XCOM 2 Review: An exercise in beautiful frustration

XCOM 2 was one of our most anticipated games of this year but, six hours into the campaign and with multiple new grey hairs and bulging veins atop our heads, we almost stopped playing.

Our A-Team had just returned from a mission with our best four warriors gravely wounded and shaken. Not only would they be out of the fight for a significant amount of time, but the new shaken status would make them prone to getting hurt again once they got back on the field.

Top that off with the fact that the complex time-passing mechanic had been added to the tried-and-trusted research and engineering from the last game, and woes such as a lack of money and materials, and the USS Save The World From Aliens was sinking fast.

Then, a miracle: a new bonus was achieved which sped up our healing process and, just as our troops got to fighting strength, an Easy mission popped up that let us dominate, restore morale, and nab some resources.

All was well in the world. We made the plunge to use the new soldier customisation to turn our alien fighters into Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, despite the risk that next mission they could all be permanently killed. We didn’t care, we were winning this war…


…that is, until the next mission when the metaphorical hit the whatnot. In a civilian hostage mission our best soldier was killed when flanked by a group of ADVENT soldiers, and our second best soldier was killed by a civilian which transformed into a mass of flesh and death.

XCOM 2 is a bit of an uphill battle, to say the least. Every mission brings something new and unexpected which you’ll have to adapt to beat. Yet it doesn’t feel like the increase in difficulty is arbitrary either, the story pulls you through the frustration, pushing you to rise to the challenge. There’s a reason for that too, apparently, after the release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown the developer, Firaxis, looked at the stats gathered on players and realised the vast majority didn’t finish the campaign. While this is fairly common, the devs wanted to work that into the narrative and way the game plays too. As a result, the original XCOM failed to repell the alien invasion, and you return 20 years later to take on an entrenched now ruled by the aliens and their ADVENT organisation.

As a result, your soldiers are more of a guerrilla unit than an army. You start missions out in concealment and then spring into battle with surprise ambushes. You’re not just the underdog: you’re the weak, mewling runt of the underdoggie litter.

Your base last time was a fixed, underground bunker: now it’s a floating alien ship that you’ve commandeered not entirely unlike one belonging to a certain superhero group currently riding high in the box office ratings (it’s even called The Avenger…). Between rounds, you fly around the world connecting resistance cells and collecting resources, but what it brings to each combat scenario is that it speeds up the game in the initial phase with faster movement in the concealment phase.

And on that note, the strategy side of things (everything you do when not shooting aliens) feels very much like the original game. It feels like you spend more time putting it to the enemies here when compared to Enemy Unknown. Which is a good thing, of course.

Can’t stop the fighting

The ever increasing difficulty level of XCOM 2 makes you feel more like a punch of punk trainees than a group of supertroopers, but the addictive gamplay loop of eking out victories will keep you hooked. We spent so long with Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within that beating up grey skins became a formulaic exercise. Now it’s pushing us to be more brutal, risk a bit more and go the extra mile, all while bombarding you with new, tougher aliens and random dice rolls.

It’s chaotic and frustrating, but so rewarding in the end that you’ll be glad you suffered through.

  • XCOM 2 was reviewed on a PC. Review code was provided by the publisher.

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