12 February, 2016

Review – XCOM 2

War-weary and emotionally scarred, I wrapped up my first game of XCOM 2 and hunkered down for a review, turns out I was hunkering a while… It’s a long review, a testament to the breadth of the XCOM 2 experience and subsequently, the range of my feelings on it.

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We had a pretty standard relationship, with the usual ups and downs. Oh heady were those first few deployments, after which I explored with nervous glee all the permutations of punk-meets-special ops that I could dream up. However, once that initial novelty had worn out, as it must, I caught myself seeing flaws, faults that I had remained ignorant to at first. Then as if in response to my hardening demeanour, XCOM 2 decided to turn frosty and domineering, it reduced our romance to distinctly sadistic depths, with my computer and by extension me taking all the hits. So gruelling was the experience that no amount of mid to late-game strategic satisfaction could truly patch up what we once had.

For those who didn’t play XCOM: Enemy Unknown, or the expansion Enemy Within, it is worth noting that even at its best, at its highest peaks, the game is a journey of pleasure and pain. XCOM 2 quite literally doubled the busting of my unmentionables, but not in the way I wanted.

review xcom 2 advent officer

XCOM 2 is harder, in my experience this was particularly true for the first twenty or so hours, and perhaps the final one too. In this timeline the aliens succeeded in their invasion of Earth, the XCOM organisation under your leadership failed to beat back the UFOs, it quite literally picks up after a failed ending of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Some years later the aliens have entrenched themselves in human society as the ADVENT organisation; apparently ignorant, humanity lives under its rule, with slick-armoured troopers patrolling the streets and the smooth-talking Speaker delivering subduing spiels.

Thought your funding was bad in Enemy Unknown? Well, now you command a band of guerrillas, so be prepared to have even less. The game opens with a heavily scripted tutorial introducing the most of the new mechanics and the old basics, after that and a tour of the Avenger – your airborne base – the game opens quite fully. For those not versed in the XCOM formula, the game operates on two levels; strategic and tactical, and both have changed significantly in XCOM 2.

On the tactical front, I have only praises. Its predecessor introduced a tight, 3D grid-based combat system, which operates with turns, questionable line of sight mechanics, and fickle hit percentages. The core functionality and interface remains intact; XCOM soldiers have two action points per turn, with which to move, shoot, assume overwatch (a defensive stance that allows reactive shots to alien movement), and so forth. The biggest addition here is the concealment, which basically allows your soldiers to shoot first – its huge, take it from me.

Review XCOM 2 advent faceless

As you’re a guerrilla organisation you are almost always on the offensive, launching raids on ADVENT facilities, assaulting convoys, and the like. The concealment system activates when the mission begins, and prevents your soldiers from being seen unless they tread in the detection area of enemy troops or surveillance equipment, marked with red eyes on the movement grid. This allows you to spring elaborate ambushes, to unleash clockwork murder through effective use of overwatch and advantageous cover. Once the first shot is fired concealment breaks, and the enemy troops run for protection, triggering any overwatch you might have set. If you’re patient, tactically aware, and more than a little lucky, you can eliminate a third, or perhaps even half of the enemy force before they even have a chance to shoot back. And that’s satisfying as hell.

The other new mechanic I really dig is armour, which manifests as yellow hexagons at the end of a unit’s health bar. Armour absorbs damage – obviously – if I shoot an alien with one armour and deal four damage, only three damage will actually be deducted from the enemy’s health, if I shoot that alien again the armour will absorb some of that shot too. So with that in mind, consider how difficult inflicting meaningful damage on a late game enemy might become, when it’s protected with perhaps six hexes of armour?

Fortunately for the (mostly) brave XCOM soldiers, certain weapons can destroy armour; explosives and the grenadiers’ cannon in particular. Nonetheless it’s the kind of intuitive system that thrives in the XCOM tactical formula; it simple to understand, yet alters every combat encounter it appears in.

There’s also hacking and loot mechanics. Hacking is effectively a dice roll, while the loot system replaces the Meld from Enemy Within; requiring you to divert soldiers to pick up items from a fallen enemy before they expire. Neither system is offensive in their implementation, nor revolutionary.

Review XCOM 2 skulljack hack

The other tactical changes come in the abilities of the XCOM soldiers and the alien troops. Your soldiers come in five classes; rangers, grenadiers, specialists, sharpshooters, and psi operatives, though pretty much all begin as unspecialised rookies. Soldiers gain experience and level up by killing aliens, at each new level you’re faced with a choice between one new tide-turning ability or another. Unlike Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2’s choices feel more evenly balanced. In the case of the sharpshooter, for example; squadsight is unlocked from the get-go, and many of the future options revolve around more advanced use of the sniper rifle or pistol. Squadsight allows a sharpshooter to shoot enemies sighted by other squad members – I would never go into an Enemy Unknown battle without it.

The alien forces have changed far more drastically, in terms of both visual style and combat abilities. Their ranks are bolstered by decidedly human troopers and mechs, complete with big guns and shoulder-mounted grenade launchers. Don’t worry however, there are still plenty of real alien-looking aliens too, with Mutons and Chryssalids ready to shred your battles plan with reckless abandon.

Review XCOM 2 alien chryssalid

Your soldiers are more than faceless grunts, at least they can be; assuming you don’t get them killed a mission or two into their careers. As in Enemy Unknown, you can change soldier’s names, faces, voices, and so forth, but XCOM 2 adds a lot of neat details, like date of birth and short bios, providing a snippet of backstory. More than anything though, the visual customisation has been blown out to an appreciative degree; you can now fully control armour variations, colours,  and patterns, and even add hot accessories like nose studs and cigarettes.

The options are fantastic; I spent hours, multiple hours crafting my squads, applying styles and making up stories – mostly in my head. I admit however, I am a little perturbed that hairstyles, such as cornrows and dreadlocks of all varieties, are held behind the Sergeant rank. I love the idea that they are simply too hot for rookies to handle, but I can’t help ponder the possibly of less palatable reasons.

It was in no small part due to the customisation options that my sharpshooter ‘Bolt’ transitioned from the least cool member of my first squad, to the saviour of my last. She wasn’t one of the soldiers I poured a lot of attention into initially, but she grew into a survivor, suffering mental and physical scarring along the way. She deployed on that first mission of my campaign – excluding the tutorial – and in last, in which she killed more than a dozen aliens; quite literally five in one turn through the use of high-level abilities. It speaks greatly of its character, that XCOM, an exceedingly system-heavy game, can allow me to develop this kind of emotional investment – I didn’t even give her a custom name or nickname.

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Just as the in-mission tactical layer received new ancillary mechanics and gameplay tweaks, so too did the strategic layer. As I mentioned earlier, you’re a guerrilla organisation based out of a repurposed UFO; you don’t deploy satellites to earn cash, you meet resistance contacts and build radio installations. You construct a network which is actually quite different from Enemy Unknown, which saw your resources increase through satellites, then decrease through attrition and the loss of support as nations would pull out.

Rather than waiting for alien attacks, you wait for guerrilla targets of opportunity to appear, or raid known ADVENT facilities. You pass time by flying across the globe and scanning areas of interest for all types of resources, including recruits, scientists, and engineers. Both scientists and engineers are named, with real characters with models, portraits, and everything. This elevates them from mere numbers to be increased, to actual people upon whom the war very much hangs. Scientists simply speed up research projects, while engineers have to be assigned to specific facilities or to building projects, which left me wishing that the scientists were integrated in a similarly involved manner.

There are things I actively dislike about the strategic layer; the interface and the placement of certain functionality raises my hackles, in a way that only people with a passion for interface design and user experience will understand. Namely the facilities; there is a serious haze around how some of them operate, a problematic disconnect between naming and function, with important mechanics poorly explained, or indeed not explained at all. The game masks its strong core features with a veneer of complexity, which adds precisely nothing, but can slow the player down considerable. Up until around hour fifteen hour mark, about halfway through a game, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being rushed in the short term, in the tactical layer, but stalled in the strategic layer. 

review xcom 2 strategic map

You’re spurred into action by the ominous ‘Avatar Project’, in essence a countdown to humanities final subjugation. Every few weeks the aliens will make progress, fill the project bar a little more, parallel to this they are also devising stratagems, or ‘Dark Events’ to be deployed against you. For example, they may crack down on resistance fighters, increasing recruitment costs, or task a UFO to hunt down the Avenger – your mobile base – which can obviously have more dire consequences. You can counter their Dark Events and erode their Avatar progress by completing story, guerrilla, and raid missions. The Avatar Project is an essential component, and the Dark Events can mix the flavour of the experience, tactically and strategically. But like most of XCOM 2’s strategic side, they are poorly presented; there’s a sense of mushy intangibility around the Dark Events and the ‘intel’ resources they use. 

The new systems do provide a more varied and meaningfully differentiated missions, set on a huge pool of maps, more numerous and diverse than in Enemy Unknown – they also feel larger and denser. The guerrilla missions usually revolve around an objective with a timer; evacuate a VIP before alien interceptors arrive and blast your dropship from the sky, or destroy an alien device before it can transmit data. These timed missions have the potential to create particularly violent and costly clashes, with tense moments as you rush your soldiers to the extraction zone on the last possible turn. They can also feel like the worst kind of bind, one that stifles your strategic creativity, denies you the opportunity to leverage concealment and spring orchestrated ambushes.

review xcom 2 sharpshooter

The Enemy Within expansion pack featured an excellent timed mission, set in a Chryssalid-infested fishing village. It’s one of the few specific missions I remember from the previous XCOM, and I do so because it balanced its timer and enemy obstructions so well, it felt different from the other missions, including those with timed explosives. At best XCOM 2’s timed missions can approach a similar level, but there are just too damn many of them.

For me, things really came to a head when the game bugged out during a timed mission; with three turns to go I was on the second floor of a building, the extraction point was predetermined and marked out on the third floor, which my soldiers refused to ascend to. No amount of mouse wheel action, or use of the G/T keys (camera height), or camera direction would make my soldiers plot a path up any of the ladders to the top floor – I experimented with every possible path by saving and reloading the mission multiple times. Now fortunately XCOM 2 has great environment destruction, I was able to blow the third floor with a grenade and force the extraction point to reset to the ground.

That issue was the kind of problem Enemy Unknown was ripe with. An expansion and a sequel later, verticality is still a serious problem. Similarly, there are dozens upon dozens of visual bugs; action-camera perspectives stuck in walls, soldiers pivoting through solid objects, aliens not animating when they move, and many more. It is not an exaggeration to say there’s usually at least one such occurrence in every mission I play. Worse are the times when the game’s logic takes a hit and simple actions like ending a turn will hitch; ironically the ranger ability ‘rapid fire’ – the soldier to shoots twice at the same enemy – is one of the slowest to use, with the soldier ducking back into cover for several seconds before firing again.

review xcom 2 ranger magnetic shotgun rapid fire

That’s fast compared to the mission load times; both entering and exiting missions requires loads in excess of a minute for me, running off a standard hard drive, not a solid-state. Strictly performance problems only really manifest during the beginnings of missions and just about any time I click on something back at base, in the strategic layer.

As I eluded at the very beginning, my relationship with XCOM 2 became frayed, not because of the gameplay or difficulty, but because it degenerated into the single worst technical experience I’ve endured on any platform in recent years. Around fifteen to twenty hours in, the game started crashing seemingly at random, a few hours later my computer began spitting up memory errors as XCOM 2 managed to fill up my 16GBs of RAM almost by itself. This persisted and worsened to the point that I could barely play a single mission; if the game didn’t crash it would effectively render my computer comatose, leaving me no choice but to push the power and restart my machine. During the last five or so hours of my first campaign I was forced to load the game, play one mission, save and quit, and load again – if I so much as tried to promote a character after a mission it would crash.

It was videogame hell, pure and simple, and totally unacceptable. 

It sounds like a memory leak to me, that’s the consensus I saw online, and it could well be that. I started a second a game to see whether or not the issue was present and it was, which was odd considering it didn’t manifest until mid-game on my first run. Through testing I discovered that the problem was related to the number of save files I had; perhaps eight manual and a clutch of autosaves. Now with only two manual saves I can play the game like normal, but XCOM 2 is one of those games where saves actually matter, exactly one week out from launch there have been no patches.

On a lighter note, multiplayer has returned and appears largely unchanged, although I couldn’t find a opponent whenever I tried to quick match, which isn’t totally surprising given the appeal of the single-player. You can create and save squads using alien and XCOM troops, selection being limited by a point system, and take them into battle on a host of maps against other players. Unlike Enemy Unknown there are restrictions on the XCOM soldier loadouts; all use the mid-tier weapons and armour, presumably for balancing purposes. They can be visually customised though. To that end, any soldier you customise in the single player or multiplayer can be saved to a character pool. Soldiers in the pool will appear in your future games, and can be exported and shared with other people. Additionally, XCOM 2 officially supports user-created mods through Steam Workshop integration, so you can go and download for free that beret the game is so badly missing!

xcom 2 review psi operative

review xcom 2 4/5 goodXCOM 2 is a game of systems and mechanics that at times conspire to create satisfying emotional experiences, beyond the genre-standard quenching of the player’s megalomaniacal tendencies. Missions are rewarding puzzles of angles; positioning and line of sight, flavoured by often misleading hit percentages. The tactical game is tighter than its already clenched predecessor, but the strategic side has most definitely suffered bloat of the most needless and perplexing sort, yet the character systems remain feverishly compelling. Obviously, my greatest complaints come by way of the game’s technical failures; even if one does not suffer the memory issues that I did, be safe in the knowledge there’s a world of smaller issues ready to break animation and gameplay in ways you won’t expect. Hopefully, there aren’t other huge issues waiting to render the game unplayable, but you can surely understand my scepticism.  

I don’t know what’s worse; that the technical experience was easily the worst I have endured in recent memory, or that all I can think about is spinning up that second run, unpatched and unrepentant. 

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