It is time to save the world from aliens - again. “Wait a minute, didn’t I save the world in XCOM: Enemy Unknown?” Turns out none of us did, as XCOM 2 makes into canon the ending that humanity failed the final assault, and now the Aliens have taken over the planet.
While it’s a seemingly odd approach for a sequel to tell all its players “you lost,” XCOM 2 manages to cleverly weave this into a new story. The new attitude works, possibly even for the better, as this is a better game all around.
With humanity under control of the aliens and ADVENT, XCOM is no longer a global organization with countries and resources on-demand. Instead you are a rag-tag group of guerrilla fighters attempting to reclaim territory and fight back.
The overall mood of both the geoscape and combat missions reflect this new tone, and it makes you feel it quite successfully. Resources are always low - you will never have everything you need to easily upgrade and build new facilities. Instead of a static base, your ship - The Avenger - flies you around the globe to pick up supply drops and new missions. Sometimes you get hammered relentlessly by critical missions, and other times you have a few weeks to recover and upgrade.
After the first mission you start in a randomly selected continent, so no choosing your starting place like in the first game. Country bonuses are back, but you have to earn them by contacting all the regions in a country, then building a certain amount of radio relays. It costs both intel and supplies to do this, but the bonuses you can get are worthwhile. These too are randomized per country, and even from a larger pool, so you will see many different possibilities over multiple campaigns.
In one of the game’s biggest set-pieces, you can get chased by a UFO. Beware if caught – the resulting mission is an all out “last stand” style slugfest that never ends until you meet a certain objective condition. I only had one of these in my campaign, but it was extremely fun and refreshing. I had nearly 40 alien kills by the end of it all.
The ominous AVATAR project replaces the ‘country panic’ system as a loss condition. A red meter at the top of your screen will continually tick up unless you take on specific missions to reduce the counter. If it fills up, game over.
The XCOM DNA and formula is very much here: You still have to manage power and space in your base to build new things. Acquiring more scientists and engineers speeds up research and construction. Your soldiers start out as puny rookies who can’t hit anything, and progress to awesome near super-soldiers by the end of the game. Still, this doesn’t guarantee they hit anything, because the game thrives on that element of RNG to always keep you on your toes.
Classes have been revamped in XCOM 2, a necessity to battle the increased odds. The same archetypes are here, but with cool new skills and increased diversity. The Ranger is your frontline scout, wielding a shotgun and cool sword abilities, complete with a skill tree to complement them. Specialists are no longer just support medics, but can also become disruptive combat hackers with the fancy new gremlin robots. Grenadiers - the new heavies, can become epic weapon experts or full-on demolitionists. Snipers, now Sharpshooters, can actually spec into a full on pistol tree, living out your cowboy fantasies with skills such as “Face-off” and “Fanfire.” Or go the long-range path with things like “Killzone”, which is basically overwatch on steroids, letting you hit literally everything that moves.
With new soldiers comes new items, armor and gear. My favorite is the experimental weaponry, which gives you super cool, but randomized, ammo, grenades and other toys to boost your soldiers efficacy on the field. Armor Piercing rounds will become your best friend.
Beyond weapons and gear, you can now visually customize your soldiers to an obscene degree. You can even color, pattern and name weapons. This cosmetic variety is welcome, as you can create sleek-looking badass soldiers, or absurd multicolored guys with a sombrero. Gamers who enjoy spending time customizing characters will wind up losing hours to this.
In addition to the new customizations, there is a “character pool creator” that allows you to create, import and export characters. A variety of pop-culture creations already exist, from the latest Star Wars to popular YouTube personalities. Or you can just name your whole team after your friends and family, then agonize over whether sacrificing Brian is the right call or not.
In addition to all the new geoscape elements, you get to live the rebel life by starting most - but not all - of XCOM 2’s missions in concealment. Concealment is a new mechanic wherein your squad will not trigger alien aggression (they will still patrol around) until you get close enough (denoted by red squares), thereby allowing you to set up nasty ambushes. This is required because most missions will throw a lot of enemies at you, in addition to frequently dropping in reinforcements on your head. Or it can let you sneak directly to a mission objective without activating a fight should you be careful enough.
"The game is too good to stay away from and I found myself swept up in another campaign"
While XCOM’s expansion, Enemy Within, added a healthy dose of map and mission variety to the game, these were still ultimately static. XCOM 2 takes this a big step further with fully procedural maps for all its missions. So while you will see familiar tile sets over the course of your campaign, the overall layout of the map is always unpredictable. It is just another way the game forces you to rely more on your wits and less on pre-established strategies to breeze through a mission.
Mission variety is high throughout the game, but of course it only goes so far. Guerrilla Ops, the AVATAR missions, supply raids, retaliation defense missions (replacing terror missions from XCOM: EU) and of course VIP extraction or capture will keep you quite busy.
There is a significant increase in timed missions. As an aggressive XCOM player I never really noticed. But some of my friends who enjoyed the “creep” approach found these missions irksome. You might too - but if so, there are already a variety of mods to tweak or even disable the timers.
Destructible cover has been increased this time around, which extends even more to buildings. Giant armored turret blocking a roof or door you want to bypass? Instead of trying to whittle it down with your guns, a simple grenade can send it tumbling to the ground. Pesky ADVENT officer hiding a few floors above you? Give him a lesson in gravity by blowing up building beneath his feet.
I took great delight in using explosives as much as possible to make enemies fall down, but these same tactics can also be used against you. Once an ADVENT Mech clanked into view and fired its shoulder mounted missiles at my whole squad, who were camped neatly on top of a building. In addition to taking the missile damage, units will also take fall damage. My squad was not happy to be playing “let’s fall four stories and be out of position.”
The ability to blow up roofs/ceilings is handy for more than just combat. I often found myself blowing holes in walls and ceilings to reach objectives quicker, sparing precious turns or moves to get to where I wanted.
What fun would all these new maps and mechanics be without new threats? XCOM 2 features the usual rogues gallery of Sectoids and Mutons (who have some surprises up their sleeves) but also an entirely new host of alien baddies.
One of my favorites is the reptilian Viper, which will disrupt your usual combat tactics by yanking one of your units from the safety of cover into the open where it will proceed to bind them in place. There are numerous other new foes to challenge you, but they are best left discovered as you play. Suffice to say a lot of tactics from XCOM: EU will not serve you here, and you will have to think up new strategies, often on the fly.
Editors note: Feral has released a patch that includes a number of bugfixes and performance updates. This vastly improves the smoothness of the game in regards to FPS and stutter.
Aliens aren’t the only thing you have to fight in XCOM 2. Bad performance and bugs are abound, hampering the otherwise excellent experience this game provides. Even on an iMac that well exceeds the recommended requirements I had to turn down numerous graphical options to obtain a decent frame rate. Even when fair enough, there is the pervasive stutter to contend with. Sequences during the Avenger are probably the biggest offender, as simply moving the camera around is difficult. Other pesky spots include loading into missions and here and there during fights. Being a turn-based game, performance thankfully never costs you in gameplay terms as it would an RTS or a multiplayer shooter, but nonetheless is a near-constant factor in your effort to save the world.
"XCOM 2 is a near-perfect strategy and RPG experience that does everything a sequel is meant to do"
Bugs range from the minor to the major. Amusing ones, such as soldiers picking up invisible comrades or magically falling through a floor, won’t impact your game experience much. But other game-breaking bugs exist, such as the aliens suddenly ceasing to move and attack for missions on end, or suddenly getting the game over screen upon successful completion of a mission. While not everyone will run into these bugs (they are random, suiting the game’s tone) they do exist and can be an issue.
Misery loves company though, as these problems are not specific to the Mac platform - Windows and Linux users suffer similar performance and bug reports. A patch was released recently for Windows aiming to smooth out stutter and fix some bugs, which means a Mac/Linux patch from Feral isn’t far behind. This review will be updated when a Mac patch is live and evaluated.
I had not planned to start a second run until a performance patch was released, but the game is too good to stay away from and I found myself swept up in another campaign, this time on a higher difficulty while running IronMan mode.
While mods eventually became a fairly big part of the XCOM: EU community, (most notably with Long War) mod support is neatly built into XCOM 2 at launch. Even just two weeks later, several hundred mods already exist in the Steam Workshop. You can of course still download and install mods manually if you wish, but the Workshop makes it a one-click affair. Just subscribe and then use the Mod tab of the Feral launcher to enable or disable what you like.
I wanted my initial run to be a vanilla experience, but the second time around I have no problem handing out sword mods to my rangers, implementing UI improvements, adding voice packs for Duke Nukem and Arnie, or even outright adding new classes to the game. There’s a lot to play with here, but just back-up your saves before you go too crazy.
XCOM 2 is a near-perfect strategy and RPG experience that does everything a sequel is meant to do: It improves on what came before it in almost every way, and distills saving the world (again) into a nearly endless scalable package that can appeal to a wide variety of players. And mod support from day one ensures a high amount of longevity for this game’s community. With the performance issues mostly smoothed out (thanks Feral!) and more patches coming down the road, there's no reason to not be playing XCOM 2 right now.