I have a competition in me. I want no other species to succeed.
There's just something invigorating about the idea of humanity finally uniting under one universal goal, to survive. Ever since I was young, I always had a soft spot for stories involving war with aliens. It started with stories like Ender's Game, Independence Day, Predator, and Starship Troopers, then grew into a heavy teenage love for Warhammer 40k. Now I have in my hands the latest and perhaps greatest new way for me to kick some alien ass. Xcom 2 is a fantastic new entry by Firaxis into their oeuvre of strategy games. They have managed to improve upon their fantastic Xcom: Enemy Unknown reboot in almost every way, while not only maintaining but improving the difficulty and depth of the strategy. It seems clear that there has been some serious thought and discussion put into turning over every stone and refining all gameplay mechanics. Classes have been significantly reworked, along with new abilities, varied weapons and grenades, and stealth mechanics which succeed in alleviating a lot of frustrating gripes that players had from Firaxis' previous installment. Even the narrative has decided to chew up what enemy unknown accomplished and spit out a new story working on the assumption that Xcom had failed. Its now been 20 years since the collective leaders of Earth unconditionally surrendered to the Alien invaders. In this time the Aliens have completely taken over control of Earth. It's their planet now. It's your job to infiltrate their systems, to rally the people, and to topple the alien regime. Do you have what it takes to take the earth back from the alien scum?
Before I get into some of why this is game is so great, lets talk about the elephant in the room.
Xcom 2 as it stands right now is like going to the movies to see a great film only to have the projectionist be an incompetent moron who cant seem to get the damn thing to work. It's a shame they were so pressured to hit this release date because its clear to anyone whose already picked this title up that it needed some serious technical polish. Xcom 2 may not be as horrible a release as something like Arkham Knight, but to call this a successful launch is more than a mild overstatement. This game runs like every line of code has to be filtered through molasses to get to its destination. People with systems sporting as much as SLI'd 980TI's are still struggling to maintain a constant 60fps, experiencing constant frame drops, stutters, absurdly long load times even on an SSD, and a hefty amount of bugs. The bugs are common enough, that tackling ironman is like playing Russian roulette with your soldiers. You never know when one will show up and leave a key member of your A team out to die through no fault of your own. Some of the old friends are back, like struggling to highlight specific floors of buildings when you need to, or bullet animations clipping through objects, but not to be outdone there are plenty of new eager bug friends ready to join the party. Its mind boggling how a PC only game can run so poorly on its only platform. The graphics, while still fairly good, are nowhere near the level of fidelity which would explain this horrid performance, especially when this game runs on the now over 10 year old Unreal Engine 3.
It would be easy to write this game off entirely based on technical performance alone, yet why are so many people playing and talking about Xcom 2 still? That's because in spite of the plethora of technical troubles experienced by the majority of players, Xcom 2 is a fantastic turn based tactical strategy game. If this was a first person shooter then it would be completely unplayable, but seeing as this is a turn based game the frame rate doesn't actually affect gameplay, allowing players to struggle through all of their troubles and still enjoy one of the best turn based tactics games in recent memory. It's really fascinating what problems people will put up with to enjoy something of quality.
So yes, that does mean Xcom 2 is something of quality. Underneath the frustrating technical problems is one of the most satisfying, and mechanically diverse tactics games in recent years. It's been pretty hard to put it down. I said earlier that the graphics aren't good enough to explain the performance troubles, but that does not mean that Xcom 2 is a bad looking game. Quite the opposite in fact. All the character models look better than the original in every respect. The environments are detailed and diverse. The item and weapon effects are flashy and satisfying. The art design and presentation is the true highlight for me, as Xcom 2 brings an engrossing sci-fi dystopia to light with great use of color, and fantastic environment design filled with great alien propaganda.
At its core, Xcom 2 is still the same squad based, turn based tactics game.
Every soldier has 2 actions to move, shoot, or perform one of a huge number of special abilities. Aliens typically follow the same rules as you do. I say typically as the aliens do have a considerably larger assortment of troop types, each with their own unique abilities and mechanics. Xcom 2 has managed to create a large amount of variety in gameplay simply by introducing a ton of new mechanics for not just the aliens to punish you with but for you to confidently exorcise the alien scum! It seems like Firaxis decided to go the balancing route of “If everything's overpowered, NOTHING is overpowered!” This strategy creates a strange bucket like difficulty curve as the game progresses. In the early game, you're going to find yourself very outmatched. It might even be a struggle to complete a mission let alone bring everyone back alive. Many missions also bring with them a turn limit which forces you to play aggressive, take risks, and punishes the classic and boring overwatch sniper crawl of the original. As you develop better weapons, armors, and squad abilities you will find it easier and easier to succeed because your whole team is overpowered. As a personal suggestion, once you reach this mid-late game stage I recommend turning up the difficulty if you can, as Xcom is best played where the difficulty straddles a fine edge of being hard but achievable with good tactics creating a very satisfying feeling of accomplishment when you do win. After all, the war to free humanity from the imperious bonds of the alien overlords should be hard fought!
Every class has undergone some serious reworking which is a real breath of fresh air. Xcom: EU was still great, but anyone who played that game knew that snipers were gods and everyone else was merely there to help serve up the alien banquet. In Xcom 2 however snipers have undergone some nerfs to bring them down to earth while nearly every other class and subclass has received a redesign giving them some really essential utility. Assault troopers are gone in place of rangers who can play around with the new stealth mechanics and be devastating melee swordsmen or powerful single target crit machines. Heavies are now grenadiers with similar roles as to before only more refined, and with how critical aoe cover destruction is to enable the damage dealers to finish the aliens off easily, they provide crucial utility making it vital to include at least 1 of them at all times. Supports are now specialists and much like before provide the crucial healing needed, but this time around fill a powerful new hacking role which enables you to meddle with the many robotic enemy types you will face even completely taking control of them sometimes, completely swinging the tide of battle. The sniper is now a subclass of sharpshooter and fills in much the same role you expect, while the new gunslinger sub-class is personal favorite of mine. While fairly useless early game, come late game the gunslinger fitted with a powerful pistol is capable of outputting unreal amounts of damage with a barrage of attacks in a single turn. I would have lots of success by sending in 2 grenadiers to blow up all the cover while softening them up, then rush my gunslinger in to unload a pistol shot on every single alien around killing most. Afterwards the rest of the squad just plays cleanup duty.
Outside of missions the world map has undergone similar design changes making for more engaging gameplay. The procedural map generation aids in keeping not only each mission, but each playthrough interesting. Many items are only acquired through RNG mechanics. There's even a building you can make which gives your squad members some RNG to learn skills they would never have had a chance to learn. My gunslinger learned run and gun because of this perk, and it further enabled his run into enemy lines and shoot everything in sight gameplay. It provides an almost rogue-like element to the macro game which really does add some extra incentive in multiple playthroughs.
Its entirely possible that before long a patch will have been released, or new drivers will come out and all these performance problems will be forgotten. As it stands, even though the issues are many, don't let that keep you from enjoying one of the best tactical strategy games of recent years. Xcom 2 is a well designed, mechanically diverse tactics game that will hold your attention for many, many hours. The “just one more turn... “ feeling is strong with this one. When your soldiers are dying, and the aliens are closing in, steel yourself and remember – Suffer not the alien to live!