X-Com: UFO Defence was the progenitor to a game genre. For the longest time, game developers didn’t even try, for some reason assuming gamers wanted twitch strategy games and quick-time events. It took Firaxis, a developer long known for its strategy games, to even try – and thank God they did. XCOM Enemy Unknown single-handedly resurrected the hardcore turn-based tactical genre in the West, and there’s been an explosion of similar (and great) games ever since. Games like Massive Chalice, Invisible Inc and many others owe part of their existence to XCOM. I LOVED both X-COM and the newer XCOM. So it is not hyperbole when I say that XCOM 2 has some incredibly huge shoes to fill.
I touched on why XCOM 2 might fill those shoes in my preview, and after more hours with the full game, it’s clear – it definitely fills the proverbial footwear.
A lot of this is because Firaxis has opened the story and development space. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was billed as a reboot to the classic X-COM: Ufo Defence (from now on we’ll call the classic X-COM and the newer remake XCOM). Because of that, Firaxis hewed pretty closely to the structure of that game. While both game and art designs were modernised, everything was easily recognisable: The same enemies, same armour, same tech. Even then, fans of the original decried the sacrilegious changes to X-COM: Classes with ability trees, a laser focused reduction of squads size and action points, the inability to go on multiple missions.
Fast forward 4 years: XCOM has been vindicated. With this vindication comes the freedom to let Firaxis tell their own story, not just rehash the worlds of X-COM. And so we come to the cold, hard truth. At the start of XCOM 2, we lost – and it makes a certain sort of bleak sense. Haven’t we all reloaded at one place or another, honing our skills against the aliens? Well, in this universe, we never had the luxury of the load button. It’s the ultimate Ironman, and we lost. XCOM as a world-wide authority has been destroyed, and the aliens have instituted the ADVENT, a benevolent dictatorship which most of humanity live under. The remnants of XCOM is now in the shadows, and the resistance (ADVENT would say insurgents, or terrorists) is doing all that they can to expose the truth.
This is a GOOD thing, though. Yes, the underlying skeleton of XCOM 2 is still the turn-based tactical, real-time strategy of XCOM, but by writing their own story (I can’t talk about it, but I was a lot more invested in XCOM 2’s story compared to XCOM) Firaxis has the freedom to create original gameplay as well as story, and the game is better for it.
For example, concealment. Most games now start your team with concealment, which essentially translates to your team of insurgents having a larger sight range than your enemies. This allows you to sneak around enemies Metal Gear Solid style, or preferably to destroy a group of enemies with a profoundly deadly ambush. This is balanced with a turn timer around most missions, which usually forces you away from the slow but safe strategy in XCOM. The swing in momentum is amazing. While you are generally able to get the drop on the enemy, the countdown timer does pressure you into making sub-optimal choices, and sub-optimal choice is where XCOM 2 truly shines.
And trust me, you will make sub-optimal choices. Concealment seems like such a huge tactical advantage, but the aliens will constantly be surprising you, especially in the first playthrough. The game is so unforgiving that when I was writing my review, I started off with semi-Ironman on normal, but soon degenerated into save scumming when some missions really seemed too painful to survive (you’re all much better players than I so I’m sure you won’t succumb). For example the time where my key sniper died because an ADVENT trooper blew the floor out from under me. (Yes, floors and ceilings are now destructable, there is falling damage, and there is targetable explosive scenery. It is amazing.)
The strategy layer also got an overhaul. Previously, the only useful button on the geoscape was the ‘fast forward’ button, and once satellites were up the ‘Doomsday track’ in XCOM rarely tracked anything. In contrast, now the aliens advance on multiple fronts at once. The Avatar project (XCOM 2’s doomsday clock), Retaliation strikes (terror missions) and Dark Events (debuffs) all advance at the same time, and you are often forced with letting the Avatar project advance just so you can deal with certain other … pressing issues. It’s okay though; you can attack alien bases and set back the Avatar project, assuming your resistance network has access to it (and they always seem to be just outside your resistance range). Even the Dark Events are great. Yes you can only go on one mission, but at least there’s a story reason behind that now; you’re no longer an organisation but a lone helicarrier (I’m waiting for an Agents of SHIELD mod).
While I’m still not a fan of the ‘ant farm’ look of the building phase, the management system has also improved, largely moving away from the location-based bonuses of XCOM. Instead, facilites can be staffed by engineers for a (pretty significant) boost, which turns into a little micro-managing game. Do I assign my engineers to reduce my injury time, or do I get them to help with construction? By the way, engineers are worth their weight in gold. Get them whenever you have the chance. Also, I like being able to look at the scenery outside my helicarrier.
The tweak on the character classes are also great. While we still have four classes, the sub-classes within each are much more distinct. For example, the ranger (XCOM 2’s assault) can spec into Covert-Ops Spotter or crazy-ass melee Blademaster. Similarly, the specialist (new Support) has a combat hacker as well combat medic tree. While there might be some classes with an arguable ‘best’ build, the game is so wide ranging that all builds are to a certain extent valid. Psychics have also been overhauled. Rather than a ‘prestige class’ like in XCOM, psy-ops in XCOM 2 are a fifth unlockable class that progress not via kills and XP, but by time spent training in the psy-room. This is both a pro and a con, tactically. On one hand, given enough time you can generate a very powerful soldier with almost no risk. On the other, any kill made by the psychic is potential XP lost, and if the psychic dies, the loss is much more painful than that of a normal trooper.
The three biggest and best improvements are actually made out of a series of wonderful little changes: Replayability, procedural generation and customisation. As great as the maps were, the lack of procedurally generated maps were a huge annoyance in XCOM. Once I had played it once, I had seen most of the maps, which lent a bit of deja vu to all subsequent games. Now however, all maps are procedurally generated, which means no map looks the same. In addition, there is such a wide range of missions that a city center map with a ‘defend the point’ objective is wildly different from a city center map with ‘extract the VIP’, and warrants different squad loadouts. I have sunk 80 hours into XCOM 2 so far, and I have never felt any sort of ‘hey I’ve played this before’ in any mission. Even the alien base missions (almost identical in XCOM) have felt pretty different.
Yes there is customisation where you’d expect – there’s a wide range of hats, hairstyles, and props. You can even attach permanent mods to your troops or even their weapons (Death is a Sniper rifle that is passed to any Sniper on mission). But there is also randomisation and customisation in all the most amazing, unexpected little places. The way your characters wait in the opening game menu. The way they behave when they are injured, or after a successful or unsuccessful mission op. One of the most exciting things I learnt about was the character pool – a pool of characters that you can save (and that you can transfer to others) that the game draws from when it needs to provide soldiers, or even VIPs/Dark VIPs. That means that you can create your characters once, and they will show up in any future games you play (you can even save and load individual character pool lists, so that one game you’re playing with Agent of SHIELD characters, and another game DC heroes and villains).
Not only that, XCOM 2 has a base facility that decreases injury time. More importantly, it has the added bonus of providing a very small chance of an ADDITIONAL ability whenever any character levels up. Which means that some times you have very cool stories come out of nowhere, like my Ranger Melinda ‘Cavalry’ May saving the butt of her team and getting rewarded with the GRENADIER ability of having increased grenade AOE and damage. Even the continent bonuses are randomised, which means the strategy layer isn’t static either.
Of course, XCOM 2 isn’t perfect. There are still things that could improve. I have run into some UI and graphics bugs. I’ve had to reload some saves mid-game when my mission froze between turns. Random experimental armour/grenade generation (why did I get crit ammo, I wanted Dragon rounds!) … Probably the biggest gripe is that research is still largely linear (the only decision is what to prioritise at the start – armor, weapons, communication or psi, or when to pause your research in the middle, there are story reasons for that), but these are all nitpicks. XCOM 2 is everything that I could’ve dreamt of.
Again, Xcom 2 is not for everyone. It is hard, and unapologetic for it. It is not for someone without patience. It is for people who play roguelikes, and derive a certain amount of masochistic pleasure from dwarf fortress. It is XCOM, but more.
I don’t want to oversell it, and I don’t think I can. For anyone who loved XCOM, and honestly for anyone who even enjoys turn-based tactical games, this is a no-brainer. Between the awesomeness of the game, the awesomeness of the mod support and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) the awesomeness of the story, I can’t (at present moment) think of any game that will wrench the title of ‘personal favourite game of 2016’ from XCOM 2. It is my Force Awakens, and my Mad Max: Fury Road.
Also to any fans out there? You need to play it. If only for the ending.
XCOM2 comes out Feb 5 at S$79.90.