This week, Zero Punctuation reviews XCOM 2.
So a couple of years back, there was a game I quite liked called XCOM about aliens in the process of conquering the Earth. There’s a new game called XCOM 2 about aliens having already conquered the Earth; now we just need a prequel about the aliens getting ready to conquer the Earth, cancelling the newspapers, locking up the house, and putting on their space wellies, and the verb “to conquer” will be fully conjugated!
Twenty years have passed since the last game, the Earth has come under the control of an oppressive alien regime fronted by a dorky human collaborator, and when the silent protagonist gets released from suspended animation, the resistance can finally get started, because no one was willing to get off their arse and defend themselves without the presence of this one gormless mute.
But enough about the plot of Half-Life 2, let’s talk about XCOM 2 instead. The game opens with a tutorial mission in which the nameless voiceless faceless commander is rescued from the aliens’ crisper drawer, but I thought the commander was me, the player, the one giving the orders, so when the game goes “the commander’s being held captive in an alien fortress!” I replied, “No, I’m not, I’m sitting on this couch scratching my balls and eating a Zooper Dooper."
Soon enough, we get back into the XCOM groove with a base, a research budget, and an elite fighting unit consisting of a handful of untrained part-time gym teachers in secondhand body armor. And since no-one had ever heard of Dropbox in the first game, we have to research the monsters and alien weapons all over again, even though this could have been done at any point in the last two decades by looking out of the fucking window, or at the owner of the boot currently stomping on your face.
You might think this is starting to sound like they made XCOM again with just enough veneer of originality to call it a sequel, in which case you’re mostly right, well done, here’s your slightly incomplete trophy. You might also think that since I liked XCOM 1, I’d be perfectly on board with XCOM: Another One, and now you’re not so right, better give me that trophy back.
The risk-free copy-paste sequel carries risks of its own, for what was good and exciting when it was new sparks quickly and fades over time, whereas what’s bad and annoying sticks around, like an unemployed couch-surfing friend with access to your Netflix account. The game still features that annoying constant sensation that every decision we make has in some way fucked over our entire game forever, and I swear the random number generator had it in for me. These ninety-five-percent-chances-to-hit melee attacks seem to miss a hell of a lot more than five percent of the time, and now my melee guy’s out in the open, standing next to an angry monster, and forgot to bring a change of tighty-whiteys.
But let’s focus on the differences. There’s a bit more of an emphasis on the character editor that lets you create a pool of wacky funsters for the game to randomly pick as soldiers and VIPs, which I suggest using, because the random characters the game creates on the fly don’t seem to have any sense of fun at all. There’s all kinds of funny hats and Dame Edna spectacles to go around, but all the game produced for me was “dudes with male patent baldness” and “ladies with granny haircuts.” Loosen the fuck up, guys, our comrades in the field are dying for your right to dress like a complete tosser!
Secondly, you don’t have access to the whole world from the get-go. You have to gradually expand your secret underground resistance whose headquarters are in a very secret and underground giant airborne helicarrier, so UFO invasions aren’t a thing anymore. It’d be a bit redundant at this point, now the random missions are all “aliens are being dicks somewhere, time to load up the circumcision wagon.”
What’s new to the turn-based combat missions is that there’s a stealth element now. You can be a bit less cautious advancing forward, because aliens don’t immediately know where all your troops are because your last guy with a turn left noticed two-fifths of a sectoid armpit through the image of a window reflected off the tears of a dying sparrow. Now your troops are in a concealed state until they get within a certain distance of the enemy, because let’s not forget that we’re a sneaky guerilla resistance group now, as we put on our suits of armor and get helicoptered into the middle of a busy pedestrian precinct. It’s just a one-time thing, though; the moment one of your dude’s elbows pokes into range, the aliens go back to knowing every tree, ice cream van, and public convenience your lads are hiding in. Might’ve made some sense to go back into concealment mode once every alien in the current vicinity is dead and the rest are all across town at the company picnic, but apparently not. I guess the enemy remotely inform each other that you’re around or something. “XCOM are here? That’s a bugger. Hm? Can we come over and help kill them? Love to, but we just started the barbecue and you’re a whole hundred yards away.”
The concealment thing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in certain timed missions. “Recover the contents of a box in enemy territory within eight turns or it will detonate.” Hold on one second there, Charlie - we start this mission concealed, so the enemy don’t know that we’re here, but they rigged their own stuff to explode regardless? Do they just like keeping the storage guys on their toes?
It seems like there are quite a lot of timed missions in XCOM 2, and they never fail to annoy, because it’s taking away what the stealth offers: the chance to take your time and be a bit more thoughtful with your approach, without a little monkey banging cymbals next to your ear because the bananas aren’t coming fast enough.
But let’s save some negativity for our next steaming hate-fuck. I quite liked some of the new base management elements, especially how the engineers can be individually assigned to specific rooms, cause it reminds me of playing FTL, a slightly more fun game. I like how the map exploring and rookie training facility makes it feel like we’re less reliant on the “twiddle our thumbs and hope for the best” management strategy.
But I still somehow feel less engaged by XCOM 2 then its predecessor. Part of that might be the Sloppy Seconds Sequels Syndrome, but there are other things that bug me, such as the bugs. The graphical glitches, the shooting at what is blatantly a different enemy to the one I said to shoot at, the weird lag that has no business existing in a game that isn’t online, nor in orbit around one of the moons of Saturn.
But I think what bothers me most is that the premise is fundamentally poorly thought-out. “Verisimilitude” is a word that comes to mind that’s quite difficult to spell. The role reversal of the aliens in command and the humans being the insurgents is not reflected in any significant gameplay change. It’s still us, the humans, getting sent out to hunt down the creepy crawlies, and the notion that aliens are accepted by the masses as benevolent overseers while mostly consisting of hissy monsters is pretty absurd. They make a big thing of how they use armored soldiers that pass for human to hide their true nature, but the effort seems kinda wasted the first time you see them on patrol with monsters. I just don’t think people would accept a giant snake as the new local constable. “Good morning, PC Hissy!” [hissing] “I’m very well, thank you, PC Hissy, how’s the brood?”
- The Leader We Needed: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- You know how our main underling in this game calls himself ‘Central’? I wonder if he was a middle child
- PC Hissy gets along especially well with Sergeant Glurrooarrg