XCOM 2 Review — Welcome Back Commander
XCOM 2 is a good console port of a great sequel to one of the best strategy games to release in recent history. Switching from defense to offense makes this a sequel that improves upon and subverts the foundation built in its predecessor. While the technical issues from the PC persist, ranging from visuals that are out of place to sound bites played on repeat at the wrong time, to the game crashing and sending me back to the PlayStation 4 menu, it is still an enjoyable game with lots of replayability.
For this bout of alien repelling, you are tasked with commanding a mobile home base that travels around the globe assaulting the alien invaders who are now in total control of Earth. While building up your own force and the overall resistance network, you are also tasked with sabotaging the mysterious Advent project which acts as the end-game. Certain actions taken by the aliens will advance this project towards completion, and failing to counter-act it means game over. This timed action reflects some of the missions you will be sent on, where a turn-timer counts down how much longer you have until the objective is marked as a failure. This timer lends some stress and speed to your actions, even though time still stops as you make your decision.
Many features from XCOM: Enemy Unknown have been reworked for XCOM 2. Instead of launching satellites and sending fighters to repel UFOs, you will be setting up radio networks with resistance cells and infiltrating black sites to steal intelligence and special items. Along with these main missions are side ones that will pop up randomly, requiring you to rescue a VIP, capture or kill an opposing VIP, rescue civilians from an attack, hack into the alien network, defend your own network, and so on.
These missions provide the bulk of your real-time combat, during which your squad move around a tile-based grid. Even this feature has been reworked for XCOM 2, as now most missions will begin with your squad hidden from the enemy. Players will want to move around without being spotted, in order to set up team mates into Overwatch, trigger an attack, and then watch as the rest of the team pulverizes the aliens as they run to cover. There is nothing as satisfying in XCOM 2 as setting up your hidden team, launching a grenade to do some area of effect damage, and then gunning down the survivors in the ensuing chaos.
Cover, positioning, and your character’s class still play a major role in how a battle can end. Maintaining full cover, moving as a single unit, taking advantage of high ground, destroying an enemy’s piece of cover, and flanking are options you will definitely want to take advantage of. This applies to all difficulty levels, as even on the lowest setting you can still be prone do losing multiple soldiers due to dumb mistakes. The tiers of difficulty really ramp up the challenge, especially when the classic Ironman mode is turned on, which will save after each move, eliminating save scum and the option to fall back to a file before things went terrible.
When not in real-time combat you are picking upgrades for your ship, from research, clearing and building rooms, training soldiers, creating equipment, and flying around to various map markers. While the beginning is rather slow to start, even with the tutorial turned off, you will reach a point where there are frequently four or more options available. It is up to you to decide which route you desire to take, and sometimes just restarting the entire game is a valid option as well. Even though the game wipes everything clean, you retain the knowledge of a failed save file to help you this run.
The specifics of upgrades and options is not what makes the game satisfying. It is the sense of progression inherent in most good RPGs that makes XCOM 2 worthwhile. The steady buildup of your own force against a increasingly sophisticated threat is fun. The threat of failure is never too far away, which makes your decisions somewhat thrilling, no matter how seemingly trivial. Each one has a cost and a benefit. Weighing what is needed now, what is able to be done now, and what you might need in the future must always be on-mind. Comparing your soldiers from the first hour of gameplay to late-game versions shows how far you have come, and you also know that it is because of you and you alone that this has occurred.
All of this would be better if the game itself wasn’t also trying to hamper your progression. Small technical issues stack up on top of each other throughout hours of play time to become significant problems. Puzzlingly enough, most all of them stem from the cinematic camera and other miscellaneous actions that can be disabled in the options. Without the option to decrease animations and dead air, you would find yourself spending time watching empty space as the game loads whatever is about to happen next. This would extend from a period of alien activity, to the simple animation of a character vaulting over a wall.
Sometimes when an enemy would die a strange audio clip would repeat over and over until another action was taken. Dead bodies twitched without any influence from nearby characters. Watching an alien move his arm, pointing at your team, would take up several seconds of battle, even if the action itself was a simple motion. The cinematic camera when your team would fire or move displayed through textures, half obscuring the action from your view. Deciding on what level of elevation you wanted to move could sometimes create an error of movement, and buildings were not always transparent when trying to move along their exterior.
The worst offender was the game itself simply crashing and booting me out to the PlayStation 4’s menu screen. Thankfully the auto-save feature creates multiple save states rather frequently, so no significant progress was lost. However the auto-save can be turned off, which means that crash could have erased a large portion of my time spent in base management had I turned it off.
XCOM 2 rises above these small errors, and is still a highly recommendable strategy game for those both new and familiar with the franchise. Both friendly and hostile upgrades are doled out to yourself and the opposition over the course of the entire campaign, ensuring variety through to the end. Whether or not you will make it there is entirely on you, which is why success is celebrated and losses so discouraging. XCOM 2 introduces new elements that keep the strategy game fresh, continues to overwhelm the player with options, and challenges you to overthrow the alien overlords in power. There isn’t much more I could ask for.