- great tactical gameplay with a new level of depth and new strategic options;
- extensive character creation and progression options;
- random scenery, map design, and enemy roster;
- official mod support;
- several unique, intriguing enemies;
- good-looking visuals;
- engaging combat with new combat mechanics…
- …that doesn’t quite live up to its potential;
- occasional feeling of déja vu when it comes to some enemies and gameplay solutions;
- the camera can sometimes do awful things;
- some irritating visual glitches.
One hand is enough to count all the successful cases of a late franchise reboot, i.e. after it was shelved by the developer for several years. First ones that come to mind would be Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat, and… ah, yes… XCOM. The latter, released in 2012 as Enemy Unknown, might not have been exactly what the old hands were expecting, but, all in all, it turned out to be a great option for the fans of tactical combat. Good tactical combat in modern games, you see, is something that is getting harder and harder to get these days. Only a handful of AAAs bet their money on turn-based gameplay, and, if we add “leading a small team” and “careful planning” to our prerequisite list, our number of options becomes severely limited. The XCOM series may have no real competition right now, but it’s not the reason why it became the gamers’ favorite. It was decided by its quality, captivating gameplay, and the same thing that works for the Civilization series – the unconquerable urge to play “just one more turn”. The latest iteration returns to that well-proved formula and tries to develop it even further… but it does so by playing it very, very safe.
It’s been 20 years since the events of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. As soon as we set our foot on the battlefield, though, we know that those 20 years were not the best in the history of humanity. Despite the heroic efforts of our HQ in the previous installments, the aliens had returned and - what’s even worse - they have won. How they’ve won is a rather surprising matter. Instead of trying to bludgeon humanity into submission with sheer military force, they offered “peace” and access to highly advanced technologies, which was welcomed by unsuspecting humanity with open arms. Blinded by the vision of prosperity, the citizens have willingly given up their freedom and abandoned themselves to the yoke of the aliens, whose interests on our planet are supervised by the speaker, a government of puppets, and backed up by the military forces of ADVENT. Hardly a jolly prospect. There is always a glimmer of hope in such stories, however – all around the world certain individuals are rebelling against this enslavement, and what’s left of the XCOM organization slowly rises from its knees, preparing for the push that will take back the Earth.
Our fun begins with a rescue mission. We’re saving… the Commander from the previous installment. In the span of several first minutes we snatch our brave leader from an alien facility and, after providing him with the necessary “maintenance”, we’re ready for action. As we are in the offensive this time, the narrative changes greatly… NOT! Putting us once again in the shoes of the Commander is a nice touch, aimed with no doubt at long-standing fans, but the longer we play, the often we get reminded of the fact that the creators’ minds are stuck in the same formula. We fight the aliens, BAM! – plot twist – a new, mysterious element emerges, but all of our problems are eventually settled by a bold assault on enemy HQ. I’ll spare you the details, but let just say that the plot outline is, with some small exceptions, taken straight from the previous installments. And the similarities went way beyond dialogues…
A ragtag bunch of killing machines
Still, nobody’s expecting a Hollywood-class script and Oscar-winning narrative when picking up this franchise. Gameplay is the essence of XCOM 2, and in that aspect, once again, the game holds its ground with ease. Depending on the mission and our organization’s level of development, we lead a team of 3 to 6 operators, each assigned to one of the five available classes. Grenadier, Specialist, Ranger, and Sharpshooter feature two alternative specializations each, providing you with means that can significantly change the way a characters plays. For example, Sharpshooter can become a Sniper, a Gunslinger, or combine the traits of both trees. In practice it works great and allows us to customize our subordinates to face any challenge presented to us by the game. Then there’s the Psi Operative, who is a whole separate class in this installment, offering different, but no less interesting, development options. Operative customizations also include their appearances; however, it was weapon customization and the option to use permanently-working “stimulants” that I had found much more interesting. Adding scopes and new grips to your gun, or employing special chips, can significantly boost the accuracy of our warrior or grant him or her additional passive abilities. If you ever dreamed of creating your own small army of unique individuals, you’ll be over the moon.
Assuming we’ve finally managed to assemble the dream team we wish to lead into battle, let us proceed to the battlefield. No big surprises here – the combat is turn-based, and the characters have two actions per turn to be utilized on movement or shooting. As usual, all of our actions have to be balanced and carefully planned, but if you’ve played any of the previous entries, you will have fairly good knowledge of what your team is capable of. Guard, hiding behind covers, flanking, covering fire, grenades – the list encompasses a rather typical set of items, although some interesting novelties had found their way in as well. The most important would be the option to pick up the items dropped by our enemies, allowing us to acquire things like new weapon upgrades. We have to reach the drop within a limited number of turns, just like with meld canisters from the Enemy Within expansion.
The second novelty is hacking. Initially, I was rather skeptical of this idea, but as the game progressed I found myself using it more often than not. Thanks to the special drone that accompanies the Specialist, we can hijack robots and ADVENT transmitters, making them serve our purposes. As a gameplay mechanic hacking is surprisingly useful, if a bit unconventional. Every hacking attempt comes with a chance of failure – failed hacking grants our enemies a stat bonus. There would be nothing wrong with that, if not for the fact that the result is based upon some strange system of percentages. In theory, our chances for success depend on the skills of our hacker; except when it comes to putting things into practice the whole process seems to be decided at random and there’s nothing we can do to help it. This can sometimes put you off your stride and I think that a solution that would have us actively take part in the breaking of the code would be better. With that said, after some time it is possible to get used to it, even as it is.
See the unseen coming
Sneaking, the third big novelty, also requires some getting used to. In most of our missions the team begins its operations undetected, and remains undetected for as long as we avoid shooting, and enemy eyes. Certainly an interesting option, and brings Heroes of Might and Magic to mind, allowing us to place our units in favorable positions before a battle. XCOM, however, offers much more than simply positioning. The first battle is always a one-sided beat down with no casualties on our, perfectly prepared, side and demolished enemies left in our wake. It works great and adds a significant amount depth to the tactical aspect of the game. I think I know what you’re thinking at this point. No, it won’t happen. Completing a mission without fighting even a single battle is virtually impossible – I’ve tried it, more times than I should have. Even if we remain undetected throughout 90% of the mission, at some point we either have to shoot something or we get spotted during the mission finale. And then every enemy unit we mercifully left alive, as well as others present on the map, will be coming to get us, all at once. Good luck fending off that horde. The other problem is that there’s not much time left for playing hide-and-seek, as the time limit in certain missions is rather tight – 8 turns for example, which means that sometimes we really have to step on it. Of course, shooting is the game’s main, and while the stealth mechanics could have been better designed, they are still fun.
Speaking of the enemy, let’s take a look on those alien mugs we happily lacerate during the game. In short - enemy roster is a mix of old and new, mainly based upon things introduced by Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. As expected, we will meet some old acquaintances – Mutons, Chryssalids, Berserkers, Sectoids, as well as some other, visually refurbished types of aliens, but the list is expanded with completely new creatures, like Archons or Andromedons. All of them are cleverly designed and fighting them can provide a good challenge, but it quickly becomes clear where did the creators get their inspiration from. The answer is simple – they are enemies we had fought in previous entries, sporting new clothes and a new trick or two up their sleeve. Andromedon’s attacks will remind you of the good old Thin Man, although Andromedon itself is much more resilient than the latter, and Archons are a modified version of Floaters with added melee attacks. Nothing revolutionary, but, on the other hand, there are some surprises among them, like the Codex, which can teleport and clone itself, or the Faceless, which can disguise itself as a normal-looking human. You can’t really say nothing’s changed.
The bigger picture
Turn-based battles are one thing, but, as we all know, XCOM features also a large-scale strategic layer. Given our vastly different strategic objective – an offensive campaign instead of a defensive one – our objectives will have to achieved by other means. Instead of sitting in a base, surveying the situation worldwide, this time we are fully mobile and use that mobility to relocate from one side of the map to another on a regular basis. Our responsibilities include not only liberating subsequent world regions from the aliens, but also things like resistance support, resource gathering, visits on the black market, or attacks on convoys belonging to ADVENT. Additionally, we can build special towers, that increase our income in the regions we reclaimed, and sometimes we have to deal with the so-called dark events. The latter are particularly important, as ignoring them will result in the enemy gaining some irritating power-ups – like toxic ammo. Furthermore, some of those events will help the enemy complete the mysterious Avatar Project – once it’s complete it’s game over for us. This extra factor really adds to the gameplay and helps to relieve the feeling of “aimlessness” that I have experienced in previous installments from time to time. The impending doom is constantly breathing down our necks, urging us not also to plan better and fight better, but also making us enjoy the game more.
Now, while the mobility of our base of operations and the grand plan to retake Earth are things very different from what we’re used to, when it comes to mission diversity, the developers, once again, have taken the safe option, providing us with more of the same. We have civilian rescue, enemy elimination, capturing or defending transmitters, and escort missions – the usual, so to say. Still, even the usual missions provide enormous entertainment value and, despite being old, can be quite challenging even when we know what to expect. And for the advocates of change – we have two new, interesting activities. The first one features setting demolition charges in ADVENT facilities, after which we have to safely evacuate our team (here’s where the stealth tactic and trigger discipline can truly shine), the second is base defense. The latter, however, is not exactly what you might expect from your previous experiences – including those from Enemy Within. Here we fight in the field, trying to destroy the enemy transmitter and prevent the enemy force from reaching certain coordinates on the map. Better than nothing, I guess.
Things get random – deal with it
Speaking of the battlefield, I have to mention one of the biggest, and possible also one of the best, changes introduced by XCOM 2. To diversify the gameplay, the creators have decided to implement procedurally generated maps. This way, when we repeat a mission, we are each time faced with a different terrain and a different set of enemies. The scenery is chosen from one of several archetypes, i.e. jungle or snowy tundra. I have finished the game only once, but even then, when loading a save game from before a mission, I noticed some very noticeable changes in the map layout. Which leads us to the following conclusion – XCOM 2 will be a unique, individual experience for every player, and it can be completed multiple times without getting dull. Not to mention the mods that will most certainly contribute to the game’s replayability and, in time, further supplement its visual diversity.
Thus, in a slightly roundabout way, we’ve reached the subject of the game’s audiovisuals. The soundtrack, sound effects, and character voices are OK. Nothing special, but nothing to frown upon as well. Things get complicated, however, when we take a closer look at the textures used by the developers. 3D models of the characters and enemies look better and are more detailed than previously, but it’s still the “same old XCOM”. On one hand, the game will occasionally amaze you with its details – the smoke rising from gun barrels, the grass dancing on the wind – and new, truly impressive special effects; on the other, the price for that will be the maddening camera behavior. If you were previously irritated by the strange things that can happen to the perspective, you better make sure you have a stock of sedatives before launching XCOM 2; it’s become even worse. Strange angles, funny poses, freezing, random rotations, and many other quirks, well-known to anyone who’s played Enemy Unknown or Enemy Within, are back, more numerous than ever. While it’s not a game-breaking issue and you can get used to it, I somehow get the feeling that any decent team of creators should be able to learn from their mistakes at this point.
We are still counting on you, commander
As it is, XCOM 2 is both a dream and a nightmare come true to the fans of previous entries. In the span of nearly 40 hours it took me to complete the campaign I had loads of fun, despite camera’s valiant efforts… At the same time, I can’t pretend that I didn’t see the game’s numerous similarities with the previous entry in the series. While the game offers several interesting, but not always perfect, new features, its mainstay employs what has “sold” the game the first time. The creators have decided to play it safe when making the sequel – they took what was good and put a new coat of paint on it, hoping that it will once again win the hearts of people fancying tactical gameplay. To put it mildly, and omitting the visuals aspect of the game, XCOM 2 differs from the prequel not much more than Enemy Within did. All in all, it’s not a bad approach, because the previous XCOM was a nearly perfect game in my eyes, and, given a choice between a revolution or “more of the same”, I would no doubt choose the latter. I suppose the revolutions will have to wait until the expansions are released, leading us to a conclusion that XCOM 2 will most likely follow in the footsteps of the Civilization franchise. Nevertheless, the game is very enjoyable even as it is now, and thus, if you’re a fan of tactical strategy games, it would almost be a sin to pass up on such a good game. Those aliens won’t expel themselves, you know.