Road To Review: XCOM 2

I fought the law, and the law won...

To say that I’ve been looking forward to XCOM 2 for a while now is a massive understatement. Firaxis’ reboot of the classic XCOM franchise was a fantastic romp, but not without its issues. As we head towards our own review – albeit not being ready just yet – XCOM 2 is certainly living up to expectations for a sequel.

You were the hunted in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the Enemy Within expansion, as you fiercely tried to defend yourselves from the alien threat, but in XCOM 2, you’re the hunters. Firaxis went against the grain in deciding that humanity lost to the aliens in the canonical story, with the aliens painting themselves as benevolent partners to humanity, instead of ruthless and exploitative dictators. All too often do we get to defend Earth in videogames, but we’ve not really had many opportunities to do so as insurgents. It’s a deeply refreshing concept and I’m excited to see where it goes.

Because of this, the way battles start is a massive departure, focusing on guerrilla tactics and stealth to get the jump on the aliens. This encourages you to position your squad in an ambush, using Overwatch effectively, before triggering enemies with a well-aimed shot on the unsuspecting foes. Other than this, the classes in the early game have a surprising amount of variety, complete with unique abilities.

Enemies begin with the rather humanoid Advent troopers, but quickly escalate to more monstrous designs, with enemies like the Faceless, which hide amongst the passerbys, bursting from them in their hulking form to swipe at you with their claws. Enemies in the original XCOM now have also been heavily redesigned, such as the Viper – a Naga-like foe that constricts and spits poison. Each new foe is a thrilling challenge to overcome.

Base customisation this time around feels more basic, with a finite amount of areas to expand into. It feels remarkably similar to how the base functioned in the first game, with the same ant farm-like presentation, and juggling your resources for Researching and Engineering, where picking certain options in the early game is key to the quick expansion of your base. However, instead of being built underground, it’s a ship which can take off and move between countries and continents.

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This is where things get more interesting, with the Geoscape world map. Instead of the rather clumsy system where nations dropped out of the XCOM project, you’re shifting around the globe, attempting to contact resistance cells in the various regions, gather Intel, and stop the aliens from attacking your fellow resistance members.

Things get really interesting when it comes to the Dark Events – the alien’s way of making the game harder. You’re given the choice of which Dark Event mission to take, meaning you need to decide which Dark Event is going to have the least damaging effect. It adds to the tension somewhat, but nowhere near as much as the Avatar Project, which is XCOM 2’s way of establishing a failure state.

One thing I’m incredibly excited by is having Steam Workshop support from day one. Mods for XCOM: Enemy Unknown have kept that game alive well beyond the expansion’s release date, with The Long War being perhaps the most well-known of the bunch. While the customisation is rather extensive as it is with the included character creation tool and individual customisation for units, having mods can unlock a huge amount of potential, and it’s for this reason that Firaxis decided to eschew a console release.

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While I’m really digging XCOM 2, there are a couple of blemishes. The game is a lot more taxing graphically, but wants to be more heavily optimised particularly when it comes to anti-aliasing options. Using the 2x MSAA setting, the frame-rate tanks horribly and stutters at time, and while turning AA off completely fixes the performance to a degree, it’s hardly an ideal solution. I’ve also experienced a number of crashes during cutscenes and the Action Cam, which adds a lot of dynamism to the turn-based strategy, even running with lowered settings.

This is probably due to the amount of detail found within the game itself. Despite being a tactical RPG, XCOM 2 has some really nice textures and designs. Environments feel appropriately dystopian, while the enemies have striking designs. The runt-like Sectoids from XCOM: Enemy Unknown are more intimidating this time around, while more unique foes like the Faceless feel dangerous to encounter.

Another complaint that both myself and Tef have had is that enemies can sometimes detect you at the corners of cover and when moving from cover to cover on rooftops that overlook them. It feels unclear at times and breaks immersion when you’re attacked from behind a wall with an implausible line of sight. The latter was definitely an issue in the previous XCOM game, though in my personal experience, the effect was minimal.

However, even with these complaints, the game leaves a good first impression and noticeably improves upon the first game. It could do with some optimisation, which will hopefully come with a day one patch today or soon after launch, but as we head towards our full review, it’s looking like a particularly good follow-up.

5 Comments

  1. Nice write up Dave. I’ve been eagerly waiting XCOM 2 as well and after waking this morning to hear people with even rigs well well above the recommend spec and it still crashing/dropping below 20 fps is a little disheartening.

    Hopefully with some of the graphics options turned off it can hit a solid FPS, look forward to trying it later.

  2. I’ll be looking forward to the day they port this to ps4 or vita but I don’t do pc gaming so sadly until that day arrives I’m out. Loved the last one on ps3 though.

  3. Damnit, don’t Firaxis realise I need to eat and pay the mortgage? And occasionally get some sleep?

    *sigh*

    I suppose as long as I have electricity…..

  4. I disagree that it’s an RPG. Sure, it has ranks and customisation but it doesn’t really qualify as an RPG. Strategy game, yes. RPG? No.

    I am saddened by the fact that it’s not coming to consoles but i think, Fireaxis may be going down the route of perfecting it on PC, porting it over to consoles in a few years time or just don’t have the cash to spend on studying the PS4 and X1’s hardware thus having to modify X2 for it.

    This is a must buy for me when i get me hands on a gaming rig. My lenovo probably would reveal itself to be a cyperdisc if i dared to play it.

    What? My laptops tend to be possessed by evil things! The other day, it forcefeed me stale biscuits! THEY WERE SO STALE! STAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLEEEEEEEEEEEE! *cries*

  5. OK I’ll play, I like a good genre and game design debate.

    First though, the console point: Firaxis themselves have gone on record to explain that the decision to release PC/Mac only (after going multi-format for Enemy Unknown) was due to their experience of developing for PC based systems. Reading between the lines here, Firaxis are best known for the Civilization series, which while there have been console and handheld versions, the PC/Mac games have always seemed to have more substance to them. Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed Civ:Revolution on the DS, was a great way to waste time on trains (or at work [sorry boss]), but it never had the meat of a full numbered Civ game. On the DS/PSP/Vita/mobile you can kind of understand this, due to limited processing power, but X360/One/PS3/PS4 should in theory be able to handle at least the processing requirements behind such a full fledged game. I think the issue comes in the control of the game more than anything. I played Enemy Unknown on PS3 for a lot of my time with it, until I picked up the PC version in a Steam sale, and notably found myself longing for a mouse/keyboard to play it with. I’m no PC master race elitist, but there are some genres that simply work better with a different type of control!

    So in the case of Firaxis’s decision to make this computer only, I would actually applaud the braveness of the decision to ADMIT that they are quite specialised in the system type. We may find down the line that a version comes out on consoles, and I hope it does so those without the computer system to play it can experience this game, but I would think based on experience of Firaxis’ other console games that we’ll see a dumbed down control set, and perhaps lose some of the experience. The true test will be the mobile version, which you’d think this type of game would translate to ‘touch’ quite happily.

    So, taking the literal meaning (ROLE playing game) away, I think when it comes down to RPG’s you can break the game governing systems roughly in half, there’s the mechanical “stats” stuff running beneath your “avatar” and the personality decisions you can make for your avatar which effect the game. When talking about a tactical/strategy RPG you have to additionally factor in the RTS/TurnBased Strategy rules as well. Agreed?

    Now, with most ‘traditional’ strategy games, and here I will cite the Civilization series for turn based and the original Empire Earth for RTS, you do all your skills within the mapped ‘levels’, upgrading your units (the aforementioned ‘avatar’) as such perks become available. In XCOM 2, however, you are presented with a management system external to the ‘level/battleground’, which incorporates both your unit management and base-building in a separate, effectively ‘mini’ game.
    Take Final Fantasy Tactics (and their sequels) Disgaea or the fantastic Tactics Ogre (which I’m sure Dave will happily do a replay article on if someone asks him nicely enough): These are defined as tactical role-playing games (T-RPGs) and essentially use their own variant of much of the mechanics found in XCOM 2.

    Granted; these games are spin-offs of their older J-RPG brothers and sisters, particularly FF-T, but the core mechanic of the game is what’s in question here. In these games you play a role of one of the characters, and have a party ‘in battle’, but for a considerable portion of the games you play outside of the battleground and use a variant on what is effectively a party menu to tinker with your crew.

    In XCOM 2, you also spend a considerable time outside of the battleground; I myself in the 10 hours I’ve been able to sink into it so far, have spent 4 of those in the world map, various rooms of The Avenger, and more recently messing around in the black market.

    In my opinion, only the battle element of the game can be considered a strategy game, and this is one portion of the overall experience. The role-playing element comes when you, under the guise of the Commander, are taking on the management aspect, freely navigating your global environment and deciding what your path through the game will be. In a true strategy game these are intertwined with the battleground level, and outside of that map tend not to carry on with you as you progress through the game.

    That’s not to say that these elements are not also ‘strategic’, however it is simply the presentation of them that make XCOM 2 more like a tactical RPG than a traditional strategy game.

    Ultimately, what we call the genre doesn’t really matter, as long as we agree that it’s good, worth playing and certainly worth recommending to others, but the debate of what makes an RPG is an interesting one (to me anyway).

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