Does it Hold Up? is an ongoing series in which we look back on our favorite games with the benefit of hindsight. You can find the rest of our entries here.
It never ceases to amaze me that 2K was saying that strategy are "not contemporay" as recently as 2011. Their XCOM reboots have inspired a whole new generation of terrific tactics games, and XCOM 2 has done its share to build on that legacy.
On that note, the sequel launched on console today, bringing with it a bunch of DLC and refinements from earlier this year. Those who missed out on XCOM 2 the first time—or simply didn't have a powerful enough PC—now have a chance to see what they missed. But does XCOM 2 ultimately live up to its positive reviews from earlier this year? Let's take a look.
What we said at the time
From my review at the time: "Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with XCOM 2. It addressed many of my issues with the original game, and it threw enough curveballs at me that I was consistently on my toes. Plus, it has a pretty solid central mystery, which is made all the better if you know how the original game ended."
XCOM 2 was pretty much everything I wanted from the first game: It had a much strong strategic layer, it was less rigid and linear, and it was more forgiving about character deaths. Firaxis also did a great of revamping the various classes and making them more interesting. I was a little disappointed by the ending; but by and large, XCOM 2 was a great success.
As with the first game, XCOM 2 was a turn-based squad game in which you recruited and subsequently built up a team of specialized operatives, but with a number of important changes. Rather than keep you in a static base, it put you in command of a mobile command base that could move around the globe to various hotspots. It also introduced the Avatar Project—a doomsday clock that both deepened the game's mystery and kept you on your toes. Together with a variety of new weapons, abilities, and enemies, XCOM 2 managed to feel dramatically different from the original game without losing what made it so great in the first place.
XCOM 2 was praised quite a bit after launch, then faded from sight as other games began to hit. Whether because it was less of a novelty, or because it was a PC exclusive at launch, it didn't seem to have the legs of its predecessor.
Fairly or unfairly, my lasting memory of XCOM 2 is the ending. The final two missions are a study in contrasts: One an intense and satisfying race that encapsulates everything that is great about XCOM 2, the other a rather boring and disappointing gauntlet. The final battle requires a huge amount of luck to complete, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I repeatedly reloaded my game to get through it. I can't even imagine trying to beat it on Ironman Mode, where death truly is permanent.
Still, when a friend of mine asked if he should pick it up, I recommended it without hesitation. As a complete package, it was hugely satisfying, particularly in the way that it told its story. I really couldn't put it down over the course of my first 40 hours or so with it.
But here's the thing: I'm not sure I would play it again. Don't get me wrong, I think it's actually much more replayable than the first game, which was more linear and thus less dynamic and interesting (though still pretty great). But XCOM 2 is a long, tough game; and by the end, I was exhausted. I was the good kind of exhausted, but still exhausted.
The content since release
Firaxis has released a couple fairly major pieces of DLC for XCOM 2, both of which change the game in interesting ways. The first is Alien Hunters, an expansion that introduces alien bosses who will pop up out of the blue in random missions. They are terrifying, powerful, and often able to take multiple turns. They make for great foils, but with the caveat that their demise makes the final mission that much more disappointing since there's nothing that comes close to reaching their level. The second expansion is Shen's Last Gift, which lets you add awesomely poewrful death robots to your party. These robots function as mobile cover and bring with them a fantastic arsenal, making them very much worth the effort to build.
Both expansions are best experienced over the course of a new game; so if you're planning to start up a new run, you should grab the expansions first. That said, neither is essential, and you could even argue that they have the effect of unbalancing the difficulty a bit. Mostly, they're worth picking up if you want to change things up a bit.
What about the console versions?
XCOM 2's move to Xbox One and PS4 is notable in that it makes it accessible to a wide swath of fans. The PC version is actually quite resource intensive, limiting its appeal to those who have powerful gaming rigs, so it's good to have an alternative. And happily, it still looks and plays just fine on console. Some will complain that the controller is more cumbersome than the mouse and keyboard, but it's not hard at all to get your soldiers into position, especially with XCOM 2 being turn-based.
The biggest sacrifice the console set will have to make is modding, which is what really extends XCOM 2's lifespan. But while it's not ideal—especially with modding becoming more prevalent in console games—it's not a terrible sacrifice to make for more accessibility. Ultimately, it depends on where your priorities lie. Regardless, this is all the excuse you need to play a great strategy game.
So does it hold up?
It totally holds up. XCOM 2 turns the first game completely on its head, casting your group as the invaders and the aliens as the establishment. In so doing, it becomes a much tenser and more interesting strategy game—one where time is of the essence. Its changes also speak to Firaxis's design talent. It brings with it a lot of really smart additions, one of the most important being the ambush mechanic that is both thematically appropriate and tactically essential. As I wrote in my review, there's just nothing better than putting together a perfect ambush and mowing down a half dozen aliens at once as they try to get to cover.
Just in writing this, I'm kind of wanting to get another game going just because I have such fond memories of my time with the original. At the risk of repeating myself, this is quite simply the best tactics game on the market right now. Given the opportunity, I would probably kick my final review to a five, especially now that the performance issues have been ironed out.
In any case, it's fair to say that XCOM 2 has my unqualified recommendation. Whether it's console or PC, you should definitely play it as soon as possible.