XCOM 2 (2016)

“That’s XCOM baby” has become the moniker for the dreaded moment where your soldier whiffs a point-blank shot and your whole strategy comes tumbling down. Everybody playing will have these moments as XCOM 2 is an unpredictable and immensely punishing beast. As a sequel, XCOM 2 obviously acknowledges many of the shortcomings of its predecessor, but its solutions for these issues seem to only exacerbate the problems. The game has plenty of merit as a tactical experience, but its absurdly punishing, forces the player into awkward positions, and lacks proper informative tools.


The basis for XCOM 2 is that aliens have invaded Earth and defeated the conventional forces of the world. You are the leader of an elite squad of soldiers, managing Earth’s last group of resistance. As such, XCOM 2 has 2 primary forms of gameplay: battles and base management. During battles, you command a group of 4-6 soldiers to complete some overarching objective. The base management aspect has you recruiting soldiers, doling out promotions, building facilities, researching new technologies, and choosing what battles to participate in. The base management can be fairly overwhelming at first, as the game constantly bombards the player with notifications.


My biggest issue with XCOM: Enemy Unknown was how slowly the battles were played. The fog of war obscured enemy units, so the player would slowly creep along the map a few tiles at a time so they wouldn’t have to engage with a ton of enemies. This exceedingly careful strategy was easy to pull off and effective, but it was extremely boring as most turns you would just move forward a few spaces. To fix this issue, XCOM 2 has implemented a strict time-limit on the vast majority of missions. This is nothing but a band-aid to the original issue, as it does not address the reason that players preferred to play carefully, but instead it just forces the players to speed up.


The core reason for why players do a slow crawl through the map is because of fog of war and how enemy “pod” activation works. Enemies are in a pod a 3-4 aliens, and once you reveal them, they immediately move to cover and the battle begins. So, if you reveal an enemy pod at the end of your turn, the aliens get to move to cover and then their turn begins before you can act. Optimally, you reveal the enemy pod with your first move of the turn, that way every soldier can get perform their actions to wipe out the enemy before they can retaliate. This is why players had to slowly creep forward as to not reveal an enemy pod prematurely. The introduction of a turn limit just forces the player to move forward quickly, sometimes putting the player in a position where they have to make poor decisions or risk not finishing the mission in time.


Admittedly, the randomness of the XCOM series is a core feature. Missing high-percentage shots is just an expected outcome when delving into the war to save humanity. I completely understand that the player is supposed to occasionally feel helpless and frustrated, a few dozen soldiers should obviously struggle against world-conquering aliens. Despite this, I strongly believe that using 2 random numbers instead of 1 creates a far better experience for the player. Without going to into depth, humans are really bad at estimating odds, and using 2 random numbers feels substantially better. In essence, using 2 random numbers creates a sigmoid effect: high-percentages become even higher, low-percentages get lower, and middle-ground chances stay more or less the same. The reason that I love this system is that it rewards the high-percentage plays by increasing their odds, but the low-percentage plays get punished. Taking a 95% chance is the correct move the vast majority of the time, so it really feels awful when you whiff. With 2 random numbers, high-percentage plays are more reliable, making the game a better tactical experience. Fire Emblem adopted using 2 random numbers for years, and I wish XCOM would follow suit.


While I could ramble about the benefits of 2 random numbers for a while, the bigger issue the unpredictability of XCOM 2 is related to how punishing the game is. A single shot from an enemy can have rippling repercussions that hinder your campaign. Getting hit once: does damage, has a chance to be a critical hit and kill your soldier, can send your soldiers into a panicked state, apply various debilitating debuffs, and can injure your soldier so they will not be available for a few weeks. This all stems from 1 attack from an enemy. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a soldier’s armor would make it so low-damage attacks wouldn’t injure them. This is no longer the case in XCOM 2. As such, having one of your elite soldiers get scratched and knocking them out of commission for weeks is a common outcome. Hopefully it’s apparent why this mixture of extreme randomness and overwhelming punishment can get frustrating.


Another gripe with XCOM 2 is how awful it is at conveying critical information, especially for new players. XCOM is all about getting proper angles on enemies, effectively negating their cover. The player can never rely on hitting an enemy who is behind cover, so the proper tactic often revolves around flanking or destroying the cover. The huge issue I have is how it is not always obvious what positions will yield good hit-percentages. The absolute worst feeling is when I would move a soldier into what I thought would be a prime position to hit an enemy, but instead I am surprised by a pitiful 40% chance to hit. Additionally, many times you could move into a position which may just be slightly out of range, or you lose the angle to hit the shot altogether. I wish the game had an interface that would display hit-percentages when you hover over where you want to place your soldiers. This would alleviate the issue entirely.


My other complaint about the lack of information mostly has to tie in with how punishing the game is. Every time you encounter a new enemy, there is an exceedingly high chance that you will just get screwed by whatever new mechanic they will use. I had a few instances where I was cruising through a mission, then a new enemy would appear that would absolutely destroy me since I didn’t have the proper equipment to beat it. My prime example of this are Sectopods. These giant robotic enemies have a ludicrous amount of health, can attack multiple times in a turn, basically ignore cover, and can easily one-shot-kill your soldiers. The only reasonable way to deal with these enemies is to use anti-robot rounds, EMP grenades, or to hack them. The thing is that there isn’t a good reason to equip these items until you encounter a Sectopod in the first place, so you are forced to just kind of lose the first time you meet one. Of course, Sectopods aren’t the only instance that this happens, plenty of enemies are introduced and proceed to do something completely unexpected to annihilate the player.


This issue creates a sort of reverse difficulty curve. The game is much, much harder at the beginning of the game than it is at the end. Using weak soldiers who die in a single shot, frequently facing new opposition, not having any useful equipment, not having any perks, not having any facilities, and long-lasting injuries make the first few hours of XCOM 2 absolutely brutal. In comparison, the end of the game can be a breeze since you have trained a group of super-soldiers sporting powerful equipment. Usually, games should steadily get more challenging as the player improves, but XCOM 2 overloads its difficulty at the very beginning of the game.


As a miscellaneous complaint, there a few strange mechanics in the game that really had me scratching my had as to why they exist. Dodge for example is one of the most bizarre inclusions that I have seen in a turn-based strategy game. Apparently, a few enemies have a set chance to dodge any shot, and the bullet will consequently deal reduced damage. This mechanic is not even explained anywhere in the game, the game doesn’t tell you what enemies have dodge, and it doesn’t convey what the odds of it happening are. You could have a 100% chance to hit a shot, but then you just get screwed because of dodge. The other strange mechanic is teleportation. Some enemies randomly teleport when you hit them. Both dodge and teleport seem to exist just to add more random chance to the game, and neither are negatable. You just have to deal with the chance that the enemy will occasionally dodge bullets or teleport to a position where you can no longer hit them.


Despite all of my ranting, XCOM 2 is still an alright game. Training up a few dozen super-soldiers to perform covert operations and destroy the alien threat can be immensely satisfying. Most of my missions went smoothly, and when that happened, I felt like a genius commander. Intelligently positioning soldiers to execute strings of actions which wipe out the enemy before they can retaliate is just viscerally entertaining. Blowing up a wall with your grenadier, following up with a few sniper shots, then rushing in with your assault unit is a standard example of the ebb and flow of battle. Effectively utilizing the various classes, perks, and equipment to build a deadly squad really is an enjoyable aspect of the game.


There is an abundance of customization options to build your perfect squad. There are four different classes, and each class has two branches of perks. As your soldiers get promoted, choosing what path of perks to choose can be a crucial choice depending on your playstyle. Furthermore, choosing what equipment to bring on missions can drastically shift how you tackle a mission. Choosing what types of grenades to bring, how many medical kits, what type of ammo, what weapon upgrades, and what classes will be useful is a central part to planning any mission.


Truthfully, XCOM just may not be the strategy series for me. I have a strong aversion to getting wrecked by random chance. When I take very high-percentage shots, I want them to hit. I want to make decisions based off of information available to me, not get completely run over by a new enemy type that does something that I could not possibly have anticipated. Undoubtably, these factors are central to the XCOM experience. Veterans of the series will say these factors are what makes the series so unique and enjoyable. The player is intended to feel helpless, and unexpected obstacles add tension. Still, XCOM 2 has significant flaws even if you accept its unpredictability. The way that fog of war and pods work force the player to slowly creep through the map, yet turn-timers are prevalent. Dodge, teleportation, and lack of a good tactical user-interface often make me question whether my carefully planned strategy will even work.


I wish I liked XCOM 2 more than I did. The tactical components, the team building, and the various choices in combat could make for a phenomenal strategy game. Unfortunately, I felt that the game was severely hampered by the non-stop unpredictability and punishment. You could build a great squad, position correctly, and then get absolutely dismantled by a couple of missed shots. Overall, I don’t feel like XCOM 2 improved upon its predecessors. In fact, XCOM 2 has regressed in a number of ways. Mainly, enforcing strict turn-timers instead of alleviating the reason why players choose to play slowly has caused more issues than it has solved. It is for these reasons that I give XCOM 2 a 5.5/10. Your mileage may vary with this game. Do you like being hopeless against enormous unpredictability? Then XCOM 2 just may be for you. It’s not my cup of tea, but I can understand the appeal.


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