Did this really need another sequel ? At first, I have to admit: I was quite skeptical about the premise of XCom2. The Earth being ruled by Aliens… it sounded just like another excuse to iterate on an already very popular franchise. XCom was already pretty good as a reboot – you name it, it had it: solid customization options, strong strategy elements, and successful re-implementation of an old game into more modern mechanics. What else could we expect there ?
The truth is, XCom 2 is VERY similar to the previous game. While the starting point sets it apart, you will soon find yourself very much at home if you are familiar with XCom. And it’s not a bad thing. The main difference is that it feels that you start with less means and less resources this time around as you start fighting back against the aliens, since they have been ruling the Earth for like 20 years. Just like the original Star Wars trilogy, you are now on the side of the rebels trying to fight against an oppressive Empire. And while Aliens were very much strangers the last time around, in XCom2 they have managed to mix their DNA with humans to create hybrid soldiers – leading to the creation of new genres of foes.
What is great about XCom and even more in XCom2 is that it puts you in charge. All the time. It bombards you with choices. Decisions to make. For example, very soon in the game you will have several missions or side quests to consider at a given time – each of them with their own time limits. And to make things worse, you are pressed with time, as the Aliens will quickly kick off a secret project called Avatar to put an end to the efforts of your rebellion. It urges you to act quickly and progress on the key mission rather than fooling around grabbing resources and soldiers in side quests… but at the same time, rushing too fast in key campaign missions will have your team decimated in no time. It’s always a matter of trade-off between leveling up your technological assets, boosting your soldiers, increasing your resources, while keeping an eye on your watch and tackling difficult missions at the right time. It’s tough, but extremely satisfying when things go JUST right. And that’s basically when a mission goes well like clockwork.
While XCom was already a great turn based strategy game, the sequel improves on about every single aspect of it. First, in most missions, you start as being “concealed” – you are invisible to enemy units as they do not know you are planning an attack on them. That’s entirely consistent with the premise of being on the rebel side, sneaking up on foes because you don’t have a large enough strength to fight with. Gameplay wise, this means that you can approach enemy units and remain hidden until you fire the first shot. The game rewards careful planning at that level. The first thing enemy units will do once fired upon is to run around and find cover – but if you ensure that most of your unit members are in Overwatch mode before firing the first shot, enemies will get fired upon multiple times as they try to escape – thus increasing your chance to make more casualties at once.
The first XCom game had me raging and upset many times when my teammates had a hit ratio chance of 90% but were repeatedly missing, turn after turn. It seems like XCom2 has made things better. Obviously not all your shots are going to get through, but somehow it’s less random that it used to be – and therefore it rewards planning much more than pure luck. There is still some elements I fail to understand, such as my soldier being just 2 meters away from an enemy and not having more than a 50% chance to hit… but otherwise, the assumptions are pretty reasonable. Snipers have become extremely good at what they do and if you place them up in high buildings they can do a killing in no time.
There’s a new category of soldiers who come with a Gremlin, a kind of portable drone that supports the whole team – either as a means of defense of healing equipment, or as a means of attack/hacking on electronic systems. If this was set in a different era, this character would probably be a mage or a wizard or something like that. It’s pretty cool and makes you approach the battlefield a little more differently than XCom 1.
Enemies are not boring either. You get a mix of old acquaintances and new ones. Vipers are reptilian soldiers that look terrific and can be extremely dangerous since they can grab one of your soldiers from very far away with their tongue, and keep them bound until you get rid of them. The Faceless is another kind – they take the appearance of humans in their hidden state, and suddenly change into a huge, heavy pink monster where you do not expect them. Shall they come close to you, it would be pretty much the end since they are extremely strong in close combat.
You may think it would be best to just stick to snipers and kill everyone from a distance. That would be a pretty good strategy, but the game has clever ways to prevent you from seeking such an obvious solution. In numerous mission there are timers – a set of turns by which you have to finish a mission and evacuate. if you stick to snipers, you would not be able to move fast enough to keep the pace. In other cases, it’s not about the number of turns, but it’s about saving enough civilians before aliens kill them all. Again, such missions require speed over control, and will test your capacity to keep cool under pressure. In order words, there is always a strong incentive to take risks and move forward faster than you wish.
To make things a little more difficult for you, XCom2 plays much more on the persona of your individual soldiers. Each soldier has its own profile, its own little story… a clearly different face. You can customize their looks (and even how their weapons look!) even further, and the more you do the more they do grow on you. It’s a clever trick to make every single loss a little more painful than in the first XCom. And I would not recommend anyway to lose any soldier. Building experience and skills is INVALUABLE to survive more and more missions as you go. You can somewhat mitigate having rookies if you can develop new weapons and armors fast enough, but leveling up brings a lot more special abilities in combat that can prove decisive. Like, the ability to return fire “for free” when fired upon, or the ability to use a Gremlin for Healing instead of consuming an otherwise expensive Medikit.
Soldiers are not just your little toys, they have a constant presence on screen. In the weapons/accessories selection screen, instead of seeing your soldiers lined up like in XCom 1, they are on the move and come towards you, weapons in hands. And when you are done with your choices, they turn around and walk towards the plane that will take them to the battle area. As they fly you are with them in the plane’s hold, receiving your final instructions for the mission objectives. During missions there’s a lot more close-ups to let you see what is happening on the ground as soldiers see things. If your mission is a failure and you end up losing 2 or 3 guys, your flight back will be met with the surviving soldiers looking sad, mad, upset as they return. This is just a number of details that bring absolutely nothing to the core of the game, but really work well to further make you feel there. And the musical score is right there, all the time, with great compositions to support what’s going on on-screen.
The overall art in the game is top-notch. The enemies’ design, your squadmates, weapons, everything looks and feels consistent. This is an incredible achievement – it’s fairly easy to end up with enemies that look generic or dull, but XCom 2 never falls in that trap, never feels weak. It has a very solid personality that makes it stand out. I have to admit, I am a very big fan of what they did with the loading screens. Instead of making you wait in front of a black screen, the developers thought it was a good idea to take that time as an opportunity to share some visuals from the futuristic world and society. The low-frequency buzzes and seemingly vivid yet retro colors make them look modern and old at the same time. This just screams good taste and attention to details all over.
All in All, while I still have a long time to play before reaching the end of this sequel, I can already tell it’s a clear step up above its predecessor, and that’s nothing short of amazing when so many sequels these days just decide to milk franchises just because they have a well known brand name.
XCom2 keeps me eagerly waiting for the next session every single day, and I can’t say that many games have such an effect on me.
Before I leave you, a few words on the Linux port.
As reported a couple of days ago, the original release is far from optimal. Even on high end hardware, the framerate indeed stutters and stumbles especially during cinematics and quite often through missions. This is not to say the game is not playable. It is. It’s something bothering to see that high end hardware cannot handle something that should not be that resource intensive in the first place. Some users have already found some fixes – such as tweaking with the PoolSize variable in the XComEngine.ini configuration file (its original value is 10, and you can increase it to a value that your GPU card’s RAM divided by 4, if I believe what I read around). This did certainly improve the framerate for me, while it was not perfect either. However, I did get access to Feral’s beta patch for XCom2, and while things can change for better or worse until the patch is finalized, I can say it did a lot to improve performance beyond the original release, and removed most of the stutter (to a much broader effect than the PoolSize variable did).
Again, if you are really concerned about performance, do wait for the final patch release to form your own opinion, but my initial impressions are very positive – they are clearly listening to users’ feedback.
Test Configuration: i5 3.4 Ghz / GTX 970 / SteamOS 2.60 / Steam Controller
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