XCom 2: A Game of Bug Eyed Freaks

BANNER_VideoGames2013

 

Developer: Fraxis Games
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4
Disclosure: Copy Purchased

The XCom series is a science fiction turn-based strategy game where aliens have invaded and taken over the Earth, and it’s up to you, a member of the underground human resistance, to fight for humanity… or what’s left it.  In XCom 2, the latest installation of the series, humanity has just about had it and the evil aliens have successfully infiltrated the media, making most of the public side with their cause, even to their own detriment.  Soylent Green is people, after all.

xcom2_map

XCom 2 follows in the same systems of the previous XCom titles, most of which are turn based strategies.  The players and missions take turns in each mission.  You have a base that you can upgrade and expand by adding new rooms over time.  However, unlike the most recent previous title, Alien Unknown, where your base expansion was incredibly limited and the player is given very little information about what buildings do what, you are somewhat guided in what rooms you “need” to build for story and have plenty of expansion slots (maybe even a couple extra).  Still, in both games, there’s no take backs.  Once an expansion slot is used, that’s what it is.  The only way to change a mistake (say, building too many power conduits) is to restart your entire game.

xcom2_hotzone

XCom 2’s combat is fairly straight forward.  All the player’s units take a turn doing all the things they need to do such as attacking, moving, hacking, and opening doors.  And once you expend all of your unit’s actions, the enemy AI does the same with all the enemy units.  There is a lot of interesting tactical choices you can make and the maps that you play around in are rather expansive with plenty of strange and fantastic places to hide and shoot from.  Units are well varied giving you a wide variety of combat and ability combinations between units to keep your small strike team rather fresh rather than monotonous.

What I liked

In short, what I liked most was the downloaded content and the fan-made mods.  Excluding the mostly lack-luster cosmetic DLC packs, the two extra content packs that added additional missions, enemies, and units were pretty OK.  Both content packs were quite short and didn’t add as big of an impact the price tag should demand, but the changes were nice and notable nonetheless.  One of the DLC packs, specifically the one that added the S.P.A.R.K. unit which is a big hulking robot that kicks some serious can (that is similar to but not as overwhelmingly impressive as the mech units from XCom: Enemies Unknowns), seems like it should have been in the game from the start.  The robot’s gun shreds armor which becomes extremely necessary as every mid to late game missions feature armored foes and very few normal units have the armor shredding ability.  Armor being a rather tough obstacle to overcome if your units are unable to counter it by shredding it.

I was surprised to find XCom 2 open to player modification or, if It did, would be like most strategy games and be extremely limited in function and content through a dedicated editor.  To my surprise, on PC, XCom was linked to Steam’s Workshop system.  And through that, modders have taken the time to fix some of the issues built in XCom 2’s release, issues such as a lack of items and crafting mid to late game.

xcom2_team

Between the DLC and the mods, XCom 2 became not just playable, but actually enjoyable.  There’s a good deal of issues that the game had on launch, which in turn is responsible for the “Mixed” review rating on Steam.  But enough tweaking of the system from the players have gotten it into a pretty great state.  In general, as the trend of releasing unfinished games as “early access” and “features to be added later” and then expecting the players to mod the games to working states, it a rather undue burden on players that are unpaid to do such work.

What I did not like

For starters, let’s talk difficulty curve.  The thing is, difficulty should be a curve that wavers between two axes: the time the player has been playing and the player’s skill level.  The longer the player has been playing a game, it’s safe to assume the more the player has learned and the more skill the player has obtained.  There is kind of a “sweet spot” in between those two axes where the game’s skill is not too hard to leave a player frustrated or too easy leaving the player bored.  Kind of like Goldilocks, it has to be just right to keep the player’s playing and satisfied.

This chart from an article on Gamasutra on cognition and game difficulty displays the difficulty curve as it relates to player skill and the game's inherent difficulty. It also shows the states of cognition for each point within the chart.
This chart from an article on Gamasutra about cognition and game difficulty displays the difficulty curve as it relates to player skill and the game’s inherent difficulty. It also shows the states of cognition for each point within the chart.

 

There were aspects of the canon DLC that were pretty game breaking.  The new characters seemed to be a necessary addition that should have been included with the original launch.  For instance, mid- to late-game all enemies have various stacks of armor.  Armor negates damage based on how many stacks a unit has. More armor stacks, the less damage you can do to that unit.  And nearly all enemies have it in the higher levels.

xcom2_spark

Getting rid of an enemy’s armor is a top priority and only certain units can do that.  The DLC adds a unit called “S.P.A.R.K.” which has attacks that destroy armor.  For that fact alone, this unit is a stark necessity.   It seemed to me to be an odd aspect of the game to save for “extra paid for content”.

Then there is the DLC that nearly ruined the game for me.  In concept it is an interesting take on the turn-based style of the game.  The DLC adds three different bosses; they are various “upgrades” of three current units, and these bosses are super dangerous.  What makes them dangerous is that they get an action after every player action plus full actions on the enemy’s turn.  They can kill several of your units at a time while you can only move to cover one unit at a time.

xcom2_battle

What makes this game breaking is the timing.  If you start a game with the DLC, chances are that you will stumble upon the activating missions at the very beginning of the game, which is what happened to my play.   From that first mission, the bosses will randomly spawn during any mission there after until you kill them.  The good thing is the damage you do to them is persistent and that they run away after getting hit so many times.  But the damage they wreak and the time they take up to handle is overwhelming for a beginner who lacks the equipment and sustainability available in mid to late game.

 

Is it worth playing?

There are a good number of issues in XCom 2, especially if you don’t have access to a Steam community workshop filled with player created modifications and downloads.  The game’s official DLC seems to be walled off featured content instead of true expansions.   The game lacks balance, especially in the beginning as the difficulty curve starts out incredibly high.

These problems aside, the game is pretty enjoyable.  With a story that pits a rag-tag group of human resistance fighters against an evil alien insurgency, the game really nails the underdog fantasy fighting against impossible odds.  It also does a great job keeping the action in the gameplay flowing even while still handling the turn based system.  It does a good job bridging the gap between hard core turn based strategy games and a more broad general audience.

It could have used a few more mission types to add more variation to the objectives given in each mission.  For the most part it was enjoyable and the story made coherent sense even though the main story was a little short.

 

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