All sequels dream of improving and expanding on the success of their predecessor. XCOM 2 manages to accomplish that goal by upping its production quality across the board. The drastically improved visuals stun with a frankly impressive level of detail. Locations, items, skill progression, everything has been either created entirely new or reworked into a slightly different, though recognizable, form. A relatively engaging narrative with some depth and pathos I simply wasn't expecting goes beyond “fight the bad aliens." Simply put, XCOM 2 feels like a big step in an exciting direction, setting the bar of excellence for all future additions to the series while also stumbling slightly on technical glitches.
XCOM 2 begins with the assumption that the player failed to stop the alien invasion in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Twenty years after the fall of Earth, the alien forces have coalesced into a worldwide government known as ADVENT, an organization that goes to great lengths to appear benign, but something sinister stirs beneath the smiles they broadcast to the world. A scattered resistance movement has been agitating around the globe, chaffing under the alien’s rule. Spearheading that resistance, remnants of the XCOM project undertake a desperate mission to seize a critical alien asset….
It’s a good hook and a compelling scenario. Most interestingly, XCOM 2 eventually draws the player into the game world as an additional character. The cast of characters in XCOM 2 feels much more alive this time around. As players go about tasks like deciding what to research, optimizing squad equipment, or building new facilities within the alien ship that serves as a central base, characters like Central Officer Bradford, head engineer An-Yi Shen, and Dr. Tygan will share stories or gossip with both the player and each other in the base. It gives off a vibe reminiscent of the interactions from StarCraft II.
XCOM 2 goes a long ways toward improving on Enemy Unknowns imperfections. A small change like introducing a trimmed down version of base-building that makes new expansions to your hideout feel more meaningful goes a long ways toward cultivating an enjoyable experience. Gone are the days when an allied nation panicked due to a lack of satellite coverage only to back out of the XCOM project permanently. Instead, a new system for maintaining a monthly income rears its head, requiring the player to merely contact resistance forces in a given area and complete any random missions that might arise in that area. Ignoring missions could lead to those areas being lost and having to spend precious time and resources to regain them again. Instead of satellites, players can build radio towers to lower the cost of contacting additional nearby pockets of the resistance. This eliminates a lot of the frustration the metagame caused in Enemy Unknown, while maintaining the element of choice that makes each attempt to complete an XCOM campaign unique.
Firaxis really outdid themselves upping the all around visual presentation of XCOM 2. The level of detail really impresses. Small objects litter combat areas, adding to the sense that these are lived in space. In a shootout with ADVENT forces in a junk yard, small knickknacks and debris would go flying in reaction to gunfire or explosions. A guitar was clearly visible on the ground at one point. During one of the combat animations, the camera actually zoomed in so far to a cafe table that I was able to see a recently abandoned cup of coffee and an accompanying doughnut covered in sprinkles. Little touches like that are instrumental in giving an air of quality to XCOM 2; people clearly spent a lot of love and effort crafting it. No one puts doughnuts that few people will ever likely see into a game without caring about their work.
New skill trees for class progressions really work to make classes that feel distinct and fun. Do you want a stealthy ranger or a ranger that can become a death-dealing hurricane? Would you prefer a grenadier who can make anything and everything explode or one that can shred through armor and enemies alike? The specialists all have drones that can be fitted for healing or combat tasks. Perhaps you want a sharpshooter to snipe enemies from afar or be a pistol-wielding nightmare. Maybe you throw all of those classes out the window and heavily invest in training psi operatives to unleash powerful psychic abilities on unwitting alien forces. All of these approaches can be experimented with heavily; mixing and matching abilities to fine tune soldiers so that they can overcome any challenge feels incredibly satisfying. Even more so, perhaps, because those ranks are earned in combat which always carries risk of permadeath.
One of the larger gripes that people had about XCOM: Enemy Unknown when it launched in 2012 was its small pool of maps for random encounters. Firaxis clearly went out of their way to address this problem bringing a larger number of maps to XCOM 2. After 50 hours, I am sure I repeated a couple of the battlefields, but the randomized start locations mesh really nicely with the finely crafted combat spaces. I never had the thought of, “oh great, this place again,” while playing XCOM 2, which is surely an improvement over the 2012 franchise reboot.
Firaxis also introduces never-before-seen enemies alongside revamped foes from Enemy Unknown, new items, and a commitment to destructible environments. Few things are more distressing than being caught in an ambush when one of the overhauled sectopods simply walks through a building and begins decimating your squad’s fresh recruits. Building more systems to facilitate environmental destruction really expands the tactical choices available to players. Don’t want to deal with an ADVENT officer who has taken up a defensive position on the second floor of an office building? Throw a grenade/shoot a rocket/use a special cover destroying ability and blow the floor out from under it, which causes it to take additional damage from the fall and potentially deprives it of cover. Of course, the aliens are equally capable of taking advantage of environment destruction, so players need to stay on their toes to avoid a total party wipe. All of these changes really help to give XCOM 2 an identity that feels distinct from its predecessor while maintaining the core gameplay that makes XCOM one of the staples of modern turn-based strategy.
Perhaps its biggest accomplishment, XCOM 2 embraces the character personalization that arguably made 2012’s Enemy Unknown such an explosive hit. The randomizer that generates soldiers does a fantastic job of creating unique soldiers, each with their own backstories that brought them to be a part of the human resistance movement. You can spend hours agonizing over creating the coolest soldiers or inserting loved ones into the game. However, even without recreating friends and family to bring personal connections into the game, players will slowly develop a sense of who each of these characters are. The near suicidal Kellen “Smokey” Moore who stubbornly refused to die while pinned down by a colossal sectopod and three plasma-toting mutons; the whirlwind of destruction that was Jane “Cobra” Kelly who singlehandedly took down an entire defensive position of alien troops with only her machete; Jaqueline “Buzzsaw” Simon who truly earned her name in the final mission by taking down two charging berserkers to protect a gravely wounded comrade; or Kiriko “Priestess” Hasegawa who consistently beat the odds and hacked robotic defenses and soldiers to give her squad the winning edge they needed – I’ll remember these characters for more than the mere mechanical advantages they provided. We made memories together. I spent over 50 hours playing through one campaign of XCOM 2 and some of those soldiers were with me from the very beginning. Some potent bonding goes on when those characters live or die based on the quality of your tactical choices.
Despite the triumph of XCOM 2, technical issues mar the otherwise amazing experience. The framerate can sometimes dip unexpectedly for seemingly no reason. Certain enemies can at times become invisible on the battlefield. Once or twice I had a character fall multiple from a higher elevation and become stuck in a piece of the environment. However, the biggest issue of all was the time many of my saves became corrupted and unplayable; crashing to the desktop every time they were loaded. No one wants to be forced to start a new game after investing nearly 40 hours into an experience. Randomly corrupting saves are a huge deal for a game that spans 50 hours for one campaign. Luckily, I was able to find an functional save file and continue with only a several hours of lost time. I’m sure Firaxis has been scrambling to fix these issues, but it might have been better to delay the game a bit further in order to fix some of these glaring technical hiccups before releasing it to the public.
XCOM 2 is a strategic dream come true, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for waiting on it for a few weeks to give Firaxis time to sort out a patch or two for the most grievous glitches. Despite the struggles of modern development schedules cutting down on QA testing time, XCOM 2 delivers a really rich and rewarding experience that improves on Enemy Unknown in pretty nearly all respects. The emergent narratives crafted through commanding a resistance movement stand alongside set piece missions that shake up the standard objectives with really challenging scenarios. The standout for me involves the entirety of the XCOM barracks taking to the battlefield to fight for survival. I haven’t even mentioned the three mods crafted by Long War Studios, the team behind Enemy Unknown’s Long War mod, that were available at XCOM 2’s launch. They add SMGs, a new alien type, and an entire skill tree that allows soldiers to train as leaders, conferring squad bonuses and abilities. They are all excellent and bettered my core experience. Play XCOM 2 right now if you are a strategy fiend and you are jonesing for your next strategy fix, but for those with more self-control hold off for a few more weeks until the technical stuff finishes being ironed out.
XCOM 2 is available now for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.