XCOM 2 finally comes to consoles
When 2K made the decision, last year, to release XCOM 2 exclusively for PC, I thought it was a bold move. Whilst I understood the series' PC heritage, the 2013 series reboot, XCOM: Enemy Unknown did very well on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Console owning fans of the series can now continue their careers as the XCOM Commander, but this time under a very different set of circumstances. 20 years have passed since the Earth fell to the alien invasion. Far from being Earths defence force, the once great XCOM is now no more than a rag-tag guerrilla outfit carrying out resistance missions in order to lessen the grip of humanity's alien masters.
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.
With the Earth now under alien occupation, the plot of XCOM 2 feels a lot darker and more chilling than the previous instalment.
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.
New for XCOM 2 is the squad's concealment mode. Engaged automatically at the start of each encounter concealment reflects the XCOM team's guerrilla-style offensive. With concealment active, squads can scope out the map, keeping out of sight. Get too close to the enemy or fire on them and you will immediately be spotted. Once detected, the enemy will then close in launch their own attacks on your squad.
Using a controller for the Xbox One version wasn't really a problem, but it is a bit imprecise compared to the mouse and keyboard controls in the PC version. Nothing has been dumbed down for the console controller, but the game does make full use of all the buttons.
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.
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.
I was thankful that I still had my experience with the PC version fresh in my mind, so I avoided a lot of the learning curve that I found myself enduring last years. I still got caught out when my lack of patience got the better of me.
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.
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 play you 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.
As well as the battles out in the world, 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 improves 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.
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.
The game's visuals have translated well to the console, but they were never really demanding on the PC. The cartoony graphics are an abrupt contrast to the gameplay which is, if anything, a little too serious.
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. 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.
On console, XCOM 2 delivers an identical experience to the PC version, albeit a year late. It would have been nice if this console version was the game of the year edition with all the DLC content included. As it stands this delayed release is a bit of a double-dip.
Even after a long delay for the console release, XCOM 2 is still a great-looking game, with an almost unparalleled depth of gameplay. Strategy games are few a far between on console, making this pretty-much a must-buy game for fans.