Say what you will about their inherently slower pace, but the tension that goes hand-in-hand with turn-based strategy games makes for some truly exciting, and occasionally awesomely rewarding moments. I understand why people will always be drawn to real-time, on the ground, (usually) first person shooters; the fluidity of today’s shooters offer up exciting gunfights, and even when you might die during a round of Call of Duty, respawning is just a button click away.
Still, there’s something truly special about planning and ordering units around, taking in the map and viewing it from up on high, and making decisions that might spell the end of a soldier or unit. If typical first person shooters are an energetic blast of coffee or cappuccino, turn based strategy games are a calming cup of tea, or a comforting cup of hot chocolate. As a good friend of mine would say, “it’s chess, not checkers”.
I was originally skeptical when XCOM 2 was announced, simply because I was unsure of where developer Firaxis would take the series, or more accurately, where they could take the series. XCOM: Enemy Unknown never really felt to me like a game that had many shortcomings or areas to expand upon, but rather a game that would live on through repeat playthroughs and some mods to spice things up years down the line. I’m glad to say that Firaxis has proved me wrong.
In an interesting take on the events of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 picks up 20 years later, in a future where the original XCOM team was unable to fend off the alien invasion. Earth is now being ruled by aliens, who operate through the puppet ‘ADVENT Administration.’ After being rescued in the always helpful tutorial mission, you once again take on the role of the Commander, as you attempt to learn more about ADVENT’s mysterious ‘Avatar Project’, all while thwarting alien operations, one mission at a time.
You might be quick to dismiss XCOM 2’s narrative as window dressing, but the revised narrative structure is one of the game’s biggest highlights. As much as I did enjoy the original Enemy Unknown, I always felt a disconnect between the impending alien invasion, and the day-to-day missions and base management.
Attempting to quell the fears of XCOM council nations in order to keep cash flowing, trying to avoid failure, felt more like a chore at times. XCOM 2 opts to tie in the ongoing narrative into the missions at hand; every mission carries weight this time around, whether it focuses on sabotaging alien operations, or slowly advancing your own team. Everything feels much more in-sync here, which only keeps you more invested in the day-to-day operations of your XCOM team.
Still, the best addition to XCOM 2 is how the game introduces more dynamic and random elements into battles, which will force you to switch up your tactics and strategy. It all starts with the inclusion of procedurally generated maps and objectives. Rather than being able to learn the different maps and where objectives tend to be placed, things are much more dynamic this time around, meaning that you won’t be able to use your past experience and assumptions on where enemies will most likely be. This level of randomness even extends to weapons, special ammo types, continent bonuses and more, meaning that you probably won’t see the same thing twice.
For the most part, the moment-to-moment, on the ground gameplay remains largely untouched, though some additions and refinements have been added. As expected, you and the AI will take turns moving your units around, and your soldiers follow the same movement system as before, with each turn allowing up to two actions or moves.
Apart from moving and shooting, tactics staples like overwatch and suppression return, and the new skills and abilities for each soldier class provide a wide variety of different ways to go about completing a mission. There’s a lot of room for experimentation, especially since abilities can be fleshed out through weapon modifications, allowing for some completely crazy (and tense) moments.
The biggest change in tactics, however, comes in the form of concealment. Concealment acts as a sort of ‘fog of war’; at the beginning of (almost) every mission, your squad will go unnoticed by enemy operatives, and they won’t be discovered until you send them out too close to an alien, or if you open fire.
By moving under the cover of ‘concealment’, you can now initiate ambushes and takedowns, which is just a fancy way of flanking and putting your soldiers into overwatch mode, and then firing on a target. If all goes well, your team will respond to the alien’s reaction, mowing down a sizeable chunk of the enemy force in one fell swoop.
Of course, it’s not always as easy as it sounds, as occasionally an alien will flee and warn his/her comrades. And every now and then, if your ambush should fail, the enemy might be able to launch a counterattack, or trigger special abilities, making the remainder of the battle a tad more difficult.
This all makes for some wonderfully tense (and fun) moments, though I do need to address the elephant in the room, which is the game’s performance and technical shortcomings. A few of the visual quirks from Enemy Unknown make a reappearance; shots and animations will occasionally clip right through environmental objects, and the game will occasionally hang on a specific scene for a bit too long, or simply refuse to accept certain user input. The camera system can also be a bit finicky, especially when it comes to rotating the camera, or trying to focus in on a specific floor of a building.
And then there’s the matter of performance. Despite running the game on hardware that exceeds the recommended specifications, I (and many others) had a lot of trouble maintaining 60 frames per second, even when dialing back settings. The game is still perfectly playable, but certain camera angles, cutscenes, and locations will run at a noticeably lower framerate than other sections. Firaxis has acknowledged these issues, and while I wouldn’t recommend passing up playing based on the game’s performance, it is something that I hope will be addressed soon.
If you’re anything like me, and are willing to look past some glaring technical shortcomings, XCOM 2 will undoubtedly surprise and draw you in, whether you’re a series greenhorn or an XCOM veteran. The newfound strategic options stand out as a series’ highlight, and the adoption of procedural and randomly generated elements provide enough to justify keeping XCOM 2 installed on your computer for a long while.
This review is based off the PC exclusive version of the game, which we were provided with for review.
Technical issues aside, XCOM 2 stands as an outstanding sequel to an already amazing strategy game.