XCOM 2 | Game Review

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XCOM 2 is the successor to Firaxis Games’ reboot title of the famous XCOM series: XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  XCOM 2 was produced by 2K Games and released in February of 2016.  An expansion pack, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, was released in August of 2017.  XCOM 2 follows right on the heels of Enemy Unkown’s premise and greatly expands on the story, gameplay, and experience of its predecessors.
XCOM 2 begins its campaign twenty years after Earth’s original attempt to fend off the invading aliens, the XCOM Initiative, suffered total defeat.  The aliens now occupy the Earth through their puppet government, the ADVENT administration, and maintain a benevolent facade while developing their secret Avatar Project.  XCOM has morphed into a resistance movement led by the Commander, the player’s avatar in the campaign.  XCOM’s forces are now based out of the Avenger, a retrofitted alien supply ship that keeps XCOM’s assets on the move and away from ADVENT retaliation.

The single player campaign is the key feature of XCOM 2.  The game features several layers of mechanics, divided into the strategic layer and the tactical layer, that the player must navigate and master to complete the campaign.  The campaign progresses through a series of scripted missions, which unlock as the player completes persistent objectives like using a skulljack item on an ADVENT officer or conducting the Raid Blacksite Facility special mission.  When not pursuing these missions the player leads XCOM against ADVENT’s attempts to suppress the resistance by fending off raids on resistance holdouts, countering Dark Events, and attacking facilities working on the Avatar Project.
The Avatar Project is the primary motivation for campaign progression.  The player starts out in control of a single territory on the strategic layer’s global map.  As alien facilities come online they increase the Avatar Project’s progress.  These facilities can be destroyed to delay the project, but the player can only launch the raiding missions if they have made contact with the territory that contains a facility.  The Avatar Project also gains one progress level at the end of each month.  If the Avatar Project is completed, the player has a set number of days to destroy a facility or complete a storyline mission, or suffer an automatic defeat as the aliens crush XCOM.
All missions take place on the tactical layer; a pre-generated semi-generic map where four to six XCOM soldiers engage ADVENT and alien foes to complete a mission-specific objective.  The player outfits soldiers with advanced gear acquired by researching new technologies in the Lab and constructing new armor and weapons in Engineering, both of which are accessed on the Avenger through the strategic layer.  As soldiers kill enemies and complete missions, they gain experience allowing them to progress in one of four possible classes.  Each class, the Grenadier, Ranger, Specialist, and Sharpshooter fills a specific tactical roll and provides a set of abilities that the player can unlock as the soldier levels up.  A fifth class, the Psi Operative, becomes available after the player constructs a Psi Lab, in which Psi Operatives also level up and gain new abilities.
XCOM 2’s tactical combat mechanics have not changed very much since Enemy Unknown.  The principles governing combat, such as the use of cover and height advantage, remain the same and any player familiar with XCOM series’ missions will quickly acclimate to tactical combat.  The major differences appear in the new classes of enemies, the concealment mechanic, and new objectives that missions can bring.
XCOM soldiers begin most missions in concealment, a special mode where soldiers can move around enemy units undetected, and gain attack bonuses on enemies that are unaware of their presence.  If a soldier moves into the detection radius of a hostile or neutral unit, such as an ADVENT trooper or a civilian, the soldier and the entire squad are revealed and the concealment benefits are lost.  Concealment is a powerful tactical tool but it can become a mixed bag of benefits and drawbacks.  The ability to setup ambushes on unsuspecting enemies, with increased aiming bonuses, is a very effective tactic.  However the temptation to bypass groups of enemies to reach an objective is a dangerous prospect; the XCOM soldiers may find themselves surrounded and outnumbered when their concealment ends.
The alien and ADVENT opponents are a very diverse lot.  Almost all of them possess a special ability that can quickly alter the battlefield in a single turn.  As the campaign progresses, ADVENT forces also get stronger, gaining more health, better weapons, and increased armor.  Armor plating is also a new addition to XCOM 2’s combat.  Heavy units like MECs and Sectopod walkers now have one to five points of armor that reduce damage taken equal to the amount of armor plating.  A full squad of XCOM soldiers can take down even the toughest foes, but using special abilities like grenades to shred enemy armor is a far more efficient tactic at destroying armored enemies.
XCOM 2’s roster of villains introduces another element rarely seen in Enemy Unknown: force composition.  Most alien and ADVENT groups, known as pods, found on a map will be composed of two to four types of units.  ADVENT troopers supported by Shieldbearers or Officers become far more deadly while the normally weak Sectoid alien is a much greater threat when hiding behind the hulking Andromedon.  The support that enemy units offer each other demands great tactical care on the part of the player and ensures that, for the most part, a numerical advantage is not a sure defense against tactical defeat.
The increased tactical dangers highlight what is perhaps XCOM 2’s greatest design weakness: it’s lack of a proper learning curve.  Decisions that the player makes early in the tactical or strategic layer can have consequences that the player had no way of knowing about or preparing for at the time.  Suffering from unavoidable losses is part of the XCOM legacy and considered an established fact by series’ fans, but suffering backlash from decisions or events determined by a random seed or through designed ignorance can put players off rather than inspiring them to persevere or try harder.
Yet if the player can press on and achieve a proper level of tactical experience and technological mastery, XCOM 2 provides a number of fun toys and new mechanics to play with.  Soldiers can equip armor that allows units to jump to the tops of buildings using grappling hooks, while technological breakthroughs can randomly increase the effectiveness of weapons or decrease the production cost of important facilities.  The Psi Operative soldier is a powerful battlefield asset when fully upgraded; able to remove debilitating mental effects on other soldiers and launch wide area psionic attacks.
XCOM 2 is flashy and fun to look at as well.  The engine of Enemy Unknown has received some polish and improved performance, but its characteristic look has remained.  As a result, XCOM 2 runs much more smoothly on mid level machines than many contemporary titles would.  The engine improvements also facilitate XCOM 2’s character pool and customization feature.  Players can now choose from a wide variety of cosmetic alterations, such as uniforms, headgear, facial features, and coloration to create their own custom looks for their soldiers.  These unique appearances can be saved to the character pool and enabled to appear in the campaign as recruitable characters.  Note that these changes are purely cosmetic; saving a high level, heavily equipped soldier does not also transfer their equipment and levels.
There’s a lot to be said about keeping the difficulty low enough for new players to enter a franchise.  If the game experience starts off too difficult then players will find other things to enjoy.  XCOM 2 demands a little too much from players not familiar with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which is a tragedy as the experience vastly improves through persistent gameplay.  The War of the Chosen expansion pack adds a number of new features that, when combined with other DLC, raises the average difficulty even more but keeps the campaign alive for a much longer experience than most veteran players would even pursue.  Overall, XCOM 2 maintains everything that has endeared the XCOM series to fans over the decades, but it could have benefited from less emphasis on appealing to hardcore veterans.