At last. It’s been too long since 2012 (four years in fact) and not having any XCOM in our lives that wasn’t a studio-destroying ill-advised third-person shooter was a terrible thing. In the wake of Enemy Unknown every turn-based strategy became XCOM-like and yet all lacked the streamlined cleverness of Firaxis’ wonderful remake. Finally Firaxis has unleashed a sequel, PC-only no less, and has offered it up for our judgement. Let’s kick some alien ass in as orderly a manner as possible.
Chris Capel takes on the alien hordes in the final review of XCOM 2.
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Now with this review I’m assuming you’ve played XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If not, buy it immediately and get back to us, you’ll need it. For everyone else, you may have been on the fence about pre-ordering XCOM 2 despite enjoying Enemy Unknown, perhaps with memories of other “can’t fail” sequels in your memory such as Batman: Arkham Knight or, er, Duke Nukem Forever. Well sit on wooden panelling no more: the sequel is superb, at the very least as good as if not better than Enemy Unknown. The gameplay is essentially the same but has been polished, buffed, twisted, bent and poked until it feels like a brand new game. Bethesda, Ubisoft, you’ll remember how I said that Far Cry 4 and Fallout 4 felt like remakes rather than sequels? XCOM 2 is a perfect example of how to get a sequel right. Now that you’ve been to Amazon or Steam to pre-order it and back, let me tell you why I liked it so much.
While trying not to spoil anything crucial of XCOM 2’s story, in a novel twist the majority of the events of Enemy Unknown either didn’t happen or were a “training exercise”. Earth lost the battle against the alien invasion early, the aliens took over Earth and formed the new oppressive ADVENT government, and XCOM was forced to become an underground resistance movement. After retrieving their beloved Commander the XCOM troops and their mobile headquarters properly rally against ADVENT, but time is against them since the countdown to the aliens’ ultimate weapon the Avatar Project has already begun.
I think probably what surprised me most about XCOM 2 was how vital the story was to the experience. In Enemy Unknown it was all cute but easily skippable, although here there are twists, surprises, and interesting characters. Yes everyone still fits into a Scientist, Engineer, Captain and Mysterious Shadowy Government Liaison role, but each feel like an actual person this time. Lily Shen the engineer seems to have more humanity than Dr Tygan, but then the good doctor goes and admits to you that he misses ADVENT burgers which makes him more endearing. The little conversations the characters have back at base are a highlight, and the one downside of having such cool and extensive soldier customization options is that while you get attached to little Jools “Badass” McButtface and Farty Fartburgerson it’s sad they don’t have more personality. Imagine if your squad all quipped like the Firefly gang?
The non-combat side of things has received a significant upgrade so that it almost feels like a condensed version of Civilization in terms of strategy. While things appear basically the same in the lovely Ant Farm that is your new SHIELD Helicarrier-style base, there’s been a lot of change. Yes you do research, dig out holes, build rooms on those holes, fast forward time until something interesting happens, these sorts of things. The differences are subtle at first - being able to assign Engineers to areas to boost their output, new rooms like the Shadow Chamber, these types of things.
But head on to the Geoscape map and things are wildly different. No more single “scan for activity” button as it was in 1994’s UFO/X-COM with events just popping up and you reacting to them. Now the Earth has been divided up into sectors that need to be scanned separately. This sounds tedious, but Firaxis kindly pinpoint the areas you need to scan and how long they’ll take to get resources such as Supplies, Intel, Scientists, Engineers, Power or other bonuses. Scanning at XCOM Headquarters in the United States East Coast has an optional bonus like healing soldiers quicker, but with all of these you can only scan one area at a time so if you spend 4 days scanning Mexico to get Supplies the scan counter won’t decrease on the Intel counter in Spain. Furthermore always remember to expand and make contact with other areas. It does all get a little frustrating, as you can guarantee you will never complete a scan with something interrupting it like an ADVENT attack, but it’s so wonderfully strategic with so much to think about that it’s never boring.
The turn-based combat itself largely remains unchanged… except for an addition that alters the entire flow and really changes the game into a more satisfying sequel. That addition is “Concealment”. With XCOM now operating in the shadows stealth is now more of a focus, and your squad won’t automatically be detected when they spot enemy troops. Concealment allows the player to move their soldiers into a decent ambush position and then (hopefully) annihilate the first group of aliens they attack, but after that point their cover’s blown and it’s back to turn-based business as usual. Still, having Concealment totally changes the most crucial part of XCOM combat - the start - and there are classes that can re-enter it later. I’m sure some players will try to get through entire missions in stealth, making this a much-welcome implementation.
All right, who farted?
The thing that impressed me most about XCOM 2 is the sheer variety of missions. Possibly the biggest criticism of Enemy Unknown was that eventually the “regular” missions would start to repeat, and you’d definitely get the same maps now and again. Firaxis has faced this head-on, and have frankly gone a bit overboard with variety. For starters, every level is randomized. This alone ensures a limitless supply of replay value, and moreover Firaxis have coded XCOM 2’s randomization so cleverly that each unique level still feels as polished as a completely set-in-stone designed one. Then on top of that the game keeps on bringing in new mission types. Protecting civilians, escorting a VIP, capturing a VIP, recovering supplies, hacking computers, blowing up computers, rescuing prisoners, destroying key buildings, levels without concealment, levels with reinforcements… just a small selection of the mission types offered, and only a few repeated on me (and never with the same situation or setup). There is literally an infinite amount of excellent, varied gameplay here.
All which would be for naught if ADVENT wasn’t fun to fight against, but fortunately that’s not the case. The unit types have all had a massive overhaul, so even familiar enemies like the Sectoids and Mutons behave differently. Classic X-Com baddies the Snakemen have been reintroduced in both male and female varieties, and even basic ADVENT troopers have different variations that can be a real threat (one hint: do not underestimate the Shock Lancer). I won’t spoil more than that (just wait until you encounter the Faceless), but it’s a joyously terrifying moment whenever a new seemingly-overpowered enemy appears and you have to take them down with just your wits… then prepare for the next time you face them.
The enemy AI has had even more of a revamp, and even on Normal difficulty (tellingly called “Veteran”) one ill-advised move will see it smack you down with no mercy. Troopers spread out to avoid easy grenade attacks, they’ll attempt to flank your guys, will use their special powers to maximum devastating effect, work together, prey on weaker characters, and generally make life difficult. This is part of the reason why you need to have played Enemy Unknown first, as Firaxis seem to take into account that everyone playing wants a tougher challenge. Fortunately the AI isn’t insurmountable, as units, powers, and the gameplay systems in place create weaknesses or mistakes that it’s up to you to exploit.
Right, NOW I'm in trouble.
So I’ve gushed enough about XCOM 2 now (and I could go further), was there anything I disliked? A few points but fortunately nothing to spoil the game. I’ve mentioned about the Geoscape, where it’s annoying to be constantly bombarded with distractions when all you really want to do is finish gathering supplies or complete researching that alien iPad. Another slight disappointment is the UI, which hasn’t changed much from Enemy Unknown where it was built for use on consoles as well as PC. The camera controls in particular are a bit fiddly, and the game’s still not clear about whether you can hit an enemy from a certain spot or not - especially with the poor zoom controls. Finally there is, shall we say, some occasionally suspicious dice rolls where the game seems desperate to hang on to a unit where even reloading an earlier save breeds the exact same result. I have missed shots with a 97% hit chance where I would’ve finished off a key important unit too early.
While I can’t talk too much about the multiplayer since as I write this XCOM 2 isn’t out yet, it’s disappointingly exactly the same as Enemy Unknown. Choose a squad, including aliens, based on a point limit, and then face an opponent who’s done the same. It’s still fun, and it’s good that Firaxis have incorporated their excellent level generator so that neither side knows the terrain, but seriously… no co-op? No more than 1v1? It’s a hugely unambitious mode in an otherwise ambitious game. Oh, and don’t go into it before you finish the single-player campaign as every alien unit in the game is available.
XCOM 2 VERDICT
XCOM 2 is everything a sequel should be, keeping the things that everyone loved about the first game while changing things up as much as possible. Turning XCOM into a scrappy resistance force alters the sequel considerably, not necessarily for the better but certainly for an equally interesting and different campaign. The enemy forces and AI have been revamped considerably, making for a hugely nerve-wracking and yet satisfying time, and the sheer variety in missions is superb. The base management is mostly the same with a few cute additions but the Geoscape is now a whole strategy game unto itself, which can get frustrating but a little complexity is welcome. XCOM 2 has a few fiddly moments and the multiplayer is once again a bit tacked on, but we can’t imagine anyone picking it up and actually disliking it. Could we already have a Game of the Year contender? Let’s see if we remember it come December, but right now every fan of XCOM: Enemy Unknown should pick up XCOM 2. Y’know, unless you’re one of those console-only peasants. Bwahahahaa.
TOP GAME MOMENT
I love it when a plan comes together.
Concealment and revamped enemy AI and units keep the combat surprising.
Level variety, from mission types to total map randomization, ensures incredible amount of replay value.
Geoscape has been massively souped-up so it's basically a new separate strategy game.
Multiplayer's just imported from Enemy Unknown, and the similar interface could've done with a rethink too.