RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 20th: XCOM 2

We command you to open the next door in our calendar, Commander.

It’s 2016’s best strategy game, XCOM 2.

Brendan: I think XCOM 2 is less a good example of game-making than of game-refining. It has the advantage that its raw material is already superb and, for me, whenever someone mentions “XCOM” it is still the blue globe and Chrysalis-infested ship of Enemy Unknown that comes to mind. That said, it was good to see Firaxis throwing whole new cogs into the machinery – the ability to pull-off a perfect stealthy ambush becoming the keystone of any operation, your team’s sneakiness removing the slow trudging habit of Overwatching.

But for some reason, I can’t call too much of it to mind. Steam says I’ve played 45 hours of it but I couldn’t tell who my best soldiers were, or even how the baseline story went. Aliens were in charge and then we killed some of them and put a video in their tape recorder, right? This might simply be down to it being a February child. On the other hand, I can still remember critical missions from XCOM the First, and whole team wipes which left me in despair, bad base planning decisions, soldiers who made all the difference. In other words, I really liked XCOM 2. Yet it might not be because of the new things, but because I just wanted more of the same.

Alec: Certainly the game I put the most hours into this year, and probably the one I was most excited about in the run-up too. I dig it a lot, particularly how unafraid it is to create this jenga tower of complementary and contradictory skills that create incredible firefight combinations if you’ve paid close attention, or a devastating collapse of coherence if you haven’t.

Still though, I feel that XCOM 2 put on some flab it couldn’t quite away with – rather than building upon the lean and pure pop-turn-based-strategy groundwork established in XCOM, it piled on layer after layer and something got a little lost in the process. The excellent ‘the last game’s aliens are pretending to be humanity’s chums!’ conceit got lost in the woods of the thumpingly obvious, the highlights of the art style felt subsumed by the apparent randomness of other designs, the strategy map layer was a torrent of mini frustrations and contradictory logic, and some of the character work came across like fan fiction.

None of this stopped me from going back and back and back, building a new superteam, exploring weapon and skill options I hadn’t last time around, working out obscure ability combos that could lead to flawless runs, then howling when the next mission was anything but flawless. There’s so much substance here. I never would have believed that we’d ever get a turn-based strategy with this kind of budget, and this much meat stuffed into the sausage.

Give me a full-fat expansion pack for XCOM 2 and, I am quite sure, boom goes another hundred hours of life.

Adam: In a year stacked with great strategy games (I could do my own strategy top ten and have good games to spare, I reckon), XCOM 2 deservedly fends off the opposition. I’m still playing it. Given that the nature of the job involves moving on from one thing to the next, it’s remarkable that it’s had such staying power, and its brilliance is still fresh in my mind even though it came out so early in the year. I understand the criticisms in the other write-ups here, and elsewhere, but this was everything I wanted and more.

There are some things that I don’t love, mainly an over-reliance on timed missions to create pressure and tension, but for me this is one of those sequels that makes its predecessor seem like a starter before the main meal. The randomised maps, the variety in soldiers’ appearance, the new aliens, the bumps and turns on the road to victory and the new setting all worked magnificently for me, but it’s the tactical combat itself that is the key to it all.

XCOM 2 takes the things that the first game taught you and meddles with the lessons, so that you’re learning as you go all over again. It breaks the reliance on repetitive creeping to cover, firing, then advancing to cover again, and so forth. New aliens and abilities complicate matters, whether by forcing retreat or encouraging surgical melee strikes. Your squads will be scattered and separated, and the greatest risks don’t come from the roll of the dice, but from the choices you make.

The RNG is still a bastard though, the true nemesis of XCOM.

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21 Comments

  1. Vinraith says:

    I’ll bite: what ARE Adam’s top ten strategy games of the year? I think it’s actually been a pretty weak year for strategy, myself – convince me otherwise.

    • alexgem says:

      +1 for knowing Adam’s strategy top 10 :)

    • Landiss says:

      There were some decent strategy games this year. Civilization VI is quite nice (though the AI was terrible, at least after launch, I also think I have finally filled up my life with enough turns in this genre). Hearts of Iron IV were good I heard (but haven’t played). Stellaris was terrible, I admit that. Total War: Warhammer is, I believe, one of the best entries in the series. Still has flaws, but I have pretty much stopped hoping they will ever address them, they’ve been going in a different direction for years. Anyway, it was still good. Sengoku Jidai was also this year, it’s brilliant (even though AI could use improvements).

      My personal top1 is Shadow Tactics: Blades of Shogun, a great revival of long-lost genre started with Commandos.

      I’m sure I’m missing some more good games. Oh, that Warhammer 40k panzer-general-like was this year as well, wasn’t it? It was good too. Or maybe it was 2015.

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        FhnuZoag says:

        Also Duelyst, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, Banner Saga 2, Offworld Trading Company, Battlefleet Gothic were all praised to varying degrees, IIRC.

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    I found it much better than the previous one. It felt like they’d learned a lot from making XCOM1, and the only thing I’d particularly criticise would be the supply drops and other waiting around which slowed things down when you really wanted to be pushing forward. I didn’t even mind the timers too much.

    I’ll be playing the tablet/mobile version of XCOM1: Enemy Within over the holidays though, so perhaps that will change my opinion of their previous attempt.

    • godunow says:

      For me biggest plus is not related to gameplay but to mission design – they are shorter, much more compact – they do not let you to get bored.

      I agree that supply drops (and other strategy map changes) are making game worse.

  3. Xocrates says:

    “I couldn’t tell who my best soldiers were”

    Honestly, XCOM 2 is the first time I actually know that due to being able to export them to a common pool and reuse them between campaigns. Personally, if I add a soldier to the pool they must earn being there, so I keep it fairly lean and can therefore recall why they’re there.

    For the record the two rules for auto-adding one to my pool are:
    – Fired the final shot in the campaign
    – (Allowed to) Die (non-ironman, veteran difficulty. So my casualties are usually low)

    I’ll also add any character I particularly like, though I try to keep those to a minimum.

    • godunow says:

      I created 20 or so girls with guns – each with her own distinctive style – so when I got them in a campaign I never had problems tell them apart.

  4. DarkMalice says:

    The true strength of this iteration is how open it is to modding, thereby giving it near-unlimited expansive possibilities in terms of content and gameplay.

    All the issues about turn limits and such are dealt with by heroic modders, leaving only optimisation problems with some system configurations for Firaxis to deal with (I have no idea if progress has been made in this area, as mine works fine, loading times aside).

    • Coming Second says:

      This this this. You can make your experience as easy, hard, streamlined and complex as you like thanks to Firaxis making it easy to mod, and the subsequent efforts of the community.

      The base game offers a fair bit – though the story is bobbins and the XPacks very patchy – but it’s works like A Better Advent 2, Squad Notoriety and of course the Arnie Voicepack which have kept bringing me back and made it my most played of 2016.

      • stringerdell says:

        Same here. I started a lot but hardly completed any games this year because I was busy running through XCOM 2 three times on a tougher difficulty each time. Incredible game!

  5. Zenicetus says:

    The timers kept me from enjoying it for a while. Not that I actually needed more time, but too often it didn’t feel like the timer was organically related to the mission, like the ones for defusing bombs in the first game. It felt like the heavy hand of the game designer at my back, pushing me forward. Didn’t like that at all.

    Then I started using mods to extend the timers and it finally let me get immersed in the missions. I still didn’t need the extra time, but it let me quit griping about the game design.

    One other small complaint is the way your team can dress up in clown suits for missions. I know it sells DLC and many players enjoy that aspect. I had some fun with it too. But there was a cognitive disconnect with how that would actually work… running around in funny bright costumes that would scream “shoot me first” in any real combat encounter.

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      Nauallis says:

      Maybe the aliens are subjectively colorblind and bad at pattern recognition.

  6. Horg says:

    The changes from XCOM:EW Wot I Liked:

    + Strategy map became more interactive than the old ‘advance time until event’ of the previous game. Similarly, the nonsense of 3 simultaneous abductions and panic balancing removed. The new map is a little shallow, but it’s an improvement.
    + Difficulty curve on Legendary Ironman wasn’t as insane as EW, where rolling a bad map could mean almost certain game over in the first 2 months.
    + Map size increase allowing for more tactical movement. No more murder street.
    + Cover destruction probability and radius was toned down for all weapons. Sectoids vaporising an entire wall on the first shot of the alien turn, exposing multiple soldiers, was some of the biggest RNG bullshit in EW.
    + Spreading fire added as an environmental hazard that destroys cover and cars.
    + Ability to destroy roofs.
    + Line of sight rules improved.
    + Tech tree more flexible. It’s still linear research with direct upgrade routes, but i’ve had successful games starting with armour and psi tech instead of weapons rushing. I’d still say this area needs more depth, but it’s improved.
    + Ability to use way points.
    + New unconscious state for soldiers, ability to evac by carrying bodies and rescue missions for soldiers who get left behind.
    + Soldiers have more items slots with armour upgrades, small items generally have more uses per mission, and are more powerful.
    + Modable weapons. The mod system itself is limited, but it adds potential for modders and should be an area for improvement if they do another title.
    + Improved PSI soldier utility and balance by making exclusive, trainable class.
    + Mission success isn’t as game critical, you can fail a mission every now and then even on Legendary and still progress the campaign. Tactical retreating now useful.
    + Aliens scale up as time advances, spawning harder versions of old aliens and more new types.
    + Alien pods no longer teleport, instead they patrol the map properly (most of the time).
    + Dark events giving the aliens a bit of a twist.
    + Base planning and resource management a bit better than EW.
    + Flare drops for reinforcing aliens instead of scattered over watch Thin Men.
    + Timed missions. Yes, I am the one who likes them. They might have done better to throw in more non time critical missions to balance it out. Beats meld canisters though.

    Wot I didn’t like:

    – Game still runs like arse on many systems that beat the minimum spec and Firaxis seem to have abandoned any pretense of working on it. For shame.
    – New art style and sound design lost some of the creepiness factor from EW.
    – Alien AI is still stupidly aggressive and doesn’t work hard enough to keep its units alive or use special abilities like suppression. AoE abilities are the exception.
    – Suppression is more or less useless as it doesn’t inhibit grenade throws, PSI powers, and the aliens never worry about running it.
    – Rookie month. Not as bad as EW, but the basic idea of starting with 4 classless chumps who shoot like Storm Troopers is fundamentally crap.
    – Squad size limited to 4/6 again. In Long War, 6/8 with larger alien pods felt like such an improvement it was a deep disappointment to go back to smaller teams. Thankfully this is moddable to an extent, but hard to find good balance.
    – Aliens don’t really have any dynamic presence on the campaign map, still feels like playing whack-a-mole with events.
    – Soldier talent trees are as limited as EW and not very well balanced.
    – Negligible impact for failing Retaliation missions. Generally not enough negative events or consequences in the strategic layer.

    Generally, it’s a good improvement over EW in most areas, but played it quite safe when dealing with the strategic mechanics. I still feel it falls short of Long War, which I still go back to every now and then despite the frustrations of the old engine. If XCOM 3 happens, they need to be a bit bolder with their development. There aren’t many rough edges from EW left to polish, so improved mechanics is the way to go.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Regarding “Rookie Month”… I read a post somewhere that justified it as the aliens actually being in constant motion, and since it’s a turn-based game, we only see a single frame where the soldier targets and shoots. Which is why rookies so often miss hitting aliens 10 feet away. They’re not standing still, they’re moving targets.

      I don’t know if that’s a reasonable analysis or just hand-waving something necessary for game balance, so your troops have room to improve. But I invoke it to avoid ragequitting when someone misses what looks like an easy shot.

      • Horg says:

        It’s more the lack of tactical options that bugs me in rookie month. Starting with only 4 soldiers with 4 grenades exacerbates the problem, you have to shoot on most turns and have very little margin for bad RNG. Compared to EW: Long War where you start with 6 soldiers, each having two small items, and you have a completely different experience. Just a simple balance change is all they need.

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      Kushiel says:

      LOS rules were definitely improved…except for that pesky weirdness about floors not existing when drawing LOS. Even writing it myself, it doesn’t really look like that big a deal on paper, but it certainly discouraged vertical mobility for my soldiers after I realized that they were “out of cover” to enemies just hanging out in the building below them in spite of their being an entire floor between them.

  7. Themadcow says:

    I didn’t enjoy XCOM on the PC but had a blast with it on my tablet. This one was certainly a big improvement in many ways, but the biggest compliment I can give is that it’s almost 75% as good as the 1990s original…

  8. Fnord73 says:

    Its more of a tactics game than a strategy game, innit?

    • dystome says:

      I dunno, there is an overarching strategy element to a campaign in terms of what research, equipment and facilities you spend your money on. Were it just a sequence of levels it would be a tactics game.

      I might prefer that in the case of XCOM2, actually. That whole ‘countdown to death’ progress bar along the top of the map screen was more stressful than exciting to me. Enemy Within is a game I’m much more likely to go back to.

  9. popej says:

    Long War 2 would be nice, but as far as I can tell it aint happening.