Video Game Review: XCOM2 leads the fight to take back the earth

John C. McCrone

 Graphic by Alice Maule.
Graphic by Alice Maule.

As you awake from stasis and have an alien device removed from your brain, the memories begin to flood back. You see Earth being conquered by a massive alien invasion. A horde of hideous aliens parading over ruined cities flashes across your eyes. When you think it’s finally over, the most horrid memory suddenly appears in your mind. It’s an image of one of your soldiers completely missing a shot that had a 98% chance to hit, which resulted in your best squad being wiped out. Welcome back to XCOM, Commander.

XCOM 2 is a turn-based strategy game developed by Firaxis studios and available for PC and Mac devices, distributed exclusively through Steam. Set 20 years after the events of the first game, Earth is now under control by ADVENT, a “coalition” of the alien leadership and Earth’s surrendered governments.  ADVENT rules the globe with a massive police force and propaganda campaign, with a weakened XCOM posing the only resistance.

ADVENT troops ready to "keep the peace." Screenshot by John McCrone.
ADVENT troops ready to “keep the peace.” Screenshot by John McCrone.

Visually, the game is astounding. Everything from soldiers to alien monstrosities, to the massively detailed environments, look beautiful at every angle. Cut scenes are paced perfectly, and flow with the gameplay. “Movie moments” are plentiful in XCOM 2, whether it’s the amazing cut scenes or the glorious action-cam in battle. The UI is clean and simple, and never once have I been confused about what a particular ability or item actually does.

My heavy showing off his huge gun! Screenshot by John McCrone.
My heavy showing off his huge gun! Screenshot by John McCrone.

Gameplay is split between managing the resistance from your mobile headquarters, appropriately named “The Avenger”, and commanding a four-man squad on various missions. XCOM is a game of choices, massively difficult choices that could change your entire game. Which piece of alien tech you choose to research, picking where to place your sniper on a mission, and even where you decide to park your ship could spell doom for the planet. XCOM’s choices are difficult, but not unfair. Whenever some plan backfired, or one of my soldiers set on fire, I didn’t feel like I got shafted. I almost always felt that it was my poor choices that resulted in sometimes horrible outcomes. It’s difficult to make player choices seem real and fair. XCOM 2 does this fantastically, making every choice feel important.

As you fly around the world on the Avenger, random events will frequently pop-up. You’re almost always given two missions to choose from, each of which have their own rewards. For instance, I had to choose between saving a rebel stronghold or attacking an ADVENT convoy. The rescue offered supplies while the raid would award me with supplies, intelligence, and a new scientist. Sorry civvies, maybe offer a little more next time.

The map is easy to ready and prominently displays all pertinent information. Siberian black market, here I come. Screenshot by John McCrone.
The map is easy to ready and prominently displays all pertinent information. Siberian black market, here I come. Screenshot by John McCrone.

The mission naming convention in XCOM is amazing. I’ve gotten Operations: Defiant Death, Stone God, Bleeding Doom, Demon Face, and, my favorite, Operation Half-Eaten Dreams. Missions consist of sending a squad of four to six soldiers out into the field to complete various objectives. A soldier can be one of five classes: the Ranger, Specialist, Grenadier, Sharpshooter, or Psi Operative. The Ranger serves as your frontline assault and scout unit, wielding a shotgun and sword. Specialists make use of a flying drone called a GREMLIN than can hack enemy robotics. A Grenadier’s arsenal includes a mini-gun and grenade launcher, he’s the heavy. The Sharpshooter is the sniper. ‘Nuff said. Finally, the Psi Operative employs psychic abilities to buff friends and damage enemies.

My main squad, who I felt a strong connection with, lookin' straight fire 'bout to get some aliens. Screenshot by John McCrone.
My main squad, who I felt a strong connection with, lookin’ straight fire ’bout to get some aliens. Screenshot by John McCrone.

XCOM 2 isn’t without its share of problems. While timed missions were present in the first XCOM, they are plentiful in XCOM 2. There have been numerous times where I felt forced to sacrifice a mission objective so that I could beat the timer. You could say the prevalence of timed missions is because you’re now a guerrilla force, and can’t stay out in the field too long. While that’s true, the timer shows up enough and is short enough, to be more of a nuisance than a feature. Also, both soldiers and enemies seem to take large pauses in between actions. For instance, after moving to a new piece of cover about three seconds of nothing just sort of happen. While not game breaking, this can get annoying, especially if you’re in a high tension moment.  Despite these problems, the overall package fits together very well and offers a great experience.

XCOM 2 is, at its core, nerve-racking choices, brutally difficult, and insanely rewarding. In all my experience gaming, I’ve never felt more satisfied than when my XCOM squad perfectly executes one of my plans. You genuinely feel happy when one soldier receives a promotion, and feel the devastation when you lose another. Where other alien games just tell you humanity is doomed, while you plow through hundreds of alien soldiers, XCOM shows you. The brutality of the ADVENT regime is shown through news segments, captured video, and during missions. You really get the sense that Earth is in trouble, and that you’re the only one that can save it. XCOM 2 is a marvelous game and in my opinion, should be regarded as one of the best turn-based strategy games in video game history.

 

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