Welcome Back, Commander Part 1
Here’s something exciting and new. An actually timely review! What a novelty.
So, I’ve been following Derek’s lead in not purchasing games new any more. Video games occupy an odd place in the entertainment industry. They’re one of the most expensive compared to a movie, concert or book. On the other hand, you’re going to get more time out of them and their cost/hour ratio is a lot better than a film. However, unlike the other mediums, video games have a very short shelf life. Basically, the industry really only cares about a game’s first three month release window. After that, it’s essentially dead to them.
This typically translates into enormous price drops before the game is even a year old. By the time a movie is releasing to video and looking to extract almost double the cost of a ticket from its audience, games are racing to the bottom in terms of price trying desperately to make a few last minute sales. This “wait to purchase” mentality is only reinforced by the fact that companies will release expansions or additional content at a premium that, after a year or two, will be bundled then discounted for less than the original game will discount (I hate you Bethesda).
So, if you’re patient, you can generally get a product which the creator and publisher values around $110 for less than $10. Thus, I have a tendency for viewing things late for the obvious cost effectiveness reasons. Also, by the time I actually get around to many games, I’ll have upgraded my computer to be able to run them at max settings and the gaming community usually has added additional modifications and add-ons themselves to drastically increase the enjoyment of the product.
Well, this time I broke the trend. I bought X-Com 2 new. And I don’t regret it one bit.
I knew lead up to its release I was going to get X-Com 2 on release. All the press and announcements from Firaxis were pressing all the right buttons. Their prior release, a reboot of the UFO Defence game that I never played but Derek loved so he vowed never to touch anything so pure and blessed that had been soiled by AAA hands, I enjoyed immensely. Their expansion pack–Enemy Within–was even more fantastic. The problem with the game wasn’t in its gameplay but in its maps. Due to a number of unfortunate reasons, X-Com: Enemy Unknown released with about twenty or so pre-fabricated maps on which every tactical, squad-based battle took place. After several playthroughs of the game, each map became incredibly predictable and the game itself grew rather dry.
So what was Firaxis’ plan? They announced that not only would the sequel feature procedurally generated maps but they would also release a bunch of development tools to the community to allow easy modifying of the game’s content. This would allow ambitious modders the opportunity to add their own “cells” to the map generator for a even greater variety of locations and zones in which to murder a bunch of invading aliens.
They could have just done that for the X-Com formula and I would have been there Day 1 for the game.
They didn’t, however, and I haven’t seen this much care put into a sequel since… well… the last Civilization game was released. And, when compared to Firaxis’ other headlining franchise, I can’t help but feel that X-Com 2 somehow comes out the better.
But before we get into the meat and potatoes, let’s discuss what X-Com is.
X-Com is a strategy game that sees the player leading a clandestine organization tasked with safeguarding earth from the machinations of an invading alien force. The game plays over several strategic layers. Primarily, the player must lead his forces in battle against the aliens in covert missions. In the first game, these manifest as rescue missions where X-Com had to escort certain individuals to safety, defuse bombs or thwart abductions the aliens were conducting or protect cities being ravaged by outright genocide missions the aliens pursued in order to sow fear and confusion. At this level, the player leads his troops over a grid based map alternating turns between her and the aliens trying to wipe the other out first or complete objectives.
In order to match the alien’s superior technology, the second layer of the game is managing X-Com’s resources and deciding where and how to prepare your troops for bloody conflict. The primary method of this resource management is directing your science department’s research as you develop more advanced weaponry and armour. However, research is not conducted in isolation and the player needs to develop their base in order to accelerate research times or put into practice laboratories and other specialized rooms unlocked by new discoveries.
However, none of this development is cheap and we arrive at the final strategic layer of X-Com. Here, the player needs to manage and safeguard his income. In the first game, the world (represented by about twelve prominent countries) provided funding for the X-Com project. However, as the alien invasion wore on, these participating countries would start to lose faith in the project. Should the player not protect each nation to a satisfactory degree, the participating member could withdraw his support and finances, turning the world map into an ominous expanding cloud of red pixalated doom. To prevent this, the player had to maintain satellite coverage and fend off any invading UFOs.
So, there were a number of different interconnected systems that asked the player to juggle a lot of decisions. Should you send your troops on this very difficult abduction mission? You haven’t researched the next tier of weapons so your damage is low against the projected enemy forces. However, the country being threatened is in danger of withdrawing their support and they’re currently providing you scientists at the end of every month that help speed up the research for those very weapons that you desperately need. A decision at one strategic layer can have a cascading impact across all others that puts a tax on your resources and makes difficult each following decision the player faces.
It was a wonderful blend, so much so that the reboot X-Com game did far better than the first person shooter version–which was the project that 2k Games originally obtained the IP to make. X-Com: Enemy Unknown was quite the surprise at the time of release. It was hard and uncompromising when games were still being pushed to be accessible and instantly gratifying. It was a turn based strategy in an era where most companies still saw shooters as the only genre worth pursuing. And against expectations, X-Com: Enemy Unknown succeeded.
X-Com 2, thankfully, stays pretty close to form. It is a refinement of the first game. It adds several quality of life changes while still being recognizable in its tri-layered play. However, the developers were clever in creating the sequel. Instead of setting the game immediately after the events of the first, they brazenly announced that X-Com 2 would occur in a future where the player had failed and the aliens took over. This would be a world unrecognizable to X-Com: Enemy Unknown players. Here, the X-Com project is little more than a resistance cell, unfunded and scrambling from country to country trying to avoid capture and detainment from the alien force in charge. This Advent organization runs earth, congregating humanity into concentrated city centres and violently detaining any and all who oppose their directives.
With a change in position came important changes in play. Now, instead of protecting countries from the aliens, the player must convince far flung rebel cells to assist in overthrowing the tyrannical regime. The player must build radio lines to connect with different areas, contact resistance cells and then defend these places when Advent invariably locates and tries to hunt them down. In return, X-Com is awarded the ubiquitous “supplies” that can be used to purchase just about anything though are far more controlled in generation.
Instead of having a stationary base which the player is excavating further and further into the ground, X-Com now operates from a mobile flying fortress. There’s still a building component to it but this time the layout is far less relevant than figuring out how to staff all your rooms and prioritizing what needs to be be constructed in what order. It feels more like a worker management section as you juggle engineers between clearing wreckage, building rooms and manning stations. Unfortunately, the research portion is a little bare bones. Scientists basically reduce research time which is lacklustre compared to all the things you can do with engineers. I definitely find myself scouring the map for engineers and being disappointed whenever I’m awarded with some four-eyed nerd to just sit around with Dr. Tygan.
But, wow, is the combat good. Which is important because you do a lot of it. The classes feel very defined and the skill trees present two distinct archetypes. I find it really hard to field my operatives in missions. I just want to take everyone. Invariably the skill builds I tend towards lean on effectiveness over fun. For instance, the gunslinger sharpshooter is amazingly entertaining being able to throw out three or more pistol shots in a turn. Unfortunately, the short range on his shots means I either rush him up with the rest of my force than use him as long range ordinance. And if I’m going to be up in the grills of my enemies, the damage output of the pistol doesn’t compare to a critical build on my ranger. I also find that having a fifth (or sixth) soldier fighting for good cover on the front line just doesn’t compare to a camped sniper in a tower far from retaliation and laying down round after round of precision shooting.
The ranger is my least favourite class. The sword is great at the start of the game when enemies are few and accuracy on your soldiers is terrible. But soon the shotgun gets pretty deadly and the sword falls pretty fast in regards to damage. The enemies begin to accrue high health pools and armour values which criticals can offset but swords just kind of… fail. And the scout tree gives a lot of utility towards… well… scouting. It’s not the sexiest of roles but it helps to locate where the aliens are and, in a pinch, the ranger can serve as a quick assassin who runs up and loads a stupid digital glitchy woman in the face with a whole payload of lead.
Grenadiers are just as good as ever. I want to run a support grenadier with all the suppression and holo-targeting of the X-Com of old but suppression seems to do all of nothing and holo-targeting pales in comparison to all the destruction of a fully ordinance based grenadier. For another major change in X-Com 2 is not only fun and dynamic but really important. Environmental destruction has been ramped up to where just about anything can be destroyed. Need a quick escape from a heavily armed Advent complex? Lob a grenade at the closest wall and book it as fast as you can. And there’s something very rewarding about bombing the roof out beneath the feet (tail?) of an enemy viper and watching their dodging nonsense break every bone in their miserable, scaly body on the landing.
Then there’s the specialist. It’s the old support class ramped up by a thousand. The gremlin let’s the specialist not only hack at a distance (really important at the start where you might end up wasting a lot of turns trying to get to the enemy and running dangerously close to losing the objective) but also gives the ability to zap foes or heal allies at a distance. Both the assured damage from a gremlin charge and the long distance triage can save lives. With only six slots and five very useful classes, it’s tough deciding who to double up. An additional grenadier gives a lot of area damage and cover destruction but I almost always end up taking both my medic and combat hacker.
Then there’s the psionic operative. They’re a little different in that you don’t level them up by killing aliens but by shoving them in a tube and having them do push-ups. On one hand, it’s nice that you can level up a soldier without fighting over alien experience but I find it hard to justify their place on my roster since any kills they get is lost experience to my other troops and any injury they incur is time they aren’t training. On the other hand, their abilities are incredible. They have a slew of abilities that do damage regardless of armour or cover. And they have really strong support abilities that can give your troops additional attacks or immunity to mind control.
But classes aren’t the only tough decision. Your engineers can create a slew of really powerful weapons that are really hard to leave behind. And yet, you’re limited in what you can take with you. Between skull jacks, med kits, a host of varied by powerful grenades and armours and it’s tough outfitting your guys for battle. Not to mention you have to develop these weapons which requires time and engineers. It’s a lot of good choices without any seeming outright better than others. And I really like how the game puts pressure on you to prioritize through the Avatar project instead of dragging your heels to get everything you want. I’ll also really quickly say that, while some don’t like the turn limit on missions, I’m a huge fan of them and how they change up your tactics and priorities.
It’s not all good news, however. I should comment on the performance issues. The game requires some fiddling with settings to get it running decently (read: turn off vsync), the loading times are pretty lengthy and there’s a bunch of bugs. I wouldn’t dare try an ironman run. I’ve had two crashes to desktop and a handful of other smaller bugs: ruined cars exploding, hackers taking damage from successful hacks or hacks by other specialists, that sort of thing. If those things are deal breakers then it’s probably best to hold off for several months until this gets ironed out. The game is still playable with these issues and still fantastic regardless.
Finally, the choice to place this after a failed defence in the future was brilliant. That they can use a single, unified tile set for every city explained through their story is genius. The redesigns for the alien forces not only unifies them better but makes them far more visually intimidating as well. Incorporating EXALT essentially as the low level grunts who can scale later in the game with better weapons and armour was also very clever. It’s impressive how one concept can bleed through the rest of the design and make everything stronger for it.
It’s a pity, then, how they ended it all…