Video games trying to connect with the player on an emotional level is by no means a new thing. Some games use story to evoke sadness and joy, others use atmosphere & music to make you scared of every corner. Then there is a special kind of game, the type that both wants you happy, sad and full of blind rage at all times, only a handful of games get this roller-coaster right and even fewer master it. The XCOM series has always mastered it and since its 2012 reboot titled Enemy Unknown proved that players still crave that emotional intensity it has been flying high.
XCOM2 is developed by Firaxis Games & published by 2K Games and picks up 20 years after the end of the ending of Enemy Unknown. Interestingly the decision has been made to completely ignore that happened during your playthrough of EU, even if you had the best ending you only won the battle, XCOM lost the war. As a result the aliens occupy Earth and have set up a coalition government called Advent Administration, this coalition is formed of members of the previous XCOM council members who surrendered to the aliens not long after the full invasion began, the administration brings many positive things to the population of Earth such as curing all diseases and cancers, futuristic technology and prosperity, but at what hidden cost?
Once again you take on the role of “Commander” after your 2nd in command from EU “Central” rescues you from an alien stasis pod and brings you to the XCOM mobile base known as the Avenger. From here you take command of what little remains of XCOM, brought down from the cutting edge of the military to a small, broken rebel force. With the assistance of the last remaining Council member you must rebuild your strength by linking back up with rebel cells, collecting supplies and researching new technology while striking to stop Advent’s grand plan.
Thanks to the Advent propaganda machine, the rebellion is actually viewed as the bad guys, trying to interrupt the status quo. This combined with the fact that you are almost always playing off the back foot with very few real advantages really gives XCOM2 even more intensity than EU and actually forces you to think a little more aggressively in your tactics.
From a gameplay perspective XCOM2 has taken everything that made EU great and hones it to a fine point, the core gameplay is mostly unchanged remaining a turn based tactical game where you move your soldiers around the map and try to complete objectives while attempting to keep everyone alive and taking out the enemy. What has changed though is how much Firaxis have expanded on this core concept, now if you see a group of aliens on a roof you can use explosives to take the building out and possibly kill them in a single turn, but this can also be done to you. You start most missions on a procedurally generated map which is covered in a fog of war, unlike Enemy Unknown however in most of these missions you have a concealment status meaning that until you fall into the enemies view range they don’t have a clue you are there. This makes for great opportunities to set up ambushes and scout out numbers, but also with careful planning you are able to sneak to an objective and complete the mission without even being seen. Sadly managing such a feat really is not specifically rewarded.
It is worth noting that the controls are just as smooth as with the previous games, with a simple point and click interface and secondary numerical options for combat skill use. This obviously makes keyboard and mouse the favoured control system and a very well done system it is, however those who do happen to prefer controller will find themselves disappointed as unlike Enemy Unknown XCOM2 only allows use of the Steam Controller right now, the PS4 and Xbox One controllers do not operate properly.
Combat during these missions is where players will most experience the intense highs and lows as it is almost entirely based on a random number generator. Many things factor into the chances such as the characters aim stat, the type of weapon their are using and the type/state of cover both the character and enemy are in. But that does not stop XCOM2 from slapping you in the face by making a shot at point blank range with a shotgun miss that had a 95% chance to hit but then allows the aliens to make an impossible shot from across the map killing your new favourite soldier who is carrying that new piece of tech you just stole in the last mission and taking them away forever. This is where the most rage comes from, especially when you play in Iron Man mode, you can rage quit as I have a couple of times but you have only one save file so that move that made you rage can never be undone. On the flip side however it is not all bad, sometimes the RNG just falls in your favour and makes for spectacular looking cinematic events as your squad tear apart the enemy squad with ease, these elating moments when you set up the perfect ambush and the cards all fall right make all of the rage and sadness over lost soldiers that came before then worthwhile. The AI is smarter now and even less forgiving of mistakes but once new players get their head around the incredibly steep learning curve XCOM is well known for, they will be taking down aliens with the best of them.
The class system your soldiers use and the skills that become available to them has also been tweaked since the reboot making for a lot of customisation of their skills, beyond the basic commands available during combat of move/attack, Overwatch (conserve your turn to allow a shot to be taken during the enemy turn if any enemy moves within range) Hunker Down (Increases defence for a turn) and using the item they have equipped, each Solider earns new skills with each promotion. These skills follow two paths but they can be mixed and matched as your solider levels up, however the selections are permanent.
The classes in XCOM2 are as follows:
Ranger: Rangers are a reconnaissance unit able to earn skills to enable independent concealment status and relying on close quarters combat using shotguns and a sword.
Specialist: Specialists use a Droid called a GREMLIN to fill two very specific roles. This class stands are both hacker and medic, able to heal/revive your own soldiers while turning defences and robotic enemies against the aliens. They are only able to use rifles and will always have a place in your squad.
Grenadier: The Grenadier class is very similar to the Heavy from EU, using a minigun and grenade launcher. Their class specialisation concentrates on one of those two weapons making them into either a demolitions expert or a frontline solder capable of shredding enemy armour and boosting your other team members ability to hit.
Sharpshooter: As you would expect, the Sharpshooter is the sniper class utilising both a sniper rifle and pistol. Again the class specialisation concentrates on those weapons allowing your Sharpshooter to become a crack long range attacker able to take shots at enemies in your other soldiers line of sight, or a quick-draw specialist able to take many shots with their pistol during both their own and enemies turn.
Psi Operative: This class works a little differently to the others in the fact that instead of battlefield experience, Psi Operatives lean their skills through training in Psi Lab, the skill they learn is from a selection of 3 which randomise at each rank but with great time and effort spent they are the only class capable of learning every ability on their skill trees. They are both capable of shielding their allies using psionic energies as well as turning these energies against the enemy to great effect. They can only use rifles as their primary weapon.
There is due to be a further class to arrive with a DLC called Shen’s Last Gift. This is expected to be linked to MEC’s or other Robotics but nothing is yet confirmed.
Outside of combat, most of your game time is spent switching between different sections of the Avenger assigning research and build jobs but also on the global map, on this map you get an overview of the things available to you to do be it collecting supplies, interruption of Advent operations, reconnecting with rebel cells and a few others. All of these things take time to do, and time is not something you always have on your side, this means that quite often you will have to give up on one thing in order to get another and deal with the consequences of that choice further down the line. Make the wrong choice and these consequences are often harsh
Both the mission map and the global map are great looking, XCOM2 has had a major graphical upgrade over its predecessor, this is in no small part down to the fact that the decision had been made to make XCOM2 exclusive to PC (at least for the time being) this means that the game has been catered specifically to its core audience and other than some mild optimisation issues and graphical glitches it has been done amazingly well. Character models and animations are beautiful with the destruction physics on the already great looking textures looking particularly good. Gone are the super bulky, Gears of War style super soldiers which as charming as they were, I prefer my super soldiers to look like people. The redesign of many aliens and their new textures make them even scarier and great to watch.
Of course it isn’t all perfect, as I mentioned there are some optimisation issues and on some high end hardware there are complaints of framerate issues even on low settings. On my PC however I have only seen mild stutters on max settings and that is about it so I personally cannot complain, though graphical glitches have been aplenty in my playthrough they are often little more than an annoyance rather than game breaking. Sometimes it can be difficult to get a solider to a specific floor because the game wants to turn the entire building invisible or refuses to let the camera spin correctly to get you to that vital piece of cover so you can flank the enemy.
The sound in XCOM2 is good but falls just short of amazing, having the soldiers talk in their native language is great for immersion but sometimes the voice acting can be a little robotic and because they made the choice to record 7 different languages of combat dialogue with several different voices they seemingly recorded less overall meaning it repeats often. Gunfire, explosions and vehicle sounds are all big and beefy very much fitting well and driving that excitement during combat but the music in my opinion is a little weak, so ends up getting tuned out. I personally cannot wait to be able to mod the Enemy Unknown music into XCOM2 for that extra bit of excitement during combat.
Overall, XCOM2 takes its core concept and builds on it, giving players more of a feeling of their impact on the game world, with the usual XCOM steep learning curve and a more intelligent AI it will have a very large amount of re-playability. That is if you can complete a run in the first place. The story feels more rounded this time but once again much like the graphics and audio it is just a stones throw from great. That being said as a complete package XCOM2 is still an utterly amazing title which spearheads its genre and is worthy of being in anybodies game library.
XCOM2 was released on the 5th of February 2016 exclusively for Windows, Linux and OS X. Various petitions are going to bring a port to the current generation of consoles but as of yet Firaxis and 2K have remained very tight lipped on the subject.
Who should play:
- Big XCOM fans
- Fans of the tactical genre looking for a challenge
- Players who want to kill some aliens
Who should avoid:
- Players with very low end PC’s
- Anyone without the patience to think of the long game.
- Players who’s rage will make them quit entirely.
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