“XCOM 2 Review: Gambling on the Fate of the World”

XCOM 2 delivers a message that life is unfair. (Courtesy/XCOM 2)

Video games have a lot to teach us, but no video game has a message quite as powerful or one so succinctly delivered as the one in Firaxis’ “XCOM 2,” and that message is that life is unfair.

If you played the reboot of the old series, “XCOM: Enemy Unknown,” then you know what to expect from the turn-based combat. You command a squad of up to six operatives going on missions around the world to fight an alien menace and the human sympathizers that support it.

The difference this time around is that twenty years have passed since “Enemy Unknown” and the aliens now rule the Earth under the guise of the seemingly benevolent Advent administration. “XCOM” is now an insurgent group, and it’s your role as commander to organize a global resistance, hit the enemy where they’re vulnerable and ultimately overthrow the alien government.

The game is much more story-focused this time around, which is a double-edged sword. The story itself is pretty good, with interesting twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, culminating in a series of cool missions that do interesting things with the world and the characters. The downside is that the production values can’t keep up, which results in terrible lip syncing for certain cutscenes and slowdown whenever there’s too much going on on-screen.

“XCOM 2” introduces a bunch of cool gameplay mechanics, such as starting most missions in stealth, or “concealment,” letting you position your squad more carefully than in previous games. Other mechanics, like hacking, add an interesting wrinkle to the game, giving players an incentive to upgrade their technical abilities as well as their physical gear.

Speaking of physical gear, there are some great customization options for your soldiers. Not only can you customize their name, nationality and the color of their armor, you can also change their backstory, demeanor and abilities. It adds another layer to the game when you can roll out with Gordon Freeman, the soldier from “DOOM” and the Joker. It’s gratifying to see the developers have invested in an underrated part of the original game.

In the actual missions, the developers have included dozens of cool enemy types, ranging from brainwashed soldiers to shape-shifting monsters and hulking robotic tanks. It keeps you on your toes, given that you never know exactly what lurks around the corner.

As prominent as the aliens are, though, the real enemy in “XCOM 2” is the random number generator, or RNG, which determines whether a given action will be successful. For example, a successful shot on an enemy is almost never guaranteed, and it’s up to the RNG to decide whether you make the shot or not.

Although there are some upgrades and gear that will give you a greater chance of success, there’s no way to guarantee success on every shot, hack or action. On the contrary, the most devastating misses are the ones that the game told me were practically guaranteed to hit.

As you travel the world, you must keep an eye on a sinister alien project, codenamed “avatar,” which, if completed, will mean the end of the game and “XCOM.” Although it seems like a dire threat early on, the project moves so slowly that it’s barely worth worrying about for the first couple of in-game weeks. By the time it comes close to fruition, you can knock out a string of enemy bases, or “blacksites,” to slow it down and even reduce progress on it, so it never felt like a really serious threat to me. Still, I prefer having to deal with the avatar project to having to keep the council happy, as was the case in “XCOM: Enemy Unknown.”

The entire game culminates in a final mission that’s miles better than the cakewalk that was the final mission of “Enemy Unknown,” featuring some great writing and unique locations. The very end of the game is a significant tactical challenge, but at the same time it feels like the game is just throwing everything it’s got at you, like an overexcited child rummaging through his toy box hoping that something down there will really impress you.

Overall, “XCOM 2” is a tremendous improvement over “XCOM: Enemy Unknown.” For all the issues I have with its production values or the RNG, “XCOM 2” is still among the best strategy games to come out in the past year. The future of strategy games is very bright, and so is the fu


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.