XCOM 2 PC Review: Liberty or Death

Firaxis spreads their wings and takes some risks with their sequel to XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

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My single favorite moment in XCOM 2 is when I spring a trap out of concealment against a group of unsuspecting aliens. All it takes is a single grenade, and all of the sudden the field will be alive with gunfire and alien screams as my squad stands and bloodlessly cuts them down. A perfectly executed ambush in XCOM 2 is truly a thing of beauty.

Concealment, a new mechanic that allows you to move stealthily around the battlefield until you're spotted, is one of several interesting improvements in XCOM 2 - the sequel to 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown. After the positive reception afforded Enemy Unknown, Firaxis clearly feels more confident in taking risks with the form and structure of the tactics series. Perhaps the most important change is that you now control an underground rebellion, forcing you to be more proactive than reactive. Rather than simply waiting for the aliens to make their next move, you have to take the fight to them.

Character customization is much-improved. You can change their gender... and give them jaunty hats.

XCOM 2 posits a scenario in which humanity actually failed to stop the initial invasion depicted in Enemy Unknown. Subsequently forced underground, the remains of XCOM can only watch as the aliens come into the open and begin to build a new society. On the surface, it looks as if the aliens are introducing radical new technological innovations and wiping out crime. But, of course, these improvements have a malevolent purpose to them, as you discover soon enough.

As with the other games in the series, XCOM 2 is divided between a strategy section and a tactics section. In the strategy portion, you fly around the world in a captured alien freighter fighting the alien occupation forces, making contact with worldwide resistance cells, and trying to discover the purpose behind the Avatar Project - an implacable countdown to destruction that serves as the alien's endgame. On the ground, XCOM 2 is a turn-based tactics game with several distinct classes, all of whom level up and gain new abilities as they earn experience in the field. In the course of XCOM 2, you will have to thwart alien terror attacks and strike at their secret facilities, all while constantly researching new technology and developing new weapons. The story is advanced through secondary objectives like using a Skulljack to hack into the alien network via an enemy's brain, or raiding particularly sensitive facilities.

The Avatar Project serves as XCOM's central mystery, as well as its central source of tension. As the story progresses, you learn more and more about what the aliens are attempting to accomplish - a slow drip of information that proves riveting. In the meantime, the Avatar Project's bar to completion is slowly ticking upward, with a full bar resulting in a win for the aliens. Often, you will have to divert from whatever you're working on to take out an enemy facility, or else you run the risk of letting the bar get too high. The Avatar Project is a time bomb that adds pressure to every decision.

Additions like these help to elevate XCOM 2's strategic layer and bring it more in line with the excellent tactical segment. The Avatar Project makes XCOM 2 feel like a tug of war as each side struggles for advantage. You take out a facility, and they launch a retaliatory attack on one of your resistance cells. You move to grab precious Supplies - one of the game's two currencies alongside Intel - and you run the risk of getting attacked by a UFO and forced to defend your ship. You will have to make a lot of interesting decisions, such as choosing whether to spend your supplies and intel on research, or to contact a new resistance cell and open up a new area of the map. And the aliens, too, will occasionally force your hand and make you choose, for instance, whether you'd rather deal with a UFO hunter or additional reinforcements for each mission.

Decisions like these are the lifeblood of any good strategy game, and it's good to see them gain more prominence in XCOM 2. They add tension, particularly in instances where your squad is wounded, the Avatar Project gauge is high, and there are multiple UFOs out for blood. No matter what you choose, you know there will be consequences down the line.

It should go without saying that XCOM 2 can be quite difficult at times, even on the average difficulty level. At one point, I found myself stuck in a mission with enemies I simply wasn't prepared to handle, and it was only with luck, good planning and lots of save reloads that I got through with the majority of my squad intact (though I lost my Grenadier to poison - rest in piece Katsume 'Diesel' Watanabe). There are also the frustrating times when your team members will whiff on an alien that they have a 90 percent chance to hit, consequently leaving them open to unnecessary damage or even death.

And yet, XCOM 2 is also in some ways more forgiving than its predecessor. For instance, it's possible to earn high-level soldiers as a reward for completing certain missions, thus bolstering your squad and taking away some of the sting of losing a valuable soldier. Ironman - a mode in which manual saves are disabled and death is truly permanent - feels much more viable this time around.

In this way, XCOM 2 feels like a smart evolution of Firaxis's first effort, which was also excellent. The new setting and mechanics make it feel like much more than a mere retread, as does the rather large roster of new and improved aliens. If you've played the previous games, half the fun of XCOM 2 is seeing how the old aliens have grown and changed, and what new additions have been made to the roster. In case you needed anymore reason to hate and fear Chryssalids, they can now burrow and move underground, which is just wonderful. Conversely, XCOM's Ranger class - an update on the original Assault class - now wields an energy sword; and at high enough levels, they are an absolute buzzsaw. All of the classes have been updated in one way or another, and they bring with them new tech trees as well - another way in which XCOM 2 manages to avoid feeling stale.

At this point, my only real gripe concerning XCOM 2 is that it's been really unstable on my system. It's crashed pretty much like clockwork whenver I've played it, and there's been occasional graphical corruption as well. I can only conclude that it doesn't play well with my AMD R9 200 series graphics card, which has become an unfortunate trend in an Nvidia dominated marketplace. I've tried all of the usual fixes; but so far, no dice. I suppose that I'll have to hope that a patch will fix it, or that it was a problem of playing in "Fullscreen" instead of in "Windowless border" mode.

Having said that, I'm actually pretty close to finishing up XCOM 2. I unlocked the final mission last night, and I'm in the process of researching the last technological upgrades so I can have a full-equipped party. All that's really left for me is to wrap up the game and maybe play some multiplayer. I'll have a final score for you a little later this week. Until then, I feel pretty comfortable endorsing XCOM 2, crashes aside. This sequel is exactly what I was hoping for when Firaxis took over the series close to four years ago.

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