HARDER, BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER
XCOM 2 is brutal. It starts off in the top gear and never really lets up on the mad, desperate scramble to survive. The second in the series of Firaxis’ board-game-y take on MicroProse’s X-Com series, XCOM 2 picks up about 20 years after the first game (XCOM: Enemy Unknown) ended. So about that time leap: you know the Impossible difficulty Ironman mode game you started for shits and giggles? The one where you lost horrifyingly? Yeah, XCOM 2 kinda makes that the canon ending.
The first thing you do after booting up and messing about in the options menu for sorting out the performance issues (there are still a fair few gripes with those, more on that later) is lose a couple of rookies right off the bat. The game in that way acts like that one teacher you had in Std. 1 who preemptively hit you with the ruler, just so that you know they’re not screwing around. It hits the ground running and does NOT let up. You are constantly on the tips of your toes, micromanaging everything from the number of scientists and engineers working in individual rooms to the disciplines your rookies train into.
So the story goes that after the commander got curb-stomped, the aliens took him hostage and stuck a spike in his brain to download battle strategies. It kinda works similarly to the way you import Crusader Kings II savegames into Europa Universalis 4. Except that save import utility is a metal spike that plugs into peoples’ skulls. As I mentioned before, you lost. Really badly, as in you got your arse handed to you on a platter: the aliens invaded the XCOM facility and dominated you completely. GG no re.
So after that they imposed a sort of Utopian regime on humans, curing diseases, hunger, strife and basically everything that the current regime cannot fix for the life of them. Which kinda makes us a bit of an asshole for going after them and killing all their dudes for shits and giggles and FREEDUMZ *eagles screech, explosions happens and the smell of burgers envelope the scene*. So after Bradford (Who grew a beard of sorrow in 20 years and became Max Payne) personally comes down to rescue your frozen butt, you take command of the XCOM HQ, which Shen from Enemy Unknown transformed into a flying fortress called The Avenger. Yes, I know. Vahlen and Shen are replaced by Tygan and Shen, who is Shen’s (from EU) daughter.
The main goal is undermining the ADVENT and their AVATAR projects. Every month they come up with three nefarious plans to undermine XCOM and you can take on and stop one. The panic meter is replaced with the doomsday clock, which can be set back.
DIFFERENCES VS ENEMY UNKNOWN AND THE NEW STUFF
If I had to describe XCOM 2 vs XCOM Enemy Unknown in one word, it’d have to be slick. The clunky animations, mechanics and systems have been smoothed, polished and streamlined. Going from Xcom 2 to Xcom EU feels like going from a stiletto knife to a warhammer. the game plays faster, and everything is deadlier. The cutesy dwarfish sectoids have now become muscle-bound, tall and lean death dealing things. The Thinmen somehow managed to become well endowed snake ladies who take you in their strong and firm embrace, close to their bosoms and…uhhh… Yeah. I think someone at Firaxis gets me. Like, on a deeper, primal level. As I said, everything is faster, smoother and deadlier.
They completely redid the base building system, so now you rarely build multiple buildings of the same type: you just upgrade them and staff them to increase their capacity. Which makes sense because your base is now an airship with limited space.
Rejoice, as armor and weapon upgrades are universal and you no longer have to manufacture individual suits. There are three types of weapons available: ballistic, magnetic and plasma. But the weapons are customisable with custom parts and upgrades (single use) for individual weapons. It really fits in well with the whole personalized soldiers shtick.
The metagame has been completely redone: Gone is the nonsensical mechanic where partner countries panic and leave the XCOM council. Instead you work your way through territories, setting up comm links and guerrilla networks. Makes much more sense than panicking and cutting off funds to literally the only thing standing between a country and mass anal probes of the extraterrestrial kind. This time, the focus is not on your organisation as a whole, but on your individual soldiers.
The game feels even more like Warhammer miniatures, as you give them personalities, props, biographies, a funky haircut and hot pink weapons. Oh by the way, Sgt. Dick Whiskey, the manliest man ever of all time, is taken. He’s a ranger on my squad, and he has wrist mounted rocket launchers. He don’t take no guff from no one.
One very major upgrade here is the armors: you get a specialist la which does nothing but make custom suits of armour (not unlike the spider suits and such from EU) and custom munitions. Oh, you have special ammo now. My favorite is the one that sets targets on fire, so they take one unit of fire damage every turn. The stealth system has been overhauled, and you get one class of soldiers who can be built up into goddamn ninjas. Now your entire squad starts concealed and when and how you break concealment depends on you. So you set your squad up to create a killzone, tell them to only fire when concealment breaks (concealed overwatch), then order your sniper to off the enemy squad leader, and sit back and enjoy the ridiculously cool action cam.
GOOD LUCK COMMANDER, YOU’RE GOING TO NEED IT
This game does not screw around. You get PsiOps very early in the game, around 10 hours in, and the campaign takes about 80 hours to complete. Do not for a second think it gives you a head-start or a leg up, as you absolutely need it. At around 20 hours in, my entire team was kitted into Exo Suits, and I still lost the odd rookie or two. But rookies in XCOM have around the same chances of survival as a whelk in a supernova. Or maybe it’s just me who treats them as cannon fodder. Anyhow, what I’m trying to say is this game is harder than EU. It lies somewhere between Enemy Within and the Long War mod in terms of difficulty. The difficulty mostly stems from you always being outnumbered, usually 3 to 1 or higher in the harder missions.
Ahem. This game has mods. A lot of mods. Take a wild-eyed gander at this here nexus page and see for yourself. I personally very much like CapnBubs Accessory Pack, and that one mod which makes Ranger Swords 100% accurate (It kinda breaks the game). Gold star to Firaxis for including mod support as extensive as this.
VIGILO CONFIDO, MOTHERF******
What they didn’t fix is the RNG. While it usually fits right in with the board game mechanics that the new XCOM series has, sometimes things get strange. It’s honestly not as bad as missing 100% shots like in EU on higher difficulty levels, but it’s there. It gets a lot better once you know how the numbers are computed by the game (this mod helps a lot).
What is, however, bad is the amount of performance issues. The worst is past, as if you turn down AA and play on high you get stable 60FPS on a 970, but the game still hogs memory like Bappi Lahiri at a jewellery store. So much so that I have trouble running it alongside Chrome and the over 9000 tabs that it has on my PC with 8GBs of RAM. Oh and they still haven’t completely fixed the memory leak, so extended sessions are cut short often by performance issues.
But all that is forgiven when you execute that ambush on two enemy squads with heavy units with pinpoint precision and smug satisfaction. You see I used to suck at XCOM because I tried to play it like a strategy game. It’s not chess. It’s the bastard child of poker and chess and it’s so much better off because of it.
It’s the most fulfilling type of game to master not because it requires the mind of a grandmaster, but because it takes a stubborn sort of person to sit through a game in which one of your soldiers can kill 5 enemies in one turn and then die in a fire set off by their cover exploding in the next. The victories here feel earned with blood and sweat and I’ve finished entire games and not felt half as fulfilled as when I finished that one mission where I killed three Archons and 8-9 Mutons.
Update: With the game now available on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One consoles, our impressions remain largely the same. The controls are not as fluid as on PC, but are well defined enough for the most part to not take away from the strategic depth. And speaking of strategic depth, this game has the most of it as far as console titles are concerned. Sure, some minor performance persist from the PC version, but none of that takes away from the satisfaction in playing XCOM 2.
Play XCOM you guys, play XCOM. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you set up overlapping plans of movement and firing, create backup plans for your backup plans and still manage to come out of battle smelling of roses with nary a casualty despite missing 70% of your shots.
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