Review: XCOM 2February 27, 2016
There is a question that every artist has to ask himself at one point in his life- do I keep true to a time-tested formula, or do I try to innovate? There is no right answer to this, and most game developers try to stay somewhere between the extremes. Experimenting with a genre is risky, but it can make something wonderful, like the Mass Effect series that successfully integrated RPG elements with action elements or The Last Remnant, which took turn-based tactical gameplay to a whole new level. On the other hand, staying true to a successful formula can have excellent results as well. XCOM 2 is a living proof of this.
When the XCOM series was re-launched in 2012 with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it not only attained both critical and commercial success, but also renewed the love for the turn-based genre among modern gamers. It made way for games like the Shadowrun Returns series, The Banner Saga, Wasteland 2, and even the cult hit Blackguards series, among others. When XCOM 2 was announced in 2015, we were understandably very excited. After finishing my first of many, many playthroughs, I can finally say that it was worth the hype.
The story of XCOM 2 takes place in 2035, when the aliens have taken over the Earth under the guise of a worldwide governing body called the ADVENT administration. Their main adversary, the group XCOM, has been into hiding for more than two decades, since the mysterious disappearance of the legendary tactician from the first game- the Commander, aka the player character. The game begins with the re-appearance of the Commander.
The game does not clearly explain how the aliens manage to take over the world, especially since they were defeated at the end of the last game. Different fan theories exist regarding this, but according to a thread in the Steam forum, the storyline of this game is an alternate future of the first game, in which the aliens managed to defeat the XCOM organization early in the war. Other theories suggest that we only defeated the first wave of the Alien invasion in Xcom: Enemy Unknown. I guess it would be fair to say (and anyone who has played the original can confirm) that XCOM 2 is the future of an average Impossible Ironman playthrough of Enemy Unknown.
While I have always felt that storyline is of secondary importance in a tactical game, the plot of XCOM 2 comes across as a lot more mature and well written than its predecessor. The main missions do not seem to be there just for the sake of it, and the story has a much more personal tone. There is limited scope for character development, but that is understandable, seeing how the game is supposed to take place in a matter of months. Still, you cannot help but love the new grim and ruggedly handsome Bradford, even though during the late game you’d wish that you could shoot him just to make him stop interrupting every other turn.
In spite of his continuous ominous warnings, you gave to admit that the voice acting for Bradford, as well as the other characters have been done with great care. Shen speaks with a lot of emotion when she mentions her father or addresses her droids, and Tygan captures his skepticism and doubt almost perfectly.
It is not just the voices, though. The music of the game- whether the eerie ambiance during concealment that makes you feel jumpy or the engaging battle theme- has been composed with the gameplay in mind. My favorite was the main menu track and the skyranger music, which seems to have been composed with the purpose of inspiring enthusiasm and positive morale- something you’d appreciate very much in higher difficulties.
It is undeniable that XCOM 2 looks extremely pretty. The special effects, such as the plasma beams, explosions, and continually burning smoke add new levels of realism, the likes of which we never noticed in Enemy Unknown. Unfortunately, the beautifully rendered movement of the plants and trees, the incredibly lifelike aliens, and the extremely attractive Skyranger fail to distract you from the performance issues that still remain three weeks after the release. Even if you have a state of the art setup, you will have slowdowns, framerate drops, and the occasional inexplicable pauses during gameplay, unless you turn down a lot of graphics options.
The performance issues seem very strange when you consider the fact that the game was made exclusive for PC by a studio that’s primarily into making PC games, i.e. Firaxis. The developers have not even discussed any plans for console release, and the graphics are not nearly demanding enough to put a strain on the average gaming PC in 2016. This issue seems especially significant in comparison with Rise of the Tomb Raider, which runs extremely well on PC, and yet is just a port from its console versions.
If you have played Enemy Unknown, you already have a good idea about XCOM 2‘s gameplay. They did not deviate much from the formula that made the previous entry a success, and the game is no lesser for it. Some of the old favorite abilities like “Squadsight”, “Run and Gun”, “Suppression” etc return, and there are some exciting new ones like “Kill Zone”, “Shredder”, and “Haywire Protocol”. Most of the combat remains the same, revolving around cover and flanking. The most noticeable new elements are the concealment stage, where the soldiers have the ability to remain hidden from the aliens and spring an ambush, and the hacking opportunities, which work just like RNG based attacks do.
XCOM 2 played to its strengths. The developers brought back most of the mechanics- from the tactical gameplay and ruthless RNG to base building to the doom meter that races against you, and they made small improvements on them, instead of making ridiculous design choices that make no sense (like including building simulation in a supposedly action-RPG). This is exactly what makes it a great game. This is the game that the fans of Enemy Unknown wanted. We are already excited about the future DLCs and we look forward to how they enhance this game. Hopefully, Firaxis will have the performance issues sorted by then. But it is to the credit of XCOM 2 that even with the performance issues, we recommend you to get the game, especially if you liked its predecessor.
We give XCOM 2 an 8 out of 10.
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