About six months after my glowing review of the original XCOM reboot I wrote a followup piece that comprehensively laid into the game for flaws that had become apparent on subsequent playthroughs. The aliens’ completely passive presence on the geoscape. The introduction of new, tougher enemy types being linked to your completing plot missions that had no time factor involved, allowing you to game the system by researching endgame weapons and armour before tackling any of them. An inverse difficulty curve where the first three months of the game were by far the hardest as you desperately tried to keep your rookies alive with only basic weapons and equipment. A whole host of paper tiger systems (such as panic), where the various NPCs screamed at you to play the game in a certain way in an attempt to mask the fact that playing slowly and cautiously — and liberally vomiting explosives anywhere in direct contravention of Vahlen’s instructions — would result in flawless completion of 95% of missions. The Enemy Within expansion pack alleviated some of these flaws, but it couldn’t fix the worst of them as they were baked into the very structure of the game itself. Any trulycomprehensive cure would require a complete restructure of XCOM’s systems that only a sequel could provide.
Fast-forward three years, and my initial impression on playing XCOM 2 was that series lead Jake Solomon had been reading this blog1 and had made a game that directly incorporated all of that feedback. At first glance XCOM 2 is specifically set up to counter nearly all of the criticisms that had become so apparent after several years with the first game. Just as with the first XCOM, though, “at first glance” is liable to lead to an unduly favourable impression of the game; it takes time to get under the hood and fully understand the new and improved systems and mechanics of the sequel, and my conclusion is that while XCOM 2 is a worthy sequel and a great game in its own right, it’s not quite the revolutionary experience it would like you to believe it is – both figuratively and mechanically.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twelve months you’ll be aware by now that XCOM 2 does do something pretty daring for a sequel: it sets itself against the backdrop of a future Earth where XCOM lost the first game in a matter of weeks. The aliens annihilated Earth’s military and gave XCOM enough hard knocks that the remnants of the Council were all too glad to surrender by signing an Accord that handed over control of the planet2. Fast forward twenty years and the aliens have an ironclad grip on things via their quasi-militaristic front organisation ADVENT, which has gifted the population of Earth many marvellous scientific advances derived from alien technology that mask their nefarious true plans for the human race. There are various underground resistance groups fighting against these plans, coordinated by a still-operational XCOM that’s led by a scarred, embittered Bradford — whose sweater was presumably one of the many casualties of the First Alien War — but thematically there’s a definite role inversion here compared to the first game. XCOM is no longer a legitimate entity fighting from a position of relative strength that’s backed by all the resources of Earth’s governments; they’re a quasi-terrorist organisation that has to engage in guerilla warfare against an entrenched alien enemy, and which is forced to scrounge up supplies (XCOM 2’s money) from a variety of sources in order to carry on the fight.
This is a great excuse to completely overhaul the geoscape layer – this is XCOM’s name for the strategic part of the game where you spend resources to research and develop new equipment and weapons, build new base facilities and decide which missions to take on next. In XCOM 1 the geoscape layer just didn’t work for long-term play; once you figured out what to research when and what you could get away with in terms of the panic meter and the plot missions it became an almost braindead experience. XCOM 2 attempts to throw nearly all of that out and starts from scratch, and the first step towards rebuilding it into something better is taken by giving XCOM a flying base: the Avenger. The Avenger travels around the globe to various mission sites and other points of interest, however it can only travel to regions where you have made contact with the local resistance cell. This is done by spending time and a secondary currency called Intel, however you can only contact a new region if you have enough “comms capacity” from the communications facilities inside your base – and the point that you understand this is the point at which you first realise that maybe XCOM 2 isn’t quite the drastic overhaul you were led to believe, since this is just a repackaged Satellites mechanic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a big improvement over Satellites since opening up new regions now goes far beyond just giving you more income (each newly contacted region gives you a boost to your monthly supply), but it is something that is indicative of XCOM 2’s general approach: nearly all of the mechanics from XCOM are still present in some form, they’ve just been retooled into something that is in the vast majority of cases an improvement over what came before.
So the Terror Missions where you have to save civilians from encroaching alien forces are back, they’ve just been recast as Retaliation Events where the aliens assault a resistance cell. The pick-one-out-of-three Alien Activity/Abduction missions are back, except they’re now Guerilla Missions where you can counter one of three alien Dark Events – should these come to fruition they’ll give the aliens temporary bonuses like additional armour for their grunts or sending a UFO to hunt the Avenger. Panic has received a more significant retooling into the Avatar Project counter – more on this in just a second – but it still fulfils that basic role of a thing that loses you the game if you let it tick up too much. Something that is quite conspicuous by its absence are UFO interceptions; XCOM doesn’t have any fighter craft so instead you just get occasional leads on disabled UFOs/ADVENT supply convoys fed to you by the Resistance. I think there’s scope to make an interesting mechanic out of interceptions but since they added very little to XCOM in their current incarnation I’m fine with being dropped until somebody can figure out what that interesting mechanic is.
The one genuinely new concept the XCOM 2 geoscape layer introduces is the concept of time as a resource. In XCOM 1 the geoscape was somewhere you went to kill time while you waited for the next mission to pop up or the next piece of research to complete. XCOM 2’s geoscape by contrast has you deciding on the best place to spend time, as everything you do there that isn’t just flying from point A to point B takes a certain amount of it. The map is liberally scattered with points of interest where you can spend a certain amount of time “scanning” in order to get some bonus resource income. Or you can spend it contacting new Resistance regions or building Radio Relay towers to make contacting far-flung regions easier. You can fly back to Resistance HQ and spend time there to get some passive bonuses for the Avenger – faster facility construction, faster recovery time for wounded soldiers, or gathering Intel (which can be quite hard to come by otherwise). Even gathering your basic monthly supply income takes time, as it’s dumped somewhere on the globe and necessitates you having to fly over and spend time grabbing it all up.
This works quite well in tandem with the new incarnation of the Panic meter: the Avatar Project. The Avatar Project is the thing that the first XCOM very conspicuously did not do: it’s a secret goal for the aliens that they’re working towards all the time, and almost completely independently of your actions on the geoscape. Every so often the Avatar Project counter at the top of the geoscape screen will tick up. There are certain Dark Events which, if you do not block them, add one or two ticks to the Avatar counter. The aliens periodically construct facilities around the globe to aid in their Avatar Project research; allowing one of these facilities to exist looks like it also speeds up the rate at which that counter fills up. There are only two ways you can reduce the aliens’ Avatar progress:
- Blow up the Avatar research facilities by sending your soldiers in to plant C4 charges. This will remove any ticks that that facility was responsible for adding – worthwhile when its got three ticks on it, less so when it only has one unless you’re really desperate.
- Complete plot missions.
The second point is by far the best way to reduce Avatar progress – in the one campaign I’ve completed so far there was still an element of waiting until I was good and ready before doing these objectives, but I got really lucky with my initial facility spawns and was able to knock four ticks off of the counter relatively quickly. I was also lucky in that I was able to block nearly every single Dark Event that added to the Avatar counter. Even so there was definitely a point several months in where I was feeling very pressured – I’d had time to research Tier 2 weapons and armour, but Tier 3 was very much beyond my reach before I had to start paying attention to the plot objectives. The Avatar Project functions adequately for the first 50% of the campaign as a way of keeping pressure on the player and making them very aware that time is precious; I think that once you understand how it works it’s far too easy to get on top of the Avatar counter in the late game and keep it down to 3-4 ticks (out of 12), but I also know that I had it relatively easy when it came to initial non-plot options for buying myself time. The counter could definitely stand to advance a little more aggressively — but then I was only playing on Normal. Classic might be a whole other story. Regardless it’s a huge, huge improvement over Panic, and any flaws in its implementation could probably be fixed with balancing tweaks rather than yet another overhaul of the fundamental mechanics.
Base facility construction has also received an overhaul, although it’s a substantially subtler one. Nearly all the facilities from XCOM return in some form; the big difference here is how you deal with engineers and scientists in base management. First, you get them as individual, named engineers scientists from mission rewards (and, occasionally, purchasing them from Resistance HQ and/or the black market) rather than as the abstract numbers the first XCOM dealt with. Each scientist you acquire gives a passive, diminishing bonus to research speed (so the first scientist gives +50%, the second +33% and so on) and you can build laboratories and assign scientists to them for further research boosts – but I never found this to be necessary in my game, as having 3-4 scientists just sitting around was enough to get tolerable research speeds. Engineers are a different story entirely, however. Engineers are used to excavate debris to create new construction slots as well as speeding the construction of the facilities you place in those slots, but their real utility is in being assigned to your various base facilities for huge bonuses in how those facilities operate. For example, a basic, unstaffed Resistance Comms facility increases your Comms capacity by one (or maybe two, I forget which). Adding an engineer raises that capacity by an additional two. Upgrading the facility with an additional station and putting a second engineer in raises that capacity by an additional four. It’s a similar story with the other facilities, with engineers increasing your power output, soldier healing/training time or the construction time of prototype weapons in the Proving Ground. Because time is so precious now Engineers are insanely valuable, and I found myself blocked on geoscape progression more than a few times because I didn’t have enough; I was regularly swapping around the ones I had according to what I needed most at the time.
In hindsight I’m kicking myself for never building the Workshop, which is a facility that provides Engineer bonuses to all adjacent facilities – but that’s not something you can really understand the utility of until you’ve already run into Engineer blockages. I found the base management part of the geoscape really tricky because it’s something you need to plan months in advance, and you can’t plan effectively when you’re still figuring out how everything works. I remember having that problem with the first XCOM too, where I mis-attributed it to the base management actually being difficult. I don’t think that’s the case with XCOM 2 but I do think there are much more interesting decisions to be made here, especially with the early availability of psionics (another thing I didn’t make good use of in my campaign, but which were devastatingly powerful even in the endgame) and the Proving Ground facility that provides most of your best utility items. What I can definitely say is that I’m excited to try it again on Classic with a more optimal strategy – it feels like there’s multiple viable options and plenty of room for refinement, rather than the one-size-fits-all strategy of XCOM.
Compared to the geoscape the alterations to the tactical battlescape portion of the game are somewhat lower-key, even though one of them is basically the headline feature of XCOM 2. Most of these changes are designed to counter the foolproof method of beating battlescape missions in XCOM — which was to inch forward a couple of tiles at a time with everyone permanently on overwatch — as well as the common complaint that it was always you finding the aliens rather than the other way around, which put far too much power into the hands of the player. Since your soldiers are now part of a covert resistance organisation engaged in hit-and-run attacks they start most missions in a state of stealth; they can run around unhindered as long as they don’t blunder into any alien line-of-sight (helpfully marked by big red eyeball indicators on the relevant tiles) and set up devastating ambushes on oblivious groups of enemies who are standing around in the open. As soon as you fire your first shot stealth is dropped and the gameplay transitions to the standard XCOM battlescape – where uncovering a new group of enemies gives them a free move to seek cover — so making effective use of this first ambush by setting up your squad in overwatch (which doesn’t have any of the usual penalties to aim when you’re firing from an ambush position) prior to firing that first shot is critical, especially since the bad guys now have many more nasty tricks up their sleeve.
The flipside of stealth is that every mission involving it also has a time limit for you to achieve an objective, which is usually “Get to a thing and hack it” although there’s also destruction/protection of communication relays and the VIP extraction missions (which are awful in a good way, as you’re forced to be a little more discriminating in your use of firepower). This is the antidote to the overwatch-creeping tactic above; not only does overwatch appear to be less effective in XCOM 2, but if you’re super cautious you’ll simply run out of time to complete the mission. It would seem a little draconian if the stealth didn’t give you a free hand in setting up your assault; as it is the two go together very well indeed, allowing you to freely move around in the opening turns of the mission while punishing you for dragging your feet and encouraging you to come up with solutions to inconvenient tactical fuckups on the fly instead of avoiding them entirely by being conservative in your play. The stealth missions are also broken up with more conventional gameplay according to the old rules of XCOM - but even here I found myself being more aggressive simply because I could afford to be.
This is because, pound for pound, the redone soldier classes of XCOM 2 are vastly more effective than their XCOM counterparts. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still weak as kittens to start with and you have to be on your toes even in the late game to avoid unnecessary losses, but they have a much wider range of useful skills and items to draw upon in combat. There’s new utility items such as Mimic Beacons (arguably the MVP of my completed campaign, and something that should be researched ASAP), as well as passive boosts to your soldiers’ stats through Combat Sims and weapon upgrades that provide free reloads and bonuses to aim or crit. The soldier skill trees are still split out into two branches per class, however this time around each of the branches is powerful and worthwhile. The Assault has become the Ranger, able to specialise in either scouting or melee combat; the Support is now the Specialist, with access to drones that can either heal and buff allies remotely or hack and electrocute enemies; the Sniper’s pistol tree has now been reworked for the Sharpshooter so that it’s arguably more powerful than the sniper rifle in combination with special ammo; and then finally there’s the Grenadier.
The Grenadier deserves a special mention. Instead of the Heavy’s rocket launcher they lug around a grenade launcher that doesn’t have as much range, but which is capable of indirect fire and which can launch any type of grenade in the game with a boost to damage and lethal radius. Explosives in general are even more important in XCOM 2 than they were in the first XCOM, as there’s a new armour mechanic whereby armoured units have between one and six points of armour that absorb a corresponding amount of incoming damage; only damage that exceeds the target’s armour value will make it through and damage their HP bar. In order to defeat heavily armoured enemies you have to either use abilities that ignore armour completely (psionic powers and the Specialist’s electric shocks are great for this) or else shred the armour first using — you guessed it — a copious quantity of explosives. The Grenadier also has a skill that lets their standard cannon shots shred armour, making them the go-to guys for armour removal, cover removal and softening up large groups of enemies for the rest of your squad. The new equipment options include a vastly expanded array of grenade types such as EMP, flashbang, incendiary and gas grenades, all of which can be plugged into the grenade launcher for that damage and explosive radius boost. There’s also specialised sets of heavy armour that come with special inbuilt heavy weapons, the default version of which is a rocket launcher.
As a consequence I always found myself carting around at least two Grenadiers on every mission, and my level of comfort with how a mission was playing out was directly correlated with the number of grenades and/or rockets I had left. The increased availability and use of explosive weapons also shows off the new destruction and environmental burning effects; if there are enemies perched on top of a roof you can now destroy the ground underneath their feet, dropping them one or two storeys and dealing additional fall damage, while all explosives have a chance to set buildings alight – and this fire will continue burning and destroying terrain in subsequent turns, which did come back on me a couple of times as I accidentally dropped a building on my squads’ heads. It’s worth noting that the aliens aren’t without their own tricks and have a number of new and incredibly annoying abilities to offset your soldiers’ increased power, but on the whole I think it’s a net win for the forces of XCOM.
And while I’m talking about the soldiers, I should spare a few words to talk about the general art direction of the game. The cutscenes and writing are the usual bland Firaxis crap, but I think that the general art direction — and the soldier customisation options in particular — is actually pretty amazing. You can take a screenshot of nearly any action zoom event from XCOM 2 and use it as a publicity photo for the game; XCOM 2 absolutely nails stylish soldiers killing aliens in stylish ways thanks to new weapon effects (plasma rifles in particular now look like they hit hard) and a dizzying array of options for playing soldier dress-up. These don’t fully unlock until you’ve levelled them up a bit, but once you do you can alter just about anything you can think of – I was particularly taken with the metallic camouflage options for the last tier of powered armour, as well as the belated realisation that I could have cigar-chewing Grenadiers blasting enemy Sectopods with their plasma cannon. The new environments provide a fitting backdrop for the carnage, with the camera and lighting effects really accentuating the highlights of the ongoing battle. Watching a battlescape action unfold is a genuine pleasure, and one I don’t think I’m going to get tired of any time soon. That’s a big contrast to the usual XCOM problem of battlescape fatigue.
As usual in my reviews, though, it’s time for the inevitable criticism. XCOM 2 is a fantastic game in many ways, but the areas where it continues to fuck up are the perennial Firaxis bugbears: tutorials, UI and scripted events. The tutorials are complete garbage once again, alternating between too hand-holdy (the tutorial battlescape mission literally locks off all possible moves except the one you’re supposed to make) and almost non-existent – contacting new resistance regions and the Comms facility are extremely badly explained, which is ironic considering they made exactly the same mistake with Satellites the first time around. The base navigation UI is absolutely terrible, requiring way too many clicks to change screens and generally making it a chore to get around. And the scripted events and objectives…
…yeah, this is probably the single worst thing XCOM 2 does, since not only do the objectives and scripted events seem intentionally designed to fuck over new players so that they have to restart their campaign, but it’s all entirely avoidable by this magic thing the original original X-COM did called “Not having scripted events in your game of procedurally generated battle maps”. It’s an entirely self-inflicted wound. Usually in grand strategy games any objectives you are given are designed so that they provide some structure for first-time players, but in XCOM 2 this couldn’t be further from the truth. Even apparently harmless objectives like building the Proving Ground early on seem intentionally misleading, as players will waste time and resources building a facility that doesn’t really come into its own until the mid-game when they could instead be building the Guerilla Tactics School – which is possibly the single most important facility you can build for the early game. The really unforgiveable thing about XCOM 2, though, is that fulfilling its equivalent of “Interrogate enemy species X” objectives – which has been a core part of XCOM since forever — now immediately spawn in very tough enemies who will make mincemeat of an unprepared squad. You have no warning that this is going to happen, and if you haven’t gamed the system by waiting for tier 2 or 3 armour and weapons, or you haven’t made sure you’ve cleared out every other enemy on the map first, you’re probably going to get screwed the first time you do it.
The thing about this that I find particularly annoying is that it’s a trap that will only catch out first time players. Veteran players will know what’s coming and plan ahead, but if you’re playing the game for the first time you’re already at a disadvantage while you figure out the systems and you’re probably relying on following the objectives to guide you through the game. Instead XCOM 2 sees no problem with throwing these additional obstacles in your way — obstacles that have absolutely no place in a game that’s supposed to be designed for repeated playthroughs — and I actually think that kind of design mentality is outright offensive, since not only is XCOM 2 lying to you about how you should play it (again) but this time it’s being actively malicious in doing so. It’s different from even the Alien Base in the first game, since at least with the Alien Base you knew you were heading into enemy territory and could prepare for a tough mission. By contrast these screw-you events can happen at any time if you trigger them by having the temerity to actually do what the game tells you you should be doing. Fortunately it wasn’t so much of a problem for me, as I (somewhat) intentionally decided to test the limits of the geoscape by waiting as long as possible before tackling the plot objectives – there was even some good news there as I discovered that the aliens level up their troops independently of your progress through the plot. However it still came across as tremendously awful game design, and it stood out even more when you consider how well the rest of it is put together.
XCOM 2 is still mostly the same game as its predecessor, and perhaps a little more so than I would have liked; it makes plenty of iterative changes but on the whole retains a surprisingly large quantity of the DNA of its parent. I don’t think the geoscape changes are an unqualified success – it’s a bit more hectic and there are some marginally interesting decisions to be made, but I still ended up killing time in the lategame — but the base management is genuinely tense as you try and figure out where to invest your resources and the battlescape missions are as good as they have ever been. To me, though, the most interesting thing about XCOM 2 is that it shows full awareness of the games preceding it.Too often I play sequels that have regressed in scope in some way when compared to the original title, with the usual excuse being that there wasn’t time to add certain features or functionality and that it’ll have to wait for a patch or expansion pack. XCOM 2 by contrast is just as feature-rich as XCOM was with the additional Enemy Within content, and since it refines most of that content into a better state it is one of the few sequels I’ve encountered that is just a flat-out upgrade. It’s not a perfect game by any means and makes some entirely avoidable mistakes, but it is in almost all respects better than what came before, and I don’t think I could ask for more from a sequel to the already-great XCOM.
- These were very common criticisms so I don’t really think he reads this blog, he just has access to a computer, an internet connection and a pair of functioning eyeballs. ↩
- Except for the “Hello, Commander” man, because it wouldn’t be an new XCOM game without his gravel-voiced silhouette appearing on the viewscreen to give a critical appraisal of each month’s performance. ↩