Inside Pulse 12

Review: XCOM 2 (PC)

XCOM 2
Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: 02/05/15

After Firaxis revived the long-dormant XCOM franchise by way of the stunning return to form that was XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the big question in the minds of fans eventually became “So, what’s next?” While the original X-COM: UFO Defense was a ground-breaking game for its time that brought to life a mostly loved strategy franchise, the sequel, Terror From the Deep, was… not so well received, as most critics of the time felt it was a glorified expansion pack rather than a true sequel. Firaxis, instead of jumping straight into answering that question, spent much of their time refining the original game through XCOM: Enemy Within, but when it came time to go to the sequel, instead of approaching it from the perspective of “We won, now what?” instead asked the question, “What if humanity lost?” That idea frames the basis behind XCOM 2, as instead of playing as a human force beholden to the world’s governments against the alien menace, this time, the aliens are the establishment, and XCOM is now the rebellion attempting to take back Earth for humanity, even if humanity thinks they’re the villains. There’s a lot of potential in an idea like that, honestly, and it’s a far more robust concept than “the same thing, but underwater,” no matter what you do with it. Well, it turns out that Firaxis had a lot of interesting ideas on what to do with XCOM 2, and the end result is a game that’s a lot more complex and challenging than the original while still being just as much of a joy to play, even if it could do with a bit of polishing at times.

On getting back into the fight

The story in XCOM 2 is one of recovery, as in the prior game, the aliens dealt a massive blow to XCOM sometime during the war (by all indications during the base invasion mission from Enemy Within) and captured the Commander (AKA your character), leading to the fall of XCOM and the planet Earth. Twenty years later, XCOM now operates as a rogue resistance force fighting a losing battle until, almost by chance, the team recovers the one thing that could help them turn the tide of war: the Commander, imprisoned for twenty years by the aliens and used as a tool against humanity. With the Commander back in the control seat, XCOM prepares to go on the offensive against ADVENT, the front for the alien hordes, in hopes of exposing their crimes to the world and discovering the truth behind their mysterious Avatar project, while also hopefully shutting it down along the way. As in the prior game, a fair amount of this plot exposition comes from the first hour or so of play (especially if you play through the tutorial) and after special events, and as such, it’s a lot more effective than it might have otherwise been. Plot elements are introduced slowly to give the player a chance to really appreciate their impact and meaning, as well as to savor small victories as they occur, given the protagonists are most certainly against the gun. The game also makes a point to refresh players on the events of the first game while also introducing its new points, meaning the game will often talk history when you meet with Bradford and Shen, or bring up the unknown fate of Dr. Vahlen amidst introducing players to newcomer Dr. Tygan, which makes the franchise as a whole feel a lot more meaningful. It’s also kind of cool (if a little silly) that the game makes you feel like your character is incredibly important to the events of the game, especially during the generally fantastic ending, if only because it gives the player more agency than just being an invisible taskmaster. In simple terms: the plot of XCOM 2, as with its predecessor, does a lot to engage the player, makes the player the most important person in the game and doesn’t spend too much time bogging the game down, and because of this, it works.

On the visual front, the prior games looked exceptional for their time, and XCOM 2 ups the ante in nearly every respect possible. Whether in your base or in battle, the character models and environments are artistically interesting and technically sound, and the game features excellent special effects and lighting that make the experience shine. The various in-game menus you navigate are also very clean and well designed, giving you the information you need without any clutter or mess. The game also makes great use of dynamic camera angles, popping in for close-range views when your squad makes a killing shot (and when the aliens do so) to make the combat more dynamic and interesting. That said, the game suffers from the same flaws of the original, IE, there are some collision detection issues where characters pop through pieces of the environment that come up during the zoomed-in scenes, and dynamic cameras will sometimes show characters running through environmental objects or will pan behind objects during big moments, but on their own they don’t detract much from the experience. Aurally, the soundtrack consists of a combination of orchestral and electronic compositions (mostly the latter) that are impressive and compliment the experience well, giving the game a feel that is both futuristic and imposing. The music also fades between softer ambient tracks and more powerful, swelling scores when in battle as enemies pop into and out of view, to underscore the tension associated, and it does a lot to set the tone and mood of the experience. There’s a solid amount of voice acting in the game as well, between your advisors and your soldiers, and the voice work is very well done. There are some very nice touches here, in fact, such as a fairly wide variety of squad voices to choose from so that your team doesn’t sound too similar (featuring different accents and languages for added flair), to the little lines of dialogue your squad shout during battle and beyond that give the game real personality. The sound effects are also fantastic, between the futuristic effects that permeate the game, the powerful sounds of combat and the different noises the aliens make to announce their presence and exit from this mortal coil, and they add a lot to the game throughout.

On futuristic guerrilla warfare

While the prior games, Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, were available on both the PC and the consoles, this time around XCOM 2 is (so far) a PC only experience, which works out just fine since it works exceptionally using the mouse and keyboard controls assigned it. You’ll spend your time swapping back and forth between your base and the battlefield, and the controls work more or less seamlessly for each. When in your base, you can move the mouse around to click on the particular location you’d like to access, right click (or click the back button) to cancel out of a menu, or even click on little icons that pop up on screen for instant transit to items of import, such as unit reassignment or the world map. In battle, you can scroll the screen using the mouse or WASD on the keyboard, rotate the camera using Q and E, raise and lower elevations with the scroll wheel, and swap through menus and actions with a combination of clicks and hotkeys depending on the needs at the moment. As someone who spent most of his time with the prior games on the console, adjusting to the PC version took practically no time at all, partially due to an excellent tutorial that explained the basics and partly due to the controls being quite user friendly from jump, so if you’re in that same camp, you’ll find the transition to be one of minimal difficulty. Even newcomers should have no problems figuring out the basics, though it helps if you’ve played the original, so if you haven’t it’s worth considering, but if you’re only interested in this game you can learn it pretty quickly regardless.

While the controls are mostly pretty much as you’d expect, a lot of the mechanics from the prior game have seen little changes or tweaks across the board to keep things interesting. First off, in the prior game you could choose to start off in a country of your choice, which conferred a bonus to your play from the start; this time around, the game randomly starts the XCOM base off in a different territory each game, and while control bonuses for regions still exist, you’ll have to work to unlock them. Also, as in the prior game, your home base is set by default, but unlike the prior game, it’s not in a specific location; instead, your home base is aboard the Avenger, a repurposed alien spaceship that flies across the globe as needed to get you to missions and such as needed. As in the prior game, you have access to a research lab and an engineering lab, where the former handles researching new tech and the latter handles building that tech, as well as a barracks for hiring troops, keeping track of who’s in what condition or at what rank, checking out who has passed on and customizing the current troops with whatever gear and novelties you want. You even have an expandable section of the ship that can be utilized to build new facilities, though instead of digging out space underground at cost, you instead have to dig out rooms full of alien junk for a nominal profit. However, the hanger, originally utilized to send out strike ships for shooting down alien craft, has been scuttled entirely, as you’re no longer focusing on that aspect of play, so you can focus your attentions elsewhere.

The mechanical changes made to base functionality only increase as you drill down to the functions of each location on an individual level. Research more or less works the same as always; you choose a project and your researchers poke at it until they figure out how it works, and learning new stuff can potentially improve your ability to learn other things. However, you can no longer interrogate live subjects, and while you can recover research tools from missions where the objective is “kill everything that moves,” you can’t recover stuff from missions where you’re expected to escape after completing an objective unless you carry a thing out with you, making research harder than it first seems. Engineering also works somewhat like it did in the first game, meaning you choose a thing to build and it gets built, though this time around any project you choose from Engineering is built instantly, and in the case of weapons and armor, is available to everyone immediately. What this means is, for utility items like medpacks and armor boosters, one purchase means one item, but buying a new rifle makes it available to your troops instantly across the board, meaning there’s a lot less expense involved in outfitting your troops. It also bears noting that, while Scientists serve much the same function as ever, Engineers are no longer a “the more you have the more you can build” commodity; instead, they can be staffed to do functional tasks in the ship, such as clearing rooms, enhancing the function of some rooms, and increasing the speed of some tasks, making them more functionally viable than before. As it’s harder to recruit Scientists and Engineers than before, however, you can also build Labs and Workshops to create added helpers to offset this fact, though doing so takes up room space, so you’re exchanging one for the other, essentially.

Outside of these two facilities, the Barracks has also seen some tweaks, though most of these are more cosmetic in nature. You can still review your crew and their roles here, as well as recruit new troops as needed, though it appears Firaxis noted that fans enjoyed customizing their troopers quite a bit, as more options for agent customization have been added, and you can even create troops from the main menu and import or export troops, so you can play with created troops or send yours out into the world. This means that, instead of recreating your friends every single game (as I did), you can just create them once and be done with it, or you can create characters from your favorite media like The Witcher or My Little Pony (yes, this is a thing that exists, I saw it) and import them every time you play. In another worthwhile touch, you can now utilize two combat focused facilities for customizing troops: the Advanced Warfare Center, which allows you to respec troops at will, and the Guerilla Tactics School, which not only confers squad bonuses and such, but also lets you train rookies to be the exact class you want from jump if you want a set custom character to be a set class. Also, the Psi Lab, instead of being an end-game facility used to enhance existing troops, is now an early-game facility that allows you to build troopers specifically dedicated to that class, so psionics are now a fully defined function rather than a novel add-on during play. There’s also a Defense Matrix, which lets you repurpose turrets recovered from battle to defending your ship, and the Proving Ground, which replaces the Foundry, but generally builds a lot more “experimental” gear from some random pools as well as making specialized armor and weapons. Finally, other facilities see a return with mild tweaks as well; for example, Resistance Comms are communications rooms, but are now used to allow you to recruit new resistance cells to the cause, and the Shadow Chamber still functions as a method of performing weird experiments when needed.

Once you’re ready to get into the world, the world map allows you to see what the situation is in the world proper, though much of the functions assigned to it are completely overhauled for this game. For one thing, the Situation Room has been expunged entirely, and everything you’d be able to access from there is now available front-and-center from the world map as needed. Instead of having all of the nations of the world at your disposal and launching satellites as needed to boost morale and unlock perks, this time around you have to make contact with the resistance cells in territories and build a radio tower or two to do so, so you have nowhere to go but up. You can also unlock the Black Market early on, which functions much the same as the Grey Market did in the last game, though since alien tech and bodies are used for much more this time around and nothing in the game is “junk,” it’s often a bit of a gamble to sell things, but you can buy neat stuff as needed here. It also bears noting, at this point, that you’re no longer dealing in straight cash to get things done; instead you’re rewarded with two types of bonuses, in Supplies (basically cash), which buy most things, and Intel, which unlocks resistance cells, buys stuff from the Black Market, and unlocks some other novelties as you play. As in the prior game, you’re also graded on a monthly scale between events you accomplish and events the aliens accomplish, and while you’re unlikely to lose support for having a bad month, you have to advance your progress in order to be able to earn more Supplies per month, by contacting territories and building towers. Of course, you can also try to acquire more stuff by searching on the map, as random instances of loot will pop up here and there that can increase Supplies, Intel, troop count, and other good things, so you’re not just sitting in one place waiting for the aliens anymore. Of course, you can do so by heading back to your home base, which can improve some kind of function for you, including boosting Intel or healing times, which you can change on a month-to-month basis. Your home base can also offer up special recruitment options each month, so it pays to check in every so often as needed.

Perhaps the biggest change, however, is the addition of the Avatar Project. A bar at the top of the screen ticks down every so often, indicating that the aliens are counting down to completion of this project, and if they do, it’s Game Over in both senses of the term. Completing normal missions isn’t enough to bring this bar down, however; you’ll need to focus on specific tasks, such as taking out alien facilities working on the project or completing specific storyline objectives, in order to bring it down. Once the bar fills, you’re not totally screwed, however; you’re given around twenty or so days at this point as a deadline to do something to hamper the project, and doing so will knock one or more blocks out of the project, forcing the aliens to get back to work on completion again. As you expand across the map you’ll unlock plenty of opportunities to do this thing, so it’s not the most onerous countdown clock, but it’s something of a useful method of forcing players to advance themselves rather than getting into the habit of trying to build up resources. After all, you’re on the offensive here, and the clock is ticking; your goal isn’t to get comfortable, it’s to react, and this is an interesting enough method, tonally speaking, of getting that across.

Eventually, however, you’ll have to head out and do battle with the aliens in a few different ways. Generally, as you’re performing some function on the map, you’ll receive a sudden notification of multiple possible events. Sometimes this is an advisement that the aliens have put a Dark Event into motion (something that negatively impacts play, like armored troops or a UFO hunting you down) or that they’ve advanced the Avatar Project, but in most cases it’s a call to action that you can’t afford to ignore. These missions generally break down to a few potential types, such as destroying a set target, defending a set target, escorting a VIP, capturing an alien VIP, defending a resistance base from attack, or setting charges to destroy a facility, among others. Generally, however, the basics are the same every time: get in, do a thing, and (sometimes) get out alive. While the new mission types replace the old mission types, there are some comparison points; for example, the Abduction Missions of the past (pick one of three for a reward and lost confidence from the other two nations) have been replaced with Guerrilla Ops (pick one of three to stop a negative Dark Event from hurting you for a reward and the potential institution of the other Dark Events). For the most part, though, there’s enough different here that you won’t feel like it’s the same thing you did the last time around.

Once your squad is on the ground, that’s when things get hectic, and where some of the more interesting changes come into play. You’ll start out with a maximum squad count of four, all of whom will be basic assault rifle wielding rookies, but you can expand both the size and abilities of your squad as you progress. As before, soldiers have two actions in them, allowing them a few different options for how to act. For instance, each character will have a blue move range which takes one of the two actions available, and a yellow move range which burns both actions as the character dashes to the location. Alternatively, you can move the character within their blue move radius and perform an action, such as taking a shot at an enemy, going into Overwatch (watching for enemy movement and firing on available targets), hunkering down to increase defense, using a carried item, and more. Once you’ve committed a character to an action, their turn ends and the next character is selected, though you can also choose to switch characters manually if you wish. Once all of your team takes their turn, your turn ends and the aliens get their turn, which continues until one side or the other is defeated. That said, actions are adjusted a bit as to how much they cost, so depending on what you do you’re not always without options. For example, a trooper with no ammo can reload and still get another action, so you can have them shoot or run away or go into Overwatch, so reloading is no longer the turn ender it used to be. This changes a good bit of how you’re likely to play, as some actions don’t burn a whole turn anymore, meaning you can reload and shoot or heal and shoot, so you’re able to rethink what you want to do much more than you could in the prior game (though shooting is usually a turn ender no matter what).

The game works off of fog of war rules, meaning that you can’t see the enemy, and vice-versa, until they move into the range of sight of a character. However, this time around it’s not the aliens who are waiting to surprise you; as the human forces are often operating under guerilla warfare rules, you often have the benefit of Concealment, meaning you’re hidden until you take an action that draws attention. In this state, you can see red icons in locations enemies can see or on objects that will draw attention, meaning you can avoid detection until you accomplish an objective or get into an ideal firing corridor as needed. Once you draw attention, (or during missions where you’re not concealed) however, all bets are off, as the aliens will run for cover and fight back as needed, and any further groups you encounter will instantly come at you with a quickness, so making that first shot count is a priority. Cover works the same as it ever did, though it’s no longer any sort of a guarantee of safety; instead it works more under probability rules, meaning that even low chances to hit can still kill someone behind full cover, so it pays to use strategy when you play. Otherwise, play mechanically works as it always did: half and full cover provide some protection as needed, characters will snap to cover as before, elevation helps, cover will show as blue if it’s safe and red if it’s flanked, and so on, so you’ll have a pretty good idea how things work if you’re coming in with some experience. The same is true of combat as well, meaning that choosing an action will snap to the closest available target, you can cycle targets by clicking their icons above your HUD, percentages will indicate how likely you are to hit, and the game will perform a dice roll behind the scenes (well, sort of; it has all its integers figured out in advance) to decide if an action hits if there’s any chance of a miss.

You’ll still be starting off with a squad of rookies in the beginning, but as they kill dudes, most of them will rank up and jump into one of four classes. When left to the game, their first rank up will assign them into a class at that moment, and each further level up earns new skills in their tree. The classes have changed a bit, however, so you’re not going to be going in with the same classes, and while some of their functions are similar, there’s a good amount of variance this time out. Grenadiers are similar to Heavies, in that they wield heavy machine guns and blow things up, but this time they utilize grenade launchers and have some new skills to give them added damage and destruction bonuses. Specialists replace Support troops, and carry much of the same bonuses, but also come with a GREMLIN assistant who can hack things and heal at range for added utility and versatility. Rangers replace Assault troops this time around, and use the same shotguns, but also come equipped with a blade used in close combat and can learn plenty of close combat skills and things that help them when in concealment, or even keep them concealed when someone else breaks it. Finally, Sharpshooters are this game’s Snipers, and while many of their skills are similar, they’re the only troopers equipped with a pistol, meaning much of their skills revolve between rifles and pistols when needed. This time out, you also have the option of fielding Psi Operatives, who are unique in a few ways; they don’t level up in battle, but through training back at base, they can be brought into battle at any time without it impacting their training, and they can learn every skill available given enough time so they can deal some real damage. They also get to learn some crazy skills, and while many of them are only effective against organic foes, some can be used against anything, making them versatile troops all around. As you’d expect, while your trooper mix will vary, each type of trooper has its own benefits, and all of them are highly useful in different situations as needed. You’ll want to have a lot of them on hand, it should be noted, as they can get injured or killed in battle, and injured troops can’t participate in any actions until healed up, so having backups is a big help.

Saving the world, one alien at a time

Your first playthrough of XCOM 2 will generally take between twenty to thirty hours, depending on how well you adjust to the tech trees, your difficulty level, and how quickly you try to blow through the main plot (mine took about thirty one hours, though I was trying to research everything so that’s part of it). Completing the game once is by no means the end of the experience, however. The game offers multiple different difficulty levels, as well as “Ironman Mode” which overwrites your save every combat turn to keep you from saving and reloading after a bad decision, so you can progressively challenge yourself more and more. It should also be noted that XCOM 2 is a good bit more challenging than its predecessor was by default, as the aliens are the ones with the advantage this time around, but the game has seen some tuning to make it more friendly (or less) depending on your tastes. It supports autosaving after every turn in battle, for example, for those who like to save scum, and gives you access to a command console if you just want to cheat your way to victory, so really, you can play however you like and the game will work with you without penalty. There’s also a competitive online multiplayer mode that pits two teams against one another, where you can build a team up to a set point value, so you can have a bunch of low level weenies or a couple super powerful troopers (or turn off point values and go nuts with the Sectopods). The game also features a wide variety of Achievements that will test your skills, several promised DLC packs, and best of all, the support of the modding community, as the Steam Workshop alone has hundreds of mods implementing everything from characters to decorations to functions that change probability, time wasted and conversation bits. In short, when the game is working, it’s an absolute dream, and it’s easily the very best game released this year.

Oh, right, that “when it’s working part,” about that. The single biggest issue with XCOM 2 is that it’s kind of a technical pain in the ass, even if you’re in the position where your computer is an absolute beast of burden (which mine is, thankfully). If your PC is designed in the optimum fashion, you can expect to see some mild technical glitches, such as the game having no idea what to do with environmental destruction when a character is within it unless you reload a save, slowdown at some points, and the odd full-on crash to desktop, or more accurately, “crash to a black screen that is almost impossible to navigate out of if you’re playing fullscreen,” which was… not fun. This is after the hotfix that was just deployed, by the way, so while they’ve fixed the worst of the problems, the game still has some hiccups to iron out, and while it’s been mostly okay for me (two crashes, three environment reloads and a handful of stalls in forty hours), it’s worth noting that the game probably won’t be “ideal” until March or so. The game also uses probability in odd ways, such as allowing for reaction shots through walls or ceilings, which probably needs some tweaking. It also bears noting that the game is frustrating in other ways that aren’t so much in need of patching as they are patience. For example, the game is, if played with no mods or console commands, a difficulty notch higher in all respects than its predecessor from jump. Around a third of the missions you encounter are timed which can get annoying late-game when enemies are obscenely powerful, and the enemies are consistently more powerful than you are by an order of magnitude, which isn’t offset much by the new skills or Concealment bonuses. Also, I have absolutely no idea why the character pool lets you set a job, because the game sure as hell doesn’t do anything with that; if recruited as Rookies they almost never end up with the job assigned, and recruiting them as special units from base or through missions never guarantees this either, so it seems more like an insult to the player than anything. I mean, in the end, you have the console and mods available to change the gameplay experience to your tastes, which help a lot, so once the technical issues are ironed out most of this will be extremely subjective, but it’s worth noting that you have to mod the game in some cases, as the game as-is can be hard to deal with in some cases.

That all said, with a couple more technical patches XCOM 2 will probably end up on the short list of the best games released this year, and even now it’s easily an outstanding experience in all respects that’s marred by day one release issues, and while that’s not great, that it stands as high as it does under its failings speaks to its quality if nothing else. The plot continues from the first game in a way that’s interesting and different, the game looks and sounds excellent across the board, and the gameplay is easy to adjust to but quite in-depth in what it offers. The mechanics are as easily understood as ever, and offer the same degree of functionality, but significantly change up a lot of the tools you’ll have available from the prior game, making the experience as enjoyable, complex and engaging as the prior game, while also keeping the formula fresh. It doesn’t hurt that there’s also a lot here to come back to, between multiple difficulty options, online play, Achievements and a massive mod community that the developer is totally fine with, meaning there will always be plenty more reasons to come back for more. That said, the game definitely needs some patching, as there are visual and technical issues that can cause gameplay frustrations (if not outright crashes), and the game tends to skew noticeably harder than its predecessor across the board, which can be changes through mods or console use, but is still something to note for purists. Honestly, though, if you loved XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Enemy Within, you’ll absolutely adore XCOM 2 once the bugs have been worked out, as it’s an outstanding sequel in every way imaginable, and were it not for the launch glitches, it’d be an easy game to recommend instead of one that’s easily recommended once they work out the bugs.

Short Attention Span Summary:
XCOM 2 had a heck of a legacy to live up to, and it absolutely blew it out of the park in most respects, as it ends up being one of the best sequels produced in a long time (if not ever), except for some technical issues at launch that, while painful, should be patched out eventually one expects. The plot provides a logical extension from the prior games while going in a new and interesting direction, the presentation is mostly outstanding from an aural and visual perspective across the board, and the gameplay is as simple to learn and as deep as it’s ever been. The core systems are fundamentally intact but offer so many new tweaks and changes that the gameplay feels fresh throughout the game, and between a lengthy campaign, multiple difficulty options, online multiplayer, a bevy of Achievements, a command console and a vibrant mod community, there are tons of reasons to keep coming back to the game for a long time to come. On the other hand, the game clearly launched in a less than ideal state, as technical problems cause camera tracking issues, reaction shots from impossible angles, broken responses when units are present during zone destruction, functions that simply don’t seem to work and occasional crash bugs, which are worse on less optimal machines. Further, the game is notably more challenging than its predecessor in its default state, and even though this can be modified in various ways, purists will likely find this to be a bit of a shock to the system as-is. All told, though, once the bugs are patched out, XCOM 2 will be an easy game to recommend, as it’s more of the things that made the prior games amazing along with enough retuning and changes to make it a masterwork, and the fact that it’s still so easy to love in spite of its flaws speaks volumes. It’s a shame it launched in the condition it did, but once patched it’ll be a must-have game for 2016, and it’s easily among the best games released this year so far.