XCOM 2's design relies too much on unpredictable formulas, very much to the game's detriment.
"Winning in XCOM 2 rarely feels like it. You're in a constant state of trying to catch up to the aliens on multiple fronts, and you're never ahead."
XCOM 2 is a better game than its predecessor in almost every way. Almost. Firaxis improved the overall presentation, increased the number of tools at your disposal, crafted better maps, and even delivered a more interesting campaign.
But with all of its achievements it doubled down on possibly one of the worst aspects of the original, the over reliance on dice rolls. In its pre-emptive attempt to lessen the effects of randomness on the core gameplay, it created a playground where everyone's powers are greatly inflated, and one that's ultimately ruled by power creep.
The 2012 original is lauded to this day for introducing the genre to a wider audience, with intuitive controls and relatively accessible gameplay. It was a similar case for me, reigniting my love for a genre I had long since cared about. Around its release, I read a lot of angry comments about how entropy had taken control of design, killing off the tactical aspects and making it a game of luck more than anything.
I never really understood these criticisms; dice rolls in XCOM always seemed like part of the formula to me, even if they can be a bit annoying.
Today, having spent over 20 hours with the sequel, I absolutely understand their grievances. In a way, XCOM 2 represents the natural evolution of modern games. It has more of everything its predecessor had, and even borrows from other genres. It fulfils your wishlist for what the original should have been.
Yet, somehow, all these improvements managed to do is accentuate the worst parts of the Firaxis formula.
Winning in XCOM 2 rarely feels like it. You’re in a constant state of trying to catch up to the aliens on multiple fronts, and you’re never ahead. You always earn less than what you spend, and your plans are always foiled by an attack here or a raid there that you must take care of.
Your ambitious ideas for a better ship and a better squad are always put off. When you return, you’ll have no doubt lost a soldier or two. If they’re not KIA, they’ll more than likely be gravely wounded, preventing you from using them for a few days. This of course gets you to recruit others to fill in their place. Which wouldn't be too bad, if it weren't for the fact you have to take rookies on missions to level them up, even if they’re not your best option.
The missions themselves seem to always want to f**k you over. The odds are not just stacked against you, they’re unpredictable, and change on a dime. I don’t know if Firaxis is leaving the types and number of enemies you encounter to a random algorithm, or if it’s all part of bespoke level design. I doubt it’s the latter, but it always makes me lament my every move.
The biggest reason for this is the sheer number of enemy squads in each level. I dare you to find a single mission where the balance isn't constantly one turn away from being completely out of whack. I found myself constantly refusing to move ahead. Any move I make could aggro another enemy squad I can’t see, but one that'll definitely join the - already barely manageable - fight.
I am not sending the whole squad ahead, either. I am talking about changing cover, or getting closer to an enemy for a better shot. Any of these moves could be one tile too far.
Whenever you accidentally aggro a group of enemies, they’re almost always more difficult than the one you’re engaging. Fights like these are gruelling and make every mission feel like a grand campaign-ending expedition, when it’s just an everyday scrimmage. You never feel like the commander they keep calling you, more of a desperate swarmed general who’s out-manned and out-gunned.
And if all these frustrations weren't enough, XCOM 2 randomly decides to bring in backup. You get one turn of a warning, and they always come in at the worst time. It’s as if the game is constantly analysing your squad health before it decides to turn the dial up even further. These backup units usually spawn at your flanks, and they usually announce themselves as you’re busy whittling down the three enemy squads you've been engaging since four turns.
In the seconds before they drop, you’re left with two difficult choices and neither is rewarding. You either set up Overwatch to pick off the new units, exposing your back to the ones already aggroed. Or you continue dealing with the current threat and leave your flank open.
And so essentially, in every mission, you’re always expected to cut your losses. With the exception of the concealed start, you never have time to set up ambushes or position your units the way you want. You’re always reacting. It’s always a race to scramble to cover and hope the team survives until the next turn.
This creates constantly escalating missions that feel gruelling to tackle. And although this is not a problem in and of itself, the over-abundance of them make sure that you're frustrated more than excited. And that’s where I think I am with XCOM 2 at this point.
The last time I played it, it was a mission where I had 14 turns to locate, reach a hostage, free and extract everyone. I tried this mission probably five times before giving up. I've always been completely against timed missions in games, but you can't expect me to stomach that on top of XCOM 2's penchant for screwing you over.