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RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 20th: XCOM 2

Merry Christmas, Commander

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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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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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