive blow against the alien force.
The missions are not as varied as they could be and will mostly involve very simple, albeit tense, objectives. Many of the missions now include a mission timer, which further adds to the tension and forces players to take risks with the lives of their units. When you only have a set number of turns, it becomes a lot more difficult to take the careful approach and keep all of your troops together.
The procedurally generated levels and randomly placed objectives go a long way to keeping everything fresh though. This prevents players from learning the maps and, along with support for the modding community, gives the game excellent replayability. Visually, the levels themselves look pretty impressive, although it is not really a huge jump forward from the previous game on the looks front.
Not that there will be much time for admiring the environments, as XCOM 2 is a tough game. The enemy AI is frankly ruthless, and any mistake made on the part of the player will be taken advantage of. Aside from the very capable enemy AI, the game also has some pretty unforgiving difficulty spikes which are going to cause some problems for new players. Everyone enjoys a challenge, but there are a fair few times when I felt the game was just being unfair, when being shot at seemingly through solid walls, or when I felt it would be impossible for my unit to miss their shot, and they still missed. How much of this is by design, and how much is the result of bugs, I couldn’t tell you.
And this is where the game really has some problems. Bugs and glitches are plentiful in XCOM 2. Most of these are only graphical anomalies that do no more damage than reducing the immersion somewhat. However, crashes seem to be commonplace for some, and the developers are not exactly speedy about rolling out the patches. In fact, there are still people that cannot even start the game on their systems – the first computer I tried to play the game on failed to get past the play screen, and still cannot play the game. The performance really needs to be optimised as low frames per second are frequent and frustrating.
XCOM 2 could have been the perfect game. However, launch troubles which have still not been fixed, and general bugginess sour the experience. The difficulty level is subjective, but there are too many instances when the game feels like it is cheating. That being said, when the game is running smoothly and not taking cheap shots, it is an incredible tactical experience. Once all of the issues are patched over the next few months, XCOM 2 will be an easy recommendation for all strategy fans. As it stands though, it seems that having a good experience with XCOM 2 is a bit of a dice roll. Take the chance if you really need to liberate the Earth right away, or wait for the patches to roll out. It’s your choice, Commander!