Wednesday 7 December 2016

XCOM 2 Review: It’s a different Earth and now it’s our turn to take it

Is XCOM 2 just another vanilla sequel or does it deliver on its promise to energise the turn-based action strategy genre.

Chris Griffin

Published 18/03/2016 | 17:06

XCOM 2 - Soldier creation screen
XCOM 2 - Soldier creation screen

Things have come a long way for the turn-based genre in the last number of years. The original Civilization series demonstrated to gamers that you don’t need to produce a fast paced shooter, RTS or sports sim to gain critical acclaim. But even at the height of its powers, Civilization lacked the graphical and interactive advancements that modern gamers have come to expect.

Rating: 9/10, 2K Games, PC

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XCOM 2 - Extreme lengths for a fashion statement
XCOM 2 - Extreme lengths for a fashion statement

The introduction of XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a giant leap forward for the genre. Its isometric view, texture and animation detailing and the wonderful in-game music all succeeded in dragging the genre right into modern times. It not only brought a new wave of turn-based gamers but also inspired developments of new and exciting games such as Hard West.

As much as XCOM: Enemy Unknown pushed the envelope for turn-based strategy, XCOM 2 has sent it via express delivery all the way to legendary status with some brilliant and rewarding enhancements that has made one of the best games even better.

It is twenty years since the end of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Earth has succumbed to the strength of the invading alien race, Advent. Now they live among us spreading propaganda of a new and better world, building great cities to populate the remains of humanity while the rest of the planet lies desolate and ravaged.  All while they plot and plan the next instalment of their oppression.

Only a small number of XCOM personnel still exist, on the run aboard a converted alien supply ship, travelling the world in search of new recruits and desperately trying to unearth the truth and eliminate the alien force once and for all.

XCOM 2 - Avenger UI
XCOM 2 - Avenger UI

You play as the commander of the Avenger and for the most part you have two distinct roles. Firstly you need to manage the macro events that influence XCOM, deciding on missions, enrolling new staff, tech research and expanding the ship (base). Then you need to control your squad during the missions, overseeing every shot, every movement and every death.

These two distinct elements of the game are equally important. You’ll have to choose between missions, sometimes neglecting other survivors in favour of completing a critical part of the overall war. Putting off certain missions is not just putting them on the long finger. Fail to take some missions can result in the Advent following through with their threat and this could mean complete failure of the campaign.

The missions themselves are equally important. You’ll build a bigger stronger army by battle hardening your troops and gaining promotions which in turn help to level your soldiers up with additional tech or abilities. Rescuing VIPs helps to add to your staff and certain personnel can help advance tech research or decrypt alien transmissions.

XCOM 2 introduces a completely random element into the missions. Playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown you could replay missions and have a good idea of the locations of key parts of the map or where the aliens were going to strike. XCOM 2 randomises the creation of the maps so that each play through provides its own challenges, routes and enemy locations.

XCOM 2 - Time to take back the world
XCOM 2 - Time to take back the world

Your squad now spawns on the map in complete concealment, mirroring the guerrilla tactics that XCOM is now employing in an occupied Earth. You have the advantage at the start but one wrong move and you could be outnumbered or suffer heavy losses.

Initially missions are straightforward and compare to those from the previous game. You need to complete the mission in a set number of moves, or ensure that all your squad survives etc. But quickly the missions become more critical and you’ll be racing against the clock to complete them. XCOM 2 quickly moves from a game of stealth, strategy and thought in a world of endless time, to a game where you need to think fast and act fast.

There was a level of criticism against XCOM: Enemy Unknown where mission after mission became repetitive. The maps were similar, the gameplay became familiar and stale and ultimately progress could be made using simple tactics – at least on the lower difficulty levels. Firaxis have listened to the gaming community and eliminated these issues. XCOM 2 stays fresh and challenging right to the end.

The macro game is also very appealing. The concept of the Avenger is a good one and provides substance to the overall storyline. It also provides the basis of a very good UI and a novel concept of base building.

XCOM 2 - Squad ready to rock und roll. Word.
XCOM 2 - Squad ready to rock und roll. Word.

As a converted alien vessel, the Avenger is full of compartments or areas that need to be cleared in order to expand the usefulness of the ship. You’ll need to assign staff to clear these rooms and then assign others to convert them into useful labs, armouries etc. Staff management is a key element of the game.

Even staffing in XCOM is fun. You can spend hours creating a pool of potential staff or soldiers that the game will use as it starts to unlock new personnel or new recruits. You can create soldiers and see them rise through the ranks. You can make XCOM 2 as personal as you’d like, creating people you know or even people you hate – just to see them play out in the game.

However, XCOM 2 is not perfect. There are a number of know issues with the game, most of which are technical. Sometimes the game gets stuck in a certain camera view or the game lags out a bit. Although not fatal flaws, they can be frustrating especially in the heat of battle.

XCOM 2 doesn’t make it easy to progress. You can’t just show up, stagger through the missions and complete the game like a rookie. You don’t get the option to quick save during missions and this can be difficult as you have to play out the mission even if key success criteria have already failed. The difficultly can be brutal but it’s always worth it.

Even now early in the year XCOM 2 has a good chance at game of the year. It’s a turn-based action strategy that has opened up the genre to a wider gaming public and it’s damn near perfection.

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