Another bug hunt
XCOM 2 is a frustrating game, and not just due to the infamous difficulty the franchise is known for. It's frustrating because there is an absolutely fantastic game at its core, a total improvement on what was already one of the best turn-based strategy experiences of the last few years. I've had amazing fun navigating its battlegrounds, fussing over what perks to assign my soldiers, and panicking as the tiny blue dot called Earth seemed to be slipping through my fingers and into alien control.
All too often though, that fun was sabotaged by game-breaking bugs, performance hitches, and a level of jankiness you just don't expect from a sequel launching on a single platform. XCOM 2 still managed to win me over, but my tacit stamp of approval comes with more qualifications and provisos than most used car sales. It's a fantastic, but damn near-broken product.
XCOM 2 (PC [reviewed], Mac)
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: February 5, 2016
XCOM 2 is set 20 years after humanity failed to stop the alien invasion of Enemy Unknown. It's a stranger, scarier world where the aliens rule a global government. A never-ending propaganda campaign and dubious gene-therapy programs have managed to convince large portions of the population into thinking the new overlords are benevolent saviors from the stars. Of course, there are some pockets of resistance out there – namely you.
The XCOM project is back after 20 years of low-key, behind-the-scenes wetwork. No longer a clandestine, underground operation funded by various world powers, the new XCOM is a more agile guerrilla force stoking the fires of resistance. Operating from a re-purposed alien craft called the Avenger that is reminiscent of S.H.I.E.L.D's helicarriers, you travel to various hotspots around the globe, launching ambushes and surgical strikes on alien forces while trying to build a network of like-minded irregulars.
The shift from a straight-laced military group to a scrappy, insurgents has a definite effect on the game's overall tone, and even some of its mechanics. Troop customization is much more extensive in XCOM 2, allowing you to fill your ranks with all kinds of oddballs and renegades (no buzzcuts in sight, unless that's what you dig), with options to customize everything from outfits to posture and disposition. You can even write back stories for them if you're some kind of weirdo. The potential roster of randomized soldiers can be seeded with a batch of your homegrown troops, letting you encounter them naturally in the campaign. It's a nice touch that I really appreciate.
A new concealment system lets you start some missions from a stealth perspective. Sneaking up on the aliens allows you to cherry pick your first shot for maximum damage and adds a nice extra strategic layer to the experience. However, as a system it doesn't feel fully fleshed out or involved. You won't be infiltrating your way through entire missions Solid Snake-style.
As a repurposed alien ship, the Avenger has its own quirks. Unlike the previous XCOM HQ, which needed to be expanded by deep excavation into the earth, the bulk of the Avenger's potential space is taken up with (somehow) still smoldering bits of alien wreckage and junk that needs to be cleaned out before you can build over it (in a nice touch, clearing out that debris actually generates currency in the form of alien supplies). Base building is much the same as before with limited space and virtually unending demands. You'll need to plan ahead and make a few smart concessions; the world of XCOM is not a world of plenty and you'll always be short on something.
The management metagame is even more fraught than last time, with your ragtag team struggling to try and keep up with multiple conflicting demands. You need time to collect resources, but you also need time to contact resistance cells and investigate rumors. Your squad desperately needs new weapons and armor to match the alien threat, but your best engineers are too busy manning radios and clearing out alien debris in the lower holds to focus on developing that tech. You could spend your hard earned Intel as currency on the black market for supplies, but then you'll be unable to expand XCOM's reach into other territories, and on and on it goes.
The now jet-setting XCOM is pulled in more directions than ever and it lends a great sense of urgency and tension to every decision. This is only exacerbated by the development of the AVATAR project, a nebulous but world-ending enterprise the aliens are working on. The development of the AVATAR project essentially places a doomsday clock on the world. Let them finish whatever it is they are working on, and it's all over for humanity. You can delay their progress and even set them back by targeting AVATAR black sites and plot-based missions, but it can be surprisingly tricky to manage when you're busy spinning so many other plates at once. Who would have thought it would be so hard to liberate humanity from intergalactic oppressors?
The meat and potatoes of XCOM 2 is every bit an improvement on Enemy Unknown and its expansion. While the basic framework is the same (an isometric view over a battlefield divided into grids for movement and positioning), the level of depth and the number of tactical options at your disposal have been greatly expanded. Each class of soldier, from the heavy weapon slinging Grenadier, to the Specialist with his remote-controlled robot buddy, bring a bevy of skills and potential strategies to the table without any one play style seemingly superior to any other (except maybe pistol drawing Sharpshooters, they're crazy).
New kinks, like armor that will flatly absorb damage unless you find some way of peeling it off, or environmental hazards like acid pools, change the way you approach firefights and develop your team. The expanded array of items and upgrades help break the experience out of the "everyone gets a grenade" routine of the previous titles. Mimic beacons that draw enemy fire, armor vests that allow a soldier to wade through fire unscathed, and a multitude of small, one-time assembly upgrades for each weapon and character add a dash of complexity, and provide answers for tactical situations. Answers you are definitely going to need.
The aliens also have had plenty of time to develop fresh, nasty surprises for your team. New enemies, twists on old foes, and all their delightful new skills will require you to re-think your strategies and adapt. The extremely mobile Codex for example, a quasi-organic being that repositions and divides in two every time you hit it, and has the ability to jam your guns with an AoE attack, is a unit that will keep you on your toes the entire game. Cover flattening, rocket spewing, robotic MECs plated in heavy armor, force you to both focus fire while also constantly repositioning and spreading out your troops. Among many other interesting and quirky units, you'll need to be quick on your feet and employ a larger range of tactics in XCOM 2 than "overwatch everything and grenade their cover" (even though that's still a decent fallback option).
I played through Enemy Unknown in a manner so cautious that it could have been mistaken for cowardice. Inching through every map with overlapping overwatch cover, taking out each individual alien threat in controlled, discrete fights. XCOM 2 won't cotton to such shenanigans. Enemies are far more mobile and sneaky this time out, often zipping around and activating other pods or retreating to regroup with larger forces when the tides turn on them. Plenty of enemies like to hide underground and amidst civilians, only to strike at the absolute worst possible moment, turning controlled engagements into panic-ridden firefights.
The real whip at the back of your squad, though, is the merciless timer frequently applied to missions, giving your XCOM team only the smallest window to complete their objective and evac under a strict number of turns. Fail to disarm a bomb, or miss the last skyranger lift out of the combat zone and at best you fail a mission, at worst some of your soldiers are left stranded to be captured. When I say the timer is merciless, I mean it. So much so, I can see these missions being a deal breaker for some people.
I don't think it's that the timed missions are too hard. The problem is Firaxis feeds them to you too early and too frequently. Near the end of the game, when you have a full squad of veteran soldiers, the added pressure of the clock is the only thing that makes a mission challenging, so I'm glad it's there. However, taking on a timed mission in earlier on, when you only have four nincompoops who panic every time they stub their toe and aim like children at a rigged carnival game, they're a complete nightmare. You end up pulling your hair out, as your soldiers fail to kill a single alien turn after turn, while the timer expires.
You'll encounter timed missions as soon as you're out of the tutorial and it's easy for a few early losses to snowball into a miserable experience of defeat and failure. It doesn't feel like that charming "oh, that dastardly XCOM got me again!" kind of difficulty, it feels like bullshit.
The difficulty ramp, in general, is unpleasantly skewed in the early missions. XCOM is, of course, supposed to be a brutal experience for players that enjoy stiff challenge, so being hard isn't a bad thing. But XCOM 2 suffers from the same problem as Enemy Unknown, where it is disproportionately difficult at the beginning of the game, before settling into a routine near the end where the enemy starts to run out of tricks and relies on sheer numbers to heighten the challenge.
Some early enemies just feel unfair, given the tools you have to meet them with. Stun Lance-wielding soldiers will blitz halfway across the map to knock one of your four squad members unconscious. The new and improved Sectoids will continuously panic your low-level soldiers, while raising meatshield zombies to flank you. And not to be bitter, but a few nasty "gotcha" surprises, like the first time you meet a Faceless, seem like an unavoidable KIA for one of your squaddies. I'm not saying these enemies shouldn't exist, but you shouldn't be seeing them in the second freaking mission either.
Once you've learned how to handle those baddies and assemble a six-man team worthy of a #squadgoals Instagram post, the challenge settles into a more "tense but doable" affair. Most of the heavy lifting and nerve-wracking moments in XCOM 2 are in the first several hours, which is not to say the rest of the game is a cakewalk, but the back-half feels anti-climatic by comparison.
Uneven difficulty isn't what hamstrings the game, though. Bugs are the real killer. Crashes, janky game systems, critical performance dips, and baffling AI behavior, it's all on display. In trying to deal with the all the issues, I made more save files in my week of XCOM 2 than I did playing through the entirety of Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within.
I'll give you an example of one of the more interesting bugs I encountered. I was on a timed mission to rescue a VIP held captive in a police van. However, as soon as I came within eyesight of the van, the VIP activated and joined our squad as a controllable unit. Now activated, he triggered the three pods of aliens in his area who immediately started firing at VIP through the van. Saving the VIP long out of the question, the now fully-activated enemy force of about nine or ten aliens proceeded to make mincemeat out of my separated and dispersed squad. Reloading the level, the same bug presented every time, and as a VIP rescue op, there was no way to retreat or scrub the mission. Cool way to lose some squaddies. I started saving before launching each mission after that.
Lesser bugs all combine to sour the milk: aliens that can shoot you through solid floors, how the game will sometimes refuse to let you move to a square that is clearly within range and available, reaction skills that fail to activate correctly, and long 30-second-plus hitches, among many others. This isn't even mentioning the occasional full-stop crash.
Bugs are bad in any game, but they're even more ruinous in a game touting a single-save Ironman mode. Frequently suggested as the "real way to play" by the XCOM community, how anyone could even attempt an Ironman run with the game in this state is beyond me. "Good luck" is all I can say. I don't want to be there the first time you lose a soldier to an enemy that jumps vertically through the floor to come up and one-shot you.
In a weird way, you could consider the bugs a testament to how great the rest of the experience is. If I wasn't having such an absolute blast with everything else, I don't think I'd have the patience to keep coming back. As it stands, XCOM 2 is an incredible game, but a technical mess that is hard to defend when you consider it isn't all that different from Enemy Unknown.
I would love to be able to give XCOM 2 my unreserved recommendation, but I can't ignore the elephant in the room. If you don't intend on playing on Ironman mode, and have enough patience to deal with (not so) occasional glitches, it's excellent. If you were looking forward to a hardcore playthrough, or can't stand it when technical issues get in the way of a good time, you'll definitely want to wait for a patch or two before deploying.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
XCOM 2 reviewed by Nic Rowen
A solid game that definitely has an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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