PC gamers strike back with XCOM 2
For twenty years Earth has been ruled by its alien masters, known as The Elders. The will of the brave men and women of the Council of Nations Extra-terrestrial Combat Unit (also known as XCOM) where unable to defend against the alien invaders. Whilst the battle may have been lost, the fight isn't over.
XCOM 2 is the follow up to 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown, itself a reboot of 1994's UFO: Enemy Unknown- a game that went on to spawn countless sequels with the XCOM (or X-COM) moniker. In strategy circles, the XCOM series is royalty.
It's only fitting that Sid Meir's Firaxis Games, the brains behind the king of turn-based strategy- Civilisation, should be the developers taking the classic franchise forward.
The game starts with a squad infiltrating an alien installation to rescue the commander, XCOM's leader. He has been imprisoned in suspended animation since XCOM fell two decades before. With their leader back, Earth's resistance may just stand a chance.
The player, resuming their role as the commander is now leading a resistance movement fighting a guerrilla war against the occupying aliens and their sympathisers. This new approach immediately puts you on the back foot as you are outnumbered, outgunned and under-equipped.
And that's the main difference between XCOM 2 and the last game. Whereas before, squads were set to dispatch invading forces, the aliens are now bedded in and it is the human soldiers that are on the offensive.
Like its predecessors XCOM 2 is a real-time strategy game. The player is in control of a squad of soldiers in a hostile alien-controlled environment. Each soldier can be moved a finite distance per move and carry out a defensive or offensive action- fire weapon, overwatch, hunker down etc. This makes the game closer to chess than Call of Duty. It's a game that requires patience, a level head and a lot of time.
This sort of turn-based gameplay isn't for everyone. The developers, Firaxis, are masters of the strategy genre, thus run and gun tactics are not going to work. There's little luck to be had in XCOM 2.
Multiple mission failures had me analysing each move like a grandmaster in a chess tournament. It had been a few years since I played Enemy Unknown, but let me tell you, it was touch and go even during the tutorial mission.
XCOM 2 is one of the most uncompromisingly punishing games this side of Dark Souls. Even on the rookie setting casual players are going to find the enemy unrelenting and utterly merciless. Games can easily become wars of attrition that lead to a long, drawn-out, but inevitable failure.
The game's crisp visuals look nice, but lack the grit. Almost cartoony, the graphics are an abrupt contrast to a game that is, if anything, a little too serious. By focusing on detail rather than photo-real visuals, players can easily identify their troops, all of which are unique and customisable.
The most heart-wrenching part of the game is watching your soldiers getting killed. Seeing the lifeless body of a soldier that you named, kitted out and watched as they were promoted after countless successful missions, really gives you a feeling of loss.
As well as the battles, a lot of time is spent on the global campaign map and in the XCOM HQ researching and building up your attack capabilities.
This time instead of an underground base, XCOM's HQ is aboard a huge alien aircraft (that looks a bit like Shield's Helicarrier from the Marvel movies). This mobile base of operations can travel across the campaign map scanning for supplies and intel as well as making contact with other resistance cells. It is from this map that missions are selected.
The XCOM HQ is already kitted out with a number of useful departments for research and engineering. Clearing damaged sections of the craft and constructing new facilities proves your squad and your chances of survival.
At this macro command level everything takes a certain amount of days, putting the gameplay against the clock. Decisions have to be made to counter the alien offensives before they overrun the resistance. This extra bit of stress will likely appeal to the hardcore, but I, personally, would have liked to have been able to proceed as a slower, more considered pace.
Gameplay whilst in the command mode is continuously interrupted by emergency missions and requests, some optional, but most very important. No two missions are the same and pit players against a variety of different alien types.
Don't be disheartened if your first foray into the gameplay ends in disaster. You will make mistakes as you learn the game mechanics, some of which you will never recover from. But as you plat to will start to see what you did wrong and how you can do better next time. The game's difficulty makes success that much more rewarding.
The game doesn't, of course stop at the single-player campaign. Diehard commanders can take to the internet and take each other on in epic multiplayer contests. I really suggest that you don't jump straight in until you are intimately familiar with the game, unless you are a masochist.
There is no doubt in my mind that XCOM 2 is a finely tuned masterpiece of a game. But it is a game that has been developed with the hardcore fans in mind, likely the reason for the absence of console versions this time.
In fairness, I can't see many people that are not already familiar with the franchise investing in XCOM 2. Perhaps Firaxis have done the right thing by catering almost exclusively for their primary audience. New players are going to struggle with it, but, if they have the time to invest in the game, they will conquer the steep learning curve and reap the rewards.
If you are reading this because you liked the last game and are looking forward to this one, then you have absolutely nothing to worry about. This is the XCOM game that you want it to be. If you are a fan of action games and have the attention span of the goldfish, move along- you are going to hate it.
XCOM 2 is great looking game, which an almost unparalleled depth of gameplay. But it is, most definitely, one for the fans above everyone else.