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16 February 2016

Risky business: the flaws and frustrations of XCOM2

Disobeying all the usual rules of the videogame sequel has mostly paid off.

By Phil Hartup

On paper, XCOM 2 isn’t so much of a sequel to 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown as it is a departure from rationality. When you make a sequel to a videogame, tradition dictates that you aim to make a game very similar to that which went before, but better, brighter and with broader commercial appeal. By flouting these conventions what XCOM 2 has done is taken huge risks, which is perhaps appropriate given that the entire game is about knowing when to push your luck.

The biggest and most overt risk that XCOM 2 has taken is to abandon any console releases. For years, PC gamers have been told that they are an afterthought in game development. Years of getting dodgy PC versions of console games has only served to support this idea. So for Firaxis to opt for computers as the only platform for the game they must be losing a huge number of sales (although ironically the performance issues that have dogged the game since release wouldn’t be out of place on the laziest conversion from PS4 or Xbox One).

Creatively, the biggest risk taken here is how XCOM 2 frames itself as a sequel. For most games the point of continuity, what might be called the “canon ending”, assumes the player won the game. There might be some room for manoeuvre over how they won the game and who they were playing as, but usually Game Two: The Sequelling will take place after triumph in the first game. XCOM 2 ruthlessly abandons this premise and assumes that you lost the first game. This is a bitter pill for players who, by the eventual end of XCOM: Enemy Within (which was the follow-up expansion to XCOM: Enemy Unknown), must have been thinking that they’d pretty much saved the crap out of humanity against the first wave of invaders.

The final risk with the game lies in the changes to the strategy since the original. Not only has XCOM 2 adopted a different approach in the grander strategic layer of the game, shifting the player from the leader of a defence force to the leader of a resistance group, the game is substantially different in how the missions are played. The tactics of the 2012 game are not just inadequate for XCOM 2, they are borderline suicidal. The game demands more dynamism, more aggressive movement across the maps and more generous use of explosives.

The ambition that Firaxis have showed in trying to revolutionise the XCOM series and make it their own is admirable; but not all of their gambles pay off.

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For example the switch from XCOM being defenders of the planet to a rebel force based out of a stolen alien spaceship is very poorly executed. This was an aspect of the game that Enemy Unknown had already streamlined so much you could skip it across a pond, but there it was at least thematically consistent. If a UFO popped up on the radar you’d have to shoot it down – or try to. If aliens attacked a city you would rush to its defence, and these actions made sense within the logic of the game. In XCOM 2, you scan different things that appear on the map with little sense of why they have appeared, and every so often a mission pops up that you can do, or not do.

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The oddity here – and why it feels like XCOM 2 misses the point of its own new setting – is that you’re still subject to the whims of the game world about where and when to attack. You are still reacting. You do have occasional alien facilities that will appear and that you can attack at leisure, which is great, but it feels like these should be the norm rather than the exception. There is no sense of having the initiative, that your new status as a roaming rebel band brings any kind of freedom.

Something else that rears its ugly head in XCOM 2 is power creep. The skills available to your team in the late game of XCOM 2 are devastating compared to those in Enemy Unknown. Fielding a team of top level soldiers in XCOM 2 feels less like a squad strategy game and more like a party-based RPG, akin to Dragon Age: Inquisition or Pillars of Eternity. This means that once again, as with the 2012 game, despite the bigger and uglier aliens that come into play, the challenge drops off. Your missions with the rookie soldiers at the start are the toughest you will have to play, regardless of your experience with the game. It’s disappointing that the biggest flaw with the original game has not been dealt with.

There is a second, unintentional effect of increasingly powerful late game characters, which is that because you need their range of abilities to fight the tougher enemies you cannot afford to take as many losses along the way. You quickly reach a point where your soldiers are worth more than the objectives you are sending them out to accomplish. The death of your troops in XCOM games has traditionally been part of the process, part of the story you weave in each campaign, but you could lose a lot and still triumph. By making experienced soldiers so valuable that you can’t afford to lose them, it feels like death is less a constant companion and more of a failure state, one that it is very tempting to simply avoid by reloading earlier saved games.

In spite of these flaws, XCOM 2 remains a good game. The moment to moment process of stomping your way through a murderer’s row of weird and slimy cosmic weirdoes to complete objectives and escape remains great fun. Expansions to the mechanics at the core of this, such as stealth, armour and melee combat systems are welcome and keep this part of the game fresh. The visuals and the environments are much improved too. At times the game feels brutal and unfair, but it is when it is trying hardest to break you that it is its most compelling.

Firaxis have taken a long shot with XCOM2, but for the most part it is one that pays off. The new approach is not perfect but allows the game to stay a step ahead of the diminishing returns that could have easily sunk a return to the original format. It doesn’t have the impact of the 2012 original but is certainly a satisfying continuation.