Five months and one day, in fact. XCOM 2 was a big huge hit at release, and mostly very well-received – although, variously, there were complaints about performance, difficulty, time-wasting and the opacity of its complicated systems. The picture’s a little different now we’re here in July. There have been three DLC packs, a bunch of patches, a mod community and most of all, plenty of time for repeat visits to see how it feels now we know how all the pieces fit together. I’ve just emerged from the requisite sleepless nights to wage the main part of another campaign, and I have indeed found a significantly changed game – for reasons both good and bad.
I’ll start with performance, as I was one of those who was blighted by lousy and wildly-spiking framerates both at launch and after the initial patch. The good news is the worst issues have been resolved – where once I was seeing my frame rate drop to sub-30 on a GTX 970 even with most settings at absolute minimum, now I’m seeing it range between 40 and 60 when almost everything is maxed-out, and at 1440p too. (Full SSAO, as opposed to the lesser and not hugely different Tile SSAO still takes a big toll). It’s never dropping below 30, it’s smoother and I can get the magic 60 if I compromise on a few things. I can’t prove this, but I swear it looks a little prettier than it did too. Or perhaps I’m just able to appreciate it a little bit more now I’m not seething about jerkiness and worrying that my poor graphics card is running at the temperature of the sun.
The aggravating delays between certain actions have been toned down too, although there’s still an unwelcome amount of heel-dragging as various animations or reactions play out, maddening when one is keen to know the consequence or action a riposte. This is compounded by a sometimes unbearable-feeling regularity of interruption on the strategy map side of the game. Already a beeswarm of nags and forced deviations from one’s R&D plans, with the two story-led DLC packs (the third is purely aesthetic) in the mix it’s off the scale in the early game.
I’ll get onto their actual contents later, but first let’s talk about how they’re implemented: crammed in as new missions and objectives available from an hour or two into a new campaign. You can put them off indefinitely, but you probably won’t want to, both from a thirst for the new and because you almost certainly know going in that they grant new and powerful goodies. Those goodies require research and resources though, so you’re further splitting the vote of your funds and having more things that you’re keen to progress on – but can’t, because the strategy map keeps bombarding you with other priorities.
Having a wider choice of sub-objectives is entirely welcome, as is, if this is your first time with the DLC, getting to see new places and fight new foes, but it’s so hard to make progress on anything when it’s popping up a prompt and trying to drag you on a mission quite this often. I counted four interruptions within a single in-game day at one point. My quest to upgrade Medkits seemed to take years. I swore and slammed keyboards too many times, as yet another pop-up mission or far too slow Avatar counter animation took over my screen, and I realised that I truly do hate the strategy map now. Partly it’s the extra chaff introduced by the DLC, but mostly it’s that I now know the game very well, and am acutely aware of what I want to achieve in it.
Many of the roadblocks seem to be just for the sake of it, effectively purposeless other than to rank up soldiers, which there is no shortage of opportunities to do anyway. With the DLC stuff in the mix the strategy map is now all too clearly layers upon layers, this teetering Jenga tower of thematic ideas that were clearly very carefully planned-out on paper and would almost certainly work well as a boardgame, but in a videogame it’s alarmingly akin to Windows Update repeatedly pestering you to restart when you’re in the middle of typing a long document. It drives me spare, and is so far departed from both the simmering tension of wondering if and when a UFO would appear in the original X-COM and the notorious, but by comparison clear and sedate, satellite rush system in 2012’s XCOM. There’s no flow or atmosphere, only nagging, pointless deviations (the trek to Black Market or back to HQ serves precisely zero useful purpose, for instance) and number-juggling.
Breathe. Breathe. The better news is that more mission-based (and new gear-based) content of the DLC has given me a very different campaign from my previous three. I haven’t felt as though I’m repeating myself, I’ve got a clutch of new toys and, at times, I’ve almost felt like I’m playing a full-on expansion, as was XCOM 1’s big Enemy Within pack. My battle-worn team is seriously different to those I fielded in my other resistance operations. It’s important to note, though, that I didn’t play any of the DLC as it was released piece-by-piece, but instead waited until the season pass triumvirate had completed. I’d advise your doing the same if it’s not too late – my complaints above about nagging notwithstanding, I feel that the two story packs in the mix at once makes for a far more dramatic remix than just one would.
The newest DLC, Shen’s Last Gift, is very much the highlight, as it introduces the choice of ongoing change to your squad rather than the one-off goodies of its predecessor, Alien Hunters. It also offers a little more closure about the death of XCOM’s anxious Engineer Dr Shen, although I won’t pretend I’ve particularly enjoyed XCOM 2’s determination to push advisor characters to greater prominence. It’s supposed to be my story, not theirs. That said, there is a sweet moment involving the late Shen’s relationship with his daughter, and a knowingly, agreeably silly sub-plot which also includes a nod to X-COM heritage. Plus a shedload of self-destructing robots to kill.
A long, elaborate setpiece mission involving said robots needs to be completed, and it’s a tough one (and a slightly frustrating one too, as it involves endlessly respawning foes – i.e. a ton of waiting for the enemy turns to complete), and then, bingo, you get your own robot. And the option to build more. By default, he looks like Johnny 5 on a roid-rage, but can be customised like the soldiers. Transformers gonk that I am, I made him all-over purple with a single eye, and named him Shockwave. As a consequence, I cannot abide the thought of embarking on any mission without him.
With the robot soldiers, XCOM 2 leans close to Enemy Within, although on a more limited scale. Robots level up as soldiers do, and have the choice of two different skill trees as soldiers do, plus there are some brand new weapon and armour options for them, so they’re not like the disposable, mute tanks of XCOM norm. These are true robo-homies, and ability-wise they’ve been put in a smart sweet-spot between overpowered and fragile – crucially, they can’t use cover, so expect them become priority alien target #1 whether you want them to be or not. I’d like a few more customisation options – it’s just four heads then an alternate limb and torso set, plus colours – but no doubt we can expect the mod community to flood the Steam Workshop with Transformers, Terminators and Daleks (please please can there be Daleks) before too long.
It’s a big remix to squads, and essentially makes for a third type of soldier, alongside standard infantry and psychics. Though the resources required to build a bot potentially stymie other squad upgrades for quite a while, so don’t expect to have bots-only b-team in reserve.
When this coupled with the new weapon and armour options in the Alien Hunters DLC, my squad’s abilities are markedly different from in a vanilla campaign. Very quickly, Alien Hunters bestows a clutch of new weapons on you, which are broadly speaking more powerful variants on existent gear, but you can only ever have one of each, and if you leave one in the field (i.e. you don’t drag the corpse of whoever was carrying it back home with you), it’s gone forever. Thematically, this convinces in two cases: a vaguely Warhammer 40,000ish cyber-crossbow and a special pistol which puts its wielder back into concealment after a kill.
Not so much in the others, though. One is just a pair of axes for Rangers. Just axes, so far as I can tell (one of which can be thrown as a bonus attack once per mission). You’re telling me that you can build any number of robots, train humans in psychic powers and co-opt any and all extraterrestrial weaponry as your own, but you can’t make an axe? What is this, the last axe in the universe? Same goes for the Frost Bomb, which freezes enemies for a couple of turns – given the game already offers a huge range of weird and wonderful grenades, it’s pretty weird to be saying that XCOM haven’t figured out how to make ice in a can. Minor quibbles, but this ties into a broader concern about Alien Hunters and its predecessor, Anarchy’s Children – XCOM 2’s clean, angular future-aesthetic is now groaning under the weight of a mish-mash of styles.
There was already some danger of this in the base game, a certain lack of over-arching visual coherence between the enemy types. The armoured
Combine Advent troops, the familiarly space-monterish Sectoids, Vipers and Mutons, the incongrously Greco-Romanesque Archons and the cyberpunkish Codex and Avatars. Somehow it doesn’t quite convince as a unified force – compare it to Half-Life, which similarly has different species working as one army but keeps enough similarity between them that they at least feel of the same universe. XCOM 2’s foes, by contrast, come across as if the bestiaries of three entirely different games were shoved together. X-COM has form here of course, but somehow its scattergun monsters did seem like a family nonetheless.
This is worsened by the very silly – deliberately so, I think – new armour in Alien Hunters, which is obtained by finally beating three recurring, extremely difficult boss monsters. These big bastards present perhaps the stiffest challenges in the game, particularly when they turn up while you’re already engaged in a firefight with conventional enemies. They’re able to take an action every time one of your guys do – so if your squad of 6 takes 12 actions in a turn, that one enemy will also have taken 12. Bloody hell, basically.
Also, they’ll try and run away through a portal once their enormous health bar reaches around the halfway point, so you need to try and block or immobilise them. (That Freeze Bomb I mentioned really comes into its own there). If they do escape, they’ll be back a few missions later, with only some of their health replenished. These are some of XCOM 2’s best, toughest fights – and their reward is one-off, super-powered armour, which looks absolutely ridiculous. I mean, I laughed at first, but then I grimaced. Here’s me in snakeskin:
And oh my, Adam Smith, where have you been all my life?
It’s important to note that at no point does anyone in the game say anything how crazy this stuff looks. There’s five guys in fatigues sat next to one dressed as a reject, reptile-themed X-Man, and no-one bats an eyelid. It’s just fine and normal. I guess when you live under alien rule, strange has been irrevocably redefined.
I don’t object to the idea of visual comedy, but it just seems so at odds with those careful, clean futuretropolises that XCOM 2 impressed us with first time around. Especially with the Anarchy’s Children stuff in the mix. This is nothing more than set of new haircut and clothing options, in theory playing up to the idea that XCOM is a guerrilla resistance organisation rather than an international military, but it winds up looking like discarded doodles in the margin of the Suicide Squad costume designer’s sketchbook. Sure, a spiky pauldron here or a new tat there adds some more individual flavour to your soldiers, but get into the facepaint and mask options and we’re nearly going Full Saint’s Row in a game that otherwise has no comic tone. (Though body types, frustratingly, remain resolutely fixed to ‘lean’).
I appreciate having more options, but Anarchy’s Children + Alien Hunters makes for so much visual noise, a collision of opposing styles and a confused sense of what kind of tone XCOM 2 wants to have. Shen’s Last Gift and its robots, by contrast, seems to have a clearer focus, and clearly wants to exist within XCOM 2’s fiction rather than be a freakshow skin on top of it.
Those boss aliens are good time, though. They have all sorts of awful tricks up their sleeves, and completely change the nature of a mission when they arrive – just be warned that, if you’re playing on Iron Man, things can go an almost unprecedented degree of horribly, horribly wrong.
So is XCOM 2 a better game for this DLC? Well, yes and no. The robot soldiers in Shen’s Last Gift offer strong new squad options, and a reliable way to ensure that a new playthrough won’t feel the same as a vanilla one. Meanwhile, the new weapons and armour from Alien Hunters means your squad will be even more different from before, chaotic aesthetics aside. There are also a couple of new, scripted missions which add new vigour to the otherwise slow treadmill of the early game. I’ve enjoyed going back, and been just as hooked as I was first time around, screaming at the constant interruptions of the strategy map aside.
That said, the DLC may have allowed me to become a little overpowered a little too soon, and my casualty rate has been surprisingly low as a result. This is playing on second-hardest difficulty, though – I’m quite sure it would be a much tougher battle to lay hands on the new toys if I’d gone straight to the top.
Again, I also worry that XCOM 2 has lost some of its visual identity as a result of the first two DLCs. If it had gone full-pelt weird’n’funny it might have gotten away with it, but instead it just seems overblown and incongruous. The heightened nagging on the strategy map has made a grumpy man of me too. The flaws in that side of the game have widened further, and with that grows my sense that XCOM 2 is not quite the accomplishment XCOM 1 was, despite its raft of smart new tactical ideas.
‘Better’ isn’t the correct operative term, I think. ‘Different’ is, and honestly, that’s exactly what I wanted from DLC – a good reason to play through XCOM 2 again. As a total package, it’s substantial, even if not the equal of the Enemy Within expansion for XCOM 1 – though I hold out some hope that we might yet see something equivalent for XCOM 2 next year. If you’ve got the season pass but hadn’t yet gotten around to it, I’d recommend leaving the Anarchy’s Children box unticked then ploughing on into a happy new world of bright pink robots and man-size snakesuits. It’s a more diverse game now for sure – but on the other hand, if this is your first time with XCOM 2, I very strongly advise playing a campaign without the DLC to start with, or it is very likely to break your head.