'XCOM 2' Doesn't Mess With Success

XCOM 2 hits a sweet spot by retaining a formula that has made the series a strategy legend since the 1994 original and altering it just enough to justify a separate release.


Publisher: 2K
Price: $59.99
Developer: Firaxis
ESRB Rating: Mature
Number of players: 1
Release Date: 2016-02-04

Here's the story of lanky, ponytailed Karl Muller, at the time a fresh recruit for the XCOM resistance: it's his first mission and all is going smoothly, Karl and his three more experienced squadmates having methodically wiped out the alien opposition from a downtown area. There's one last group to take care of, two grunts and a sectoid -- fish in a barrel -- and it's off to headquarters for some R&R.

Only, at first contact, the sectoid performs a psionic attack terrifying Karl, who in his confusion hides behind a wall and blindly launches a grenade incapacitating an ally. This creates a disastrous domino effect as the rest of the team panics and the aliens get free attacks while the humans wildly scamper for position. A teammate death and a couple of rounds later, it's two against one, Karl, the sniper leading the now-decimated squad, and a lowly alien foot soldier cowering behind a rock.

The sniper shoots: a hit, a powerful one, but still allowing the opponent to survive with a single bar of health. Karl needs only to graze it with a shotgun blast, and it's over. He maneuvers himself into point-blank range to ensure a hit, and.. he misses. With its next move, the alien kills the squad leader as well before finally being put down by Karl. His ineptitude has turned an uncomplicated mission into disaster. Yet he, is the sole survivor returning to base, in line for a promotion.

Save, perhaps, Football Manager, there is no other series that can elicit powerful, complex narratives from simple number crunching the way that XCOM does. The heart of the game seems a cold, mechanical place of percentile calculations and map grids, of the immediate practicalities of turn-based tactics and the long-term demands of strategic resource management.

Yet, through some strange alchemy, its numbers sing. They create stories alternately inspiring and infuriating, and they endow your randomly generated conscripts with personalities that unfold over the course of the missions: the one that always botches the vital shot, the trusty veteran, the fearless shotgunner spending half the war in the infirmary.

XCOM 2, the sequel to the excellent 2012 remake Enemy Unknown, is aware of this and an effort is made -- uncharacteristically for the genre -- to retain some narrative continuity. Earth has failed to resist the invasion, despite our best efforts in its predecessor, and humankind suffers under a global dictatorship imposed by our alien overlords. Pockets of resistance are scattered, and those participating in them labeled as terrorists. As the commander of Earth's last line of defense, the XCOM project, we have to organize these forces, utilize support to research vital new technologies, expand our base of operations, and ultimately build an army capable of sabotaging the ominously named Avatar project before its completion.

Along with the familiar faces and voices of Enemy Unknown's returning officials, it's the mechanics of XCOM 2 that will feel like home to veterans of the series. Each turn-based infiltration into alien-controlled territory still requires painstaking coordination (as well as the help of the roll) to escape with all personnel intact.

The aftermath of each mission still finds you licking your wounds and ogling the precious loot that will allow for further research and the purchase of powerful equipment to assist your efforts. The slow loop between the two modes, the down-and-dirty guerrilla skirmishes and the excruciating choices necessary for optimal resource management and expansion in between missions, still form the backbone of a game that is still as extraordinarily addictive as it is frustratingly difficult.

Firaxis has opted for subtle tweaks to the sequel rather than an overhaul of the game and wisely so. There are more levels and skills for your recruits, a significantly wider variety of non-mission events, and steps have been taken to encourage riskier approaches to combat, including a turn-timer for certain assignments and a mechanical drone to provide remote defensive backup for advancing scouts.

Also, there are “dark events” punctuating the passing weeks with missions that have to be completed successfully in order to prevent a penalty for your handful of next ones (such as introducing shapeshifters among the human population). In general, there are more things to do and more ways of doing them, though, at times, the range of options may feel overwhelming. The voice of your faceless leader will notify you of yet another mission that just became available ringing like that of an abusive, insatiable employer.

If too much variety is a debatable flaw, then there are other less ambiguous ones. The interface feels cluttered, and quite often, you seem to be a couple of unnecessary clicks away from the screen that you need. Worse, the rather crooked viewing angle during missions makes it easy to misjudge where your grenade will fall or where the boundaries of an area covered by toxic gas lie exactly. These can be serious nuisances in a game where a single misstep can make the difference between success and failure.

However, this stops being an issue after a few hours, once players have become reacquainted to the idiosyncrasies of the game, but it shouldn't really be one in the first place. Elsewhere, aliens still huddle in the remote corners of the mission area like a bunch of back-alley dice players, springing to life only after they enter your field of vision -- a peculiar concession to your squad's survivability in a game as uncompromisingly hard as this.

None of which manages to put a dent in the experience. XCOM 2 hits a sweet spot by retaining a formula that has made the series a strategy legend since the 1994 original and altering just enough to justify a separate release and keep longtime fans guessing. Its success can be attributed to that rare combination of clinical decision making and emergent human drama that results with every mission, whether it is a triumph or a disgrace. The magic of its numbers even allows for character development.

Karl Muller eventually rose through the ranks to become one of the most valuable members of the resistance, a decorated Ranger, the most aggressive of the classes, typically taking risks with close-range combat. While there's no doubt that he's just a collection of random numbers, one can almost swear that he's still compensating for that first mission.






The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Mobley Laments the Evil of "James Crow" in the US

Austin's Mobley makes upbeat-sounding, soulful pop-rock songs with a political conscience, as on his latest single, "James Crow".


Jordan Tice's "Bad Little Idea" Is a Satirical Spin on Dire Romance (premiere)

Hawktail's Jordan Tice impresses with his solo work on "Bad Little Idea", a folk rambler that blends bluesy undertones with satiric wit.


Composer Ilan Eshkeri Discusses His Soundtrack for the 'Ghost of Tsushima' Game

Having composed for blockbuster films and ballet, Ilan Eshkeri discusses how powerful emotional narratives and the opportunity for creative freedom drew him to triple-A video game Ghost of Tsushima.


Love and Cinema: The Ruinous Lives in Żuławski's L'important c'est d'aimer

Żuławski's world of hapless also-rans in L'important C'est D'aimer is surveyed with a clear and compassionate eye. He has never done anything in his anarchic world by the halves.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.