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Review: XCOM 2

by on October 3, 2016
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Editor’s Note: Couple of month after the game’s original release, this review has been updated following the release of the game on current-generation consoles as well as the patch updates and content drop to all customers which reflects on the overall score, and final verdict.

In 2012, Firaxis gave new life to the XCOM series with the reboot of the series thanks to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. A grateful reboot considering the XCOM saga actually dates from 1994, when it was developed by MicroProse and was still called X-COM: UFO Defense. Thanks to this successful reboot, many players have been able to enjoy the masochistic pleasure of protecting the Earth against alien invaders, with a heavy emphasis on risk and martyr freedom. After the launch of XCOM: Enemy Within (the standalone expansion), the license continues with today with XCOM 2 which radically changes the context of who’s the winning side. The aliens have won, governments have given by force their people to submission, and sadly our planet is now led by the extraterrestrial creatures. Now small resistance group intends to fight with all means at hand against the oppressor. With the XCOM series reborn from its ashes, it is you who goes on the frontal attack for freedom, and now without any spoiler, i’ll explains why XCOM 2 is one hell of a success.

Starting by choosing your the base of operation in a set country, the remnant XCOM now operates from Avenger, a vessel stolen from the aliens, now repurposed as your new headquarters of operations. This change of headquarter is mainly reflected in the management side of titles in the game. Since its inception, the XCOM series is based on a mix between strategic turn-based ground missions and management of troops and facilities when you are returning from each operations. Without really messing the learned habits of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the smallest area of base configuration requires a more thoughtful approach to building various infrastructures. With only 12 slots available for expansion, you will have to make choices and therefore sacrifice in order to deal with different emergency situations of the main campaign. Engineering center, laboratory, power generator, sentry guns, tactical operating room, etc. The regulars will find themselves on board of the classic setup of the saga and their respective roles. Clear the bulky aliens to unlock access to new rooms and therefore affect both staff and expansion time. In this sense, XCOM 2 offers certainly less extensive base management but it is swapped against the further expanded staff allocation system.

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Engineers and scientists now recovered through missions, are enlisted in the ranks or are recruited directly for a hefty sum of resource when certain events are activated on the Hologlobe (the overall game map). You will then assign them to your various facilities in order to boost efficiency. Place an engineer on a generator drives for example a gain of five energy; or even engineer can also speed up the complete removal of of a new room for the preparation and construction of an additional facility. Pressed by the urgency of certain situations, you best manage your staff to optimize current tasks. The twelve rooms of the Avenger always benefit from synergies between them with specific bonuses granted when two specific constructed facilicities are placed side by side. XCOM 2 introduced a lot of new related context in the fight against alien oppression with the communications room used to get in touch with new branches of the worldwide resistance, decryption center, essential to the collection of information of high importance on aliens projects, or the Institute of guerrilla training of our armed forces.

Without any spoiler, i’ll explains why XCOM 2 is one hell of a success.

Thus, we say goodbye to the defensive mini-game against the alien ships and to any branch of management of our flying squadrons. With the vis-à-vis order of the current human background and consistency since these phases do not bring much to Eneny Unknown, these miniature missions or tasks are now replaced by a UFO patrol on a set map. You will have to avoid the risk of being shot in midair and then undergo a (very) delicate ground mission which often means huge losses for the XCOM operation. Playing cat and mouse with this flying and disruptive enemy often delays your plans and adds an extra degree of tension to the game’s management phases.

Even if you are now technically a guerrilla force, the XCOM operation is no longer content to wait and suffer the alien attacks to respond to it. Player take control of the rebellion and must always be one step ahead of the Advent. This translates into playing by a large number of operations available on the Hologlobe. If some are good old combat missions on the ground, the map is full of resources to collect, such as securing staff and militias to put in good use. Since each task requires a set number of days and/or resources to accomplish, the urgency of certain situations demand a constant juggle between ongoing operations or thwart the aliens plans earlier. Note that it is entirely possible to refuse an assignment if your current task seems a priority.

But be careful, because refusing an assignment can also have a consequences as they are linked to the Avatar project. Without going into much details because I’ll be risking spoiling the game, the project is symbolized at the top of the screen with a progress bar filling up as the weeks. Neglect a mission or research related to it, and the Aliens will get closer to build their Avatar project.Fortunately, Firaxis staged these elements of the urgency in key moments, enough to motivate us to start at the earliest anti-Avatar missions. In short, these mission opportunities in XCOM 2 are difficult but are worth it, as they add a lot on the lifespan of the title, which largely depends on your success and completed side missions. At the current stand, to finish this review, I’ve exceeded over 40 hours of play and I know there’s still so much to do.

Firaxis has also expanded one of the most fun and time-consuming aspects of the series: troops customization. I mean come on, I’m sure many of you created a squad made up of friends, family members or even coworkers in other games as well! If it was already a feature in XCOM :Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, but the options here are multiplied to enhance the player’s attachment to his soldiers. Is it necessary to recall that a soldier dying on a missing means a permanent one in XCOM? This factor of the game drives us to care and nurture the differences of each soldier. The classic haircut, facial hair, armor, eye color customization are here, but they are enriched by a good dose of new products such as face accessories (glasses, scarves, hoods, etc.), tattoos, or even the ability to choose a specific language to each unit with different variations of tones and accents according to their selected country (French, British, American, Italian, Spanish and German for now). Fancy a German shock trooper wearing a pirate eye patch, green hair, a rose arm tattoo for good measure? It is quite possible in XCOM 2 and I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the options offered by this tool. Note though that some customization options are only unlocked throughout the experience of your troops, enough to motivate us not to take any unnecessary fatal risk.

Weapons also can be outfitted with custom paint jobs and camos according to our tastes. Camouflage or streaked effects for the wisest, to more light patterns such as smileys or hearts if you want to mess around. The thing that is not aesthetic for weapons, are mods to boost their performance. The XCOM team has to make do with what they find on the ground to put the odds on his side to victory. So throughout the campain, you’ll end up recovering mods on smoldering alien corpses, provided they didn’t die with explosive damage. Once again, the loot component introduced in this new episode involves a new layer of strategy.

Items left on the ground by aliens generally self-destruct after two to three turns. Is it better to send a unit to recover the loot at the risk of placing a shot or focus on the requirements of the current mission? Anyway, once mod acquired, these improvements provide – in addition to a change of look – various stats bonus to our weapons such as extra aim, size of the ammo packs, or even perks based on XCOM 2 - The VGProfessional Review (1)adding probabilities to instantly kill a target… In short modding your weapons are a crucial step in the hope to triumph against the odds.

Featuring a 7 steps to skill tree, each with two specific talent to choose from, the soldiers of XCOM all specialize in specific areas in five classes based a bit on XCOM: Enemy Unknown:

XCOM 2 - The VGProfessional Review (5)Sharpshooter: This unit replaces the Sniper class from XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Although they are similar in their ability of getting rid of enemies at long-range, they are now equipped with pistols to protect itself from flanking opponents, and deal heavy damage in one turn thanks to their new skill tree.

XCOM 2 - The VGProfessional Review (4)Ranger: This unit replaces the Assault class from XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Very effective at close range, they are now able to handle a sword to inflict heavy melee damage, and they can also stay put and safe with adapted stealth talents that can’t be detected by aliens.

XCOM 2 - The VGProfessional Review (2)Grenadier: This unit replaces the Heavy class from XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Block your ears, because these bad boys are more of the bomb first, ask questions later. They use high ordinance explosives and powerful Machine guns but lack in mobility on the field.

XCOM 2 - The VGProfessional Review (6)Specialist: This unit replaces the Support class from XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Accompanied by their drone, also known as the Gremlin unit, they can remotely hack enemy tech, can stun enemy hacker, boost operatives on the field and basically act as either offensive or defensive unit.

XCOM 2 - The VGProfessional Review (3)PSI Agent: Not available at the beginning of the game, this class uses powerful psychic attacks, with a range of different mental techniques like the ability to mentally control an opponent and make them trigger their own explosives. This class is heavily influenced and a direct update to the Psionic Class from XCOM: Enemy Unknown

With resources and training days, it is even possible to teach them skills that by principle are reserved for other classes or even develop their psychic abilities to make them more versatile in the field. After several weeks of research, you’ll be able to experience the joys of magnetic, lasers, plasma weapons as well as more diverse ammo rounds that can be acids or flammable. We will also have smoke grenades to protect our troops, scanners to unveil more strategic elements on the field, or very practical lures to fool the opponent with a holographic projection of a unit. We can also create and wear heavier armor, some of which offer are needed to use more powerful weapons like flamethrowers or heavy machine guns and cannons. In short, the XCOM 2 arsenal is more diversified than ever, and you are going to need all of it to survive the alien threat.

If you never played XCOM in general, you should know that the franchise has never been a walk in the park, as the slightest mistake is often fatal. Let me reassure you the fans that, XCOM 2 is even harder than XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. But more complicated does not mean more frustrating because you will see that this increase in difficulty from the first missions of the game come with additional options for our troops. A small reminder before entering the thick of it, is the headquarter management component, as XCOM saga is characterized by its field missions in the form of tactical turn-based battles. After choosing your troops and equipping them with the proper tools according to the objectives, it is time to take off to the area of operations.

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The title takes a principle of managing limited action for each your characters: moving, sprinting, shooting at a target, reloading, etc. If the chances of shooting at or being shot at are directly influenced by the degree and angle of behind-the-wall coverage, XCOM 2 still teaches in pain that a 80% chance to place a shot on a Sectoid does not always mean a constant success in the operation. However, we can guarantee our chance to hit with some capabilities that work every time such as explosives or drone attacks to name a few. You should not however, underestimate the randomness involved in every action of the game and accept failure as long as it remains manageable (and save as often as you can).

The XCOM 2 arsenal is more diversified than ever, and you are going to need all of it to survive the alien threat

So why is XCOM 2 more fully bodied than its predecessor? The first reason is explained in the setting of the title. Winning on Earth, the aliens have, in addition to their considerable technological advancement, the unwavering support of most of the human race, now genetically modified to integrate the ranks of Advent, the army of repression in the service of the invader. Our ability as members of the resistance are therefore very limited in the first missions. Now the aliens from the starting line have shock troops composed of both soldiers, heavily armed Advent with auto-sensing laser guns and units with already-well developed powers. I mean you should just see the basic capabilities of the new Sectoids (the alien’s version of the grunt soldier) to understand our pain in case of poor strategic picks: they now aave a good pool of hit points, mind control abilities, can resurrect from the dead and a psychic attack that makes our solider panic. If this the early game opponent grunt, the challenge do not stop there, as enemy reinforcements come regularly and now many missions are now limited to the number of turns to finish objectives. There’s your escort of scientists, capture Advents, hacking or sabotage aliens facilities, XCOM 2 new formula plays the oppressed guerrilla theme to the perfection.

XCOM 2 - The VGProfessional Review (2)To offset the undeniable technological advantage of the enemy, XCOM first missions won’t be really stealthy ones. Throughout each of your troop’s members, you will have to attack or not within the field of view of the opponent, free to move under cover to best prepare for a surprise attack. Combining good vigilance to a sound strategic investment, it is entirely possible to get rid of a complete patrol of enemies before the latter had time to hide. Do not expect to return to stealth mode once detected, because this tactical advantage will be given to you only once at the beginning of mission. As always, enemy units can also be hidden in the shadow of the map and surprise you at the worst time. When you have only 8 turns to evacuate a key escort, the mission can quickly turn into a nightmare!

Fortunately, it is not always necessary to remove all the threats on the ground. It will often be preferable to aim at a rapid evacuation rather than seek direct confrontation and lose crucial soldiers in your ranks. On that note, there’s new mechanics added, which basically allows you to save a unit from its upcoming death. Instead of relying on the Support class talent – back in XCOM: Enemy Unknown – which lets you revive a downed soldier with 33% health, instead of just stabilizing him, our troops can now help them by demanding a manual evacuation on the map. You basically decide whether to trigger the premature retirement of two units during a mission before it’s too late!

Hacking is also a comeback in the series thanks to the Specialists’ drone (more details on each class above). Particularly useful against robotic units or security terminals, hacking can provide several benefits to the XCOM team. You can for example disable a robot or turret for two rounds or even turn it against its allies, a great action to perform under heavy fire! But like the shooting and attack odds, hacking is based on the principle of risk and rewards as well. Try a complicated hack with only 2 percent chance of success to only grant you a generous bonus. If unsuccessful, it will backfire on the battle with additional enemy reinforcements or a buff to alien troops. Based on the hacking skill of our troops, hacking is a bit too random in the early game before becoming more rewarding in high level missions.

To counter an increasingly sophisticated alien class with its ability to kill us in a few turns, XCOM 2 now emphasizes on heavy damage melee attacks. The Ranger class for example is now equipped by default with a high damage sword, which its uses involves taking some risks associated with getting out of cover mode. Nevertheless, it’s formidable against the Vipers, a new reptilian alien, able to spit poison clouds or catch a soldier from afar with its vast forked tongue and bring him straight to an instant death… Get over here!

Speaking of Vipers, the bestiary of XCOM 2 demonstrates both continuity and a renewal of its diversity. If the already mentioned Sectoid clearly refers to the original XCOM: UFO Defense, the inspirations from the saga are everywhere. Do not worry, at regular intervals, new enemies will appear in the such as the Archon, an elegant and deadly flying unit, or the Faceless, a unit that is camouflaged as a civilian on the field, and of course all the variations of Advent troops. Anyway, learning the retaliation science in this game will always be a great joy, especially when dissecting corpses in order to study their technology.

XCOM 2 new formula plays the oppressed guerrilla theme to the perfection

Even thanks to repeated victories during missions, a player is never immune to a game over because the alien’s plans evolve constantly during the campaign. Between watching out for the the progress of project Avatar, Dark Events that occur regularly in order to force us to take appropriate action at the right time and more, they are in fact an indicator of what the invader scheming behind the scenes to improve his troops. This can go as far as fitting more armor for its Advent soldiers, systematicly sending reinforcements for four straight weeks on all missions, acid bullets, etc. In short, XCOM 2 has a fully-bodied difficulty curve initially, which is more constant in comparison to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which had the defect to become too easy past few the first few months of survival.

XCOM 2 - The VGProfessional Review (13)

On the visual point of view, Firaxis shows its wish to vary environments for XCOM 2. From an essentially urban and night setting in XCOM Enemy Unknown, we have a full array of maps with different inspirations. Maps are now generated randomly to constantly renew the gaming experience. The cities boast a cold and strict immaculate side, in perfect agreement with the military opression of the alien regime. It includes massive statues of their leader (which you will have to regularly destroy), well symmetrical gardens and streets. Other than that, some locations take us to more rural parts of the country, with maps under blue sky by some farming land, or on the edge of a snowy track where a train is just waiting to be attacked. But even if one could always blame the game’s art direction to have a dull coat, we cannot deny the serious efforts made on the graphical side.

Attention to detail is constant on the maps, with many elements favoring immersion in this alien dictatorship climate. Much better staged than its predecessor, XCOM 2 supports for example a larger troop movements thanks to a dynamic camera, to admire our soldiers customized from head to toe in the heat of the action. It is always very rewarding to contemplate your Sniper align a critical hit right in a head of an alien, or rub their hands in slow motion on a successful shot in vigilance mode. Firaxis has multiplied camera angles to enhance the visceral action of clashes as well. Finally most of the key moments of the game finally enjoy cinematic quality cutscenes; they allow you to get attached to influential members of XCOM 2 such as Shen to name a few.

Regrettably, however, is the presence of numerous bugs related to camera angles when zooming in on characters’ actions. Sometimes stuck in an element of the scenery, the vision of these moments shows a slight lack of tweaking of game animations. The characters sometimes downright shoot through walls and even teleport at rare moments from one point to another. More troublesome, some bugs may block transitions between cut-scene, forcing you to restart and load a save file (only happened twice during my game session). Finally, although the soundtrack could’ve have been more varied, the tunes are still true to the game’s essence, with epic themes played at the pace of missions.

So what about the console versions? At the time of the reboot era with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the game franchise was already on console, and finally landed on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in September 2016. While some might think that a game historically linked to the PC could lose its savor, it was really nothing, as adapting the game to a control scheme on a gamepad has been carried out efficiently by the Firaxis development teams. It is (almost) the same experience on PC Xbox One and PlayStation 4, whether we are talking about the interface, positioning or attack of your squads, orders given out via the controller are very intuitive, and your actions are happening with great fluidity. Except for some specific actions, which sometimes require you to you to try several times to find the correct angle (such as throwing a grenade inside a building, for example), but in the end most of the battle and conflict mechanics will not marred by an excessively heavy control scheme. In any case, it’s not the first time Firaxis done that, as the previous XCOM: Enemy Unknown was originally available on consoles.

On the point of view of graphics, as explained in the original review, XCOM 2 in general got a sort of upgrade in comparison to the previous games, but it wasn’t anything groundbreaking in general. Worse, some environments and maps asked too much resources relative to the displayed result, suggesting that we needed more optimization especially with the bugs and weird AI behavior reported until now. Unfortunately, the console version of XCOM 2, either on Xbox One or PlayStation 4 (according to some of my colleague’s testing on that platform), suffers the same PC issues, with numerous frame rate drops and slowdowns during cinematics and a plethora of game and display bugs. Nothing that will crash the game, but the title would could’ve been refined technically by now.

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A final point on the topic of XCOM 2 and its only platform support which is PC. Tested with a 4GB version of the NVIDIA Geforce GTX 960 fitted on a 5th Generation i5 4690k CPU and topped with 16GB of RAM, our version of XCOM 2 was set at most on high settings to enjoy the environments rich in vegetation. Sadly, most of the time, the title takes a fall below the 25 fps bar, which hopefully will be fixed in the upcoming updates. The graphics options are many and enough to aim for a correct framerate at the expense of a drop in display quality. XCOM 2 on another note actively supports the modding community via Steam Workshop. Firaxis has also clearly reaffirmed its unwavering support for the process by formalizing a partnership with the passionate studio behind the popular Long War mod for Enemy Unknown. The mod should add its share of perks and weapons for soldiers as well as new mechanical elements to the opponents. One imagines that later, skins, weapon upgrades and other changes in the rules of the game will come to my machine, for my own delight.

XCOM 2 was reviewed using an PC and Xbox One downloadable copy of the game provided by 2K Games. The game was tested on a PC running Windows 10 Pro, with a 4GB NVIDIA Geforce GTX 960 fitted on a 5th Generation Intel i7 4720HQ 3.2Ghz CPU and topped with 16GB of RAM. XCOM 2 is also available on PlaySation 4 via digital and retail releases. We don’t discuss review scores with publishers or developers prior to the review being published

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What we liked

• The successful new setting of an Alien occupation
• So much more customization of units and weapons
• The variety of missions
• The new Aliens units, which are the most vicious and brutal of the series
• A proper constant difficulty curve
• Punishing but very rewarding game
• The random generation of maps for more diversity
• The new management headquarters, forcing to make choices and sacrifices
• Camouflage and body to body, innovations that integrate very well in gameplay
• There is always something to do, endless replayability
• more detailed graphics than previous components
• The official mod support

What is not fun

• Many bugs during camera closeups even in the console versions
• Bugs sometimes blocking transition of two missions
• Art direction can be a bit dull
• PC resource hungry
• 90% chance of instant kill that fail too often

Editor Rating
 
Concept
9.3

 
Graphics
8.9

 
Sound
9.0

 
Playability
9.3

 
Entertainment
9.3

 
Replay Value
9.0

Final Score
9.1


Our final verdict
 

If it doesn't really redefine the saga (which is not needed), XCOM 2 succeeds with its alien oppression context to renew brilliantly the heroic tension that was set in 2012 with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. More customizable than ever, our units are facing an alien invader now in full control of the Earth. Gone are the days of the world organization supported by all governments, as we face the threat this time clandestine operations involving certain strategic and a more risky management of odds. XCOM 2 is overflowing with content and even paid the luxury to provide a staging more polished than ever, and hopefully if some bugs encountered are promptly corrected by Firaxis, this is surely on the path of becoming the 2016 strategy game of the year.

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