XCOM 2 Review: The Joy of Defeat
Strategy games are in my blood and my DNA. I gravitate towards the intense focus and planning that many of these games have due to my need for something a bit more complex than who has the biggest gun and the fastest internet connection. For years, I’ve poured just as many hours of gameplay into strategy games on PC as I have First Person Shooters on consoles. So, when the legendary strategy XCOM series was brought to consoles with Enemy Within in such brilliant fashion by Firaxis Games, my mind was blown. Firaxis has returned to the franchise again and this time, the aliens mean business!
In Enemy Unknown, the aliens begin their invasion on Earth and the game puts you in control of an international effort to unify the resources of Earth as well as defend them on the ground and in the air. Oddly enough, each encounter is dealt with in special forces style sorties requiring your band of skilled soldiers to rescue, eliminate, and all out foil the efforts of the aliens. Back then, half of the appeal of the game was simply discovering the different types of aliens and witnessing their abilities. Just when you think you’ve upgraded your soldiers tech and abilities, the aliens always seemed to throw another monkey wrench into your plans that you didn’t account for.
In steps XCOM 2 and it is good to see that the award winning formula has not changed. Situated as a turn based strategy simulation, XCOM 2 takes the Enemy Unknown engine and refines the experience. You’ve got your base management duties where you determine what facilities get built, what research is completed, and what new tech is built for use in the field.
On the battlefield, you still have the same cover based tactics along with the action point system and the ever so painful combat aiming success percentage. Situated as a mainstay of the franchise, even point blank range is a hurdle for some soldiers.
Thankfully, the old UFO vs Interceptor chore seems to be removed though. While it was a welcome event in the original game, the simplistic and unenjoyable chore of playing out those encounters in Enemy Unknown have thankfully been removed. A part of me still wishes that these encounters could have been made into a more action based mini game of some sort but I’m certain that would have taken away from the quality and balance of the core game.
Where the main differences reside in this edition are in the details essentially. The soldiers have more customization (you can even name and modify the guns), and you can save, import, and export the soldiers that you create. The missions with unsuccessful extractions lead to captured soldiers that can be rescued later. There are all new aliens with all new abilities while your soldiers will all continue their class promotions as experienced in the previous game. No new soldier classes here except for the shiny new names with a few different skills to choose from along the promotion line. Also, the Black Market utilizes a new resource that you collect called intel. This Intel resource can be used to buy base management goals, engineers, soldiers, and scientists as well as gear and bonuses. Also, the script has evolved along with the aliens’ agenda. Now the aliens are in control and you are unifying resistance fighters! You square off not only against the fearsome Chrysallids and other aliens, but the ADVENT soldiers as well. Written in as genetically altered and brainwashed humans, this force assists the aliens in foiling your plans of global freedom!
I must confess that whenever I play XCOM games, I rarely ever ‘beat’ the game. Despite the countless hours playing XCOM, I find myself constantly saving and reloading due to the somewhat emotional attachment that builds between you and the soldiers you send out to battle. Since death is permanent in this game, losing a soldier in battle means their experience and all is completely lost. There’s no respawning or magical resurrection technology here. The only escape you have for that one mission that went FUBAR causing you to lose your most decorated soldier is the ‘LOAD SAVE’ option. Even then, you still might find that you are just going to have to deal with the occasional defeat if you really want to progress in the game. In a way, that is what has always made XCOM unique in the realm of strategy games. The difficulty is high enough that casual strategy fans will gleefully moan at their repeated losses. A total bane to the existence of those with OCD or 100% completionists, this game WILL break you down and make you submit to the occasional failed mission in the interest of either time or to eventually continue the game.
I remember the moment that I realized in one mission that my entire squad simply would not make it out due to the enemies reinforcements and where they would drop in. I was supposed to stun a VIP and extract them yet encountered a new foe named the Codex. As some kind of mechanoid enemy, this foe could replicate itself, teleport, dodge, and wields a sniper rifle. My nubile crew of 4 soldiers (including one rookie) was only able to extract 2 out of the four and the others were captured despite achieving the main mission objective. I simply sighed, vowed to engage in a rescue mission in the future, and pushed on!
Other times, I even found myself completely scrapping a mission and extracting due to failing to destroy or hack something before the timer elapsed. These failures manifest themselves in the base management phase of the game by penalizing supplies (or money), adding more enemies to future missions, or some other exhausting negative penalty. Sometimes these penalties are something you can live with. Other times a full fledged reload before the mission is necessary as gamers like myself can at times not be shy about throwing the white flag up and starting a whole new campaign!
Thanks to the joys of PC gaming, this game will also feature a wealth of community mods as well. At the early stages of release I’ve seen the likes of X-men to GI Joe to the characters of the movie Aliens as downloadable soldier rosters as well as additional visual customizations for your soldier creation needs. These include voice packs as well. There are the occasional rule tweets, weapon additions (like light sabers and storm trooper armor), as well as new classes and even enemies. Going forward you’ll probably see additional mission types as well and new tile sets for the maps.
XCOM 2 is once again the difficulty juggernaut strategy buffs have come to know and love. You won’t find anything to attract new fans to the genre as the ‘normal’ difficulty level is quite unforgiving. Also, there is little in the way of quelling the eventual ‘aim percentage rage’ that is sure to crop up at some point in time as well. Games like this take patience and a dedication to the intense planning and tactics needed to survive and win.