The Good: Dynamically generated maps. More aliens. More soldier abilities. More stuff.
The Bad: Tutorial leaves some gaps. Poor camera angles. Miscellaneous graphical glitches.
The Ugly: Nothing
Despite people warning me not to become too invested in any single XCOM soldier, my man was Kyle Bugsmash. I knew when I recruited Kyle that he was something special. A natural with demolitions and heavy weaponry, he quickly became a core part of every away team, and when he was injured and couldn’t fight, things had a nasty habit of going awry. Kyle was a dedicated soldier, who left the good, honest life of a rancher in Oklahoma, his wife Bonnie Rae, their cattle dog Tango, (OK, I made all of that up, but in my mind that was Kyle’s backstory) to combat the alien menace. Kyle became an alien killing machine – I mean literally – he volunteered to have his organic body replaced with mechanical components a la Robocop. It was only fitting then that ultimate sacrifice would grant him the honor of putting a bullet into the head of the supreme alien leader. The human race had won.
Fast forward 20 years which is when XCOM 2 picks up the story, and it seems somehow we didn’t win. We instead struck an armistice with the aliens. They would provide us with technology that would vastly improve our quality of life, and in return wanted only our agreement to live a peaceful co-existence, one in which they patrolled our streets with genetically advanced humans and arrested anyone they accused of sedition. Who cares if their police forces are starting to have more than a passing resemblance to a heavily armed and armored gestapo? Who cares if it seems like a lot of people are disappearing in these anti-terror raids – the aliens are only taking away bad apples, right?
You know who cares? Kyle Bugsmash Jr. cares, so much that he left his job at his father’s ranch to join the resistance, a decision his father, Kyle Sr., understands all too well. He also left behind his steady girlfriend Marylou, who had been twice crowned queen of the Peach Cobbler festival, though she doesn’t let it go to her head. Kyle, like his father, showed a skill for heavy weaponry, and he wielded his chain cannon proudly up until the moment he was cut down by a barrage of enemy proton beams while protecting the rest of his team as they were evacuating a high-value asset.
Kyle Jr.’s brother Keith joined the resistance to honor his brother’s memory. From birth, everyone in the family knew Keith had all the brains in the family, demonstrating an affinity for computers from a very young age. Keith was killed in and explosion while trying to hack an alien terminal for critical intel. There was so little left of him that his mother has no grave to visit.
Keith’s fraternal twin cousins, James and Jayden, joined the resistance to avenge his death. Their end was especially tragic, as Jayden killed her brother while controlled by an alien entity, only to be shot to death a moment later by her own squad.
You get the picture.
Never has the advice to not get too attached to your XCOM soldiers been more appropriate. The aliens in XCOM 2 are more plentiful, more powerful, and early in the game have a ridiculous advantage over your troops in terms of weaponry. During the game’s early arc, you’re always fighting at a deficit, a situation that may not get any better if you make a few tactical blunders.
Some of those tactical blunders I’m going to blame on the tutorial. Perhaps if I had been playing XCOM all along up to the release of XCOM 2 I would have been better prepared (I think the user interface, particularly in combat, has undergone very little change), but I haven’t, and the tutorial which is spread out kind of leisurely over the first several missions only covers the rudiments of moving and shooting. Order of actions, skipping one soldier for the next, how overwatch works (which I think is subtly different from how it worked last time), the new ambush capability – all that stuff you have to really figure out on your own, frequently with your soldiers’ lives on the line. Hacking alien terminals brings up a bar that fills kind of slowly. Is that a minigame? If so, I have no idea how to play it. Sometimes my hack surpasses the required hack percentage, and sometimes it seems to fall short, but it still succeeds. In fact, I have yet to fail a hack, so I have no idea what it going on there.
Back at XCOM base (which this time is a salvaged alien craft) you’re even more on your own. Each department (research, engineering, etc) has its own tutorial, so you get the basics of what you want each group to do, but the general layout of the home screen is filled with information. I’ve got warning icons everywhere, so clearly I’m doing something wrong. Part of that is that the game by design forces you to work with insufficient resources; you can’t do everything, and have to pick and choose based on your strategy. But many problems that I suspect I could be solving, I just don’t know how to. I’m worried about power generation, and am not really sure how to efficiently go about generating more of it. I need to set up communications relays to talk to resistance cells, but I need to poke around to figure out how to do that. I get messages that I am short of engineers and should recruit more, but while I can recruit soldiers, it doesn’t seem that I can recruit engineers at all – you are awarded them for certain missions and can hire them from the black market, but otherwise… I don’t know. I get these little pop up screens in which different characters make comments about all sorts of things – how the resistance is going, world affairs – and sometimes they say things like “I’ve been hearing strange noises down in engineering… probably just my nerves.” Should I be doing anything about anything they say? If so, I don’t know what that would be; the various menus don’t seem to give me any pertinent options. Or is the game just building atmosphere? Thus far, I’ve just been heaping that on top of the pile of other stuff I don’t know.
As the game progresses and you put the pieces of what you need to do together (sometimes relying on a little online research), and the overall plan the aliens have for the human race begins to take shape, the game settles down into a very similar model as the first XCOM (I’m not going to go into XCOM in depth – if you’re curious, look up my previous review). The meat of the game is a brutal, highly tactical, turn-based isometric combat system. Maps are now generated dynamically, so the assault on the rooftop bar, which it seems I did at least ten times in XCOM, is no more. The maps are fresh and fluid and wonderfully laid out. New aliens with new attacks appear almost instantly and are salted throughout the game as you progress through the missions, and that really keeps you on your toes. The missions in XCOM were almost all about shooting down a UFO and then investigating the wreckage. Except for the occasional scramble to collect MELD (which no longer appears in the game), and the few missions that were fixed to a certain number of turns, missions were a relatively leisurely affair, allowing you to advance slowly and leave lots of soldiers on overwatch between turns. Missions in XCOM 2 are more about commando hit and run tactics, and try and break that pattern a couple of ways. One is that most missions are now fixed turns. Sometimes this feels natural (your crew has only so long to accomplish some task before enemy reinforcements arrive) and sometimes it feels completely artificial (the alien network is going to go into lockdown in X turns, even though the aliens don’t know you’re coming, so you have to get to the network node before that happens). Secondly, aliens that you kill sometimes drop valuable technology, but you have to rush to pick them up because it self-destructs a few turns after being dropped. Some of the stuff they drop is pretty damned fine, so I recommend scooping it up whenever possible, even at the increased risk.
I did stumble across a few graphics glitches along the way. During the alien turn phase, you are sometimes given a view of the alien activity. That camera can be a mess. I’ve seen extreme close ups of what I think are vehicles or maybe buildings, presumably whatever the alien is doing taking place behind or inside. I’ve also sometimes simply been shown a black screen while I listen to alien hisses and other noises. Maybe that’s intended to build tension and isn’t a graphical glitch? Seems enough like a graphical glitch that I’m going to call it one. When you move up to shoot an alien at point blank range, your weapon is so large that the barrel extends beyond the alien when you aim it, though thankfully still scores it a hit. Also, and this isn’t really a graphics glitch, my soldiers when moving would transition to a camera-over-their-shoulder point of view, and they would suddenly slow way down. This typically happens when an alien in overwatch is going to take a shot at them, only in these cases they would move slowly for maybe 20 seconds without anyone shooting anything, and then they would return to normal speed and complete their action.
I had been looking forward to this game for some time, and I’m not disappointed with the result. It fixes some of the niggles I had about the previous game while holding the core gameplay that I loved solidly. Fair word of warning: I found XCOM 2 to be a significantly more difficult game. I never lost an XCOM game – in the end I always persevered over the aliens. I haven’t completely finished an XCOM 2 game yet – I’ve had some false starts, and tried a few different things in building my review – but I suspect when I settle down and actually play complete games from start to finish, I’m going to lose some of them, maybe a lot of them. The Bugsmash family cemetery isn’t getting any emptier.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
This review is based on a digital copy of XCOM 2 for the PC provided by 2K.