Let’s face it: this world is full of addictions. Sex, drugs, girl scout cookies: they’re all over the place. We’ve all got our poisons, and the XCOM franchise is one of mine. With its heavy customization and blend of city-building strategy and turn-based combat, it combines a huge number of the things that have charmed me over to the world of video games since my youth. The reboot of the original classic was released in 2012 to pretty universal praise, and the knowledge that a sequel would coming our way this year was enough to make fans like me shit an emotional brick of elerium and alien alloys. What are this sequel’s pros and cons? Well, it turns out that there’s plenty of both to go around.
XCOM 2 takes place 20 years after the original XCOM. In this version of events, earth has lost the fight against the alien encroachers, who have taken over the planet and installed a quasi-fascist dictatorship lead by… Geddy Lee of Rush? In any case, not only were your battles in the first XCOM were for naught, it’s implied that the XCOM project barely got off the ground—that you were trounced in a mere matter of months—or less. But now it’s time to settle the score. You, as the commander, are rescued from the clutches of the alien collective, and brought to the task of raising a secret army of freedom fighters, who will take the planet back, piece by piece.
And that right there is one of my favorite things about XCOM 2. Instead of the tired idea of “the aliens are invading, fight back,” you’re given a more nuanced theme: one of guerillas and infiltration. Like Red Dawn with xenomorphs. It makes the struggle that much more urgent, and introduces my favorite new mechanical addition to the game: concealment. For many of the missions you send your team out on, you’ll begin the game concealed from enemy sight. This allows for limited recon work and the opportunity to get the jump on your enemies. And when you get the handle of it, damn is it satisfying. You can take down entire teams of alien forces in one turn with the proper combination of stealth and some well-placed overwatch shots. Unfortunately, when you’re out of concealment, you’re out for the rest of the mission, which can be frustrating, considering how spread out some squads of aliens are. And the fact that the difficulty in XCOM 2 is definitely amped up, you want to be as careful and deliberate as possible. Don’t take any chances with valuable soldiers, and don’t be afraid to haul ass out of there when things start to go south. Because when you’re discovered, it’s back to XCOM business as usual with run, cover, and shoot.
And that business as usual feels overwhelmingly familiar for those of us who played XCOM in 2012. For better and for worse. On one hand, many of the mechanics of XCOM didn’t need any work. The pacing, the building, the leveling of soldiers—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The style is familiar with enough tweaks to keep it from being boring, and some of the changes to the playstyle were intriguing enough that I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into them directly. The new soldier class of Ranger comes to mind, for example. There really is nothing in the world quite as satisfying as charging an enemy xeno and cutting it in half with a technologically modified blade. It’s a limited level of melee combat in a game that was entirely shooting based, but it’s fun and it opens up opportunities for expansion in the future.
On the other hand, there were plenty of broken aspects of the first XCOM that were in no way addressed in XCOM 2. There are technical issues a plenty. And while I didn’t experience any of the crashing issues that I’ve read other players have seen, there were lots of minor issues that clearly haven’t been addressed in 4 years of development. Soldiers still break already broken windows with their rifles—animations still place our point of view behind walls and other opaque surfaces. Aliens still take turns that drag on and on like honey in the freezer. And if I’m being honest, for the most part, those are superficial or at very least, minor infractions for such a full experience. Or at least I’d feel that way if these issues weren’t identical to ones that I saw in the first XCOM. XCOM 2 is definitely an updated and fleshed out sequel. But it isn’t rebuilt from the ground up. There was plenty of time to fix obnoxious bugs like those—bugs that most players experienced. So it’s puzzling as to why they were completely unaddressed in this sequel.
So XCOM 2 is sort of a “good news, bad news” situation. On one hand, if you loved the 2012 reboot, then you’ve got all that goodness with a whole slew of new features. New aliens, a looting and weapon upgrade system, a satisfying customization process for soldiers, and all kinds of new scientific research to take part in. Scientists and engineers are no longer faceless numbers. In fact, you assign engineers to specific tasks within in your command ship, delegating out duties based on what’s most important at the time. It’s a breath of fresh air applied to a franchise that was already damn solid to begin with.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a complete revamp with bold new ideas and the complete elimination of problem spots that XCOM 1 had, then you might be a tad underwhelmed. I think XCOM 2 is engaging, fun, and supremely challenging. But then again, I felt that way about the first XCOM. And while I love most of the changes that have been made, I still find myself surprised at how few of them there are. That said, developer Firaxis has made it perfectly clear just how much they support the modding community, so there are plenty of free new tools out on the horizon. Hell, some of them are here already. But we definitely don’t want to go down the route where AAA publishers are relying heavily on modders to do their jobs for them.
And for all my criticism, and I simply cannot deny that I love playing this game. And I think that if fans go into with an open mind and an excitement for what brought them to XCOM in the first place, they’re in for a great ride. Just don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel.