The Aliens have taken Earth. Scattered to the wind, the remnant forces of XCOM follow a lead on their missing commander. Thus, the most intense gaming experience I’ve ever had in the form of XCOM 2 begins. This turn-based action/strategy game with customisable soldiers, an upgradeable mobile base and perma-death perils challenges the player to take humanity’s future in to their own hands. With the exception of some harsh frame-rate drops, long loading times and wonky camera moments, XCOM 2 excels as a video game. Without further adieu, here’s our XCOM 2 Review.

(Note: This is a review of the Playstation 4 version of XCOM 2. We understand it’s old news at this point for the majority of PC players and we’re a bit behind on the console release as well. For that, we apologise. Please enjoy the read! – P.S. I’ve also never played XCOM 1. I know; I’m awful like that).

Look and Feel

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A loading screen as your squad journeys to the drop point. Team-mates remain seated and fidget around before the mission.

XCOM 2’s presentation is two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, it has impressive graphical fidelity. It presents scenes for events I’d never have expected, like the dissection of alien bodies as Dr Tygen gives some background information of the specimen whilst cutting it open. This could have been relegated to a text pop-up, but XCOM 2 refuses to do almost anything with half a heart. There’s a wide array of cosmetic customisation options for the members of your squad as well as their weapons. Colours, patterns, beanie hats; you name it. Also, even in such dire circumstances, XCOM 2 bypasses the drab military feel in favour of a vast colour palette. There’s nothing boring about the way XCOM 2 looks in my opinion.

The Other Side of That Coin: Performance Woes.

For such a high profile game, not to mention it having already been released on PC back in February, XCOM 2 has some dramatic frame-rate drops, freezes and the occasional crash. Not only that, these drops are consistent. It’s not an issue here or there, rather it rears its ugly head throughout. Whether it’s a long load time on your way to a mission or moving a unit across the map, those frames drop like my jaw does at the sight of a beautiful landscape. Were XCOM 2 a poor experience, I’d think nothing of it. But this is a high quality product, and it deserves the same level of polish. Especially 8 months out from its initial release.

To XCOM 2’s benefit, the performance issues rarely-if-ever impact the gameplay itself. It’s not like you’ll miss a shot because the frame-rate dropped, given it’s automated, strategy gameplay. That doesn’t make its lack of polish less disappointing, but at least you’re not likely to suffer much for it.

Console Controls Like a Dream Wrapped in a Hopeful Wish

It should come as no surprise to XCOM veterans that the controls on consoles handle swimmingly. I’d heard great things about the original reboot’s port. Nevertheless, it’s always appreciated when a PC game, designed with mouse and keyboard in mind, receives some serious love when ported to consoles. Everything works as you’d like it to. Menu navigation, target acquisition, ability selection in the field: all of it’s a breeze.

In summation, though it presents itself in some excellent ways, the problems with performance are hard to forgive given how long it’s been since the initial release. Thankfully, the gameplay remains mostly unhindered and the controls are fantastic throughout.

Story

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Central will regularly brief you on your missions both via in-game scenes and radio transmissions.

Picking up 20 years after the story of XCOM, the Aliens successfully invaded and subjugated Earth. Operating out of a derelict ship, the remnant forces of XCOM follow up on a lead to locate their missing commander. That’s you. YOU’RE the commander. I know, right? I imagine that’s a promotion for most of us.

Now that the Commander (remember; that’s you) has been retrieved and recovered from stasis, it’s time to take the fight to Earth’s oppressors. With Central, Dr Tygen and Shen at your side, the player undertakes a series of missions to prevent the mysterious “Avatar” project’s completion and desperately searches for a way to garner human support against their propaganda-spewing overlords.

For such a small cast of characters, each left an impression on me. Mostly Dr Tygen, as a lot of time is spent with him as he dissects bodies and provides information as he goes. Not only that, his research is vital to your progress, so Tygen seems to get the most face time.

Humanity + Aliens = War (and More!)

The most impressive aspect of XCOM 2’s story is its explanation of the alien threat. As the plot unravels, we learn why the aliens decided to stay on Earth. It even briefly touches on why the variety of alien troops exists in an understandable way. It’s not an overly complex tale, but it works well and the cut-scenes are brief but compelling. The voice actors don’t go too heavy on the mellow-drama. Except for when they call you Commander, but that always comes off as tongue-in-cheek.

If you’re the type to dive deep in to the lore, there’s a whole heap of text files to read. Be it alien forces or weapon types and upgrades, there’s more to learn if you’re willing to invest in XCOM’s plot. It’s not necessary, mind you. XCOM 2 delivers a satisfying narrative, providing that you can actually reach the ending: it’s an unrelentingly difficult experience.

Gameplay

A critical hit from a machine gun shot. Nice one, Big Boss!
A critical hit from a machine gun shot. Nice one Big Boss!

XCOM 2 is a masterclass in turn-based strategy gameplay and resource management. The aim of the game is to prevent the aliens from completing the Avatar project. Their progress is displayed as a red bar of square segments at the top-centre point of the screen. If the project is completed, it’s an instant failure and that’s your campaign at an end. Assaulting ADVENT facilities will hinder progress, but many situations will crop up and get in your way, including perma-death of your squad-mates. The resource limitations are definitely felt throughout XCOM 2 and a lot of the success is determined in the preparation phase. Essentially the game has three stages to it: base, world map and combat.

Base Basics

In the base, you’ll build new facilities to unlock upgrades and enhancements that’ll benefit you in the field. Engineers and Scientists have their roles to play. Whether it’s clearing debris from the ship for extra building slots or shortening research times for Tygen’s projects, the base is the preparation phase for all things XCOM 2.

All building and research takes time; another valuable resource in XCOM 2. The better the product, the longer it takes but this can be alleviated by assigning more engineers to buildings/clearance or having more scientists in labs to shorten research times. The buildings also require power, so building and manning power stations on the ship is another situation to consider.

Staff recruitment is done through World Map activities and via certain mission completions. In order to purchase the base expansions and research projects, various resources are needed. The main resource is dollars. Dollars are used for purchasing facilities and some research and engineering projects. Other resources, such as Elerium cores and alien alloy can be used to develop more advanced upgrades later on from the Research or Engineering segments of the Avenger ship.

Squad on Base

In the Avenger base, players can also customise their available soldiers. Cosmetic upgrades like name, body and outfit changes are all well and good, but promoting your available soldiers (if they’ve obtained enough experience) is vital to improving their usefulness. Rookies will promote to a random class (as far as I’m aware) unless trained in a specific facility. When promoted from rookie, the soldier’s class will have two skill trees. Each promotion will afford one skill point for use on one of two talents.

The soldier talents can range from entirely new techniques to enhancing their currently available abilities or stat points. Add to this the ability to enhance your soldier stats with PCS items (one at a time that can be replaced at the cost of destroying the previous implant) and the modifications that can be made to their weaponry, and it’s fair to say there’s a lot of fun to be had just kitting out your crew.

World Map

On the world map, the Avenger can be used to scan points of interest. The aim of XCOM 2 is to make contact with resistance bands hidden in the various continents around the world and use their resources to aid your efforts. There are limited contacts permitted, so building new Comm stations back at the base is important for gaining access to vital regions that’ll let you take on the ADVENT facilities and halt progress of the Avatar project.

Exploration and scanning takes time, and with the passage of time comes more content for you to partake in. Sometimes a resistance group will uncover a supply cache. Other times, aliens might assault a region and you’ll have to decide whether to respond or continue with your current activities.

The world map is where the majority of the hard decisions are made. Particularly in the “Dark Events”. These consist of two or three skirmishes planned by the aliens that’ll impact your experience for the next month. Let’s say, for instance, you decide to stop their “Hunt XCOM” skirmish. In doing so, you prevent a ship from hunting the Avenger down and wasting your time on a difficult defense mission. As a trade-off, you failed to stop the aliens from doubling their vigilance, so infiltrating THEIR bases will be much more difficult for the next month.

If the player has enough Intel or dollars, they can trade at the main Resistance HQ or at the Black Market for staff members and other useful items. The resources are well-balanced to make it always feel tough to spend what you have at the cost of something else being unavailable.

Combat

Initially, players have access to a 4-person squad of rookie soldiers and they’re equipped with assault rifles as well as grenades. The battlefield is mostly concealed until the soldiers uncover it in a modern Command and Conquer-like style. The major difference in XCOM is that characters must take cover to avoid absolute, permanent death. Littered with fully destructible cover points, players and their enemies will do their best to stay safe whilst keeping their opponents in a line of sight to fire upon.

Most missions begin with your squad in “Concealment” mode. This allows for battlefield navigation without threat of elimination. If a soldier crosses in to an indicated red-zone, the enemies will spot the entire squad (bar some with special abilities) and proceed to take defensive position and engage in hostile exchanges. This usually involves beams, bullets, claws or swords.

Points of cover will display how viable they are as cover points with a shield outline and a gauge inside. If the shield is full, it’s the best cover. If it’s low, or red, you’re likely to get shot and killed. Downed characters can enter the bleeding out state, from which they can recover if they’re extracted by another soldier in due time. A squad-mate carrying somebody can’t attack, however, so they’re remarkably vulnerable. One casualty can ruin an entire mission. Stay safe!

Attacking the enemy brings up a chance-to-hit percentage. The higher the percentage, the more likely your shots will land. Critical hits are possible and more likely if you choose to flank the enemy, and the enemies play by the same rules as you do. It doesn’t take long to adapt to XCOM 2’s gameplay, but it could definitely do with a more detailed tutorial in general.

The Dead Stay Dead. Unless They Don’t.

There are a lot of enemy units that each have their own personal brand of brutality. The game starts you off with a fairly simple squad of human-like alien soldiers to defeat, but even then the game has a particularly annoying enemy: the Sectoid. Dead squad mates are permanently dead, but they can also be used against you if the Sectoid decides to use its psionic powers to reanimate the corpse. This essentially gives the aliens an additional unit in the following turn unless you eliminate the Sectoid, voiding its influence.

Other brutal enemies, such as the cobra-human hybrid “Viper” that poisons your people or the brutish melee-mad Berserker, have their own methods of decimating an unprepared team. Be sure to unlock those additional two squad slots and get a 6-person group out there for increased odds of survival. It’s never impossible, but with the chance-to-hit percentage system, every shot is a dice roll that could go either way.

A Quick Multiplayer Note

Online matches can be played against other people. Ranked, Quick or Custom. It’s just more XCOM, except you’re having to wait for other people to make their moves. I didn’t particularly enjoy it but I know some of you love the thrill of competition against real people. XCOM excels in its single player, so that’s enough for me.

If you do enjoy the multiplayer aspect, you’ll be happy to know that enemy units are available for use in this mode so your squad can be built of units you’ve never used.

Overall

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The general battlefield view. Vibrant for such a snow-covered waste-land.

XCOM 2 is impressive and deserves to be talked about in the highest regard. Performance issues aside, the core gameplay and progression systems of XCOM 2 are second to none. Losing a squad mate feels like losing a friend. The feeling of hopelessness as the Avatar project nears completion is devastating. That said, victory feels all the more glorious because of the level of investment this game invites. Every decision in XCOM 2 is important and it always feels like you’re torn between two or three possible approaches.

It’s a game I can definitely say I’ll revisit for the trophies and it’s rare to see a strategy game on console control so well. If it were a more polished experience, it’d be one of the all-time greats in my opinion. Don’t skip out on XCOM 2.

About this XCOM 2 Review

Game Reviewed: XCOM 2 (Console Version)
Review Format: PS4
PEGI Rating: 18

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Developers & Publishers: ,
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