XCOM is the gaming equivalent of crack. I know I shouldn’t be playing it – I need to write this review, I need to do the dishes, I need to leave my house, preferably after showering. I know it’s bad for me but I just … can’t … stop. XCOM is the type of game you start playing at 9pm, just for a mission and maybe a couple upgrades, then you find yourself blearily stumbling off to sleep at quarter to four in the morning. When XCOM 2 was announced, a few of my friends sent me texts and links to the announcement. I just sighed heavily, hung my head, then turned to my calendar and scratched a big “X” over a thirty day block of time (albeit with a slight smile). I love XCOM. It’s very, very fun. Let’s just get that out of the way now.


So, You Thought You Won?

XCOM 2 is the follow-up to the 2012 hit from Firaxis and it immediately has some bad news for you. The game begins by mocking all your hard fought victories in the previous game with an opening cinematic that basically says “Wait, you thought you won? Ha. Got some bad news…” That’s right. The aliens won in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. And they didn’t just win; they won like the Golden State Warriors playing a high school basketball team. They destroyed your puny, pathetic attempts at resistance and took over the planet and they’ve been our alien overlords for 20+ years, “solving” all our problems and making themselves look more like us. Don’t worry though, humanity is nothing if not resilient, and once again they have assumed the role of underdog (although this time it’s as a rebel group of guerilla warriors) and are taking another crack at the alien hordes.

The Known and the Unknown

Luckily, XCOM 2 has some serious upgrades for you to improve your chances this time around. XCOM 2 improves over the last game in almost every way. New solider classes, new enemies, new buildings, more destructible environments, soldier upgrades, weapon upgrades, new skills, new weapons … you name it. The only way the game isn’t substantially improved upon over XCOM: EU is the story, although it is an interesting concept to have you begin the game as a rebel.

As usual, your time is divided into fighting battles and base/resource management, but this time around there are even more ways to customize your squad and base and a ton of new ways to adapt your squad to your personal playstyle. Want a sniper who also doubles as a magnum-wielding cowboy? No problem. Want to build an assault trooper that doubles as a psionic shadow-dwelling stealth ninja with a shotgun that fires poison-tipped rounds? Go for it. Perma-death is still in full force, so go ahead and fall in love with your squad at your own peril. If you’ve played XCOM: EU there will be a lot here that’s familiar, but there’s plenty of new stuff to drool over as well.

Fighting in the field is pretty similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You move from cover to cover (if you don’t want your squad to die immediately), laying down lines of overlapping fire as you inch across the battlefield. Don’t worry though; there are plenty of fun new twists. Loot drops are a new addition, where random deceased enemies will occasionally drop loot with a timer attached to it and you never know what the loot is going to be; a scope, extra clips for no-movement-cost reloads, new grenades etc. You can enhance loot drops with a costly perk that will cause foes to drop two items instead of one, making the drops even tastier. It adds some excitement and tests your greed; is it worth potentially stumbling upon a new group of enemies to make a dash for the dropped loot? What if the loot isn’t any good and you sacrifice your best ranger to get it? Make your decision fast, because that timer ticks away quick.

Covering All Your Bases

Cover comes in a few flavors and there is some new stuff here too; there’s half cover (decent defensive bonus), full cover (you guessed it, a bigger defensive bonus), destructible cover and cover on the ground or in multiple story buildings. Most of this is same as XCOM: EU, but there are a lot more buildings and objects that can be destroyed this time around, which changes combat significantly. Pack of stubborn aliens dug in deep behind a brick wall? Have your helpful grenadier launch an explosive at them and voilà! No more cover, time to die alien scum. Couple of 2nd-story turrets or advent soldiers giving you trouble? Collapse the floor under their feet and drop them to the ground for massive damage. This sounds like a small thing, but it’s a game-changer on both sides of the battlefield. More than a few times I was dug in with my sniper, picking off enemies with aplomb, only to have the fiery wall I was hiding behind crumble, leaving me totally vulnerable. It’s just another factor on top of 15 or so others that can change the tide of a battle in an instant.

Another new addition is concealment. Your squad begins every mission in concealment and you remain concealed until you stumble into an enemy’s field of view, represented by a red square pattern around groups of aliens. This is great for laying ambushes for enemies and also opens up new stressful options for combat, as once you are spotted, you can’t re-enter concealment, even if you wipe out the group. Say you have a viper and a mech to the north and two sectoids (mind controlling bastards!) and a stun lancer to the west. What do you do? Who do you ambush, knowing that the other group will be closing in on your unprotected side once you fire your first shot? Many, many times I sat there checking distance, checking my enemies’ line of sight (LOS is another excellent addition to combat in XCOM 2, represented by a small crosshair when you can be seen), weighing pros and cons, weighing enemy skills verses my own squad’s, cursing myself for not bringing another ranger, checking where half and full cover is, agonizing over my decision. This is where XCOM 2 succeeds so well and is so damned fun. Knowing the right move will power me to victory and the wrong will spell ruin for my favorite soldiers is a thrill, and always requires a lot of thought. Also, using concealment to lay a perfect ambush is so rewarding it’s ridiculous. Setting up your troops perfectly on overwatch, kicking off the festivities with a well-timed grenade fired into a cluster of enemies, then sitting back, watching the aliens scramble around desperately, blundering into your waiting lines of fire is crazy fun.


Classes and Skills

Speaking of combat, there are some new classes and perks that offer a lot of fresh variety in the field. The Ranger has been turned into a half-melee unit, able to use perks to increase blade attack damage (yeah, they have awesome swords and machetes for chopping aliens in half), stay in concealment after your squad has blown their cover, and even extend the distance they can travel by a few squares, which is huge for timed and extraction missions. The Specialist is a tech badass with a small drone, able to hack and use turrets, open locks and even fly the drone to wounded allies to heal them. Every old class (Sniper, Assault, Medic, etc.) has either been revamped, renamed, or both. Skill trees work better in tandem with other soldiers and you can have two completely different versions of the same soldier class in your squad depending on how you handle their skill tree. All this adds a ton of fun and variety to a system that was already a blast. Throw in a bunch more load-out and appearance customization and you’ll find yourself getting very attached to your soldiers (R.I.P. Captain Cornflakes. Lil’ Miniwheatz may have taken your place but you will never be forgotten).


Nothing's Perfect

The game isn’t without some hiccups, however, and most of them are from a technical standpoint, which is a real bummer. I had some of the same problems I faced in XCOM: EU, which is really disappointing, since EU was released in 2012. Sometimes when enemies are moving/attacking, all I can see is a black screen when I should be seeing the alien moving and attacking! This is frustrating and often deadly, given that this is a game where one wrong move means death for your entire squad, or at the least a cowardly retreat. I had to reload a previous save and try again, only to hit the same problem, causing me to save right before the bug, then travel around, trying to find out where the aliens moved to, then reloading my save and reacting accordingly. This happened multiple times in my play-through, causing me to go online and look for ways to tweak my settings to get a smoother experience.

There are also graphical hiccups, sound freezes and the occasional slowdown, even though my machine has capabilities far beyond what I needed to run the game. Online you can find multiple webpages dedicated to fixes, proposed fixes, tweaks, and complaints and I ended up lowering my settings to get some of the worst problems to calm down. There’s also the odd Caps Lock trick that will substantially decrease load times between missions (what?). All of this is a real shame to see, especially in a game this highly anticipated.


On the Other Hand...

Otherwise the graphics here are pretty detailed and there are some little animations and touches that really stood out to me. Small things, like choosing an engineering project and seeing workers occasionally stroll by in the background while you make your decision, or a backsplash of venom hitting the ground from a viper attack looks impressive and makes the experience a bit more immersive. The new customizations for your soldiers look sharp, and overall the locations and animations are crisp and vivid (when the aforementioned problems aren’t happening). Sound-wise everything sounds how it should and again, some small touches really sell the experience. The slithering hiss of a viper coiling its way towards you, the multiple movements, whirrs, and clanks a mech makes as it spots you and stands to attention sounds great and of course, the slashes, explosions, and gunshots are quite satisfying.



XCOM 2 is a great game but it’s hard for me to understand how the technical problems got through, because they mar an otherwise nearly flawless game. The skill trees are robust, the new soldier classes are great and the base management is stressfully fun as you work to build your perfect squad. XCOM 2 proves that the strategy genre is still alive and well, and also that gamers won’t likely tire of meeting new, intelligent species and shooting them in the face anytime soon.

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