XCOM 2 review: triumphant, with a looming threat of disaster

By Kris Goorhuis, Friday, 5 February 2016 06:55 GMT

Every choice in XCOM 2 is the difference between success and failure, says Kris Goorhuis.

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“XCOM 2 bears the same looming threat of a dozen hours of effort crashing down around you at the hands of forces you cannot control. An infuriatingly easy shot missed by your most experienced trooper in a critical situation may precipitate catastrophe.”

My first campaign began to corrode under the strain of mismanagement. Unable to resist the profusion of interesting things to buy, I evaporated my war chest like the credit account of a reckless teen.

Contact must be established with a crucial resistance cell, but we’ve no space for the necessary comms equipment. If we could excavate the innards of our commandeered alien vessel, we could cram some in the cavity… But that takes resources. And acquiring resources takes manpower. And I managed to strand most of my seasoned operatives near the burning husk of a VIP’s imprisonment building. This is when I began to suspect that the remaining free humans were doomed.

There’s a lot of love directed at XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Its turn-taking tactical shootouts were a consistently tense, punishing, but rewarding affair, a brand of challenge somewhat akin to the similarly adored Souls series. Here, though, the caprice of the die roll stands poised to ruin your carefully executed strategy. Such is a potential problem large enough to reasonably turn new players off of the series, especially combined with the fact that poor luck can lead to permanent, playthrough-damning deaths. It’s sequel bears the same looming threat of a dozen hours of effort crashing down around you at the hands of forces you cannot control. An infuriatingly easy shot missed by your most experienced trooper in a critical situation may precipitate catastrophe.

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I like to view the dice rolls as encompassing the broad range of effectively random chance in battlefield conditions. A stray glare off a window, the stress placed on equipment and soldier, the haste of someone under fire whipping around to face the energy baton-wielding dude sprinting up behind them. It encompasses the notion that you’re commanding people, not directing perfect instruments. A collage of disparate factors distilled into the one percentage chance for simplicity’s sake. I can blame a point-blank whiff on equipment failure, right?

Tangling with forces outside your control is something I find exhilarating, though, at least here. There’s tension hanging on every moment until the instant you see if an aggressor lands their shot. Your favorite grenadier still has his chance to pull through a terrible situation, and I find myself rooting and willing for him to survive. I cheer when my sharpshooter lands her clutch long shot. You’re certainly still playing the chess angle, fostering a situation where your forces can excel, but my emotion swings with every figure’s accomplishments and failures. I like that. I’m gathering stories of staggering successes pulled from the edge of disaster, of stupid blunders spelling ruin for the unfortunate souls who placed me in command.

Unfortunately the camera has a way of lingering on a shadowy patch of landscape while the enemy takes their turn beyond view. Sometimes it drags for a solid ten seconds or so with nothing happening on screen, and it’s locked in place so I can’t plan my next steps. Further, the game has a tendency to hang in stasis for a few beats after I’ve finished a move, as if it’s unsure of when to give control back. I’m willing to concede that the latter issue may be unique to my machine and I, but I’m not sure about the former. These are about the extent of my frustrations.

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Managing the the resistance to Earth’s alien occupation outside of battle is less random. A rather plain looking world map is littered with things to occupy your time: mostly scanning notable areas for supplies and humans in hiding. The process takes time, and each day advances the aliens’ plot to deal with your uprising, but you always have something to do. Exhausting the extra options that appear will, at worse, force you to return to HQ and feed off whatever passive boost you chose. A welcome change from the first, where you often simply waited for smaller skirmishes to occur. Now you’re hoping for peace.

Outfitting your airborne barge is a daunting task. There’s a great big array of things to spend your limited resources on – training or manufacturing facilities, machinery, fresh recruits – and the reaching consequences of each pursuit can be difficult to discern. Figuring out what you want to chase means making choices that exclude, at least for the time being, other options. Even responding to new threats as they appear means abandoning scans in progress. After you gain a handle on things, though, this means making big, very meaningful choices every time you return home.

This is probably the game’s greatest strength. Sid Meier, one of the beloved figures working at Firaxis, this title’s developers, has described games as a series of interesting choices. XCOM 2 makes everything you do, inside and out of combat, an action of consequence. Something to be ruminated over lest you make disastrous mistakes.

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“Focusing too heavily on acquiring neat hardware is how I began digging the grave of my first longer term playthrough. In fact, the entire game seems to have had a heightened focus on makings its chest of toys cool.”

That can be difficult. The game is packed with alluring things to lure you away from prudent decisions. New technologies are attractive, the items they present very enticing and very expensive. Focusing too heavily on acquiring neat hardware is how I began digging the grave of my first longer term playthrough. In fact, the entire game seems to have had a heightened focus on makings its chest of toys cool. It’s first evident in the class options: they’re not standard, predictable paths. “Assault” and “heavy weapons” laid out about what you’d expect in the last game, but “Specialist”? He’s got a robot. It can do cool robot things. The Ranger has a sword, and career upgrades can make his sword cooler. There’s a gratification to the more strictly military theme we had before, sure, but the advancements in tech Earth has seen in the years since have been exploited as a breeding ground for delightful arms and upgrades

Gosh darn, the sword is so cool.

There’s an exaggeration to the style as well. Weapons are a little bit oversized, the gush of blood spouted by a rifle slug and the force corpses are thrown around with a little bit over the top. Soldiers crash through windows with excessive style and drama. There’s a juicy sloppiness to alien autopsies that is just silly and enjoyable. The element of camp and self-aware indulgence the first carried is still there.

Which makes the tension of the story surprising. I should have expected it, given how unexpectedly engrossing I found Enemy Unknown’s old fashioned invasion story. I suppose several dozen attempts stripped away the pressing importance of narrative beats.

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Part of the compelling power the game generates, I think, relates to the fact that, whatever techie science stuff or impending threat your crew is talking about? You’re going to need to deal with it in the field. Not only “hey, there be bad people over here, let’s go play in a different looking location”, but “that horrific new threat flashing onto camera is your next big strategic challenge.” It’s going to drastically alter your play and make things that much more difficult. So you hang on their words, hoping and praying that whatever they’re discussing this time won’t turn out to be such a terrible thing. We may be concerned about different outcomes – them the fate of their planet, me the fate of computer game save files – but I’m right there with you, guys. I’m feeling shades of the same desperation and fear of what might come next.

I’m sure that, given enough time, I’ll lose interest in the story here as well. I’ll have encountered cutscenes too many times for them to ring true the way they used to, but I’m looking forward to the process of becoming that jaded with XCOM 2. There’s a lot I haven’t mentioned, like procedural map generation, quickly vanishing loot, character customization options, and little pieces of detail, to name a few, but I’ve rambled enough. I anticipate playing this game for a hell of a long time to come.

XCOM 2 is out now on PC.

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