XCOM 2 Review: X-Calation

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I had one residing feeling coming into XCOM 2. Even though I adored the now classic XCOM: Enemy Unknown and hadn't played it since its 2012 release, I had trepidation because I knew the struggle the game had in wait, and if I'm honest, I'd 'been there'. I wasn't sure what else XCOM 2 could offer me that I didn't get from Enemy Unknown.

Well, after putting in 30 hours into XCOM 2, I can say proudly, I definitely wanted to play another XCOM game. Or, at least one as good as this.

The main question dogging the sequel was could XCOM 2 recapture the magic of the first game? If you want the simple answer, yes it does. And then some. But, allow me to run you through why.

If you've not played an XCOM game, the premise is pretty simple. It's standard alien vs. human fare, but with a conciseness and simplicity that it is genuinely quite refreshing. It pulls from pulpy 1950s and 1960s sci-fi, but with a sense of brevity grounding it into something really unique feeling. In Enemy Unknown, the alien forces were that, unknown, meeting the human race for the first time. This time, the tables have turned somewhat. Sort of, but not really, but they probably should have, retconning the ending of the first game, we have now decided to make peace with the aliens and accept them as our overlords, under the Advent regime. (Just go with it). You're now the offensive force in this entanglement, changing the dynamic on its head.

As was before, the meat of this entree is the tactics game on the ground. You take charge from a top down view, using a turn based system to move around your squad. And XCOM is the best of the best at this. The way you interplay your squad, and the tactical prowess you can show is just so satisfying. Most of the time, you will come into a game, 'concealed' meaning you have an element of stealth to your movements. You can set up your team to look at a squad of enemies, putting everyone in Overwatch, before taking a shot. The second the aliens go active, if everyone is on point, you can end up murdering quite a few of them before they've even set up. These moments are so gratifying, and are just one example of the things you can put into action to get the drop on your extraterrestrial overloads.

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One aspect of combat that really is quite interesting, and is more exaggerated than it was in Enemy Unknown, is the idea of escalation. You quickly get some really, really cool weapons, armour and abilities to get one over on your opponents. However, every time you get something good, Advent throw something better at you. Snake aliens, Crytids, Mutons, Robots. The enemy variety is huge, and arguably all of them are more powerful than they were in their previous incarnations in the reboot. It creates a careful balancing act where you feel powerful, but also on the verge of being outgunned, and it's really quite awesome to see just how Firaxis spin all those plates. It makes sure, even though you might be armed to the teeth, you won't be sure exactly what each encounter will throw at you next to put you on the back foot. The battle mechanics are really revamped and better, which is surprising considering how good it was in Enemy Unknown, which was stolen from and adapted by a ton of other games since its release. So it's a real testament that XCOM 2 finds new ways to be fresh and exciting, reaffirming the series as the best at what it does.

And what it does, and what I believe makes the game so special, is the way it contextualises these little skirmishes you partake in. XCOM 2 understands the importance of the on the field fight, but also the meta-game. The entire promise is that it puts you in charge of a resistance movement against a tyrannical alien regime, and boy does it. From the resource gathering, to the world map to preside over, to overseeing your basic personal and attack squad, you are in charge of it all.

On the subject, one of the things that makes XCOM 2 special is the way it focuses on your team. They are yours to mould in any image you want. There are four main classes, the sniper, which is self explanatory, the specialist who is followed around by a drone who can carry out various commands past the unit's human capabilities, the grenadier, who specalises in mass destruction of scenery and aliens equally and your hunters, who use stealth and deal massive damage. On top of that, the sub-divisions add a huge level of customization to you tactics. Do you want your sniper to be purely about long range damage, or use pistols to diversify? Do you want your specialists to use the drone to provide aid for your team-mates or damage enemies and hack robots? Or perhaps a happy even for each. The level of gameplay customization is staggering and means that, with you needing to swap out soldiers often due to injury, most games, you will have a different attack plan depending on your personnel. And that is to say nothing of the amazing cosmetic designs you can throw together. Making your people speak different languages, have totally different appearances and more, you can spend hours customising how your team looks, creating a very strong attachment to your team. This is something that XCOM 2 is best at class in, and while it's purely cosmetic, it's so important to your personal connection to your run. Losing them hurts, as it should, and that loss of something that felt important to you is something that XCOM revels in.

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In fact, the meta-game of actually taking control of this movement, assigning tasks, throwing out orders, this is everything that makes XCOM 2 great. Everything in the meta-game is finely tuned to make it feel like you have total control over what the best way to take down the alien threats are. Your successes feel like yours, but the other side of that coin is, this retaliation movement is entirely yours to lose too.

And lose you will. XCOM 2 is hard. Like, very hard. In fact, I'd even call it a little too hard. This should feel like a stiff challenge, you are trying to overthrow a ruling alien regime with a guerrilla movement, but when the game is geared towards making you so attached to your soldiers and your goal, it can feel incredibly unfair in the way it will callously murder members of your team, when in reality there is little you can do to save them. Move a soldier up just a tiny bit, revealing new aliens? That can result in your most advanced soldier being surrounded without you being able to do anything about it, eventually ending in their death. It can feel brutal, and makes it very hard not to engage in 'save scumming' to just re-do your turn. Honestly, and I know it will sound dismissive, but I'd suggest trying the game out on Easy first. I'm not ashamed to say that I put it down during my time, so unless you've played A LOT of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it might save you some grief down the line.

That said though, XCOM 2 is a stellar experience and one of the best in the genre, ever put out. The escalation of battle, the meta-game where you are in charge of a guerilla movement, making your squad feel like your own, it all comes together to make a really stellar concoction. While I didn't expect to want to play another in the franchise yet, XCOM 2 is the best top down tactics game I've played since, well XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It's surprising in new and exciting ways and has its talons in me deep. The game does have a punishing difficulty, that can border on unfair, but if you make the adjustments that are just right for you, that is easily enough to overcome. Firaxis have reminded us of their prowess with this title, and if you even like this kind of game a little, you should definitely try it out.

Avoid if: You HATE turn-based strategy games, with no exceptions.

Buy it if: You have any love whatsoever for turn-based strategy games. And even if not, maybe give it a go anyways.

Score: 9.2/10

Disclaimer: While I did not experience anything significant at all, there are more than enough reports of people having a torrid time with the game's performance. Thought I'd make a note of that for you.