XCom 2 — An Introduction and Early Review

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I have been a huge fan of Firaxis since they released the computer game, “Alpha Centauri”.  It was one of my favorite computer games of all time.  If you like turn-based strategy and/or 4X games, you can still purchase it on-line, along with its unnecessary, but still interesting  at gog.com.

I also was very impressed with their reboot of the Microprose X-Com series, with their XCom: Enemy Unknown and the excellent expansion to it, XCom: Enemy Within.  I enjoyed the X-Com series in its day.  I have to admit that I did not play the whole series, but stopped with X-Com: Terror from the Deep.  X-Com presented a unique combination of global strategy and turn-based squad-level tactics in a science fiction universe.  I can’t think of any other game that did it better — up until the reboot.

Now I know I may be considered a blasphemer by many of my fellow X-Com veterans.  But I’m a big fan of elegant design — maybe it’s my background as a computer programmer, but I always feel that the best games are ones where complex strategies or tactics arise from simple rules.  As much as X-Com was a great tactical game, with decent strategic elements, it was quite a bit ‘fiddly’.  Certainly, the fact that you had to account for every bullet, that anyone could pick up anything dropped by anyone, if they had room in their inventory was more realistic than XCom’s fixed inventory slots.  But given a choice between playability and realism, I usually go for the latter.  I’m not going to dispute that X-Com has a more realistic feel to it and gives you more options.  But I LOVE streamlined gameplay, as it peels back the levels of fiddliness to get to the essence of the game — the raw tactics.  I totally understand people who disagree with me — I’m not saying that I’m right or wrong, only that it’s my personal preference.

But there was more.  I didn’t care for the strategic level of the X-Com games, for the most part.   In particular, I disliked the mechanics of shooting down UFOs.  I’m a turn-based gamer at heart, and those mechanics went against my grain (plus, against my total incompetence at anything requiring hand-eye coordination).  It is part of the reason that I never completed the early games.  I’ve had an issue since grade school with the muscles in my eyes,  which means that my eyes do not easily track objects moving on a screen. They just do not focus quickly enough for many video games.  I loved the fact that the aerial combat in the rebooted games were more of simply pressing buttons to utilize one of a variety of combat boosts.

Well, my wait for a new XCom game ended Thursday at midnight.  XCom 2, a game for PC-only, so far seems like a worthy sequel to XCom: EU / EW.  The premise is simple: all of the events of the previous games actually happened in this game world… except that XCom failed, and the aliens have conquered the earth.  You are (essentially) resurrected by the remnants of XCom team 20 years after the war was lost.  There is a fragmented resistance, spread around the globe, and you are tasked, with the help of whats left of XCom, to unite the various underground cells, and fight a guerilla war against the aliens.

But you are not completely helpless.  You now command the “Avenger”, a huge alien ship that was captured during the war.  It is so big, that you’ll need to excavate areas in order to repurpose them towards being labs, workshops, communications relays, training, and so on.  To aid you, you have science and engineering teams, led respectively by Tygan and Shen but a real sparsity of an actual engineering or science staff, so you’ll have to somehow recruit more.  You have Central Officer Bradford as your main strategic coordinator.  And that faceless, nameless, deep voiced U.N. representative will let you know pretty early on, that he’s the only surviving U.N. supporter of XCom left that has not sided with “Advent” (ie. the aliens).  Like in the previous games, he appears now and again to offer missions.

There are other significant differences between XCom and XCom 2.  In XCom 2, your strategic choices do not stop with deciding what to build, and what to research.  It quickly becomes apparent that you have SO MANY different choices to make that it becomes hard to decide which should take precedence, because almost everything you decide to do uses up time, and time is your most precious commodity in this game.  Not every decision requires you to send a team into combat.  Sometimes you merely must move the “Avenger” to a different location around the globe and do research towards setting up communications with an underground cell, or gaining intel, or waiting for a supply drop.

The nature of your missions has also changed.  Many of your fights will start with your team hidden, and you’ll be able to set up ambushes against the alien forces.  You may be tasked with destroying or stealing an alien object, or kidnapping or assassinating a VIP, or rescuing someone who’s been captured.  Sometimes when you kill an enemy, he will drop something useful — maybe intel, maybe a weapon mod, maybe a useful resource, and maybe even several different things.  Your soldiers will automatically pick up anything dropped, if they are near enough to the body.

And the soldier classes available to you have changed.  The main classes that you can play with at the start include:

  • The Ranger: A close-combat specialist, similar in some ways to the Assault class from the previous games, who carries a sword and a gun.  With his powerful sword, the Ranger can attack ANYONE he can move into range of, even while dashing.  And his chances of hitting in melee combat is almost certain.  Skills that they can obtain tend to either help maintain and/or reinstate stealth, or can improve their close-combat skills.
  • The Sharpshooter: This is XCom 2’s version of a sniper.  Like the Sniper, he excels at hitting targets at a distance, even those that he cannot see directly (teamsight is the default starting skill for all Sharpshooters, and allows him to hit any target, no matter how far away, that he has line of sight to, so long as a teammate can see him.).  But Sharpshooters also can obtain some really excellent pistol skills.
  • The Grenadier: Grenadiers are, at first glance, similar to XCom’s Heavy class.  By default, they can carry, in addition to their powerful minigun, a grenade launcher and 2 grenades (by default, other soldiers are limited to 1).  Their grenade launcher will allow them to lob the grenade of choice much further than usual.  Also, they are experts at demolitions, allowing them to remove obstacles, to either clear a path, or ruin an enemy’s cover.
  • Specialist: Specialists combine the skills of XCom’s Support class, with something completely new.  Specialists all have a little flying robot that they command, and can be used to hack into computers, or to aid their allies to increase their defenses.  Depending on skill choices, the gremlins can also be used to attack enemies, to heal allies, and maybe even take control of alien automated units.  Although their hacking skills are a bit risky (at least at first), the benefits of successful hacks can include restoring stealth to themselves and/or allies, or to give a variety of different combat bonuses.  Unfortunately, unsuccessful hacking attempts can result in bad things happening.

One other class has been revealed, but is not available by default (you’ll have to do some research and training to gain them), and that is the Psi Operative.  In the first game, you could train any soldier that showed psi talent (after lengthy testing) to gain Psionic skills in addition to their normal class skills.  Apparently, that has been changed.

Note that it’s also possible to enable soldiers to gain skills outside of their class, but to do so requires special actions that I have not unlocked yet.  HOWEVER, something that I did experience is one of my soldiers being revealed to be low-willed, and thus, especially susceptible to panic.  If you’ve played the first game, you’ll know that panic is often bad in a soldier.  And it can be contagious.  You will not be able to control a panicking soldier — his actions can vary between running away, or hunkering down, or shooting wildly at enemies.  However, such panic is temporary.

Note also that there have been numerous changes to enemy units as well.  Thin Men have been replaced with Serpents, snake-like enemies who can grab your soldiers (even at a distance, dragging them away), and strangle them.  Sectoids have been upgraded, and now have a wider variety of psionic attacks.  There are also Advent soldiers — grunts and captains.  The basic soldier is a weak, easily killed grunt — basically an altered human who works for the aliens.  The captains are a bit harder to kill, and are capable of marking your soldiers, so that he and his allies will gain combat bonuses against them.  There’s lots more, but I’m treating those as spoilers (plus I haven’t gotten far enough into the game that I could tell you much anyway).

I know that some veteran players will disagree, but I feel that the game has gotten a lot harder.  The AI is certainly decent, and will do its best to flank you, or to do area attacks to hit multiple soldiers, whenever possible.  The shear number of strategic choices can be overwhelming at times.  There are a number of ‘doomsday counters’ that are associated with revealed alien plots, that if completed, can result in a really bad day.  All of this leads to a much more intense experience, to frequent second-guessing as to whether or not you made a good strategic choice (because you will never have enough time or resources to do everything that you wish you could).  That was one weakness, I felt, of Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within — the strategic choices were there, but I didn’t feel like my time was running out, as much as I now do with XCom 2.

With the little that I’ve played of the game, I can’t in all good conscience, give a full review.  That said, from what I’ve seen, if you liked the previous games, you’ll LOVE the new one.  I cannot comment on how the game progresses later on.  I don’t play computer games as ravenously as younger people do — I can’t sit up all night in front of my computer playing games.  I tend to play in smaller bursts.  So it may be a while until I finish my first run-through.  But preliminarily, I will say that I can recommend the game for anyone who likes turn-based tactical combat, or who liked the previous games.

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