(Image: still from XCOM 2)

Image: still from XCOM 2

“XCOM 2” surpasses “Enemy Unknown” with highly moddable design

February 25, 2016

Time is as big of an enemy in “XCOM 2” as any one of the new aliens. The number of times I have come up a day late and a dollar short on a critical research project or scouting mission is as big as the memorial wall of soldiers that have fallen under my command because of it.

“XCOM 2” is the sequel to 2012’s excellent reboot of the turn-based tactics franchise, “XCOM: Enemy Unknown,” which saw the player leading humanity’s first and last line of defense against an alien invasion as the commander of the international XCOM Project.

The new title follows a timeline in which the player loses — they failed to defeat the invaders, and are now leading an underground insurgency against an entrenched alien occupation 20 years later. Old nations have been abolished, the world’s population has shuffled around, and the iron law exists in new concentrated urban centers. Admittedly, the aliens have pretty good taste in architecture.

 

Overview/The Good

For the “XCOM” hallmarks of tight management of limited resources and pitting a small elite squad against an overwhelmingly superior enemy, Firaxis couldn’t have picked a better setting. The reactionary, defensive missions of “Enemy Unknown” have become offensive, guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks as the rag-tag remnants of XCOM seek to undermine the alien authority however they can.

The biggest gameplay change this new setting introduces is the new concealment system. Many missions will see the squad enter the battlefield hidden from the enemy, able to move from cover to cover as they sneak past patrols. The overwatch mechanic, which allows a soldier to essentially skip their turn in exchange for getting a free shot during the enemy turn, has been reworked: no longer will every soldier on overwatch immediately all shoot the first thing that moves, resulting in massive overkill on a single target and letting the rest go free. Units will now take overwatch shots one at a time which, combined with the new concealment system, lets the player set up some deadly ambushes. A well-orchestrated ambush can, with a little luck and a blessing from the hidden dice rolls, wipe out an entire enemy squad.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 11.13.45 PM
“XCOM 2” is the sequel to 2012’s excellent reboot of the turn-based tactics franchise, “XCOM: Enemy Unknown.”

Most missions now include a main objective besides eliminating every enemy on the map — rescue a VIP, destroy a target, etc. — and many of them have a turn limit in which they must be completed. Generally, these missions aren’t quite as stressful as the infamous time-limited train mission from one of the “Enemy Unknown” DLCs, and fit in with the hit-and-run theme. They force the player to be more aggressive and less passive, outmaneuvering the enemy to complete the objective before time runs out. Concealment can help here, allowing the player to sneak in closer to the target faster.

Levels are also now procedurally generated, meaning you never know exactly what to expect on each mission and have to stay on your toes. The system is well-made, offering a much wider variety of levels than the first game, and making it impossible to nail down the “ideal strategy” for each individual map — a big flaw of the good but limited pre-made levels of “Enemy Unknown.”

Enemy AI has been reworked as well to coordinate and be more aggressive. Officers will mark one of your soldiers for focus fire, a foot grunt will set up a flanking shot, and another will set up overwatch — leave your soldier there, and the flanking enemy will probably kill them next turn. Move them, and the one on overwatch will kill them instead. Which do you deal with first?

New enemy types are abounds in “XCOM 2,” and returning faces have been revamped. The squishy sectoids of the first game have all grown up and learned how to mind control, shape-shifting monsters disguise themselves as civilians and snake ladies will squeeze your troops to death boa constrictor-style. The aliens are much more advanced this time around, and present a greater challenge across the board.

The XCOM team isn’t without their own new toys, however. The four soldier classes of “Enemy Unknown” have been completely overhauled, with revolvers, swords, pet robots, and — my new favorite — grenade launchers coming to bear against the enemy. Psychic soldiers also now exist as their own independent fifth class, instead of simply being a regular soldier with psionic powers. All five have useful and defined roles to fill within the squad; which ones the player will rely more on will depend on how they prefer to approach a situation, but it’s generally a good idea not to leave base without at least one of each.

The strategic aspect of the game — base management and the world map (or “geoscape”) — are all redone as well. No longer in an underground ant hill, XCOM operates out of a repurposed alien airship appropriately dubbed the “Avenger.” Engineers are now individual people instead of a number on a screen, who can be assigned to individual tasks like staffing a workshop or clearing out debris from various rooms.

The geoscape is now highly randomized, giving different starting locations and continent bonuses with each new game and forcing the player to adapt to each new scenario. The Avenger can fly across the world, responding to tips from resistance forces and attacking alien bases.

This time around, the player is in a race against time to beat the aliens as they work on a doomsday project, their progress bar looming ominously at the top of the screen. Destroying enemy bases and completing story missions can slow their progress, but it can never be stopped without their ultimate defeat. This gives a greater sense of urgency, and really forces the player to prioritize their limited resources — you never have enough time or supplies to get everything you want, and have to work with what you’ve got.

Soldier customization has been greatly expanded. No longer the clandestine operation of professionals it was during the invasion, occupation-era XCOM is a band of misfits and irregulars, and the customization options show it. Mullets, hats, aviators, piercings, tattoos and more, everything is there to make your A-Team. Literally. There’s a dedicated character creator outside the main game, and characters you create there — be they soldiers, friendly VIPs or enemy assassination targets — will appear over the course of the game, mixed in with randomly generated ones. It takes a steel will not to go on a mission to the past to save your favorite soldier by re-loading an old save after they eat a plasma grenade.

While there are dozens of different character voices available to choose from in several languages and multiple English dialects, Russian is curiously absent from the English version of the game, despite it being in the game files. Thankfully, there’s a mod for that. Indeed, “XCOM 2” was designed from the get-go to be heavily moddable, and most of my personal taste-related gripes about the game have either already been fixed or fixes are in-progress by members of the community. Other mods range from custom hats and tattoos to overhauls of entire game mechanics, like hacking and enemy AI. Some even adjust or altogether remove the turn limits in missions and the doomsday clock, but given that the game is balanced around these timers, I don’t recommend using them with normal gameplay rules.

The game is graphically beautiful compared to the first game, but many effects are poorly optimized.
The game is graphically beautiful compared to the first game, but many effects are poorly optimized.

The Bad

As excellent of an all-around improvement “XCOM 2” is over its predecessors, there are a number of flaws. Most of them are on the technical side — the game is graphically beautiful compared to the first game, but many effects are poorly optimized and load times can be atrocious on some hardware. Low-end machines can especially struggle, having a game that’s uglier than the first on low graphics settings while still running worse. I’m playing on the High preset on an i5-6600K processor and GTX 970 graphics card without much issue, but complaints of poor performance are abounds across the net.

This is especially disappointing, because Firaxis is one of the most veteran PC game developers in the industry. One would expect a PC-only title would have better optimization than this.

The game itself is also filled with bugs. Some are annoying but generally innocuous, such as extended pauses (we’re talking 10+ seconds) during cinematic camera sequences as your soldiers shoot the bad guys. Others, like completely losing control of a soldier and being unable to give them orders, can break the game and force the player to re-load an old save file. If you’re playing on Ironman mode, which auto-saves every time you take an action and thus makes you live with every mistake, you might just be out of luck. Most of these serious bugs are fairly uncommon, but I’d hold off on an Ironman run for now.

Modders have already come to the rescue with some gameplay-related bugs, like actions triggering when they shouldn’t or equipment not working as advertised, but only an official patch can fix some of the more egregious issues.

Meanwhile, the “Second Wave” options from “Enemy Unknown” which allowed the player to mix up the rules are entirely missing. Modders are also working on re-implementing them, but their absence in the base game is a disappointment. Sometimes it feels like Firaxis adopted the “let the modders fix it” attitude that plagues some other games.

Despite these shortcomings, however, “XCOM 2” is turn-based tactics at its finest. Its hallmark features have been expanded, the challenge is bumped up, and many flaws from Enemy Unknown have been ironed out. For any fan of strategy or tactics games, “XCOM 2” gets a big recommendation from me.

 

Summary

Pros:

  • Many new features and enemies
  • Old features overhauled and improved
  • Interesting premise and setting
  • More varied mission types
  • Randomized maps and geoscape improve replayability
  • Excellent graphics and detail on high settings
  • Extensive modding support

Cons:

  • Poor optimization
  • Many bugs
  • Missing Second Wave options

Final score: 9/10
“XCOM 2” is available now on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Some of my favorite mods for the game can be found here, and a graphics optimization guide can be found here.

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