Xcom 2 is an enigma. Fraught with moments that make you decide whether to evacuate your wounded and highly valuable sniper or risk one more deadly shot from him that will drop an enemy and even the odds, but put him at serious risk of perma-death. Those moments are tense and delicious and keep you going back for another play through. But also quite often packed with moments where it feels as though the enemy cannot be beat. In these moments your most reliable men will suddenly have 30% chances for hitting their target. In these moments you are already out manned 8-3 and here comes a drop ship. It’s a delicate balance Xcom 2 all too often fails to find.
As to the characters and story, I have seen other reviews that laud the “weight and emotional toll” of losing a soldier, and how ingeniously crafted the game was to make you feel that loss.
I don’t see it. Each soldier is but a chess piece with 2 differences:
- Unlike a chess piece mid-match, these guys are easily replaceable with a little foresight and well trained backups
- At least they mutter some canned lines when you ask them to take action as opposed to the maddeningly silent chess pieces. If pawns groaned upon being taken, they’d have the same emotional resonance as Xcom 2 characters
There’s no personality to any of these characters. None. Unless you think several characters all muttering the same “I’m on it” or “Moving to position” lines is some sort of hipster meta experience designed to teach us we’re all one and the same and each loss diminishes us all or some BS like that. It’s laughable to me that anyone implies there is any emotional impact to losing a soldier you know nothing about and who will be replaced by someone uttering the exact same lines, often in the same voice. Please.
The plot is adequate, a basic straight forward alien invasion that we must stop, with a sort of countdown clock until the “Advent” completes a project that will enslave mankind once and for all. Along the way we can attack bases or sometimes assassinate or capture key Advent allies to slow down their progress. We gather supplies, build facilities on the ship like labs or training departments and carefully try to make certain the death of one soldier doesn’t destroy the entire squad because we failed to train a backup for him.
This isn’t the most intricate plot and none of the characters are particularly compelling. All of the fun here is supposed to be packed into the strategy of a turn-based combat system. And make no mistake, Xcom 2 is brutal. A single mistake on the battlefield can, and often does, wipe out your most prized and lethal squad. This, if it occurs deeper into the game, essentially ends that play through and sends you squealing back to the main menu and “new game” mode. In my view, at least, there is virtually no chance to train and promote rookies on the battlefield once the action really ramps up so if you lose too many of your trained guys deeper into the story the game is essentially over. And that is, of course, not the only way to lose. If you fail to attack enough facilities and delay Advents plans they will eventually win and end that play through. So far I am on my 8th new game adventure and have not defeated the Advent yet.
The turn based combat is a little difficult to assess for me. I have obviously played others, my favorite of all being the old Buck Rogers game on Sega.
But Xcom 2 is a game that relies so heavily on strategy and caution yet often puts you in seemingly unwinnable situations. I have consistently seen my chance of hitting calculated at 60% or above only to have my soldier miss. This can often result in a fatality for your squad. Lets say you have 3 bars of health left and you have a choice: Send this guy back to the ship to heal or let him blast the Advent in the face thus removing the threat. Obviously with a 60% or better chance of killing the enemy and having success in the mission this is what you do. But all too often he mysteriously misses and is killed on the ensuing round of enemy moves. There is a mechanic that strangely fails to change the odds where allegedly flanking your enemy or at least firing with no cover between your soldier and theirs ignores a portion of their defensive bonus. But I have often moved a soldier a few paces away from an enemy not in cover and been given a 30% chance to hit. This results in me not firing at all on that turn because instead I have to move my now exposed soldier back into cover.
I have witnessed plenty of painful missions where I have been so outnumbered its nearly comical. When the board is “shaded” on more than one side where you cannot see the enemies and have no idea where they are, and you’re this outnumbered (though you don’t know it yet) even accidentally taking cover on the wrong side of a rock can be an instant, and permanent death. That’s not really a strategical failure on your part, nothing more than a coin toss went into guessing whether the enemy would advance from the left or the front. Even more problematic is that into this equation you are often on a countdown clock on these missions. Steal the enemy device before they destroy it and you have 7 turns to do it, that kind of thing. When you can’t see ahead, and you’re out numbered, you are forced to abandon any strategic thinking and any notion of firing back because you MUST move ahead on the board as far and as quickly as possible. This often involves you moving a soldier directly into the line of fire, though you have no way of knowing that. He is dead before your next turn. And when the smoke clears you might very well discover that it is 6 enemies versus your 3 soldiers, but it doesn’t stop there because here comes a drop ship or an Advent soldier mutates a survivor into some hideous beast and not its 5 or 6 on 3, its 8 on 3. And its not winnable. Sometimes in these scenarios I have noticed even retreat is not an option because your squad stands a very good chance of being wiped before your next round. And that play through is over.
I am not the only one that feels that way. A glance on the Xcom 2 Reddit board reveals a host of comments like:
“You weren’t facing mind control until the later game in the last one and now you’ve got four man rookie squads facing multiple mind controlling and zombifying sectoids from the get-go.
It’s very easy for one mistake to snowball into disaster.”
“For me, the timers stress me out and make me make mistakes… But I guess that is why they are there? Just annoying they are in almost every map!”
“This game feels like it’s about 10% skill, 90% luck, so glad I torrented it to give it a shot before buying, absolutely a big fat ugly ass no in my book.
“Difficult games are by no means out of my realm of games, love the darksouls series, bloodborne, demonsouls, a wide array of classic game titles from the late 80’s and early 90’s, but when a game totes “Challenging and difficult!” and turns out to be nothing but a big fat RNG dice roll bullshit fest then it loses me. Difficult is fine, but make skill a factor, not luck.”
There is an addictive element to Xcom 2, there is no denying that. It is tremendous fun to set some soldiers on “overwatch” and get an ambush just right. And overwatch is the one mechanic you MUST use as frequently as possible to avoid enemies encroaching too far into your territory. There is certainly a fair amount of fun. But too often the game feels rigged against you. There are far too many moments during a play through where it seems the system has decided your squad will die and you, as a player, feel powerless to change that. Enemies that kill you on one shot, being outnumbered to a staggering degree and “hit or miss” calculations that suddenly feel randomly generated all take away from the experience. Also the fact that they jam some “unskippable” missions into the game when you have far too many wounded and unavailable soldiers to make it a fair fight, and now you’re deprived of the chance to “scan” for a few days and get them out of the infirmary, is maddening.
Add to that the completely missed opportunity to give you at least a few characters you can care about when they perma-die and the Xcom 2 experience is, for me, a mundane one sprinkled with some too infrequent tense, fun battles where you feel it was a balanced, hard fought war whether you won or not.
Conclusion: Short on plot, zero emotional resonance with any character, and turn based combat that way too often feels unbalanced caused Xcom 2 too fall flat for me. Moderate amount of fun, buy it on sale or don’t bother with it at all.