XCOM 2 Review, Part 2: Global Guerrilla Warfare

Thursday, February 11, 2016

In the first part of my review I covered XCOM 2's combat system at length. From the frantic pace of timed missions, the deadly new enemies, to the sweet, sweet sugar that is a well coordinated ambush, I found every aspect rewarding and appropriately merciless. XCOM 2's combat feels even more a natural evolution of the series than its 2012 predecessor. As we've covered that aspect in depth, I'd like to turn my attention to the greater campaign. There are a number of new mechanics within the base-building and income management side that significantly impact the experience and it would be unfair to leave them out.

The first thing you did in the original XCOM campaign was select a location for your base. You could place it anywhere on the globe and can even build more than one base to increase your global effectiveness. It was a real test of your ability to multitask and trying to manage more than 3 bases was a real nightmare at times. Even more stressful, the aliens could locate and attack your bases, forcing you to confront the fact that you probably hadn't equipped the poor souls at base #3 very well. The 2012 reboot simplified this mechanic, allowing you to only build one base in a few generalized regions, each one providing a different buff.

XCOM 2 says goodbye to the old ways entirely. You are instead introduced to the Avenger, an enormous, jury rigged alien ship that serves as your mobile base. within it, you are able to build the usual suite of facilities, but only after clearing out cluttered and non-functioning alien machinery. The regions on the globe represent the scattered resistance which you are tasked with uniting. Tying them together isn't as easy as just travelling to the area though. You'll need to build comms facilities to facilitate the disparate groups and manage your relationships with each region by completing missions in each one, all while scanning for supply drops, gathering scattered intelligence, trading resources on the black market, disrupting alien operations and avoiding detection by alien interceptors.
A glimpse of the campaign map. Managing to contact and maintain each of these regions is incredibly difficult.

It's a lot to handle. At any given moment you need to keep track of at least 3 different resources, more if you are building any items for your soldiers. The alien forces get their own buffs in reaction to your attacks; they may make it harder to recruit new people to the resistance, increase the cost of certain supplies, choke off your intel gains or just send their soldiers into the field with better armor. As frustrating as it can be to always be on the defensive, the scenario is a lot more realistic. Well, as realistic as a global alien dictatorship is.

The number of things you have to juggle in the campaign really took me by surprise. The 2012 game was difficult on higher settings, but there was always a tipping point about 3/4's of the way through when you knew you could handle anything the aliens threw at you. I wouldn't say I've gotten terribly far in the XCOM 2 campaign, but so far there is no tipping point in sight. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way, but players expecting a curve similar to Enemy Unknown are bound to feel a bit overwhelmed.

One of the hardest changes for me to come to grips with is the amount of heart in the campaign. The original games, with their pixelated, nigh identical troopers and high mortality rate afforded you with a certain emotional distance. You didn't care too much for your soldiers. They died often, especially early on and the ones who survived numerous missions were often dispersed to other bases in case of an attack on the facility. Sure, there were a few regulars that you sent out to deal with downed UFOs, but there was little differentiating one veteran from another in the event of one's inevitable death.

XCOM 2 reaches for your heart with the grim efficiency of a thuggee priest. The constant fight to gain the upper hand plays a big part in facilitating this feeling. Your experienced soldiers are also incredibly valuable, making the loss of any of them a significant blow to your efforts. Case in point is Martina Kohler. She is a soldier I have had since my second mission. She is current;y a veteran of 19 missions with a suite of kills to her name, but she has nearly died at least three times. One of those times she was rendered unconscious by an ADVENT soldier and had to be carried to the evac zone by one of her squadmates. Two other members of the squad lagged behind to provide covering fire for her extraction and didn't manage to make it to the evac zone before the timer ran out. They have been missing ever since, and though they were listed as captured, I worry that I won't ever get a chance to rescue either of them.
Dam you, random operative for making me feel like you have a history of aspirations.

More to the point, Martina is the heart and soul of my squad. I feel more confident about the outcome when she is on the mission. Her skills as a specialist have kept numerous others alive. She is from Germany, and her long, wavy hair pours out from under the beanie she wears. she has a large scar on her left cheek and wear an eyepatch. I haven't decided what the story behind her eye is, but I'm sure it involved saving someone.

XCOM 2 never said that I had to carry my wounded soldier back. It never told me that Martina was important. All the game ever did was allow me to bring them home. Given the situation that you are placed in from the outset of the game, the natural response if to save everything you possibly can. Tactically, risking others to save one person doesn't make sense and should never be done. As a human being with feelings though, I want to save as many people as I can. The planet I'm saving means a fuck ton to me and the way I look at it, if I cast aside soldiers like I ought to I'm no better than the alien forces I'm working to defeat. It's a choice that may have already put me in an unwinnable situation but I'll be damned if I'm going to stoop to their level.

There are tons of things that can go wrong with your campaign in XCOM 2, and only a narrow margin for victory. If victory in an XCOM game still requires cold, calculated sacrifice then I may find it more difficult than ever to win. XCOM 2 is far a better game than I had anticipated. It is the first game that has really surprised me in a long time. I never expected to be so challenged by the combat, stymied by the campaign or emotionally invested in my supposedly disposable personnel. If this is the future of my favorite series, I'm certain it is in the right hands.