Off the bat; I’m going to tell you that XCOM 2 is a bloody great game. From the highs of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis continues to reach even higher. I was a fan of the original XCOM series back in the day and I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a fan of the reboot instalments. This is something which I’m sure you’ve already heard from any number of other publications in their own reviews about a fortnight ago but it’s no less true. Please keep this mind as, in this review, I’ve tried to provide you with some manner of useful information beyond that which has been covered by other outlets by being more sensitive to that which I believe are weaker elements in this title.
The backstory basically follows on from the story of the previous Enemy Unknown… but not a successfully completed campaign. In this universe, aliens invaded Earth and XCOM lost the war to defend humanity from their predations. Twenty years on and the aliens have occupied the entire planet, established themselves as a totalitarian world government by the name of ‘Advent’. Most people live in sci-fi looking cities and live under the alien regime which has officially been working to help cure humanity of all its ills. Unofficially, they’ve actually been working on all manner of genetic experimentation on humans to some unforeseen end.
The XCOM organisation itself has not been idle in these twenty years however and have set up the start of a resistance with a mobile base in a converted alien carrier. The tutorial starts with a rescue operation of “the commander”… which means you. Yup, the first mission is about rescuing yourself from Advent captivity. From there, the plot thickens as the player leads XCOM troops on various missions to undermine Advent control and to also set back their evil schemes. Most of the story points are delivered through cut-scenes after researching story-relevant tech or in voice over while conducting missions important to the plot.
Right off the bat the game creates a story that’s actually quite meta in its points. The player, as “the commander”, is actually a greater physical presence within the game itself with characters looking directly into the camera and speaking directly to you. This isn’t on the same level as say Fallout or other first-person games, but it certainly adds a layer meta-textuality to the game’s narrative. This works to set up some pretty sci-fi concepts into the game as well in the game’s third act. The game’s resolution is pretty darn satisfying but also sets up narrative threads for more instalments in the XCOM series.
In terms of the non-player characters, we don’t really get much in the way of characterisation. Richard Tygan, An-Yi Shen, and Central Officer Bradford reveal parts of their backstory and experiences in their voice overs while you examine the cross-cut of your base. They each have their own experiences of living through the 20 years of alien occupation which are interesting and help to build the world bit more… but don’t come through in their characterisation. This certainly isn’t the focus of the game but I feel they could have done something similar to Xenonauts, for instance, who had a very strong character for their lead scientist (which came across in the research reports the player would read). That being said, there is one cutscene where Shen does have some of personality shine through and it was cute to see it.
The main storyline is fairly engaging and has an air of mystery to keep you guessing as you unlock each plot point. This story however, will pale in comparison to the emergent narratives you yourself will create with the soldiers under your command in each mission.
As a strategy game, XCOM 2 par excellence. The team have Firaxis have reworked not just their already great design from the last game, they have restructured significant parts of the entire XCOM design. As I’ve mentioned previously, they’ve completely revamped the geoscape gameplay with the player attempting to spread the resistance across the globe rather than defending multiple funding nations with limited resources. There is a markedly different feeling of building up the organisation and its reach on the world map as opposed to slowly seeing that influence recede as was the case with the old design. It’s certainly a welcome change and one which changes the mentality of the game from defence to one of offence.
Another welcome aspect is that you are given multiple objects to complete simultaneously in the first two acts of story. This allows you to feel a greater sense of progress as you follow leads, research specific tech, and break into facilities the aliens really don’t want you to investigate. Every mission in the first half of the game is given a sense of urgency and relevance to the main plot as pretty much every foray into enemy territory has the possibility of progressing some objective or other. This also helps to avoid choke points in the story as you’re pretty much always learning something about the invaders through one discovery or another.
The tactical gameplay similarly supports a more aggressive approach to bringing down the aliens. Concealment as a mechanic allows soldiers to come much closer to the enemy without triggering combat which allows you to set up ambushes (which can be quite effective). Most missions also have a timer attached to the completion of their objective which forces the player to move across the map at reasonable fast pace. Other small tweaks like the increased health of your soldiers also works to facilitate a more risky play style that wasn’t present in the original game. This creates a faster pace in the gameplay as you go from being the overly cautious approach of Enemy Unknown to the riskier plays of this installment.
The visual design of the game is gorgeous. The graphics don’t appear as too much of an upgrade from Enemy Unknown but with small changes here and there. For example, during night time combat, the guns of your troops will sport flashlights. The biggest change I could notice was in the visual design of the maps themselves. There is now a striking dichotomy between rural and urban environments. The rural zones more often than not generally have some manner of overgrown ruin of a modern building or such which were drawn directly from Enemy Unknown. The urban centers have a very strong cyberpunk influence to them with futuristic slums and city blocks showing varying degrees of neon and futuristic architecture.
The alien designs are also changed to a significant extent with the designs of old alien units being blended to create a more human look. The Sectoid, I would argue, comes out through this process looking quite awesome and creepy with their more humanoid appearance making them quite uncanny. The rest of the enemy and alien designs are great as well and you will s%&* bricks whenever you encounter a new variant in combat… but I don’t feel that they come as close to the creep factor which the sectoid design evoked.
The game is largely stable but does occasionally glitch out when it comes to working through a number of actions. For example, a ranger soldier of mine got pulled out of cover and enveloped by a Viper alien unit. One of his abilities triggered however causing him to eviscerate the viper in response. The animation didn’t appear to take this turn of events well however as his model became stuck in the ‘Viper captive pose’ (seen below). Luckily, saving and reloading solved the problem. Loading times were also a bit long on the highest graphical setting after a mission. Overall, however, the game did run smoothly for me on a fairly high-end rig.
The soundtrack and sound design is of a sufficient polish to complement the game. The different pieces which play during tactical gameplay suit the action quite well regardless of whether you’re in a firefight, sneaking around the map, or hunting for that last elusive alien unit. With synthy tones and orchestral accompaniment, it’s a suitably high production score to punctuate the action and gameplay. The sound effects for the various weapons are also of a high quality. I would like to give special mention to the track which plays while you kit out your squad for deployment… it was extremely effective in amping me up before going out on missions.
One thing I was disappointed by in character customisation was the limited range of voices I could give to individual soldiers. There are only two options for Australian soldiers to be appropriately voiced and they both kind of sound like they have the accent of the ‘Sniper’ from Team Fortress 2. It is nice that the chosen voice of the soldier changes to represent the personality they’ve been given with a twitchy soldier sounding quite different compared to one which is happy-go-lucky (even with the same voice actor).
XCOM 2 is a star which shines oh-so-brightly. Even with a mind to being overly critical and nitpicky, I could not help but love it. The narrative is strong and pulls you along from mission to mission even if the non-player characters could have been done better. The visuals are great, although there are a few bugs and glitches which mar the otherwise seamless performance. The audio design was also quite strong in its presentation although I was disappointed by the limited selection of voices and accents for my soldiers. This is a great game that will fit nicely into the collection of all fans of turn-based strategy or the original XCOM. Believe the hype, go play it.
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