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XCOM 2 review

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XCOM 2
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Summary

Our Score:

9

Pros

  • Tight tactical gameplay
  • Dynamic and unpredictable
  • Wider strategy full of tough, meaningful decisions
  • New stealth options work in well
  • Strong cinematic presentation

Cons

  • Views don’t always provide necessary information

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Available on PS4, Xbox One (version tested), PC

Editor's Note: Below is Kirk McKeand's review of the console port of XCOM 2. You can also read our full review of the original PC version on this page

XCOM 2 console review

During the run-up to XCOM 2’s initial release, developer Firaxis spoke candidly about its decision to keep it PC-exclusive, saying it felt more comfortable on the platform and explaining how the game’s UI – filled with on-screen information – worked better on a monitor. At the time, there weren’t even any plans to develop controller support for PC. If you’d caught this messaging, you’d be forgiven for feeling cautious about the game’s console port. Luckily, those concerns can be put aside – XCOM 2 on console is still unmissable.

As anyone who’s played the PC version will know, any mistake or error of judgement can prove devastating. Fortunately, those mistakes won’t be down to the input method, as the former PC-exclusive’s controls transfer over to the Xbox One pad surprisingly well. Give the right trigger a squeeze to initiate an attack command and you’re presented with an on-screen selection of icons. Often-used commands that you can select without choosing a target – reloading and Overwatch, for example – are mapped to buttons, so you can pull them off without fuss.

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XCOM 2

Obviously an analogue stick doesn’t match the precision of a mouse when trying to choose a location for a squad member to run to, but the game does a great job of making the cursor snap to the right grid, judging by your stick inputs. As for performance, if anything it’s more stable than on the PC version, thanks to a capped frame rate and fewer visual effects. This being a slow-paced strategy game, you’ll miss neither. This isn’t a second-class cash-in. Still, you will make mistakes...

XCOM 2 translates surprisingly well onto console, with the controls feeling intuitive and the map’s grid negating the need for precision mouse control – buttons act as hotkeys for certain actions. The Xbox One version, while capped at 30fps, doesn’t have any of the frame rate issues that the PC version had at launch either, so you’re never distracted by jerkiness.

Though I’d still play on PC if given the option – because the HUD looks sharper on a monitor and it feels slightly more natural to play with a mouse – XCOM 2 is a stellar port, bringing the full-fat experience across otherwise intact.

Even if you’re not a strategy game fan, you owe it to yourself to give this a try anyway – it transcends genres. This lacks the vertical learning curve of many strategy games, slowly easing you in with exciting combat encounters instead of overwhelming you with walls of text. It’s a game that trusts you to figure out its nuances itself, and it’s all the better for it. XCOM 2 is the pinnacle of its genre.

Read on below for Stuart Andrews' review of the PC version of XCOM 2

Now this is how you follow up a fantastic reboot. Yes, XCOM 2 brings all the stuff you might expect – new unit types, new enemies, new weapons and new features, some impressive visual upgrades and a meaty new campaign – yet it also does so much more.

The sequel expertly twists and refines XCOM’s gameplay, not reinventing it for reinvention's sake, but making changes that work to pull the rug out from under experienced players; changes guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat. In doing so, it makes a genre that can feel dry and predictable every bit as dynamic and exciting as any all-action shooter. Firaxis’s superb sequel might give you nightmares, but it's the kind of turn-based, tactical game that dreams are made of.

Boldly, it makes the choice not to follow Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within by assuming that mankind was victorious, but by taking the opposite approach – imagining we lost it. Twenty years on the aliens dominate the planet, ruling humanity under the guise of a benevolent global agency, Advent, while secretly oppressing and even kidnapping the people for their own nefarious ends. Luckily, a plucky band of resistance fighters wage a guerilla war against our extra-terrestrial overlords from a captured heli-carrier, christened the Avenger. Even your protagonist – the legendary Commander of the first game – needs rescuing from a sinister alien lab.

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XCOM 2

In short, this time you're no global government agency with a big budget to back you up, but the leader of a small bunch of underdogs, on the run and striking where you can. You no longer have the world's most advanced military resources at your disposal, but a small number of enthusiastic, hard-working scientists and engineers. XCOM 2 wants to make you work for every victory in a world where playing it safe can mean disaster. At every turn, it's about acting fast, moving decisively and seizing the advantage when an opportunity arises.

The fundamentals of the gameplay haven't changed. Each turn sees you move your four-man squad using simple point-and-click controls, moving them into position then – if you have any action points left – firing on the enemy or setting them to 'overwatch': a state where they'll fire at any one enemy that strays into their field of view. Once you've moved your guys, the aliens move theirs. Repeat until you meet your objectives or you’re dead.

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XCOM 2

The major difference XCOM 2 brings is urgency. As a guerrilla force you need to strike fast, capture intel or resources and then escape the battlefield, often within a set number of turns. As a result, there's none of the namby-pamby, keep everyone in cover and switch to overwatch stuff that you could get away with in the original game. No. Here there's a little time to probe the area and set-up ambushes while your squad remain concealed, but that’s soon followed by a rapid push forwards to get to your objective and get out before the turn count expires. You can take all the time you need on each turn, so there’s no sense that strategy is compromised, but each turn has to count. Taking things slowly might mean failing your mission or – worse – leaving valued troops behind.

This last point is important. As in XCOM, you only have a small pool of soldiers and specialists to choose from, with restrictions on the numbers you can recruit. Taking troops out on a mission and exposing them to combat gives them experience, making them stronger and allowing you to promote them. When promoted, your squaddies earn new skills and gain access to new equipment – in concert with a research tree, of course.

What's more, troops can be killed, wounded, abandoned or over-stressed, making you work hard to maintain a balance. Do you take your best operatives out and risk losing them, or take the rookies and try to build them up? Is it better to keep a troop in cover or use them as a sniper, or are you risking the possibility that they might not make it to the evac point? Do you prioritise your brave men and women or the objective? Here command is all about responsibility, and as your troops gain promotions, vital skills and even nicknames, you’ll find that this responsibility can suck.

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XCOM 2

But then that's the great thing about XCOM 2. The stakes are always high and the combat dynamic. The original did a fantastic job of making a turn-based strategy game feel cinematic, but the sequel is even better, the view zooming in to cut between a troop firing and their target riddled with bullets or – if you're unlucky – coming through unscathed. More detailed models, more lifelike textures and more varied scenery help sell all those reaction shots and close-ups, and make every big moment count.

Those big moments come pretty thick and fast as well. You'll move one of your best guys into what looks like safe cover, only to have them spotted by an enemy on overwatch. Cue triumphant alien bastard, blast of energy and smoking corpse. Sometimes you'll send a squaddie sprinting for the evac point, and they'll make it through a gauntlet of alien fire. Sometimes you'll have the joy of watching an ambush come together, as snipers, scouts and troops on overwatch take out a trio of aliens in one slick sequence of moves. Whatever happens, it won’t be predictable. The game even uses procedurally generated maps to make each encounter different – and your own.

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XCOM 2

Beyond the action on the ground there's a wider underground war effort, where you'll find yourself choosing missions, selecting areas to scan for intel, making contact with resistance groups and prioritising tasks for your research and engineering teams. In a way, this defuses the tension of the actual missions and gives you a chance to regroup and prepare, but this stuff also matters.

Not only is there the risk that mistakes made here might eventually cost you the war, but the troops you recruit, the facilities you build and the items you research have an impact on the battlefield, making your troops stronger, buffing their skills and making them better equipped to respond to the escalating threat.

As each day passes you’ll face decisions as to where to go, what to scan and whether resources are worth travelling to and picking up. Plus, once the alien plans become apparent, you’ll have to keep them delayed while maintaining your own wider objectives. This won’t be an easy task, and it may take multiple playthroughs before you get the balance right.

To help, you have new options. Troops begin as raw rookies before drifting into one specialism or another, but the grenadiers and sharpshooters of the first game are now joined by a stealth and close-quarters combat operative, the ranger, and a new specialist class with support capabilities and a customisable drone. Put your research on the right path, meanwhile, and new psionic troop types open up. Even within the different classes you have choices, enabling you to tailor the specialist for combat support or medic roles or the ranger for infiltration or melee attacks. Combine these with a steady drip feed of new alien-derived equipment, and there’s cope for a huge range of different strategies.

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XCOM 2

Needless to say, the aliens aren’t sitting still. For a start, you’ll find new types in play, using dastardly psionic powers to disrupt your troops on the battlefield or give you a nasty shock just when things seem to be going well. The aliens are also hunting you and the resistance, meaning you’ll face fraught missions where you have to rescue fellow rebels in the middle of an Advent onslaught or equally tense missions where you’ll have to defend your downed Avenger so that it (and you) can escape.

Whether you’re building, researching and recruiting or actively in combat, XCOM 2 never lets you forget that you’re a small band of fighters with limited resources and fearsome time pressures, battling a powerful, embedded foe. Victory is never inevitable, defeat is always lurking round the corner, and a wise commander will save regularly to avoid disaster (though the game quicksaves automatically as well).

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It’s a tough game, but nearly always fair. The enemy AI can be fiendishly tricky, working to outflank you or taking advantage of your silly errors. It’s great to have your best, most heavily armed grenadier right on the frontlines, but not when he or she falls foul of alien mind control and goes haywire. Sometimes the dice don’t roll in your favour and a battle-hardened troop will miss a crucial, easy shot, but sometimes things can go the other way as well.

The worst thing I can say about it is that the cutaway view with its disappearing rooftops can sometimes make it hard to see an alien squad or emplacement, while the procedurally generated maps can give you unexpected challenges – it’s tough enough facing several groups of aliens and Advent soldiers, but tougher still when an automatic turret has been placed without much reason on a rooftop right behind you. Still, such events aren’t a regular occurrence, and if they’re the price of such an unpredictable, exciting game then that’s a price worth paying.

Verdict

XCOM 2’s brand of tactical strategy might have its roots in the golden age of PC gaming, but its sights are set square on building a future. By limiting your reliance on safe, defensive play styles and pushing you to work quickly and attack, Firaxis has built one of the most tense, demanding and addictive strategy games ever, where every choice has repercussions and every soldier, every victory counts. If you buy it, clear your schedule: this one will keep you gripped for months.

Overall Score

9

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Kelley

February 9, 2016, 4:55 pm

Don't find XCOM 2 all that fun to play. They changed XCOM from a strategic tactical game to a tactical game with a bunch of choices to make but very little strategy involved. The tactical side of this is ok but the rest of the game is very lacking. After 4-5 hours of playing XCOM 2 I packed it in and went back to playing XCOM Long War which is way more enjoyable. I give it a very generous 6 out of 10.

the_fall3n

February 15, 2016, 3:53 pm

I've enjoyed enemy unknown/within. X com 2 seems to have all the thing I like in strategy games and it build on the previous game, although it seems that between the ending of 1st and beginning of 2nd story changed.

Bovrillor

September 29, 2016, 1:18 pm

The story didn't change as such. There were two possible outcomes in Enemy Unknown - 'Win' or 'Lose'

The developers decided that since the majority of playthroughs resulted in a 'Lose' situation, they would make that the canonical (story-accurate) result in order to shake things up for the sequel.

Everlast

September 29, 2016, 4:17 pm

Exactly, I personally liked most the strategy layer and atmosphere of the original 1994 XCom UFO Defence/Enemy Unknown. We had the full strategic freedom to place bases anywhere on the planet, manage numbers of scientists, engineers, soldiers, storage between bases, specialise them in research, manufacture, UFO interception, retrieval missions.

The first official 2012 XCom remake removed a lot of this strategic layer, and I have the feeling that XCom 2 goes even further.

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