XCOM 2 (PC) Review

XCOM 2 (PC) Review

Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an impressive accomplishment. Tasked with reimagining an obtuse, cult-classic strategy game from the mid ‘90s for a modern audience, the developer managed to both honour and streamline the complexities of the source material. Now, nearly four years after Enemy Unknown’s release, Firaxis has set it itself a new challenge: finding a way to expand on the prior game without losing sight of what made it work so well in the first place. Add too much to what came before and XCOM 2 would lose the accessibility of its predecessor; add too little and it wouldn’t be much more than a companion piece to a past achievement.

Luckily, Firaxis has struck a welcome balance. XCOM 2, while familiar, is very much its own game and more intent on exploring new ideas than merely refining old ones.

xcom 2 insert 2The opening mission sees the player taking control of a handful of soldiers planning a guerrilla attack on an alien-dominated city. Whether or not the player triumphed in Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 starts with the earth having been dominated by the invaders. In the years that passed between the two games, the aliens have been integrated into national governments, leaving only a small resistance movement commanded by the player to fight back against a totalitarian force.

Despite the relative unoriginality of its underdog storyline, XCOM 2’s narrative provides a welcome change in tone from its predecessor. Where Enemy Unknown was a game about managing a deteriorating situation, the player always growing more powerful as they fought back the alien invasion, XCOM 2 is focused on making the best out of a bad situation. The overhead strategic map—an overview of the globe with points of interest marked in various regions—is dotted with oppressed nations waiting for the XCOM resistance’s help. Inside the team’s mobile base, there always seem to be at least half a dozen construction and research projects that need attention. The soldiers who drop into direct battle never seem to be as well equipped as they could be—with the game’s “supply” currency being so hard to accumulate.

This is all by design. Rather than simply use occasional cinematics and dialogue to state that the XCOM project has become small, inadequately funded, and desperately outmatched, Firaxis infuses every moment of play with a palpable sense of desperation. While resource balancing and agonizing research choices do much of the work, a significant contributor to this tone is the alien’s “Avatar Project”—an ominous icon in the middle of the ocean that the invaders are constructing. Periodically, pips on a red progress bar fill up on the top of the screen, acknowledging that the aliens are moving ever closer to Avatar’s completion. What exactly this will mean isn’t clear until near the end of the campaign, but XCOM 2 is quick to inform that, should the bar fill up and the project complete, the game is lost. The constant reminder that failure is only a few missteps away evokes a sense of doom, urging the player to consider the high stakes of every battle.

These fights, while enjoyable, aren’t as immediately novel as what surrounds them. The tactical combat design introduced in Enemy Unknown—position squad members behind battlefield cover and attempt to outmanouever similarly armed aliens—is largely unchanged. The player still needs to balance their opportunities to shoot down the enemy with the need to remain in proper cover, administer healing to wounded troops, and reload guns, knowing that a single mistake could permanently cost them a valuable soldier. The small details introduced to the game’s combat system make a big difference, though. While the troop types and menus may look familiar, XCOM 2 stresses the importance of terrain far more than its predecessor. The percentages indicating the likelihood of successfully connecting a shot increase dramatically when the player moves their units to flank enemies, gain higher ground, or obliterate their cover.

xcom 2 insert 6The addition of a “concealment” system works in concert with these changes. At the beginning of some fights, the XCOM squad drops onto the battlefield far enough from the aliens that they can temporarily remain hidden. Until they’ve fired an opening volley (or stumbled into the red tiles indicating an enemy’s field of awareness), troops can carefully position themselves so they’re ready to ambush the opponent. Done well, three or four aliens can be taken out in a single player turn, providing a massive advantage in the rest of the battle.

This attention to terrain is reflected in XCOM 2’s visual design, too. Whether in futuristic city streets, replete with hologram billboards and laser-grid windowpanes, or arctic woods, covered in snow and spotted with broken tree trunks, the game creates a sense of identity far stronger than Enemy Unknown. There are constant reminders that the player is participating in a world ravaged and controlled by an advanced species—that the game’s version of earth is one in which extraterrestrial culture has influenced urban architecture and past wars have destroyed much of our wilderness.

It isn’t an overstatement to say that the attention paid to diversifying the look and tactical possibilities of the levels is key to what makes XCOM 2 work. At a certain point in each of Firaxis’ XCOM games, the cycle of strategic management and (often exhaustingly stressful) on-the-ground combat inevitably becomes a bit of a grind. Despite the thrill that comes from succeeding in a battle—or the warranted frustration of a bitter defeat—the act of repeating such taxing fights, again and again and again, can begin to wear as a campaign nears its conclusion. XCOM 2 doesn’t fix this problem, but it does lessen it by offering a number of unique mission objectives more complicated than simply eliminating the enemy and, simple as it may seem, providing a far greater array of level geography.

All of this works to great effect. XCOM 2’s problems—repetitive structuring, the brutal spike in difficulty that marks a few of its late game fights—may be severe enough to put off those who hoped for a more fundamental reworking of Enemy Unknown. But, players looking to see the past game reconfigured will find a lot to appreciate. Firaxis has created a sequel dedicated to continuing the XCOM story with a real change in tone and intent. Moving from a game about a properly funded defence force fighting back a surprise invasion to one focused on that same force, reduced to scrappy rebels trying to overthrow their alien government, is a smart narrative follow-up. Ensuring that the feel of this game, from tough strategic decisions to general doomsday aesthetic, matches the story is what makes XCOM 2 notable.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified: Not Every Game Can Change Genres

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified: Not Every Game Can Change Genres

Making XCOM into a shooter was never going to be easy. It is a series nearly synonymous with tactical, strategic gameplay — the kind where careful decision-making is paramount and quick reflexes have little place. Nonetheless, the success of Firaxis Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012 must have helped spur on the decision to bring the franchise to the widest audience possible by continuing development of the long-gestating action offshoot of the series. The resulting release, 2K Marin’s The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, is an uneven game that demonstrates the problems inherent in trying to turn one type of game into another.

If nothing else, the premise of the game is a pretty good one. It’s 1962 and XCOM exists as a bare-bones American force meant to counter a possible Soviet invasion. When aliens make a surprise attack on Earth, its directive is changed and the covert force finds itself fighting to keep the human race alive. The 1960s setting is a good fit for XCOM‘s usual mix of flying saucers and laser guns. The Bureau, while retaining some of the alien and weapon designs found in the strategy titles, has a distinct aesthetic. The agents wear ties, hats, and rolled-up shirt sleeves. They smoke cigarettes indoors and monitor giant, old-style transistor radios. But for all 2K Marin does in making its version of XCOM unique, there are times when the plot tries so hard to establish its own identity that it goes entirely off the rails. The last few hours of the game are particularly bizarre, and the gameplay is just as confused as the narrative. The Bureau isn’t quite sure if it would rather appeal to diehard fans of the series or the mainstream audience that 2K Games is obviously hoping to interest. The decision to throw a little bit of everything into the mix only makes it muddled. The tactics and character customization are too light to satisfy fans of the traditional XCOM games, while the gunplay isn’t refined enough to stand out amongst other third-person shooters. This shows the basic design problem that The Bureau illustrates. Simply enough, it’s not always possible to take one type of game and turn it into another without either creating a poor title or making someone mad in the process.

It’s hard to assign too much blame to 2K Marin because of this. After all, The Bureau certainly isn’t a bad game, just really confused as to what it wants to be. What is a developer supposed to do when tasked with turning a niche title into a mainstream shooter? It must have been a nightmare to be a member of the studio given such a project. How do you balance the creation of your own characters and plot with throwbacks to the series your game is based on? How do you make an interesting strategy experience that appeals to both fans of that genre and those who just want to enjoy a typical shooter? Given the circumstances, the fact that 2K Marin managed to make The Bureau as good as it is seems like a pretty astounding feat.

Genre transitions of this type have been attempted before, but outside of mascot games featuring malleable characters like Mario and Sonic (who are quite capable of starring in everything from kart racers to sports titles) it’s not always successful. Many of the Final Fantasy spin-offs have shown that role-playing characters aren’t always great action heroes; Mortal Kombat‘s Sub-Zero might be better suited to the original fighting game than a brawler; Link should probably avoid crossbow training and stick to exploring dungeons.

Maybe it’s best to let developers have a greater amount of leeway when creating their work. The Bureau‘s lack of confidence — the feeling that its tactical mechanics were added into the game partway through — is its failing. A team that takes a series in a new direction can only accomplish the leap when they’re passionate about the transition and aren’t afraid to leave behind elements of the past that they no longer need. Not every move from genre to genre leads to a Metroid Prime or Fallout 3. Sometimes we get a talented developer like 2K Marin creating something as uneven as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.

XCOM: Enemy Within (PC) Review: Classic Design Refined

XCOM: Enemy Within (PC) Review: Classic Design Refined

Last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a fantastic reimagining of a beloved strategy series. Firaxis Games pulled off a remarkable feat in creating a title that was filled to the brim with interesting, interlocking gameplay mechanics while also easy for novice players to understand. The expansion to Enemy Unknown XCOM: Enemy Within — builds on the foundation established by Firaxis’ previous work, introducing a plethora of new features and sacrificing only the smallest amount of accessibility in the process.

Enemy Within‘s most notable change to the base game’s formula is the introduction of the Meld resource. Meld, an alien substance found in glowing containers during combat missions, lets players change their soldiers into either robotically enhanced or genetically augmented warriors. While monkeying around with a soldier’s genetic structure can make for tactically impressive results, MEC suits offer the most profound change to XCOM‘s gameplay. Once one of the player’s team has volunteered to have their weak, fleshy bodies replaced with strong, gleaming metal they can be outfitted with upgradeable exoskeletons. The resulting MEC troop has the drawback of being unable to take cover during combat, but benefits by gaining a suite of useful abilities.

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These new powers — a deployable circle of healing mist, shots that can destroy environmental cover, and the endlessly entertaining ability to punch an enemy with a piston-like robot arm — make Enemy Within‘s fights novel, even to an Enemy Unknown veteran. The new tactical considerations are accompanied by the welcome addition of a large number of new maps, too. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as enjoyable as its combat remained throughout the length of a campaign, suffered from frequently repeated environments. Later in the game, when it becomes necessary to investigate a larger number of downed UFOs and cities in crisis without much base management to serve as a palate cleanser, the reappearance of an overly familiar map dulled XCOM‘s often wonderful sense of tension considerably. The new levels solve this problem and greatly enhance the game as a result.

Even more variety is introduced to the original campaign with the presence of EXALT, a human enemy force that attempts to undermine the XCOM team’s fight against the alien invasion. EXALT will sabotage the player’s progress by stealing resources. It must be countered by launching special intelligence-gathering missions that ultimately narrow down the location of the shadowy organization’s headquarters. The covert operations require one troop to be sent off undercover for a length of time (during which they can’t be deployed in normal battles) before they eventually request an extraction from the main team. These defensive missions see the operative hacking satellite relays before running for the safety of a helicopter while under assault from EXALT forces. The other soldiers work to defend the vulnerable party while she or he works, turning the usually assault-focused gameplay of UFO investigation or civilian rescue missions on its head. It’s possible to ignore EXALT’s sabotage efforts throughout Enemy Within‘s campaign and simply deal with the minor annoyance of infrequently stolen resources, but those who do so will miss out on some of the best of the expansion’s added content.

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Substantial new features are accompanied by smaller refinements as well. Soldiers can now speak in several different languages, something that adds a lot of colour to the combat banter while also making the international team of soldiers feel, finally, like they’ve actually come together from all corners of the globe. It’s the little touches like these that help make Enemy Within not only an excellent expansion, but a more fully formed vision of the base game as well.

Unfortunately, Enemy Within is not without faults. For all its gameplay improvements, the PC version of the expansion suffered from significant technical problems that caused more than a few crashes during loading and saving. The most frustrating issue involved the loss of more than an hour of progress late in a campaign after the game froze during an automated end of mission save. This problem could be an isolated case, but it’s worth noting that the same computer was used to review Enemy Unknown last year and ran the original title without more than a few unimportant hiccups. Since no hardware or major software changes were made to the machine during the interim, the game’s crashes are likely to affect others.

Despite this concern, Enemy Within is still easy to recommend on the merits of its design alone. While new players may find themselves contending with a larger amount of information to absorb during the early hours of a campaign thanks to the addition of MEC and genetic augmentation features, the greatly increased gameplay variety that serves as payoff is well worth it. Firaxis provided a superb strategy experience with 2012’s XCOM:Enemy Unknown and have only strengthened their original work through the changes and extra features brought to the Enemy Within expansion. The presence of a few glitches detract slightly from XCOM: Enemy Within, but don’t harm the experience enough to make it worth passing over.

Game of the Year 2012

Game of the Year 2012

2012 is almost over and we failed to be hit by an asteroid, catastrophic alignment of stars or massive epidemic of natural disasters. Instead what we got was some pretty decent comics and games, as well as the debut of Wii U to mark the start of a new console generation. As we see this year out, it’s time to look back at what has gone on, and recognize excellence when it has happened. While everyone at CGM has had their fair share of entertainment products that failed to live up to their goal, there were always other works that reminded us of why we love comics and games so much. Now it’s time for us to show you what we the staff at CGM, thought were some of the best things that 2012 had to offer.

 

Read moreGame of the Year 2012

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PS3) Review

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PS3) Review

The Legacy Revived

Back in 1994, Julian Gollop, working under the suggestion of his publisher Microprose, turned his intended sequel to his strategy game Laser Squad into a new game. He stripped away the futuristic trappings, put in an alien conspiracy and, most dramatic of all, a budget/base building component. That game became X-Com: UFO Defense and it is regularly hailed as one of the greatest strategy games of all time. 18 years later, Jake Solomon of Firaxis brings the franchise back. And unlike other revived properties from the 90s such as Duke Nukem, this is a return to familiar form that works in spectacular fashion.

Assemble Your Team

As with the 90s original, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is about the sudden, brutal abduction and destruction of Earth’s cities, and a task-force created to stop the incursions. The XCOM unit, with funding from various nations, boasts the best troops and technology with the goal of defending Earth and understanding the reasons for the sudden aggression. Along the way people die, discoveries are made and new challenges arise. It’s not a particularly original story, but it doesn’t have to be, because the real stories, the ones you will remember, don’t come from cutscenes, but from the battlefield. This is a game where the most memorable tales are of your sniper missing what should have been easy shot, throwing an entire squad into jeopardy, or the new rookie that manages to get take on a Muton with a panicked shotgun round and saves the day. This is emergent narrative that tells itself in the playing of the game, through the decisions you’ve made. It’s a rare style in gaming, but ultimately one of the most effective, guaranteeing that XCOM will fill the internet with tales made by the players themselves, and in a medium about interactivity, that’s the very best kind of story to tell.

Looking at the graphics, XCOM has made the jump from isometric pixels to full blown polygons, and the result is moody and effective. Once again, the Unreal engine has been employed and—at least on consoles—that means blurry textures occasionally appear at the beginning of battles that properly resolve themselves once the fight gets into full swing. That quibble aside, the graphics generally appear and perform at high, stable standards, with an “action figure aesthetic” that carries through to even the ant farm/play-set perspective of your base. All the familiar aliens like the Sectoids and Mutons have gotten the expected facelifts for their HD debut. Also, despite the fact that the game is still played from an isometric perspective, Firaxis have employed “glam cam” moments to show close ups of aliens and particularly spectacular kills. It’s not necessarily the most distinct look for the series—the armoured up soldiers can resemble generic space marines—but the aliens and the locales help make up the lack. The home base is wonderfully busy, an almost literal beehive of activity where you can see soldiers running on treadmills while captured aliens fret in their cells. This is a game with focused, purposeful visuals, and they all work well in that regard.

For the sound, the original X-COM was hailed by gamers for its creepy atmosphere and unsettling sound. Canadian composer Michael McCann—who scored Deus Ex: Human Revolution—steps in with an arsenal of synthesizers to update the 90s score. During actual battle sequences this music bears a strong resemblance to the Mass Effect series, but it still works well. Voice work is functional, with a limited range of voices to assign to you various soldiers as they acknowledge your orders. The main story isn’t front and centre here, it’s clearly not as important as the one you tell yourself, so there’s no great fountain of voice acting even from regularly appearing support characters such as Operations Officer Bradford, or your head researcher, Dr. Vahlen. They provide flavour and accent the fiction of you being in charge of a last line of Earth defence, but their performances aren’t critical. The sound effects are functional, all of it coming through in Dolby Pro Logic II if you have the gear for it, with clean effects for the signals and nice, punchy effects for things like the report of sniper fire or the hum of a plasma rifle. The isometric nature of the game guarantees that the sound effects are not always “in your face,” but when they are, they set the mood.

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Chess With Guns & Aliens

The short version of this review is; if you’re an old school X-COM fan that will settle for nothing less than exact recreation of the original with just a new coat of HD paint, then you’ll hate this game passionately. For everyone else, this is the first must-buy turn-based strategy game since Valkyria Chronicles in 2008. XCOM takes the concepts and mechanics of the 1994 classic and puts them through a wind tunnel to get a leaner, faster but still no less lethal result.

You still take control of a squad of crack troops, send them out into the field and direct their battles on a turn-by-turn basis. You still bring back alien salvage from your encounters and juggle time and budget constraints to conduct research for better technology and expand your base and satellite/interceptor coverage. You also still walk a political tightrope, ignoring and appeasing the countries that fund you, trying to woo them to give more money, or alienate them with enough neglect that they leave the council entirely, with eight countries quitting resulting in an automatic game over.

All of these concepts survive in this 2012 reimagining, but all of them with changes. Combat has the biggest—and for old school fans—most controversial series of changes with the removal of Time Units, or TUs. Instead of calculating how many TUs are required for movement, firing, or equipment use, all soldiers now get two “flags,” to be used either for movement, combat or some other action. With the exception of snipers, most soldiers can move and take action within their turn, drastically simplifying and speeding up the usage of turns. There’s also a much smaller cap on the maximum number of soldiers available on a mission, a surprising total of six, compared to the original’s end game caps of over 20 soldiers. Instead, soldiers get Call of Duty-ish “perks” that grant veteran troopers special abilities within their class, making them more powerful, useful and valuable.

The smaller, squad based combat places a heavy emphasis on cover and placement. Some of the most intense battles in the game are won and lost through a combination of fortune and strategy, relying on the player to smartly position troops and take advantage of weaknesses in enemy tactics. Flanking, surprise attacks and suppressing maneuvers are all viable strategies that can put troops in positions where they can win the fight, sometimes with great sacrifice. That’s the one area where the game still plays out just like the original; death is permanent and often costly. You can always hire more troops if you have the cash, but you can permanently lose the skills of a highly experienced trooper in any battle at any time. It’s a heavy dosage of risk that’s been absent from gaming for quite some time.

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The streamlining of the game continues to other aspects as well. No longer do commanders have to worry about manufacturing ammo, but they are also denied the opportunity to build and manage multiple bases. In many, many ways Firaxis strategy of stripping away the frills and redundancies have made a leaner, much faster game that plays true to the spirit of the original X-Com without getting itself bogged down in vast amounts of micro-management during the end game the way the 1994 classic did. On the other hand some of the omissions—like randomly generated maps and fighting off an invasion in your own base—feel like lost opportunities that could have added even more dynamic value to the game.

And finally there is the addition of multiplayer. Players can go online for one on one ranked or unranked matches, playing as humans, aliens or mixed teams. It’s a great addition to the game and creates some of the most tense and memorable battles as two people pit their best tactics—with a little bit of help from luck—to see who comes out on top. Players have a handful of points to outfit their units with, and take each other on in matches where each turn is timed at two minutes each. Once again, there’s a small sense of lost opportunity as the relatively meagre handful of maps means experienced players will quickly learn optimal strategies for each. It would have been better to go with randomly generated environments, as the original game sported, but we’ll probably have to make do with additional maps made available later as DLC to buy.

These minor quibbles aside, XCOM: Enemy Unknown captures the spirit, intensity and gruelling victories of the original but sheds much of the tedium that plagued the 90s title in its later stages. Its smaller, squad and cover based combat opens up an enormous playground of tactics, and every fight is earned. This is easily the best strategy game of 2012, and a contender for Game of the Year. The only things that hurt it are some minor omissions that are probably being looked at for the inevitable sequel.