Release Date: February 2016
System: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (Steam)
Don’t get me wrong – XCOM 2 is a killer game. I mean, REALLY killer. As in, you will die playing this game. Many, many times. I mean, those aliens really love slaughter!
From the very ‘tutorial’ level of the game, you realize the aliens who revealed themselves in XCOM: Enemy Unknown are officially in control. Not only did they finish invading our planet decades ago, they’ve set their image as benevolent ambassadors from the stars, acting as a worldwide government and enforcing peace with their technology and strict laws. The stakes are high for the organization known as XCOM. Once a reasonably strong resistance force fighting against the mysterious and frightening alien menace 20 years ago (supported by the many governments around the world, in fact), they’ve come to be regarded as nothing more than terrorists. Not only do you start your experience in XCOM 2 incredibly outnumbered by the alien authority, you begin severely behind technologically, just as you were in the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
I love what story I’ve been able to see — our heroes, enduring insurmountable odds, fighting to bring freedom to the oppressed. The turn-based strategy of XCOM 2 is, for the most part, a joy to play with. The developers even improved the aiming mechanics to the point that your snipers can’t shoot through three homes and two car engine blocks at 100% accuracy. The return of the base-building mechanic in your massive flying airship is absolutely welcome (did I mention your base is a massive flying airship?) And the fact that said airship can be forced down by UFO interceptors is a really neat mechanic, leading your soldiers to defend the ship until it can be repaired. The many class specialties have changed a bit since the first game, mixing up the possibilities; while there are the traditional snipers and heavy-weapons-guys, you also get machete-wielding rangers for close combat and techie specialists equipped with awesome hover drones for hacking computers and healing the wounded. Finally, the many researched upgrades, armors, and weapons make the strategist in me grin madly. Ever played Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare or that one sci-fi movie with Matt Damon? Yeah, you get that kind of modern heavy-duty power armor. With missile launchers attached. Oh yeah, and the myriad types of enemies you’ll encounter will make your eyes bulge out of your head and make you immediately wonder “how the hell am I going to take that thing down?” Can you say Sectopod?
Okay, all the good stuff, great. No, really — everything that made Enemy Unknown excellent is all there and much more.
But you know what really kills the game for me?
The game’s difficulty.
XCOM 2 has many difficulty modes, ranging from rookie to legend. When I played the very first time, I selected rookie. I wanted to see the story before the challenge, see what enemies I would be facing in higher difficulties, which tactics and upgrades would be best to pick as the game went along.
A few battles in, and I’d lost all of my most experienced soldiers (three rookies dying immediately in the first fight), and the aliens were halfway to developing their ultimate weapon. That ultimate weapon (called the AVATAR project) doesn’t immediately herald an automatic game over once completed (it gives you a 20-day limit once it finishes), but it does make the game feel like a frantic sprint to an unknown finish line instead of the progressive tactical experience I expected and experienced in the first game.
You see, the missions required to delay that the AVATAR project would often spawn too far away from my current world position — to travel to different sections of the globe, you need to have the necessary amount of communication stations in your base to contact the resistance factions in each area. Not only is it very difficult to find the resources necessary to construct these comm stations, it became even more so with the demands of R&D research into improved weapons and armor. Resources and supplies feel too little and too far between, especially with the amount of time required to ‘pick them up’, while in Enemy Unknown, you’d get a monthly paycheck of sorts you could use right away.
But oops, don’t research those weapons and armors too quickly, though — the aliens will quickly advance above you, ensuring the upgrades don’t feel half as effective as they should. Obtain gauss weaponry instead of traditional firearms? Alien HP bars double. Obtain power armor? Alien weapons will tear through it with ease. I know similar progression existed in Enemy Unknown, but the upgrades still felt like upgrades… Not gateways into a more painful experience.
You’re going to lose men and women. Repeatedly, and sometimes randomly, no matter their experience. So what’s the use of upgrading a soldier when the chance of losing them before they become interesting is so high? I feel like I’m sacrificing rookie soldiers as an unholy offering to the RNG gods just to make one or two high-level soldiers survive and thrive. Then, if you lose them, there goes the whole game.
And then there’s the timers. THE TIMERS.
In Enemy Unknown, a few missions required you to complete an objective in a set amount of turns. There’s weren’t many of them, and their inclusion was a challenging but enjoyable change of pace.
In XCOM 2, almost every single mission is timed. And not slowly timed, either — like, you have seven turns to complete an objective point and evac all your troops. Sorry, but this makes the sharpshooter class one of the most difficult classes to use effectively, especially when snipers were so enjoyable in Enemy Unknown.
Did I mention the entire game has a big ‘ol ultimate weapon countdown timer? Everything in this game feels so desperate.
Yeah, I get that’s the theme of the game, in both story and gameplay.
But we’re still talking about rookie difficulty.
I know that I might be outside of this game’s demographic when I say this, but I enjoy simple tactical gameplay and lower stakes. Yes, I’m one of those that selects rookie mode over legendary, even over normal mode. I like to experience the story. I like seeing the soldiers I’ve spent time with grow and develop. Maybe I’m too chicken to play this game the way it was intended.
Ever play Final Fantasy Tactics? Sure, there’s always the possibility of losing two or three characters over the course of the game, but it’s a challenge to lose your entire party in a single fight (barring the late game battles) once you know what you’re doing. Here in XCOM 2, it’s not rare to lose an entire party of rookies in the first real fight. And the second. And the third. Then you spend your hard-earned resources on more rookies. Etc.
Lead developer Jake Solomon did an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun and spoke about the game’s difficulty:
The difficulty is actually one of those things that can be traced to a particular conversation pretty late – very late, actually – in development. I had been pushing the mantra for a long time that we need to make Normal or Veteran difficulty basically an ‘I want to see the cinematics’ mode, an ‘I want to see the story’ mode, and the player can get through it and it shouldn’t be that difficult. But very, very late in development everybody was playing the game, all the team was playing the game and they were coming back saying “yeah… it’s fun. But it’s pretty easy.”
…It definitely happened by late, but I think when the game got more difficult then you started to see people engaging, you felt that spark of life. ‘Ok, I do want to try again.’
…There are cases where it’s difficult to imagine getting through a mission without somebody dying. Some players can get frustrated by that, and that’s something that we’ve been thinking about quite a bit later. Obviously some people respond really positively to the difficulty and others say ‘it’s too much’, and that’s something we’re thinking about. How do we please both players, basically?
How to please both kinds of players? Well, make rookie difficulty actually rookie difficulty, for one.
There’s a balance between having fun playing a game and playing it for the challenge. Both should obviously exist. But in my opinion, XCOM 2 decided to take the difficulty over the fun. If it was during the late stages of development, I understand that perfecting these systems to balance out is difficult. But if the game was fun and too easy to begin with, I feel the pendulum swung a little too far towards difficult and unmanageable.
And that ‘spark of life’ the early players felt to try again and again? I just don’t feel it with this game like I did with the previous title. Even with modding options to raise the limit on those awful timers, I don’t feel like I’m progressing with the difficulty of obtaining resources and useful upgrades. And I still get torn in half by the aliens, killing my soldiers and my desire to play.
The game is praised almost universally by players and critics alike. And I can understand why. But XCOM 2 lost me. I didn’t want it to, either. I love blasting aliens. But I can’t finish the game on rookie mode. Maybe I’m not a true gamer.
And that makes me sad.
EDIT: I have BEATEN the game by modding out the timers. A couple of times, now, in fact. It’s quite the learning curve, and I haven’t even gotten the DLC for the game yet (which I hear raises the difficulty to incredible heights). So, yeah. Git gud, right?