by Johnathan Irwin
reviewed on PC
Darkest Before Dawn
Despite the best efforts of the XCOM program in 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the Enemy Within expansion, Earth failed to stop the alien onslaught. Yes, even if you beat the game and saw what appeared to be a clear, and definite victory, the canon is that humanity surrendered. XCOM was forced into the shadows, and a coalition government of humans and aliens called ADVENT has shaped the world in their own image.
On the surface, it looks like a coming age of prosperity. Technological triumphs, well protected cityscapes, the end of disease and poverty for many - ADVENT has made much of the world believe they truly have humanity's best interest at heart. Any and all who would say otherwise are discreetly dealt with. Humanity is down, but not everyone is willing to give in. A glimmer of hope lies in the now-rallying XCOM forces, and pockets of resistance fighters across the globe.
A Global Affair
XCOM 2 puts the players in the role of the underdog. Gone is the global support network of The Council, the security of knowing the world is on your side, and the relative safety of a hardened subterranean headquarters. XCOM 2 is about life on the move, hit and run tactics.
First and foremost, I encourage everyone to play the tutorial the first time you play. Even though I think it holds your hand way more than a tutorial in a turned-based game should (it's not as much teaching as it is forcing you to do it their way) it has two crucial moments to the story that players will otherwise miss. Once you've done it, I would also encourage you to immediately restart your game with it disabled; the tutorial guides you towards a rougher start than you would have under fresh-start conditions.
Pre-Mission content has changed substantially with the addition of The Avenger, your mobile command center. Rather than having a network of satellites to scan for activity, it's now based on flying from region to region and scanning for activity on a much smaller scale. At first, you feel very alone but as the game passes and you make contact with pockets of resistance, your reach spreads. Radio transmissions soon unite countries and groups and you're free to move between them based on intel that they give you.
Setting down in any region, you can initiate your intel scans. During this process you'll get pop ups for other sites that can be scanned. Perhaps there are reports of a band of soldiers you can recruit in the snowy wastes of northern Russia, or a supply convoy stalled out in Egypt. These don't play out as missions, but opportunities to gain resources in various forms. When an actual mission does come up, you're prompted to proceed to it as quickly as possible or allowing a blow to be dealt against the resistance forces. These missions are where you get into the meat and potatoes of what XCOM is all about.
Some of XCOM 2’s deeper changes first appear when selecting troops for deployment. Gone are the old classes – they are replaced by four new ones that blend the old with the new. At a glance, the Ranger is the little brother of Assault, but now with a brutal melee option reminiscent of Blade or Deadpool. The Specialist is everything useful about Support, but now with a ranged drone that increases its range and abilities. The Sharpshooter is most similar to the Recon class but using their pistol feels a lot less as a last-resort. The Grenadier is the most loyal to the old classes as there is very little to separate them from the Heavy. Each of the new classes are useful in their own way and, as a group, paint a clear picture that humanity may be down but not out.
Deployment into the field is often done in secrecy, allowing players to remain concealed as long as they stay out of the enemy Line Of Sight and not make too much noise. The Concealment mechanic really drives home the idea of guerilla warfare and it is one of my favorite mew additions to the game. Planning carefully, you try and get into a position that deals a critical blow when you initiate combat. If you plan well, you have a chance to play out actual ambushes rather than having the enemy instantly know where you are as soon as they are revealed on the map. Once you've been discovered the element of surprise is gone and the mission plays out normally.
XCOM 2 remains just as thrilling as ever, but it is not without its flaws. Some of the additions and changes are for the better but some seem ill conceived. Timed missions are nothing new but in the context of XCOM 2 they are abundant to the point where they are a detriment to the gameplay. In Enemy Unknown, timed missions appeared every now and then but in XCOM 2 it's the limitless missions that are the rarity. While modders have already seen to it that this mistake is corrected, the developers' vision of all these timed missions indicates that their goal was to combine speed and tactics, a combination that may work sometimes, but more often than not it's just frustrating.
My greatest defeat illustrates this well. I was given eight turns to secure an objective, which under normal circumstances would be pushing it. The mission featured copious amounts of enemies and my options were to either rush in and die or have the timer run down and also fail the mission. In other words, no choice at all. After I failed the mission, and all of my operatives were either killed or captured, I finally had enough of the timed missions and resorted to modding my game. I don't mind them now and then, and it's not the loss that made me so frustrated; it's when the game stacked it up with no feasible way of victory that the defeat felt cheap. The sheer amount of timed missions make an otherwise very XCOM game feel like something much different and not in a favorable way. XCOM should be about outsmarting your enemies, not about outrunning them.
The game also lacks optimization. There are widespread reports of stuttering and constant FPS drops. This can be addressed by turning Anti-Aliasing off but even then there is still stuttering during pre-mission screens.
All things considered, XCOM 2 really is a great game. I can see myself playing campaign after campaign in the same vein as I played the previous title. Most of the changes that Firaxis applied to the excellent formula of its predecessor are both surprising and welcome. However, the flaws are so glaring that they do keep it trailing behind its predecessor. In the meantime if you plan on playing XCOM 2, I recommend looking into the timer mods on Steam. They are a borderline necessity to enjoy the game.
More player involvement, new classes, and concealment game mechanic are great.
Too many timed missions causes frustration, bad fps drops