Monday, October 17, 2016.
by Adam Dileva

XCOM 2 Box art Firaxis, best known for their Civilization and XCOM titles, has finally graced console gamers with the release of XCOM 2. While it originally released on PC over six months ago, seemingly as a PC exclusive, it has finally made its way to the Xbox One for fans that prefer to relax on the couch with a controller in their hands. XCOM: Enemy Unknown for the Xbox 360 was a fantastic showing of what Firaxis could do with the strategy genre on last-gen, so I was quite excited to see what improvements would be made for its long awaited sequel on the Xbox One. Depending on which ending you got in Enemy Unknown, the cannon storyline in XCOM 2 continues 20 years after the war was lost. A terrifying alien regime, the Advent, has been ruling over humanity for the past two decades and a resistance is beginning to arise to free mankind from their clutches. The story focuses on the rebellion taking the fight to the aliens, as opposed to defending like the previous game, and this carries over to the gameplay.

Instead of simply holding back the enemy, you are now tasked with sabotage, intelligence interceptions, and actually pushing the front lines forward. While there is an overarching storyline, it’s nothing substantial enough to care about, and you won’t form any real bonds with any of the characters unless you name your soldiers to match your real life friends and family and they happen to die in virtual combat.

XCOM 2 plays almost exactly like its predecessor(s), albeit with a laundry list of improvements and changes. It’s still a turn based strategy game at its core, focusing on squad based tactics and building up your human resistance against the aliens. If you were a fan of Enemy Unknown you’re going to fall in love all over again as XCOM 2 vastly improves on almost every facet of gameplay, adding many more options, and subsequently, much more difficulty as well. If you’re not a big fan of strategy games, then obviously XCOM 2 may not be on your radar, and believe me, I used to not be a big fan of strategy titles before, but Firaxis is the best in the business when it comes to the genre and they prove it big time with XCOM 2.

Once of the biggest changes you’ll notice almost instantly is the mission structure and variety. There were only a handful of different mission types in the previous XCOM, but this has been improved upon in XCOM 2. Now you’ll be assaulting bases, attempting to destroy or protect valuable targets, rescuing civilians, and even saving VIP’s. The biggest catch is that a bulk of these missions are timed, not with an actual time limit, but with moves instead. Because of the hectic pace, you can no longer simply rely on hanging back, going into overwatch, and waiting for enemies to fall into your line of fire. Now you need to be aggressive on the assault, making for some very risky, and much needed, new strategies to be employed.

Since most missions are timed now you can’t always dictate the terms of combat any longer, which can be frustrating and uncomfortable at first, especially if you have became accustomed to tried and true tactics from Enemy Within, but it’s also where a big majority of the satisfaction comes from when you finally complete a mission, regardless of the casualties. Even if you manage to protect your best soldiers until the endgame, they are never completely safe from danger, as you’ll need to almost always put yourself in danger to progress against the aggressive time crunch. At first I didn’t really enjoy the forceful nature of the missions, but I began to warm up to it, adapted my strategy, and learned from my fatal mistakes.

Since the mission objectives vary wildly the campaign seems to breeze right by, and even if you’re not playing a true ‘ironman playthrough’ without reloading saves, the maps are procedurally generated every time, so even if you do reload a previous save to prevent your best soldiers from dying in combat, replaying a mission won’t always be the same, forcing you to constantly adapt. Sometimes you’ll need to know when to cut your losses and call for an emergency extraction rather than having your whole team perish. These moments are very tense yet thrilling, as I didn’t want to rely on previous game saves to reload, so I eventually started to accept whatever outcomes my battles had. Doing so made XCOM 2 that much more intense and exhilarating, especially when you absolutely need a low percentage success rate shot to succeed, or else you die.

Not only does XCOM 2 dictate the pace you need to play at, this also is true for the campaign missions as well. There’s no simple grinding missions to beef up your soldiers that would allow you to take on the campaign once you’re overpowered, as there’s a constant "Avatar Project" that you witness slowly progressing on the world map. If the meter fills it means impending doom, so you need to complete specific campaign based objectives and missions to hold back the aliens progress in this mysterious project, as failure to do so means absolute doom for mankind.

If you’re an XCOM fan, you’ll feel right at home with this game's combat mechanics. You’ll still be given two actions a turn, allowing you to hunker down, go into overwatch, or shoot any enemies within distance. There are some great additions though, the most obvious of which are the slight variance of the classes and the much more defined branching skill trees. Each class can choose to specialize in a distinct path that’s meant to be played a specific way, but you can also mix and match skills as they level up in ranks to suit your play style and squad setups.

You’ll also notice that a stealth mechanic has been implemented, allowing you to begin most missions concealed against the enemy. This allows you to take a few moves to setup an ambush if you wish, or even bypass combat all together if you’re clever (and lucky) enough to not get spotted by wandering patrols. On non-timed missions I would take my time to set up a perfect ambush, luring packs of enemies into my squad’s wall of overwatch retaliation. Given that a bulk of the missions are timed though, it’s tough to use this strategy often, as you really need to play quite aggressively if you want to succeed. It’s a great idea, and works well in the right situations, but it needs to be fleshed out a little more in a hopeful sequel.

Many of your strategies will come from failure and losing your best fighters. Once you learn how specific enemy types behave, you can start to learn the best tactics to use against them while keeping your soldiers safe. After a dozen hours I finally found a perfect balance of classes and abilities that, most of the time, were unstoppable, but that’s where XCOM 2 is brilliant, as it will throw a new enemy type at you or simply have you miss a shot with 95% success rate, completely turning the tide of battle and causing you to react. It goes the other way as well, as praying that a 20% chance attack will land, and it does, feels overwhelmingly amazing. XCOM 2 is meant to be played through multiple times, as the first time or two will simply be a learning experience, and from there on you can really fine tune your best course of action against the Advent with your ideal builds.

The overworld meta-game has also been improved, as you’ll be tasked with connecting communication relays and liberating different countries from the aliens to bolster the resistance. You’ll need to expand and upgrade your base as well, allowing you to choose the best course of action. This specifically where it will take a full playthrough, or two, to figure out the best build paths (without looking online of course) as there’s no branching trees to see the best paths and the outcomes until it’s actually completed. I found this blind guessing a little frustrating, as I didn’t know if spending a massive amount of time researching something would be worth it in the end, as you’re not given much description of the result, making you unable to plan multiple steps ahead or the best way to min-max your playthrough.

You have limited resources and time, so you will constantly be making complex and difficult decisions on the fly. Do you prioritize a mass amount of time to research advanced weaponry or do you spend that time on multiple smaller projects instead? It’s completely up to you, but it’s a constant battle of resources and time, with an always looming thread close by to keep you pressured and moving at a brisker pace than you may like to at first.

There is also a multiplayer component included that allows you to take on another player with a custom squad of your own. You’re even able to control Advent forces in this mode, which is really cool, especially the more costly forces. Each unit has a predetermined value attached, and you can only spend a set amount to make up a squad, so it’s a balancing act of utilizing less but more powerful, or more but less effective. I’d love to give a more in depth analysis of XCOM 2’s multiplayer offerings, but multiple times I’ve sat at the menu, both in ranked and quick match, unable to find a game, even while sitting for well over a half hour. I assume it’s simply a small pool of players taking their squads online rather than any server issues, but it was unfortunate I wasn’t able to find a single game to play every time I attempted to.

For all the praise I’ve given XCOM 2 so far, there are a laundry list of bugs that constantly hampered my experience, even many hours in. First is the massive technical issues. The loading times are long and often, the camera angles don’t always work as intended, making for difficult strategizing, and the clipping at times is laughable when you see a character shoot directly through a wall or object. Aiming grenades seems to be a chore in concentration and feels very loose compared to the standard shooting. There was one instance where I was unable to hit the enemies in front of me, not because of a lack of skill or the randomness of missing shots, but the game didn’t think they were where they appeared on my screen. I was only able to complete that mission by staying in overwatch and waiting for them to move into ‘view’.

From beginning to end, you’ll constantly be challenged with XCOM 2. It’s difficulty is unforgiving if you’re not careful, and since death is permanent you can lose your best soldiers at any given time in any given mission quite quickly. I thought the original XCOM was fantastic, but it’s rare for a sequel to be better in almost every aspect that the previous game feels vastly inferior in hindsight. If you even remotely enjoyed the previous XCOM games you need to play XCOM 2, as it has a wealth of replayability, deep strategy, and impressive character building, even if it does force you to play overly aggressive. I’m not sure why they waited so long to bring XCOM 2 to console, or at least announce it at the PC launch, because even with its hiccups it’s an amazing gaming experience for any strategy game fan.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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