XCOM 2 Review: Simply Sublime Strategy

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In 2012, Firaxis Games brought back the 90’s alien-fighting strategy series XCOM from the dead with Enemy Unknown. That game delivered on many levels, in large part by creating a symbiosis between two gameplay styles. On the one hand, a turn-based battle system. On the other, a base-building and resource management system. Each worthy of its own merit, the two systems came together to create a game greater than the sum of their parts. XCOM 2 builds off that formula, adding enough new aspects so that the game feels both fresh and more complex than its predecessor. Even despite some technical issues, XCOM 2 stands as the best strategy game you can buy for PS4 or Xbox One.

The changes made to the battle system from Enemy Unknown to XCOM 2 adds a few, but significant, aspects of strategy. The first is a mechanic where your squad is hidden from enemies at the beginning of most missions. This concealed status means that your squad has the upper hand over the alien enemies – a rare occurrence in a challenging game – and it’s a nice change of pace when a mission starts and you get to plan out an attack without interference. To counterbalance this advantage for the player, XCOM’s 2 requirements for finishing missions is generally more difficult than Enemy Unknown’s. While that game’s missions usually ended when all enemies were wiped from the map, XCOM 2 missions often require the player to evacuate their soldiers from the area while alien backup drops down from airships. On top of this, many missions in XCOM 2 have to be completed within a certain amount of turns. These changes heavily affect strategy in battle, as using actions for movement is as important as using them to take down enemies, and makes all but a few missions in the game a challenge from beginning to end.

The game starts you off with four available soldiers for battles, a squad size that increase to six with proper investment of resources. Soldiers can be one of five classes: ranger, grenadier, specialist, sharpshooter, or psi-operative. A sixth robot-mech class is available through DLC. As you’d expect, each of these classes are used differently in combat. Sharpshooters are great from both distance and height, rangers are best up close, psi-operatives grant buffs to allies and de-buffs to enemies. These generalities don’t do the class system justice though, because as soldier’s earn experience, they earn one of two skills each level. This allows you to build two or three soldiers of the same class whose skills make each markedly different in combat than the others. For example, one grenadier’s rockets might have a bigger explosion radius while another’s will be better at destroying enemy armour. Your ranger can be a one hit melee expert or a dangerous stealth operative. Seeing how new abilities are useful in battle is fun but putting together different squads and discovering how abilities play off one another is where the real enjoyment lays.

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What this all means is that you have a lot of choice for how you want to tackle missions in XCOM 2. There are many factors to take into consideration each turn and many viable options to complete missions. It isn’t just a choice between melee or shooting or healing. Overwatch returns from Enemy Unknown, an action that allows soldiers to automatically fire on an enemy that moves, and there are actions such as buffs, de-buffs, mind control, defensive action, a variety of grenades, rockets, and more. This diverse catalogue of actions in battle help you take down the variety of enemies, who each have their own attack patterns and actions. Each decision can be a critical one, as enemies tend to take advantage of bad mistakes. Even small mistakes can have huge consequences. While losing a soldier can be devastating – if they die, they stay dead, meaning their skills are gone – deaths in the game for the most part are fair. That being said, the game often stacks the odds against you heavily and failure is something that players need to accept. This lack of control that occurs in certain situations is refreshing, albeit sometimes painful, for experienced gamers.

Decisions in combat are important but the strength of your squad is largely going to be based on decisions made in the other half of the game, the base and resource management part. The story places you and your rebel group in a giant ship called the Avenger that flies around the world installing communication satellites in order to organize a more global anti-alien movement. The base management aspect of XCOM 2 allows you to research new weapons and armour for you to bring into battle, build experimental items such as incendiary ammunition, and build rooms that will lower research time and benefit you in other ways.

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Actions regarding base management require resources, which mostly are rewarded upon successful combat missions. The cycle of earning currency from missions, using that currency to upgrade weapons and armour, seeing those upgrades help terminate enemies and in turn earning more resources , is addicting. Enemies upgrade themselves as the campaign plays out, getting more difficult to take down as the game goes on, yet I never felt either overpowered or underpowered. The game constantly throws challenging but fair missions at the player and even if the player does feel underpowered, there are ways to earn resources outside of missions, so that the player can play catch-up.

The toughest part about describing XCOM 2 is representing the long list of meaningful actions you can take and the way that your decisions surrounding these actions will affect the game. Often you’re presented with three missions, each with its own reward: a scientist, who will lower research times and therefore allow you to bring advanced weapons to battle quicker; an engineer, who can build experimental weapons, or help build a room on the base quicker, or help half injury recovery time for soldiers (only if you have the correct room built first, of course); or resources, which can include intel (you can trade intel to an in-game black market for a variety of things), currency, or material such as alien alloys needed for building weapons that you’ve already researched the technology for. XCOM 2 is a smooth machine with many moving parts, each affecting the other, and that constantly brings about choices that will more than whet the desire of strategy fans.

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If it all sounds a bit overwhelming, it is – for those playing through a game in the series for the first time, anyway. The game’s tutorial gives enough information to get the player started but most of the game’s nitty-gritty details will be learned through playing the campaign and, perhaps more accurately, through mistakes. You have to keep an eye on research, room building, whether you have enough soldiers to go into battle, the state of the alien’s ultimate plan, your resource count so that you can actually make the weapons you have researched, and more. XCOM 2 isn’t the most complex strategy game out there but it strikes an equilibrium between more simple combat-only strategy games and esoteric 4X games that take hundreds of hours to fully digest. There is a lot to manage in the game and a lot to learn. However, the systems and the connections between them are clear enough that this learning process is enjoyable and hardly ever frustrating. You will make mistakes as you play the game for the first time but the game expects you to. Here, failure is an option, and also a great learning tool.

Besides the serious strategy business, XCOM 2 has great soldier customization options. I spent too much time adjusting my soldiers’ armor pieces, hair, helmets, glasses, weapon camo pattern and colour, and more. There is something wonderful about having a soldier run into battle with a cigar in his mouth, aviators over his eyes, and a 1940s fedora to top it all off. Like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you can also rename soldiers to your liking. I highly recommend changing soldiers’ names to those of your friends and loved ones. This way you will, presumably, have even more reason to keep them alive, as seeing Aunt Pauline get destroyed by a shot from an alien’s plasma gun can be quite upsetting.

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The big knock against XCOM 2 on consoles is the technical side of things. Graphics and sound are fine, overall, although issues with clipping and rendering certain effects do arise from time to time. While these superficial problems can be ignored, the issue of slowdown can be frustrating. Home consoles can’t seem to calculate the admittedly large list of decisions that the AI has to take each turn in battle without a five second or longer pause. These pauses get more significant as the number of enemies increases and more tedious the longer you play the game. They won’t keep me from playing the campaign through again, but the game would be more enjoyable if it ran smoothly no matter how many enemies were part of the battle.

Technical issues aside, XCOM 2 is an example of a great strategy game for home consoles. The combat system is challenging but allows for a variety of ways to find success. The base-building system is web of resources and decisions on where to invest them. Both systems are enjoyable on their own but XCOM 2 creates a relationship between the two that bears one of the best gameplay loops in any genre. Whether or not you’ve played a strategy game before, it’s best that you strap on your gear and go out to kick some alien ass.

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Daniel Podborochynski

A Canadian who loves video games, soccer, sandwiches, reading, cats, dogs, Aphex Twin, bike rides, Fallout, Daft Punk, barbecue, and beer.

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