XCOM 2 PC Review: Liberty or Death

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

Review by Kat Bailey, .

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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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Comments 15

  • Avatar for link6616 #1 link6616 2 years ago
    I still need to play X-com. I managed to win it in a contest from a podcast, but I only played it for a short time, and while I found it fun I dropped it pretty quickly because of studies. (and I found the ipad port surprisingly rubbish)
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  • Avatar for worshipgeek #2 worshipgeek 2 years ago
    "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."

    I would think that statistically you should whiff at least once every 10 times or so.....
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #3 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
    @worshipgeek Doesn't make it any less frustrating. Drawback of 3D, I guess. Your character will be at point blank range, point up, and miss entirely.

    Ultimately, that's the game. You minimize the RNG wherever possible. But when you lose an important character on Ironman because of rotten accuracy luck? It's the worst feeling
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #4 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
    Deleted February 2016 by Kat.Bailey
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #5 renatocosta90 2 years ago
    I told myself I had too many games. That I wouldn't have any time to play it.

    But the hype got the best of me. Can't wait for friday!
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  • Avatar for WorstClassic #6 WorstClassic 2 years ago
    Most or all of Firaxis's decisions for their XCom were intelligible and smart to me. So I respected them even though I valued several of the cut features from the originals. Oh well, I hear Xenonauts is a more slavish-to-the-originals update. Speaking of the originals:
    @renatocosta90 The Firaxis Humble Bundle is still running for a few more hours. It includes all of the old XCom games. Even the ones no one liked!Edited February 2016 by WorstClassic
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  • Avatar for Frosty840 #7 Frosty840 2 years ago
    Firaxis are currently on my list of companies not to trust with initial releases, after the gaping holes in Civ5 that were filled by its expansion, and the godawful mess that After Earth was at release.
    Maybe I'll pick this up after they release the already-planned (and season pass'd) DLC and actually finish the game...
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  • Avatar for pdubb #8 pdubb 2 years ago
    Love it, can't wait for this.

    The idea of the Avatar project fixes a problem with the pacing of the 2012 version of Xcom in which after you weathered the storm of the first few months, you became unstoppable.

    I look forward to the real review and hope you touch on things like:

    Are all classes viable or are there any that blatantly feel less useful, like the support class in the original game?

    How do the different enemies feel? Does it become a slog at the end game where the challenge is taking down bullet sponge enemies like sectopods, or does the game still mantain a fast pace?

    And lastly, in order to really play and beat the higher level difficulties, you needed to abuse over watch traps and a slow and steady pace. Thematically in the first game this made sense as you had no idea what to expect. Does Xcom 2 play like the theme of it suggests, extremely fast and brutal operations that become extremely dangerous if allowed to escalate?
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  • Avatar for Barelyhomosapien #9 Barelyhomosapien 2 years ago
    @pdubb I find that amusing as I made point of playing through XCOM Enemy Unknown/Within in expectation of the sequel and my top squad had two supports with light plasma rifles and those ladies were bad asses. Between the extra movement range, extra medikits, and grenades and high accuracy due to the rifles they were a solid backbone.

    Sure they didn't have the kills of my MEC trooper or sniper but I don't think I'd have done so well without 'em!
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #10 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
    @pdubb Specialists can hack robot enemies and remotely heal, which makes them very useful, especially early. I ended up rocking two specialists through most of my run.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #11 pdubb 2 years ago
    @Barelyhomosapien depends on what difficultly level you play on. When you get the extra health on enemies as you went up in difficulty the game changed completely.

    My first run through on normal specialists were cool. Most of my runs on Classic specialists were less than optimal. On the few times I managed to managed to get further than mid June on Impossible, I always wished I had a heavy or a soldier instead of a support.

    Now, when I loaded up second wave and used training roulette, that was a different story!
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  • Avatar for pdubb #12 pdubb 2 years ago
    Thanks so much for answering my questions Kat. Honestly those answers are great. I am still incredibly excited about Xcom 2, but I have to admit I am just the tiniest bit sad that the whole resistance fighter/ambush angle slows down.

    Still I have the feeling that we haven't seen anything yet. The Nova Scotia Chrysalid mission that was part of Enemy Within was one of the most tense missions I ever played in a video game, so I know there are going to be some great story missions in game.

    Tomorrow can't come fast enough.

    Oh, and lastly to anyone who picks this up. Check on the mod scene for changes to the formula. The Xcom modders are insanely talented and are on a level just below the modders for the Elder Scroll games.
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  • Avatar for Hoolo #13 Hoolo 2 years ago
    I'm not a strategy or tactics nut, but this was one of the most satisfying reviews I have read in a decent while. The review-in-progress format really shines when there's good questions and other tall in the comment that can contribute to a better review.
    Thanks for getting the most out of a review(-in-progress), @Kat.BaileyEdited February 2016 by Hoolo
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  • Avatar for WorstClassic #14 WorstClassic 2 years ago
    I wonder if it would be interesting to remake the 2012 games with the advantages of XCom2's setup. i.e., are the strategic and/or turn to turn tactics different enough from the original that porting that campaign forward would be interesting?

    I dunno. It kind of felt like XCom2012 has a short expansion and DLC cycle. At least by modern standards.
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  • Avatar for himuradrew #15 himuradrew 2 years ago
    Ahhhh... why isn't this on PS4??

    I stopped building gaming PCs years ago. :(Edited February 2016 by himuradrew
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #16 renatocosta90 2 years ago
    Oh my god. Is it monday already?

    How the hell did I put 38 hours into playing this game during the weekend? This game is absolutely fantastic.

    If you are still reading the comment section to find reasons to buy this one, just do it. It is one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had.
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