When it comes to turn-based strategy games, they don't get much better than XCOM. This recent console release is bursting with incredible classic alien-busting strategic gameplay so let's suit up and get ready to launch.
Although there have been about a dozen XCOM games since the mid-'90s, this follow-up to Enemy Unknown is simply titled "XCOM 2". You play as a commander who leads the mobile base known as the Avenger in order to fend off alien forces and strengthen the Earth's defenses. This sequel will thankfully feel right at home for anyone who has played any of the recent XCOM titles. The gameplay setup is generally the same as you juggle between managing your base and taking part in battles and it's just as addictive as ever. Management is tricky as you frequently need to make sacrifices in order to build up your base and squad as ideally as you can. Certain time-sensitive missions may not be worth accomplishing while mandatory UFO sightings might throw you for a loop. Every decision is crucial and the same can be said on the battlefield. Controlling your squad one soldier at a time to take out aliens as effectively as possible makes for one intimate battle system. Simply taking a bit of damage will make any gamer's head shake as they learn from their mistake. Overall, the classic gameplay setup blends these two aspects perfectly to craft one of the most addictive strategic experiences in gaming.
A huge part of XCOM 2 that impressed me is its story. Whereas the plot in Enemy Unknown was engaging, things are really amplified here. It takes place 20 years after Enemy Unknown in a future where the aliens defeated humankind. On the surface, they seem to be getting along with most humans accepting their new alien overlords. However, you soon find out that the aliens have been experimenting with human bodies in order to create super-soldiers. This makes fighting the human-looking Advent soldiers far more personal than just shooting at generic aliens. At some points, you'll play through rescue missions where you try and save as many people as you can but some of them transform into monstrosities known as Faceless. It's creepy stuff for sure. The crew of the Avenger is lead by key members Central Officer Bradford, Dr. Richard Tygan, and Chief Engineer Lily Shen. These characters provide a layer of desperation to the story that you don't often get in similar games. For example, Lily's relationship with her late father Dr. Raymond Shen is a driving force in her determination to rid the planet of alien scum. It truly is a gripping tale in every sense.
I already discussed the gameplay as it relates to Enemy Unknown, but this sequel has a lot more in store for series veterans. The new concealment system allows you to sneak by enemy forces in order to set up ambushes for unsuspecting aliens. It feels awesome when you do it right and end the lives of a handful of greasy aliens without them even realising what's going on. If you're lucky, they'll leave behind some loot that you can snag before it disappears. However, if you get caught off guard then there are a couple of newly introduced options to help lessen the blow: you can carry teammates to safety and also call for an extraction so you can abort the current mission. These elements allow you to recoup your losses when worse comes to worst. Additionally, missions are more random with generated layouts and objectives. Of course, there are new classes for your soldiers to master as well. These include a Grenadier (master of explosives), a Sharpshooter (for long-range combat), a Specialist (uses drones in various ways), a Psi Operative (performs mind-control), and a Ranger (executes devastating melee attacks). These fresh dynamics are very satisfying to experiment with.
Unfortunately, XCOM 2 has a few issues that make playing it sometimes feel like a chore. First up are the frequent visual problems. The graphics often twitch which is disorienting. I'm surprised that it's not smoother considering XCOM 2 by no means has the best next-gen visuals. Also, the lip movements of characters seem to go out of sync easily which makes the story sequences more difficult to get immersed in. While battling, the camera can be obscured by the side of a mountain or building thus making it impossible to see the attack sequence carry out. On the odd occasion, I even had the damage amounts disappear which is a crucial part of battle.
Next, the difficulty has some major spikes later on in the campaign. For example, walking enemy tanks known as Sectopods are intensely challenging to take down. They have huge health meters, a difficult to penetrate shield, and do massive amounts of damage. At one point, I had to fight two of them simultaneously. Even after I shamefully lowered the difficulty, I still had a very tough time defeating them. There's such a thing as satisfying challenge, but this just crosses the line.
Finally, the load screens are way too long. I played off of my hard drive and loading times lasted about a couple of minutes each. Thankfully, there aren't many times when it has to load but when it does; you may as well play another game while you wait.
XCOM 2 is a big step forward for the series. Although it has some severe technical issues, it's still a worthy strategy experience with gameplay that's addictive enough for anyone to ignore its flaws.
- + Familiar gameplay that perfectly blends management with intimate battles
- + More personal and engaging story
- + Awesome new classes and mechanics
- - Graphical issues and glitches frequently take away from the overall experience
- - Steep difficulty spikes later on
- - Extremely long load times