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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: The Workshop
Release Date: Sept. 27, 2016 (US), Sept. 30, 2016 (EU)


PS4 Review - 'XCOM 2'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 4, 2016 @ 4:30 a.m. PDT

XCOM 2 transports players 20 years into the future, where humanity lost the war against the alien threat that has established a new world order.

Buy XCOM 2

Rather than following the first game directly, XCOM 2 assumes that you lost the first game. The Commander, the guy in charge at XCOM, was captured during an ambush on the XCOM base. That was the end of the XCOM project, and the alien invaders won. They took over the entire planet and have been secretly consolidating their power behind the scenes while appearing as benevolent dictators to the masses. Humans have been locked in an alien computer forced to run simulations of the war against the alien menace that they could use in their own training. However, not all of humanity has bowed to the oppressors. A group of ex-XCOM forces have tracked down and liberated the Commander. Now it is up to them to use their experiences and knowledge to lead humanity to victory against an overwheling foe.

XCOM 2's plot is interesting but perhaps a little thin. It's clear the primary focus is on the player crafting his own narrative. Like the first XCOM reboot, there's just enough of a plot to guide you along the primary story without dominating the game. I felt like the story underutilized the idea of you being a rebel, and I was slightly disappointed by the end result of the Avatar project. The plot is only a minor part of the XCOM experience, and there are enough strong pieces to carry it through.

XCOM 2 doesn't have a central base like in the original game. Instead, you have a stolen modified spaceship that serves as your central command. You can pilot your base from location to location and take actions at those locations. However, this takes time, and the more time you spend at one place, the more likely a fire will crop up somewhere else. Your primary goal is to form contacts with rebel groups scattered across the globe while harassing enemy forces and shutting down large-scale enemy projects before they can get going. You have to collect various resources ranging from intel to money to people to work for you. You can upgrade your ship, but you'll need engineers and scientists do the grunt work and research. Some elements might feel familiar to XCOM vets, but the process has been largely streamlined so you can make decisions rather than simply following a strategy.

Shortly after you begin, you'll be informed about the Avatar project, which is the enemy's endgame and presented as a slowly climbing meter at the top of the screen. Events make the meter rise or fall. If they complete it, humanity will fall. It's not dissimilar to the happiness ratings of the funding countries in XCOM 1, but it's more focused and reliable.  It's a good mix of stressful without feeling uncontrollable. You'll get in over your head if you fail repeatedly and take too much time to finish the game.

Another major factor is Dark Events, which warn you of what ADVENT is doing to stop you. This is important factor because you generally get hit with multiple Dark Events at once and need to decide which ones to prioritize. Left unchecked, each Dark Event grants the ADVENT a temporary or permanent boon. A Dark Event may give them poisoned ammunition for a month, increase your intel costs for a month, or drastically increase the speed at which the Avatar Project completes.  The most dangerous of all makes a UFO hunt down your ship, initiating a battle that can end your game if you lose. As with most of XCOM 2, this boils down to deciding what the least-bad choice is. Can you deal with poison bullets over a faster Avatar timer increase?  It's an interesting idea because it leaves you feeling like you're making progress and like the enemy is getting stronger.

The new geoscape is a big improvement over the original XCOM's "spam satellites to win" gameplay.  Rather than being static and reactionary, you're constantly doing something, like grinding out intel, trying to get the extra engineer you need to finish a project, or frantically rushing to stop a Dark Event.  It has some flaws, but they're largely tied to the original XCOM as well. It's too random, and especially on higher difficulties, the randomized rewards can have a disproportionate effect on how easy the game is. Getting solid engineers early is more important than anything else and the more you have, the faster you can get off the ground.

While the geoscape is important, it isn't as important as combat. Characters and weapons have been rebalanced in a number of ways.  A handful of character classes are roughly similar to those in the original game but have some significant changes. For example, the Ranger is XCOM 2's Assault class. He's armed with a close-range melee weapon that has far more reliable kill power but puts him at risk. The Specialist fills the support niche but with a wider range of skills designed to allow you to hack objects or disable enemies.  Grenadier is the explosives expert, and Sharpshooter is the sniper class. In particular, Sharpshooters are significantly less dominant than they were in the previous game, though they're still a critical part of any team. Playing the game and purchasing the DLC allows for additional combat options, though even those will feel familiar but remixed.

Unlike the original XCOM, most missions begin with your team in concealment, not in combat. While you're concealed, the enemies don't have knowledge of your position and won't attack unless you step into their field of vision or otherwise alert them. Don't mistake this for meaning that you have stealth missions. There are a couple that work that way, but most missions require you to eventually break concealment. When you do, assuming you're not caught by an enemy, you can set up a powerful first strike to take down high-priority enemy targets. Rather than thinking of it like stealth, it's more like you get to decide how to start combat in the most advantageous position possible.

The XCOM expansion added the Meld canisters to encourage you to take risks and move quickly, and XCOM2 builds upon that. Most objectives now have some sort of hard time limit. To successfully finish the mission, you need to complete your objective within the time limit, whether it's disarming bombs or rescuing hostages. So you can't afford to take too long, and it adds some extra pressure to deciding when to drop your concealment.

The timers were the most controversial element of XCOM 2 when it launched on the PC, and it's no different on thePS4 version.  The game absolutely does not reward turtling or cautious gameplay. Many objectives, especially when you're starting out, give you leeway in the form of a turn or two. Some give even less. If you're the kind of person who is incredibly stressed out by constant timers, then XCOM 2 willbe a source of unending frustration. The titleinherently makes you want to minimize your risks, which leads to repetitive gameplay. By forcing you outside of your comfort zone, it forces you to adapt to more risk (and more exciting) strategies. Someone who likes the safe strategies that worked in the first XCOM may find the timers too constricting.

Difficulty-wise, XCOM 2 technically starts you over at the lowest level of enemies again, but it's clearly intended with the idea that you've played XCOM before. A lot of the mechanical changes are specifically designed to force players out of their comfort zones from the original game. As such, while the base difficulty is lower, it pumps up a lot more quickly and in ways that prevent you from falling into the exact same tactics you used in the original game.

Even more than the first game, XCOM 2 encourages the idea that you won't win every fight. The title seems to take it as a given that you'll retreat if the situation looks too bad, rather than expending more time and supplies on an unwinnable fight. It does a good job of making it feel like you're a guerrilla fighter seeking to overcome a stronger opponent. Failing to stop the detonation of a bomb might upset people, but they'll be a lot more upset if you can't stop the next one because too many of your soldiers were killed on a futile mission. On the other hand, the inverse is also true. Is it worth losing your best man to make sure a mission finishes and you get the precious rewards?

Like the original XCOM, XCOM 2 has an inverse difficult curve. The hardest part of the game is early on, when you're struggling with untrained rookies who can't hit the broad side of a barn and are armed with the crappiest weapons. Once you start building a strong core team, you'll begin to outpace the enemies. This is especially true once you gain access to psychic troops, who can completely dominate the battlefield. It adds a real sense of progression and risk. Part of the reason it gets easier is that you have great soldiers, but that also means losing the soldiers in battle is a correspondingly greater loss that's much harder to recover from.

XCOM 2 is tougher than XCOM in both fair and unfair ways. A lot of the minor changes encourage greater strategic depth and force you to think about how you're going to deal with a bad situation. Like the previous game, you'll run into a number of situations where things go south without any assistance from you. It's entirely possible to lose a mission simply because the luck gods were against you. If you're an XCOM fan, you know all about losing a promising rookie to a 10% hit chance.

Like the first game, XCOM 2 is a little sluggish on the PS4 — likely because it was designed with PCs in mind. It runs smoothly enough. There are some excessive loading times and lag between actions that can get a little annoying. This is especially true when a lot of things are going on at once between enemy reveals, building collapses and actions going off. The graphics look reliably solid, but I noticed a few odd visual bugs from time to time.  It still looks better than the first game, and if you played the first XCOM on the console, you probably won't have too many problems with the sequel.  The voice acting is largely passable, and the music quite good, but it's nothing that's going to blow your mind.

All in all XCOM 2 is a solid sequel. In many ways, it's more of the same with some new enemies, mechanics, skills and weapons to make it feel like a true sequel rather than a mere expansion. It doesn't make any big changes to the formula but improves upon the original. Fans of the first should find a lot to like here, but newcomers may want to start with the original XCOM.  At the end of the day, it's a solid, fun, and incredibly unforgiving strategy game that will test your wits and your patience. Don't get too discouraged when your favorite soldier is disintegrated by a lucky crit from a laser beam. That's just the XCOM experience.

Score: 9.0/10

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