XCOM 2: The Kotaku Review

XCOM 2: The Kotaku Review

I used to be the slowest XCOM player on Earth. Then XCOM 2 happened. You know the type. Hell, you probably are the type. I played previous XCOM games in inches, not miles. I'd move my characters forward a few spaces, hunker down behind cover and wait.

I played patiently because of how XCOM works. Like its predecessors, XCOM 2 is a turn-based strategy game about fighting a mysterious, ever-evolving alien force, but the real sun of its solar system is permadeath. If a member of your squad dies in the line of duty, they don't spring back from the grave and say, "Hey guys, what'd I miss?" to the sounds of canned studio audience laughter. Their body just lays there, occasionally twitching, and the studio audience gets really uncomfortable. They are dead and gone.

The more you use and customise and rank up your individual squad members, the more you come to love them. The idea of letting them go toward the light (the one presumably made by God; not, you know, aliens) becomes heartbreaking. That, in a nutshell, is why I used to play XCOM like a turtle who was also somebody's dangerously near-sighted grandparent attempting to drive in rush hour traffic. In my mind, there was no such thing as an acceptable loss. Firaxis' first XCOM game, 2012's XCOM Enemy Unknown (and, to a lesser extent, its expansion) enabled my hyper-cautious playstyle. My approach might not have always been glamorous, but my troops survived, damn it.

XCOM 2: The Kotaku Review

XCOM 2 changes all that. It makes me play like a cornered rat. I bite and scratch and claw my way forward, with no guarantee of safety or sustenance. And I love it.

That might sound like a big change, but it's really not. XCOM 2's evolved mechanics mirror its story. It's set 20 years after the first game. Earth's been taken over by aliens, and everything's evolved a bit: Aliens, technology, society and the "you" character, a faceless entity known as "The Commander".

You and your private army are not part of The Establishment this time around. Rather, you're heading up a ragtag resistance effort from inside the cold, glowing innards of a stolen alien megaship. You're like a vulture, circling and swooping, picking over the remains of your own planet.

Evolution is funny in that it sometimes turns predators into prey. In XCOM 2, that dynamic flip-flops, oh, every few turns.

Every move you make in battle is one of calculated desperation. You're almost always outnumbered and outgunned, and unlike in Enemy Unknown, many of the missions funnel you forward with various objectives: civilians that need rescuing, bombs wired to destroy important items and evac time limits. You can't hunker down, you can't hold back. You have to plunge on, albeit cautiously, into the shadowy unknown. In the process, you will frequently stumble upon new aliens that keep you on-edge. Most don't come at you with overwhelming power, but rather with tricks that trip you up in the heat of battle. You never know what new terror is lurking just around the corner. Or even closer.

XCOM 2: The Kotaku Review

The underdog arrangement has its advantages, though. In many cases, XCOM 2's alien overlords aren't expecting you to come a-knocking, let alone a-bulldozing their dystopic pain paradise to rubble. It's understandable that they'd grow complacent given that they have achieved a victory on level with an extinction event. When your soldiers land in a new area, XCOM 2 recreates the dynamics of guerilla warfare with a clever (though fairly simplistic) stealth system. You start most levels with your squad "concealed", which basically means that enemies aren't actively looking out for you.

Many are on patrol, sometimes not even bothering to stay behind cover. As long as you keep out of their immediate line of sight, you can manoeuvre your squad as you please and plot ambushes. This is where you can get a lot of mileage out of Overwatch, an ability that allows squad members to fire during the enemy's turn and not, in this case, a hot new team-based shooter from Blizzard. Lining up perfect shots with a couple squad members and then putting a few others on Overwatch to deal with aliens trying to dart for cover? Glorious. It's one of the easier things to do in many levels, and taking out an entire alien squad before they have a chance to shoot back makes you feel like a goddamn tactical genius.

These systems enable fantastic micro-stories, and they're successful on a level that makes Firaxis' first XCOM feel ancient by comparison.

Like, OK so, here is this guy:

XCOM 2: The Kotaku Review

He's a grenadier and his name is Kylo Gusev, but it wasn't always. There was a time when he was named Viktor, and not an impossible Star Wars name (or a possible pop star name, depending on who you talk to). In the midst of one battle he was mind-controlled by a sectoid alien, and he went into a wild rage. Using his sedan-sized minigun, he mowed down the better part of a building's first floor. Thankfully, he missed my Ranger, Jane "Ice" Kelly, a badass ninja lady and one of my favourite video game characters in years. I quickly had her slaughter the alien controlling my grenadier, because she is very good at slaughtering things. That's when I realised what I wanted to name him: the tantrum, the flowing brown locks, the nasally voice, the significantly more capable woman next to him, wielding a cool sword — the game had randomly given me Kylo Ren for one of my heavy assault troopers. After that mission, I changed his name to make it official.

These are the sorts of stories that have given me an unusual bond with my soldiers. They start out as faceless drones — randos with a sliver of backstory — but soon they become yours. I remember Kylo for his tantrum, I remember Ice for the number of times she's saved everybody else's asses, I remember my best sharpshooter, Val Killer, for the time she took out a powerful teleporting alien and reinforcements after everyone else was rendered dead or unconscious.

XCOM 2: The Kotaku Review

When you're not in battle, you're struggling to forge relationships with other resistance groups, advance your own tech past the (relative) stone age, and stay one step ahead of an alien doomsday research project intended to, pardon the jargon, Fuck Humanity Into Quivering Oblivion. Everything you do takes time, and all the while aliens are making moves of their own, reacting to your victories and advancing their tech to keep those puny hyyyyyyuuuumans from getting a leg up. That last part is super cool, because the aliens react to the specific things you're doing. In a way, it feels like being up against a live opponent, except they play by very different rules and want to cut you open and inseminate you with The Ultimate Lifeform or some shit.

The game's interface is clean and fairly intuitive, considering how much information it has to convey at any given time. It keeps you up to date on the progress of your projects and what little you know of the aliens' goals. In a change from Enemy Unknown, the aliens actually have specific short- and long-term goals that are shown to you in cards. It brings another element of tabletop gaming to a series that already borrowed liberally from the world of dice and pewter miniatures.

The whole setup looks like this:

XCOM 2: The Kotaku Review

Management is always a juggling act, and the majority of things you're juggling are chainsaws. Consider the following situation: you've built out your base to include multiple types of research labs and a place to heal your troops, but now you need a structure that will let you communicate with a larger number of resistance groups in other countries. If you don't build that soon, you won't be able to make contact with the resistance in a nation where the aliens are hard at work on a portion of their mega-project that will — I can't stress this enough — doom all of humanity.

You've already let it linger for too long, and the doomsday bar at the top of the screen is filling fast. However, you're super low on supplies (currency, basically) because you recently researched armour that will hopefully keep your low level troops from getting one-shotted by The Big Shapeshifting Arseholes, The Robot Arseholes and The Arseholes Who Can Bloody Teleport Are You Kidding Me. Meanwhile, your strongest troops are in the infirmary after an especially gnarly mission, so all you have to go out on new missions are some spunky yet squishy B-teams led by a psychologically damaged A-teamer. You are not optimistic about your prospects.

You don't have time for doubt, though; gotta keep moving. You can't slow down and untangle the aforementioned world's-largest-yarn-ball-from-Cawker-City-Kansas of problems. There are too many clocks ticking, too many people relying on you. In XCOM 2, you have to find creative new ways to keep pushing forward.

XCOM 2: The Kotaku Review

Limp to an evac point with barely breathing squadmates slung over your shoulders. Make peace with the fact that some won't make it back at all. Accept that you might have to turn down a rescue mission in one country to pick up supplies and new troops in another. It might be frustrating in the moment, but when you get a chance to look back on it, you'll find a personal story fraught with intrigue and drama. Twists and turns. Momentum shifts.

You can't win 'em all, but you can win enough. You can make the aliens pay for the times they backed you into a corner, for the times you put yourself in that corner with dumb decisions, for the deaths of your best and brightest. Your big ship is called The Avenger. There's a reason for that, I think, and it's not just a Marvel reference (though I do think it is partially a Marvel reference). It's thrilling when you succeed. It's morale-pulverising when you fail. If you're not playing on Ironman Mode, you will be tempted to load and re-load old saves to erase moments of loss and bring back fallen soldiers. Don't.

OK, don't do that most of the time. I have to admit, XCOM 2's aim percentage system can do some seriously wacky stuff, and on multiple occasions it got precious troops of mine slaughtered to pieces in dumb ways. I'll take a miss on a tricky long shot, but are you telling me my expert marksman whiffed a point-blank shot to a whale of an alien's horse-sized loaf of a cranium? I refuse to believe this. I REFUSE.

XCOM 2: The Kotaku Review

Moments like that made me curse up the kind of storm that would make a sailor blush and then drown. On multiple occasions, my girlfriend was like, "Do you actually like this game?" Absolutely, I would tell her, after taking a deep breath. It's just bullshit sometimes.

What astounds me about XCOM 2 is how often it's not bullshit. With such high stakes and so many intertwining systems constantly pushing the player forward, it could easily have devolved into a hair-trigger, save-scumming frustration fest. It doesn't. XCOM 2 masterfully creates the illusion that the odds are completely against you, while giving you numerous opportunities to Rocky your way back to the top. You've just gotta stay nimble. You've just gotta think. Get your head on straight and watch your corners; those wily E.T. bastards are gonna pay.


Comments

    Just a couple of things:

    ANYONE PLAYING: Get the goddamn camera mod from the Steam Workshop, HOLY SHIT it changes everything. Holding down Q or E allows you to incrementally rotate the camera instead of 45 degree turns. It's awesome!!! The mods for this so far are SICK! The Mutan Centurion is also fantastic!!! They don't stop achievements, are made by the Long War campaign guys and fully integrate into the game perfectly. Seriously, these are fantastic, necessary mods.

    The graphics. WOW the graphics. This was 100% made for PC and not hamstrung by console development (I'm not slamming consoles here, but it's a fact). No muddy, bland textures anywhere. I haven't seen this much care taken with high resolution, intricately detailed textures in years. It's so goddamn gorgeous. They may not be revolutionary but they're so goddamn beautiful. The procedurally generated battlefields are simply a thing of beauty. I haven't had the same battlefield twice and I'm loving it.

    The gameplay: It's confusing at first nailing down that essentially *you* are those random UFO encounters from part 1 this time? But hey it works so well.

    Squad sizes: I kind of wish they had of upped it to 2 x groups of 4 or max 10 troops on field at once to be honest. That's an area of downfall for me still.

    The variety in design: Part 1 let you vary your troops designs, Enemy Within expanded that scope, but Xcom 2 knocks it out of the park with *so* much more, including pattern templates and colour templates that leave your jaw on the floor. It's just great. With Steam Workshop fully integrated, expect to see this used and abused that's for sure.

    Mods mods mods: I can't wait to see what we get in terms of mods over the next year! I look forward to the eventual FALLOUT content, Warhammer 40k content, zombie content, you name it it'll happen.

    Loving the game so far, it's amazing. 9 out of 10 from me. Easily.

    Last edited 08/02/16 10:16 am

      Mods have been fantastic.

      I love that the oldest user mod is the one which replaces weapons with adorable little corgis.

      For a few hours that was literally the only mod. The mod author had a comment that was basically, "I legit feel really bad that this is the first mod."

        LOL I saw that, it was hilarious. For an hour I had a whole squad running around with just Corgis lol

    Words cannot express how strongly I hope this game gets a console release.

      They said maybe down the track it may, one day. But part 1 didn't sell well enough on consoles for them to be too concerned about it. That being said, I'd love to see people on XB0 and PS4 get the chance to play it, it's a truly fantastic game.

        I'm not holding my breath for it, but that part of my brain which gets excited about long shots is doing backflips in my head.

        Hate the fact sales have to come into it

          Now you know how PC gamers feel about say, Grand Theft Auto, Dark Souls 1, need I go on?

          Guess now you know what it feels like.

          Now you know how PC gamers feel about say, Grand Theft Auto, Dark Souls 1, need I go on?

          Guess now you know what it feels like.

          Pretty much what urthor has said.

          For the first time in ages, someone has prioritised PC over Console because sales on consoles were poor. Usually it is far and above the other way around and then typically the PC version is a buggy or graphical mess because it is a poorly optimised port.

          Can't say for sure, but I believe XCOM 1 had an annoying glitch where the screen would scroll if a joystick was attached to the pc because it incorrectly identified it as an active controller.

      I'm with you there. I don't have enough cash to upgrade my PC and since they've already adapted it to work with controllers, I'm hoping that it will be - *starts praying to the gods of porting*

    So I played this a bit last couple of days and my initial impression is one of disappointment. I've only played less than 10 missions so I'm willing to play some more to get a better impression.

    Firstly, I'm disappointed that all the annoying bugs, graphical issues and glitches from the first game 4 years ago still seem to be around. They didn't bother at all to address the visuals of shooting through walls and unpredictable line of sight. Scrolling between vertical levels is still a pain in the ass, and a single misclick and send your character to completely different place in the middle of 4 enemies.
    I had another example where the VIP I was escorting almost died because she fell through a floor while moving and triggered an overwatch from an enemy. The model was then stuck mid animation until I clicked another button and it turned out they actually were where they were supposed to be. Bugs happen, and I'm willing to look past one off events like this, but it would be super annoying to lose a mission in ironman mode due to something like this.
    Stuff like that was happening in the original game, and it seems like they haven't bothered to fix the engine at all.
    Performance wise, the game seems to be poorly optimised. Maybe it's my AMD card but it seems to drop frame rates a lot and freeze up sometimes. Seems to happen more in menus and cut-scenes than on missions for some reason. My PC ain't the best, but it can run much more graphically intense games than this without issues. A fairly slow turn based game should run smooth as butter.

    Secondly, I started playing on Ironman mode. I like that I don't have to re-load the game all the time to save people....
    What I don't like is that game never told me that ironman mode removes the whole "wounded" state. Soldiers just die outright. You can't save them, you can't even carry them back to the evac etc... I was looking forward to having some way to mitigate random death even when not being able to reload saved games.
    I'm annoyed that the game didn't warn me of this change, and now I can't be bothered restarting the campaign.
    Maybe I'm just missing an upgrade or been very unlucky but I've lost about 6 or 7 soldiers already... usually to bullshit unlucky long range crits.

    Which brings me to the combat system....
    It's practically unchanged apart from a little flying drone and a very bland hacking mini game.
    However about half of the missions i've played so far had some sort of time/turn limit on them. Which is great for increasing the tension and risk, but annoying from a tactical point of view.
    Because everything is so random, you can still easily lose soldiers in a single turn even when you play super safe... and when you have to play a bit risky because of a timer, it get's worse.

    Example. I had one situation last night where it was my 4 guys vs one sectoid. The sectoid mind controlled one trooper. One of my soldiers only had a 50% shot at the sectoid, he missed. 2 of my guys ran up behind the sectoid, expecting to kill it, they both had flanked 80%+ shots and both did 4 dmg each. Leaving the enemy on 1 health.
    With the enemy still alive, it meant my last soldier stayed mind controlled, ran up to another soldier and one shot him with a 9 damage crit.
    This was also the last enemy on the map, right next to the extraction point.
    Maybe it's just me but I find this kind of random luck completely annoying and not entertaining.
    It's not tactical, it's not strategic.

    Finally, the UI is pretty bad. It wasn't great in XCOM1, and it really hasn't been fixed. The amount of mis-clicks I've had so far is super annoying. I think I've missed about 3 missions so far just because I right clicked instead of left clicked. One time I went to the armory before a mission to make some more medkits and the mission disappeared because I left that "start mission" screen. So far I've found the UI to be annoying and inconstant.

    I really want to like this game, but it's making it damn hard. I might have to try some mods but honestly... I shouldn't have to. A new game 4 years later should have fixed all the issues with the old one, and not just reskin it and make a new story. It annoys me that developers can do a half arsed job now and let the community fix what they couldn't be bothered doing. I like mods for improvements and changes, but they shouldn't have to fix bugs and bad design.

    I wonder what the game would be like if the strategy was a bit more predictable. Full cover negates more damage than half cover, however make hit chance almost 100% unless at very long range (eg sniper would have better hit at longer range, shotgun would be the opposite) and then have damage based on range to target. So point blank with an assault rifle would be guaranteed hit with high damage.... medium range would be guaranteed hit with lower damage. Different weapons would vary differently.
    Having consistent damage would allow for more tactical and predictable play, while at the same time rewarding the riskier move such as closing the gap or putting yourself in dangerous positions. Health might need to be tweaked a bit due to more consistent damage, but it would also make medkits more useful because the chance of getting one shot now is much lower, unless a tactical mistake was made. Probably remove crits for the same reason.
    I'd also like to be able to click on enemies and see their movement range, attack range and line of sight. Positioning is important in this game, but it's annoying when you just have to guess.

    Last edited 08/02/16 12:27 pm

      The "Wounded" state...are you talking about bleeding out, where you can stabilise them? It is still in Ironman mode, although I've only seen it come up two or three times. Managed to save my best guy with it when he was crushed by a Viper, then got him up and moving with the Gremlin Revive. He ended up saving the day and winning the mission for me with his one block of health.

      There is an upgrade you can buy in the guerilla tactics school, that decreases the chances of your soldiers being killed outright, they are more likely to go into a bleeding out state.

      I'm feeling the same regarding hit chances, especially when it comes to point-blank ranges. Just had one of my squaddies unload on a sectoid with a minigun aimed at its' temple, and visibly saw the bullets just arc in different directions before reporting a complete miss. That and I was actually starting to like one of my soldiers before a standard enemy grunt pulled off a long-range crit which instantly killed her.

      It's beginning to look like mods will be relied upon to make the game half decent, which is kinda disappointing... Anyway, money's spent now so I will have to pull through, and at least try have some fun. At the end of the day I wasn't a huge fan of the previous games, don't see what the fuss is all about; to each their own!

        I love the game but am going to second this, so many times my sniper has had the high ground, hit chance was 90-95%, the alien is standing out in the open and miss,miss,miss, even had my troops destroy all the cover in the area and still my sniper (with scope as well) keeps missing.

        Only seems my Rangers when standing point-blank range with their shotgun gets a 100% hit chance.

        Same as mentioned above, many times point blank shots miss with 90-95% chance, but having said that, still enjoying the game, just swearing at my screen at the amount of missed shots.

        Although funny story, similar to above I started to grew attached to my first soliders (Jane Kelly for example), she was badly wounded, took 20 days to heal, she came back again and very next mission ....gravely wounded again, took 20 days, came back on duty, gravely wounded again lol, every time she heals she does one mission and ends back up in sick bay lol. All my new rookies I hired after her are all 3-4 ranks above her, while she is still sitting on the low rank yet been around the longest.

    Eh, it wouldn't be XCOM without some aiming percentage shenanigans. That's a tradition all the way back to the original. :D

    Personally I'll be waiting for a iPad release. Bought from on pc and controlling it sucked. But was world's better on my iPad mini. Also played it on my. Note 4 but iPad ran smoother and was more playable.

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