March 19, 2017

XCOM2: Review

5 minute read


Over the holidays I picked up the iPad version of XCOM: Enemy Within, the previous iteration in the XCOM franchise. For those unfamiliar with XCOM, it’s a brilliant (but extremely challenging) series of turn-based tiled-map strategy games. Although I ended up wiping close to 23 of the way through my play through, I found Enemy Within compelling enough to try out XCOM 2, with some encouragement from friends and family. After having just beaten the game, here are my thoughts.

XCOM2 screenshot from Polygon of psi operative vs Gatekeeper

Story

For those unfamiliar with the XCOM series, the story in a nutshell is, “A motley assortment of aliens have invaded/occupied Earth using superior weapons, armor, technology, and telekinetic powers, and over the course of a calendar year you fight back, turn their advantages into your advantages, and repel the alien menace.” That being said, the story begun in previous games gets deliciously continued in this part of the franchise. Without spoiling anything, the story here is compelling through the first play through. (Once a full play through is accomplished, the replay value evolves to be more about the tactics and strategy and never messing up, rather than the story.)

Learning Curve

Even though the tutorial is fairly helpful in ramping up from zero-experience (in either this game or any XCOM title), it is only meant to get you from square zero to square one. And it turns out that a large part of the XCOM franchise is discovering the good, the bad, and the ugly weapons, armor, enemies, and powers that can be faced. For example (and this really isn’t spoiling much, but you’ve been warned), in the very second mission, you encounter enemies you can mind control and resurrect the dead. I have to admit that I actually lost the game multiple times with less than five hours of play through each, simply because the telekinetic enemies require such unusual tactics to play around (and thankfully are a twist over previous iterations in that they appear so early).

XCOM 2 is very good about keeping the learning curve just steep enough to be interesting, without ever introducing too much at once. The overworld exploration, base building, and territory expansion occur slowly enough to not overwhelm all at once. And the progression of combat missions increases at just the right clip. Just as you get the hang of the tactics that work against a certain type of enemy, a new type will be swapped out in its place. As you unlock new weapons and armor over the course of the game, enemies will, too (although not specifically at the same time). And the number of enemies who can appear on maps increase as your team expands.

XCOM’s difficulty is such that “save scumming” is a common practice among beginners (like myself): the practice of reloading a recent save file when an encounter heads south to play around an expected loss. In all, I’d say I save scummed about ten times through my playthrough due to bad engagements, and another thirty times or so due to honest-to-goodness misclicks. (Shooting the wrong enemy, running the wrong way by nudging the mouse before clicking, choosing the wrong ability because all the gunslinger abilities look similar, etc.)

I think that having played a bit of Enemy Within helped me anticipate the importance of long-term strategic goals more. I can easily imagine having lost twenty hours through simply as a result of not playing the metagame properly. I’d say it should be possible to beat the game in a single playthrough despite being new to the franchise if leaning heavily on save files, but I wouldn’t expect a newbie to play the strategy metagame properly all the way through.

Gameplay Options

XCOM2 offers quite a few options for custom gameplay and playthroughs, due to multiple levels of strategy and tactics.

In terms of class progression, each of the classes has its own options and can be mixed and matched. Rangers can be specialized as ghost-scouts, who can scout out ahead and ambush enemies/prevent bad pulls (my main use for them), or as samurai, who run in and chop things up (this worked out really badly for me in my first failed playthrough). Sharpshooters can be trained as snipers or as pistol-wielding gunslingers. Grenadiers can specialize in either throwing bombs or in heavy cannon fire. And Specialists (supports, essentially) can be trained as either offensive hackers or defensive healers. (There’s a hidden game class unlocked later in the game which is quite powerful, but doesn’t replace the basic classes. The hidden class dramatically simplifies most missions however, and should be prioritized around midgame due to how strong it is.)

Research and development is always an interesting question in XCOM. Although by endgame it should be possible to unlock every weapon, armor, and power up, the early and mid game are significantly altered depending on the choice of items and buildings researched. More powerful guns can help bring down stronger enemies, but stronger armor can help important soldiers survive critical hits. Unlocking the hospital can ensure wounded soldiers can recover before crucial surprise-missions, but unlocking the training school can unlock larger squad sizes for harder missions. Money spent on buying a new weapon can’t be spent on a new building. And deciding between optional missions and unlocking new territories is a balance that always needs to be walked carefully. (It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say that you should unlock new territories early and often to maximize mid and late game cash flow.)

XCOM always provides a huge number of combinations of ways to build out the base, research game missions, skill out soldiers, and play out combat encounters. Things are kept interesting by the enemy progression curve, and the fact that most missions have implicit or explicit timers, requiring an aggressive play style that keeps things interesting. (Spoilers: most of the shorter missions are harder to use snipers on.)

Final Impressions

I’d say that XCOM2 is a great buy for anyone who’s fond of strategy games. The myriad playstyle options and replay value on harder levels really makes it a great experience on the first play through and any subsequent ones.

© Jeff Rabinowitz, 2019