Back in 2012, Firaxis released XCOM: Enemy Unknown to widespread critical acclaim – and now its long-awaited sequel has arrived on PC.
While Firaxis’ first XCOM was heavily inspired by the Gollop brothers’ UFO games of the early 1990s, its slick blend of tactical turn-based combat and over-arching grand planning made it a crossover hit. Even with an audience who previously wouldn’t have touched a strategy game with a ten-foot pole.
We loved it so much that we awarded it a full five stars in our review, but can its sequel live up to that level of adulation? You betcha.
'I voted for Kodos'
As with 2012's XCOM, this sequel puts you in charge of a secretive organisation fighting against an alien menace, but this time the tables are turned.
Rather than being funded by the world’s governments, you’re now a rag-tag resistance group struggling to wrest the planet back piece by piece from an alien-infiltrated government. The premise here is that you failed to stop the invasion in the first game, and now 20 years on the aliens are running Earth in the guise of benevolent protectors.
But, of course, they’re not actually benevolent at all; they’re actually engaged in some nefarious, mystery-shrouded scheme known as the Avatar Project. The specific details of Avatar are revealed over the course of the campaign but suffice to say, should it reach its intended goals, it’s curtains for humanity as we know it. So you need to take the fight to the aliens, disrupt their scheming and unite pockets of resistance around the globe.
With enough combat nous, you'll enable humanity to rise up and kick this extraterrestrial menace off the planet once and for all.
In true XCOM fashion, this struggle plays out in two distinct fashions.
First, there’s an overarching strategic layer in which you build and maintain a base (this time a giant repurposed alien battleship), recruit and train soldiers and other staff, research technologies and build better equipment. Because your base is now mobile, you can move it around the world map to perform time-based scanning missions that net you much-needed resources and staff, as well as make contact with resistance cells.
These cells are the key to winning the war, as you can only attack enemy bases in a part of the map with which you’ve already made contact. Firaxis has made this part of the game much more involved now, and you’re constantly presented with decisions that have a huge bearing on the war and how it plays out. For instance, you’re regularly forced to choose between several missions, each of which will stop a Dark Event (essentially a boost to the aliens’ strength).
You won’t be able to undertake all of them, so you need to carefully pick which option is the best – or more frequently, the least terrible. In this game you’re constantly made to feel like you’re on the back foot.
The difficulty of XCOM games has always been one of the series’ hallmarks, and it’s been ramped up to a deviously challenging level here. In previous games, there was always a “tipping point” where you felt the strategic balance turn in your favour, giving you breathing room to build up before embarking on the tougher missions.
If such a point exists in XCOM 2, I haven’t found it – this time, you’re always feeling stretched and hounded by an implacable foe on the strategic level.
The game’s other layer is its turn-based mission mode, in which you control a squad of troops on a 3D map, completing objectives and fighting alien units. Likely to be viewed by most as the true meat of the game, this is incredibly involved, and will push your tactical thinking to its limits – not to mention your composure.
Over the past few days, I suspect my neighbours have heard plenty of x-rated language as my troops missed easy shots, failed to reach an evac point by a single tile before the mission’s timer runs out, or perished in any other number of ways.
So yes, XCOM 2 is very, very hard. I’ve been playing it on the second-lowest difficulty mode, and I’m finding it incredibly tough and unforgiving. Even seasoned XCOM players may want to start out on the easiest mode at first, at least until they’re familiar with the new game’s differences – all of which are for the better, I might add.
For instance, during most missions your squad will start in concealment, meaning you can sneak into great tactical positions before triggering an ambush. This mode comes with its own set of risks – move into an unseen area and you may well stumble into a group of aliens – but gives you a new way to approach the game.
Likewise the new hacking feature, which lets you (again, at risk of severely worsening your position) take over enemy turrets and mechs, or gain intel to use in the strategy part of the game.
Tough as (intergalatic) nails
Mission maps are also procedurally generated now, which means you’ll never get to “learn” them as you did with XCOM’s limited roster of levels. This increases difficulty, but also keeps the game fresh and varied. I can definitely see myself playing through the campaign multiple times thanks to this variety. If I ever manage to complete it, that is.
The difficulty is high, but I don’t feel like it’s unfair. As with other challenging games (Bloodborne springs to mind), everything you need to succeed is laid out for you – you just need to learn how everything works, as well as a little bit of luck now and then.
And when you do succeed, it will have been because you’ve learned from your mistakes – and every one of those expletive-spattered massacres you went through will have meant something.
XCOM 2 has a similar multiplayer mode to its predecessor, in which you and a friend can face-off head-to-head in tactical turn-based battles. I haven’t had time to play it properly yet, concentrating as I have on the (likely to be far more popular) single-player campaign, but from what I’ve seen it looks like a solid bonus feature.
Some six-and-a-bit months after the PC and Mac release, XCOM 2 finally arrived on PS4 and Xbox One – and by and large, it’s a solid console port. Given how smoothly Firaxis’ first XCOM game made the same transition, that doesn't surprise me, but there were still areas where the conversion could have slipped up; in the many hours I’ve played it this week, I haven’t come across any.
The PC version’s mouse controls give way to a gamepad-driven setup here, which makes selecting some options and navigating your base-ship take a little longer, but this isn’t a game where your reflexes are required – so it doesn’t matter.
None of the gameplay features have been cut, so console owners aren’t getting the short end of the stick in that respect. You can buy the three official bits of DLC (two are mission-based, and highly recommended; the other adds more customisation options for your troops) from launch.
However, XCOM 2 on the PC has a huge modding community, with everything from minor cosmetic tweaks to huge conversions available. Console gamers can’t get hold of any of that, and despite Fallout 4’s experiments with limited mods on Xbox One, Firaxis have no plans to enable any user-made mods to the console. The base game is fantastic, of course – so again, not a huge deal; if you’re obsessed with mods, you’d own a PC anyway, right?
Performance-wise, the PS4 version I played doesn’t perform as well as the PC version I played seven months or so ago: the frame rate dips quite low at times, loading times are lengthy and there’s the occasionally stutter when a new pod of aliens shows up. But there’s nothing here that’s going to spoil your fun; as I said above, this isn’t a game based on lightning reflexes, so who cares if you get 24fps for a couple of seconds?
I did encounter one major bug, however, which will hopefully be addressed in a quick patch: on missions where I had to destroy an alien transmitter, I wasn’t able to target it with my troops’ primary weapons until I’d already damaged it with explosives. That’s potentially game-breaking if you get to that part of the mission with no explosives left – so fix it fast, Firaxis.
If you’re a console gamer who fancies playing one of the year’s best strategy games, buy XCOM 2. It’s better on PC, but this port maintains its greatness more than adequately.
XCOM 2 Verdict
Taking the strong foundation of the first game and adding a more involved story, greater variety of missions and maps, XCOM 2 is a refinement and a distillation of everything that people love about the series.
If you’re up for a supreme challenge that rewards risks and learning from your mistakes, I can’t think of a better title to sink your teeth into.