Friday, 21 October 2016

XCOM 2 - Review

Developer: Firaxis Games 
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One (version played), PS4

XCOM 2 might well be a perfect sequel. Not necessarily a perfect game, mind, but as a sequel, it’s damn near perfect.

This is largely in part due to its overall confidence. XCOM 2 doesn’t flinch about kicking out elements of the previous game. If something didn’t work, or it was clunky, it’s gone. Even more surprising, things that were fine are still thrown out because things need to be different this time. XCOM 2 is a refreshing change to the usual safe, carbon-copy sequels that get pumped out with startling regularity amongst modern AAA titles.

I didn’t get around to covering XCOM 2 during its PC launch, primarily because I didn’t know whether my computer would even run the game without having some hiccup or other. Fortunately, whilst technical issues are still the game’s biggest issue (more on that later), the console version is at least relatively stable.

Developers Firaxis almost seem to take satisfaction in subverting player expectations. For all those people who suffered to bring an end to the alien threat in the first game, it was all for nothing. The aliens still won, and humanities last dregs of resistance have been driven underground.

XCOM 2 presents a 180 to the previous game. Whereas in Enemy Unknown you were the defender against an outside threat, here, the roles are reversed. XCOM 2 pits you as the aggressor, woefully under-equipped and against overwhelming odds, but the aggressor nonetheless.

It’s this relationship that defines most of the design decisions throughout the game. Most missions now have a timer, driving you toward action. The larger world map, where you plot your next course of action, even has its own timer in the Avatar Project; a doomsday clock that prevents you from simply stalling out the game and teching up, forcing you to make progress lest you suffer an unexpected game over.

All of this makes for a much more dynamic game than Enemy Unknown. In the original game, it was easy to settle into a creep and crawl mentality, engaging overwatch repeatedly whilst your squad crept forward under a layer of covering fire. It was arguably a sound strategy, and ensured your units remained safe, but did make for a slow, sometimes boring, pace.

XCOM 2 pulls people out of their safe, predictable XCOM strategies with its changes to the troop classes, too. All of the four major character archetypes from the original; Assault, Heavy, Support and Sniper all essentially return, albeit with different names and substantial changes to their skill sets.

The sniper has undergone the least number of alterations, at least in terms of how the character plays out. However, the addition of a substantial number of pistol skills enables them to be played as a more aggressive unit, focused on burst damage to swing the momentum back in your favour.

Meanwhile, the Heavy and Support have been upgraded to the Grenadier and Specialist, respectively. The Specialist in particular is far more interesting than the original game’s Support class ever was, in part thanks to the new handy “GREMLIN” drone they come with. The drone allows the unit to administer healing and support from long range, not to mention coming with a number of offensive options, expanding the class in a novel new direction.

These changes on the whole are for the best. They prevent XCOM veterans from simply engaging auto-pilot and using what worked last time, whilst also toning down the more broken abilities from the previous title, and giving each class multiple viable options and roles as the game progresses.

It’s the Assault class, now redesigned as the Ranger, that shows off one of XCOM 2’s subtlest but by no means insignificant features. During most missions, units begin the encounter concealed, meaning they won’t trigger enemy units until they move within a certain radius. The Ranger in particular plays with this game mechanic incredibly well, being capable of concealing themselves multiple times during a single battle once they’ve acquired some skills.

What the games stealth mechanics do however, is again, amp up the tempo and pace of each encounter. Knowing that inching forward isn’t going to trigger every pack of enemies (and enemies no longer get a free shot at you every time you spot a new mob), ensures that you can afford to be a little braver and bolder and not got shot in the face out of nowhere.

Just as your own troopers have undergone a redesign, so too have the alien forces. Firaxis know how to inject subtle elements of world-building into their gameplay. In the previous game, the Thin Man was the infiltration unit, and therefore not particularly threatening in a straight encounter.

Given that the aliens have now won the war, infiltration units are redundant, and so the Thin Men have changed into their true forms as giant, snake-like aliens capable of binding your troops and rendering them immobile. Other units likewise, have a focus on pacification and threat-control rather than invasion, with a number of the standard alien threats armed with stun rods, whilst many maps are now lined with security turrets.

It’s perhaps the weakest update the game has undergone, however. Despite some great designs on the whole, so many of the enemy units still seem carefully lifted from the previous game, whilst some of the new aliens simply replace other units’ roles. The new Viper units effectively replace the Seekers from Enemy Within for instance, and the others, such as the Mutons and Chryssalids, remain essentially unchanged.

It's a credit to Firaxis that they focus on how the enemy units fit into the game’s overarching narrative, but a little more variety wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Changes to the rest of the game are relatively subtle by comparison, but substantial enough. The overworld segments, where you plot your research and build new equipment, has been streamlined. Base building is less of a fussy chore this time around, and there’s a bit more strategy about what building to construct first. An early laboratory means faster research, but a workshop results in more engineers to spare. The best part about this is there’s no perfect answer.

The new randomised equipment that you can accrue from the Proving Grounds, a new facility that allows you procure specialized ammunition and heavy armaments, prevents each campaign from feeling the same. Sometimes you’ll get what you wanted, suiting up your Grenadier with a Shredder cannon, whilst other times you’ll have to simply make do with what you’ve got.

That’s certainly the mantra by which XCOM 2 lives; making do. It’s the kind of game that tortures people with OCD; you’ll have everything perfect, and then you’ll get screwed up by one single missed shot that had a 90% chance to hit. Other times, nothing will be right; you’ll want to research five things at once and be forced to make that agonizing choice over what to prioritise. From the moment a campaign starts it’s as if you’re constantly on the back foot, back-pedalling and having to come up with new tactics and combinations on the fly.

XCOM 2 has some solid world-building but very little core story. That’s because it doesn’t need one. The game’s meta-story, your own tale of soldiers barely making it back become the story in and of themselves. Games like this really bolster the notion of a genuine ludo-narrative; a story that comes about from the player’s interaction with gameplay, and XCOM 2’s design only goes to accentuate that even further.

The technical faults from the PC version are still here, although perhaps more manageable given the nature of consoles. Still, there’s some ugly moments when the game flat out stops for several minutes for no reason, and numerous bugs occur when particular skills are used in conjunction with one another. If you decide to go with the one save “Ironman” route, be sure to have a back up save file handy, no amount of skill and strategy will save you from a glitch leading to a corrupted save.

Likewise, as with other turn-based strategy games, most notably Firaxis' own Civilization, the early and mid game are still far more enthralling than late-game encounters. When things are going your way, or rather, when you have a hold of things, and the enemies cease to become more of a challenge, events become something of a routine. There’s a point when fighting one more Sectopod becomes less of a frightened thrill and instead a bit of a bore. The final boss fight is a bit of a disappointment, too, undoing the tight, tactical nature of the core game and instead throwing wave after wave of enemies at you whilst you try and take down three super-units.

XCOM 2 thrives off of the fear of the unknown, and sadly, there’s just not enough of that as you get closer to the campaign’s conclusion. It’s a problem that afflicts many strategy games; how to keep the late game interesting. Despite XCOM 2’s inspired tweaks in other areas, this is still one aspect that the game fails to improve upon.

XCOM 2 is still a great game, mind, technical warts and all. The core gameplay alone has been updated in a way that’s incredibly satisfying, feeling like a genuine sequel to Enemy Unknown as opposed to a glorified expansion pack. The tacked on multi-player is a nice extra, but the real heart and soul of this game comes from its terrific single player campaign, where the lives of your soldiers are almost always hanging in the balance. On that note at least, XCOM 2 is a great success.


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