When Firaxis released its XCOM reboot in 2016 I felt a lot of things. Skepticism more than anything due to the powerful impression XCOM:Terror From The Deep made on me in 1995 which played more like a survival horror than turn-based strategy based on the stress hormones it produced. I felt that same sense of dread I feel every time I see some new upstart company, musician or director lays their millennial hands on something precious to you. Firaxis had big shoes to fill and I would not give my nod easily. At this time however I didn’t know that Sid Meier – who was a key figure in Microprose who released XCOM back in 1994 was also the Oyubun at Firaxis and pumping his creative blood into XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
For the uninitiated or the recent arrival – XCom is as much a universe as it is a franchise. Built on the premise of a world under constant threat of alien infiltration and invasion, XCOM is Earth’s line of defence against extra-terrestrial aggression and is comprised of soldiers, scientists and engineers of all nations – and you, the commander.
There are twelve games in the series (two of which remain unreleased) spanning twenty two years. It’s genres include turn-based squad combat, third person shooter and flight sim set on land, under the ocean and in space. It spans a timeline from the 50’s in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified through to the recently released XCOM 2 with a future earth under alien control.
A Universe Rebooted
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a largely positive gaming experience for me. The core elements of turn-based squad combat, soldier psychology and being locked in that race against time against an enemy constantly one step ahead has been preserved. The tech trees are interesting and directly influence the effectiveness of combat like they should. However there was this feeling of a game mostly completed – hoping to be loved and becoming delightfully encouraged when it’s audience gave it the love it was hoping for.
This was addressed in XCOM: Enemy Within – the v1.2 XCOM release that built directly on the engine, story and success of Enemy Unknown. A stronger story, challenging game modes and more immersive career-paths for your soldiers played like a completed game and carried itself with a confidence not seen in the previous title. I’d call the XCOM reboot a resounding success with victory spelling the absolute kicking of alien ass and their eviction, sending them back to whatever monstrous ball of dirt they spawned from.
XCOM 2 is set a few years on in an alternate universe where the defence of earth ultimately failed. You are the commander of the human resistance co-ordinating all operations from the bridge of your ship The Avenger. Your missions start small but as your resources, equipment and connection networks expand you become more audacious, targeting more important targets and unravelling and ultimately derailing the alien master plan.
XCOM: Enemy Within created some reasonably sizeable shoes to fill – Does XCOM 2 deliver? Let’s break it down into the sum of its parts.
This is more than a continuation of the earlier story and in fact the story itself becomes more central to the game. Your first mission is effectively saving yourself – rescuing the commander from the previous XCOM games. Your focus is to contact and recruit the ground level resistance cells across the globe to gain intel on alien operations and facilities, all the while staving off the progress of an alien doomsday program that methodically moves forward to completion if unchallenged, and avoiding pursuit as the aliens commit more and more resources to thwarting your operation.
A mechanic that made no sense in the earlier games was funding. Countries would agree to provide funding if you continued to offer protection and support but would withdraw their funding if their alarm rating reached maximum which made no sense at all. What was the alternative? Where did their funding go after that? XCOM 2 resets the board – focusing more on resources and intel as core resources rather than just slapping a dollar value on your efforts and these are resources that you need to be constantly hunting for rather than budgeting for on a monthly basis.
Engineer and scientists recruitment has also been smartened up. That scientist you rescued will immediately go to work in the lab. That engineer you traded intel for will start work in your facility and can actually be assigned to improved or speed up room functionality or clear derelict rooms, gathering important resources while doing so.
Squad roles and mechanics have gotten some love. The Ranger class is your new Assault trooper – with all the close range brutality you love plus new sword options. Your medic is now a specialist who can career into battlefield medicine, hacking or a hybrid of both. Your heavies pack a lot more punch and can be fitted with exoskeletons to increase destructive output. Strangely sharpshooters seem a little more nerfed having lost the snap-shot ability. New sniper abilities such as Kill-zone show promise but the three round clip capacity of a sniper rifle is such a limiter that these abilities rarely pay off. A re-rationalisation of what can be achieved in a turn has also lifted your game.
Characters are more customizable with new appearance slots, weapon skins, armor variations and even attitudes that change their voice script, demeanors and physical posture and I found myself spending a lot of time tweaking my soldiers. Weapon mods can be looted from the battlefield and once attached will augment your damage delivery, further tweaking your custom troopers.
And finally the enemy has gone under the microscope. The units you know from the previous XCOM games return but have either adapted, upgraded or have been completely reskinned and re-engineered with better AI, smarter combat options and improved capabilities. Many new enemies also make their debut.
Your soldiers play like stormtroopers at the beginning of the game – bumbling, slow and couldn’t hit a bantha with a bazooka. In fact they seems so inept – so willing to miss that you get that ‘this is going to be a long painful game’ feeling in your gut. Watching them almost immediately shit their pants as soon as they make eye contact for the first time with an alien builds on this face-palm feeling although it’s very reminiscent of the original XCOM titles of the nineties. However as they notch a few kills and gain a few ranks they go from pest controllers to hardened killers – a complete personality and career transformation which could have been more evenly smoothed out. The mental distress of your soldiers will also go after they successfully complete a mission where none of your people die or they don’t take any major damage and they will in fact come back stronger with increased mental resilience.
Some of the same unnecessary characters are back. Top of my list is C.O. Bradford – the guy who calls you commander while he’s telling you what to do and kicking your ass when you’re not doing it. The mysterious council man returns with that Michael Bay voice of his like the ghost of crowd funding past. Missing is the delightful Moira Quirk’s Doctor Vahlen, who is replaced by a smug, unlikeable Doctor Tygan. Shen’s daughter heads up the science division but Carlye Pollack’s California high school girl voice just wasn’t a good fit for me.
I was excited by the geoscape. New areas must be unlocked by gathering and investing intel. Resource caches can be located and ‘mined’ once contact is made with the resistance cell in the area. However the player is rarely given the opportunity to focus on these random drops, being forced instead to focus on repetitive target of opportunity missions that punish your game if you skip them. It’s a potentially exciting game mechanic undone by a more repetitive and arbitrary mechanic and the fact you lose game time flying between these waypoints eats away at your exploration time, adding insult to injury.
The bug list for XCOM 2 is perhaps the biggest I’ve seen for a triple A title in some time and there is a major game-stopping bug for almost every aspect of the game. There’s the ‘all selectable menus disappear’ bug, the ‘dropship fails to take off stopping you from completing your mission’ bug, the ‘enemy blowing your cover as soon as you start the mission’ bug, a ‘screen goes black while cranking up your volume’ bug, you get the picture. This however did not discourage an 88/100 rating from Metacritic, 9.3 from IGN or a solid 9 from Gamespot which lifts the lid on a whole new set of questions.
Going beyond the bug list brings up another list of errors that indicate poor quality control. Smoke grenades still don’t seem to work at all. Skipping a research technology removes it from the research list forever. Squaddie nicknames appear and disappear from the UI at random. Some abilities indicate that they will end your turn, others don’t – but will end your turn when used, A message tells you that failing to meet reach the evac point on time will force an evacuation while in fact all non-evacuated XCOM soldiers will be imprisoned by ADVENT. You get the idea.
Long load times plague XCOM 2. Mission and debrief load times are a major buzzkill and random pauses in combat as the game struggles to calculate the math for overwatch, visibility or to simply load C.O. Bradford’s relentless “what the hell are you doing Commander?” video dialogues interrupt the momentum of combat.
Once again we find ourselves going to war with a gun that has three or four shots in the magazine despite the emphasis on technology to give us the combat edge over the oppressors and you in fact have to rely on random enemy technology drops in combat to get around this limitation.
There is no ‘smarter’ road, forcing the player into constant combat which gives the game a grind feeling. This is particularly frustrating because the game offers mechanics that give the sense that you could customize your journey by choosing a technology, rogue or diplomacy route, only to push you into regular interval green missions that penalize your game of they are skipped and consistently get longer if accepted. Eventually you end up with a geoscape filled with partially completed missions that time out if left for too long. I get that this mechanic is designed to create a sense of desperation in a player but a more intuitive risk vs reward evaluation system could have lifted this game and increased it’s replayability appeal.
XCOM 2 travels the ambitious road, choosing to scrutinize itself and deliver a stronger, smarter, more open-ended game experience that confronts the player rather than serve up a phase two of the XCOM: Enemy Within. I’m not going to tell you that Firaxis always succeed. There’s often an exhilaration at completing a mission that doesn’t leave you enthusiastic about doing another. Once you’ve experienced a major game-stopping bug you lift your eyebrow every time a load seems to take too long and this is an unfortunate reality about this game. But when I think back to XCOM:Terror From The Deep in 1995, what stood out the most for me was the sense of achievement for just finishing the game – a game that demanded a level of persistence, focus and mental strength that no title had previously required of me. When XCOM 2 is telling it’s story it’s engrossing and you raise your head just a little higher as you move forward. You feel a sense of achievement whenever a new continent unlocks. When time moves forward on the geoscape and you hope for just one more day where nothing happens then you realise resistance is a war of inches not yards and you my friend are the resistance.
Cons: World almost visually identical to previous game despite newer, more demanding engine
Pros: Smartened up the skill tree – better character progression & customization
Pros: Good multi-platform compatibility
Cons: Crippling bugs
Pros: Story builds on previous game
Cons: Becomes repetitive, competes with it’s own potentially open-ended game play