Consider, if you will, the surprise sequel to the beloved iconic series. A glorious franchise which everyone is permanently nostalgic about returns after a long period of absence to surprise the world, and then proceeds to surprise us all again by actually being good. There’s examples like Toy Story 3, The Force Awakens and Rayman Origins, but now we have another to add to the list – XCOM 2. That’s the eleventh XCOM game, but maths is pretty hard. Or maybe this is a reboot, in which case it should still be XCOM 3 after that boring shooter business and OH FINE I’LL SHUT UP.
The previous title, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, came out in the dark days of 2012, as a reinvention of the old alien-popping PC series of the 1990s. In Enemy Unknown, a batch of E.T.s invade the earth and you hold them off with a squad of six grunts in bulky flak jackets, which get swapped out for power armour as you pinch more Klingon technology and adapt it for yourself. It’s all turn-based, tactical, testicle-twistingly-tough good fun.
And it’s back for more, it seems. Turns out that all those player failures in the last game have been considered canonical, as we return to Earth twenty years later and it’s been completely conquered by the bastards we spent so much time trying to kick off the planet. They’re running a global sci-fi dystopia with soldiers on every street corner and enough government propaganda to fill a dozen copies of the Westport Independent every hour.
And the fragmented remains of the XCOM organisation aren’t going to stand for that. The rather exciting tutorial shows your white-bread sidekick from the first game breaking into an alien base to break you free, whereupon you’re brought back to their mobile spaceship base and told to do something about this cosmic menace before you’ve even pulled the disturbingly large microchip out of your brain.
So right away we see a reversal of fortunes. The combat boot is now very much on the other seven-toed foot, as before you had the backing of the world’s governments and just had to stop these little blighters at the door, shooting anything that came within a light year of the Earth’s orbit. But now they’re in power and you’re the invaders, struggling to build a scrappy resistance as you fly across the world to the various pockets of dissent, begging for money and resources like a hobo in a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier.
And I like it. It’s a good way to keep the same sort of mechanics whilst putting a new spin on them, as now everything’s gone a bit guerrilla warfare. Whilst stealth in the previous game was a far-fetched dream that died the second anybody entered your postcode, now sneaking is a central mechanic in which you navigate around the baddies’ sightlines before coming up for an explosive ambush, an experience so satisfying that most people are likely to walk away with erections like broomsticks. Yes, even the women.
There’s also a bunch of new things you can do whilst fighting off the minions of ADVENT, all of which nicely fits the ragged “Band Of Brothers” theme. You can hack doors and devices around the battlefield for an advantage, grab any pieces of tech that you see dropped by your enemies, and if one of your soldiers gets knocked out, you’ll have to physically carry him back to the EVAC point. Otherwise the innumerable Turian forces will scoop him up and he’ll wake up in a tank filled with green fluid, probably with enough torture devices pointed at him to make the Spanish Inquisition feel queasy.
But the game isn’t perfect, as nothing is. First and foremost, the big problem is that the optimisation isn’t great. Actually, it’s pretty rubbish, especially considering the engine is given all the time in the world between turns to figure out what it needs to do next and how frame rates work. Characters would occasionally shoot through objects or get punched by a brute on the other side of a wall, and both before I’d unlocked psychic powers to justify it. And loading times were even worse – I saw my team sitting in the back of the transport ship for so long that I’m pretty sure I’m entitled to frequent flyer miles. Maybe that’ll be an irrelevant snipe six months from now, when patches have brought it up to snuff, but come on. How hard is it to just release a game when it’s actually finished? They already delayed it once, and might as well have just tacked an extra fortnight onto the end to bring it up to ship-shape condition.
Or – and here’s another thought – why not add a whole extra month to the release date and get some decent voice acting in there? Sidekick Bucky Barnes from the first game is perfectly fine, in a forgettable and inoffensive way, but the new heads of engineering and research are atrocious, reading their lines like they’re in a primary school play about plasma guns and the fun of autopsies. And though this is a pretty minor gripe about characters whose only real job is to have their head balance on the top of a drop-down box, there’s more of a narrative focus on social interaction with the player in this game than there was in the last one. Fair enough, but the end result is that I can’t help but wish that Firaxis would do a Destiny on us, and quietly hire Nolan North and a couple of other professionals to redo the lines properly.
But thankfully X2 knows what it’s doing in all other forms of sound design, which is good. It’s an important part of atmospheric setting that’s frequently under-utilised in video games, but here we see it made the most of in order to keep immersion going. Enemies make satisfying thuds when they hit the ground, music keeps the tension high and the static-riddled communication between the troops as they creep around an alien platoon all adds to a sense of heightened drama.
There’s also more depth when it comes to soldier modelling, so I instantly did what I normally do when given character customisation and tried to recreate myself. The diversity of options isn’t great, especially when compared to something like Saints Row 4 or Fallout 4, but it doesn’t matter too much as I feel anybody who’s come to XCOM for Barbie doll dress-up is here for the wrong reason.
I also like the new steps in visual design, a lot more than the old ones. A team of folks in power armour in the old game looked like a group of action figures rather than human beings, but now there’s a real sense of care taken to how things look. This probably comes across most with entities like the new berserker, or the strangely scary sectoid, both of which look like they want to drag you into a dungeon with Buffalo Bill and see what the other side of your eyes look like. Or just hit you for half an hour, if it’s the former.
I will say though that the game has lost some of the lethal difficulty of its predecessors. It’s not unchallenging by any means, but when I finally reached the end of the campaign after a thirty-hour stretch, I found myself strangely disappointed. Admittedly there are higher difficulty settings, but even on easy mode, an older game like Enemy Unknown would stick a gun in your mouth and tell you that it’d pull the trigger if you couldn’t whistle Flight Of The Bumblebee perfectly, and in C minor to boot. XCOM 2 does the same thing, but it’s not long before you realise that it’s actually holding a potato gun, and that it only wants to hear Baa Baa, Black Sheep in a tone of your choice. As a matter of fact, the difficulty tends to curve downwards, as your soldiers rank up and you start acquiring more lethal tech. The enemy threat does accelerate, but certainly not at the same rate if you know what you’re doing.
But like I said, there are difficulty options for this, and on the whole I find myself very enamoured by XCOM 2. It works hard to do something new whilst still holding the old game as a basic template, and almost manages to attain the same level of elegance in its design.
So should you get it? Yes, most definitely. It’s fun, it’s tense, and it’s willing to give you the freedom to run your whole campaign off a cliff. Oh, and it’s priced at thirty-five pounds, rather than fifty. That alone is reason to celebrate it.
Firaxis’ new game is the natural evolution of the previous one, and though in some ways it falls slightly short, Mo Farah is also slow if you compare him to Usain Bolt. On its own terms XCOM 2 is a real winner, and deserves to be treated as such.