XCOM 2 Review: R.I.P Lief Jensen

It should have been a simple mission. Drop in, complete the objective, get out. The team had just been on a much tougher mission and returned without a single casualty. This was going to be a walk in the park compared to what they had previously faced. Unfortunately, things did not go to plan. Within a few moves the squad was surrounded on three sides by hostiles. The closest group of enemies was prioritised, particularly as they had flanked our two Sharpshooters. I sent everything we had at them. Grenades and rockets were used to destroy cover and armour, followed by gunfire to finish them off. This should have been more than enough. After all, we had with us the best Sharpshooter XCOM had ever seen, Lief “Ragnar” Jensen.

Even with his pistol, he was more deadly than any other XCOM soldier alive. He personally killed two of the four flanking enemies. Finally there was just one alien left in a dangerous position, but all seemed well. Their cover was destroyed and they were out in the open. More importantly, there was still one XCOM soldier yet to fire their weapon. A less experienced Sharpshooter with just a handful of missions under their belt, but they had proven to be more than capable having racked up a hefty number of kills in their short time with XCOM. It was an easy shot to make, their line of site was perfect, the distance was just right. It couldn’t have been easier, all they had to do was graze this final alien and all would have been well. They missed. The easiest shot an XCOM soldier will ever have to make, and they missed.

The aliens retaliated with great force. Three Mutons appeared and their plasma rifles inflicted heavy damage on several members of the squad, but they had all survived, including Jensen, although he took a lot of damage. Finally it was the turn of the last remaining enemy. The one who had managed to flank our squad. I crossed my fingers that they would not target Jensen, he was already damaged and wouldn’t survive another critical hit, and then my heart sank. The alien lined up a shot, their plasma rifle aimed directly at our greatest soldier. Critical hit. He wasn’t just wounded, he was dead. After more than 35 successful missions, Lief Jensen, a man who had been with XCOM since the beginning, was dead. All because one person missed one easy shot. The rest of that mission went smoothly, but the damage was already done. He was the best we had, and he was killed by one lucky shot.

This little story explains why XCOM 2 is both awesome and infuriating. You can do everything in your power to put the odds in your favour, but ultimately the fate of your highest ranking soldier can come down to pure luck. At its heart, that is what the turn-based combat in XCOM 2 is all about, getting the odds in your favour. Having the fate of a mission come down to a shot with a 40% chance of success is the last thing you want. Instead, you try to manoeuvre your troops into flanking positions, use grenades and rockets to get in guaranteed damage and get the success chance of shots as high as possible.

A battle from XCOM 2
The square grid-based tactical combat can be tougher than you’d think

Fans of 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown will instantly be familiar with XCOM 2. Rather than change the winning formula, Fireaxis have simply added to it and improved it. The turn based combat remains the same, although a new concealment mechanic was added. What this means is that on certain missions, your squad starts the mission “concealed”. Normally when enemies are spotted, those enemies also see the players squad and get the chance to move into cover. However, if the squad is concealed they are able to sneak up on the aliens without being spotted, allowing players to lay deadly ambushes on enemies before they reach cover. While concealment only lasts until the first shot is fired (or a soldier is moved too close to enemies), it can be helpful for taking out tough enemies before they get a chance to retaliate.

Once out of concealment it plays like many other turn-based tactics games, with soldiers having two actions they can perform. They can dash, moving twice but finishing their turn, move once and then perform an action, or they can stay where they are and use an ability or fire, ending their turn. Players will find that taking their time is usually the best way to succeed, but it isn’t always possible because a lot of XCOM 2 missions are against the clock. This is great, it adds a frantic element to what can otherwise be slow gameplay. Having 8 turns to reach an objective and then extract all units is not a lot of time, forcing players to take risks in order to achieve their goal.

Troop upgrade trees in XCOM 2 have also been improved over its predecessor. There are still two options to select from at each promotion level, but each one is actually worth picking this time, as opposed to in Enemy Unknown where usually the choice of which promotion to choose was obvious. It means that within each class, troops can be specialised further. For example, a sharpshooter has the option of choosing abilities improving their pistol use, or they can become an expert sniper by improving their long range marksmanship. Of course, players can still pick a mix of both and that is often beneficial. Also improved over Enemy Unknown is the cosmetic customisation of soldiers. Players can change everything about their appearance, and even re-write their bio. And there is no risk of all the effort being for nothing, because players can then save troops into the character pool and use those exact same soldiers in new campaigns, albeit as rookies again. Meaning even if players spend ten minutes customising a soldier only for them to die in the next mission, you can use them again at some point.

Outside the missions, XCOM 2 will still be familiar to players of the previous game, the biggest change is the story. The story of XCOM 2 begins 20 years after Enemy Unknown, and assumes that the player failed to stop the alien invasion. As a result, XCOM are now fighting a guerrilla war against the alien occupiers, aiding resistance forces across the globe. There is no XCOM council to please, instead you have to set up a communications network with various resistance locations throughout the world, and this provides players with supplies. On top of this you have to upgrade the Avenger, XCOMs mobile base, by building new facilities. Some of these provide benefits to your soldiers, others are necessary for the story to progress.

XCOM 2 Character
The man himself, Leif Jensen, as a rookie in the character pool

The main aim is to counter the progress being made by the aliens on their “avatar project”. This is done by assaulting alien facilities which pop up on the world map. Sending teams to destroy these bases will result in progress bars being removed, while leaving them standing for too long will add them. In addition to this, there are the occasional guerrilla missions, which aim to counter dark events. There are generally three dark events in play at any one time, and each one has some negative effect on the campaign if left unchecked. However, players are only able to counter one of these at a time, so deciding which one to counter is crucial.

The affects of dark events can range anywhere from halving the supply drop for that month, to enemy reinforcements being dropped into missions, to the aliens instantly gaining progress on the avatar project. Which one players counter will depends on their situation at the time. Essentially these dark events replace the XCOM Council from Enemy Unknown. Where previously players would have a choice of three missions in different countries, and could only choose to help one, there are now three dark events at a time and only one can be countered. The difference is, the effects of not countering dark events can varying massively.

Perhaps the best way to describe XCOM 2 is to say that it is XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but more. Fireaxis took the original game and added more depth to it, better combat, new mechanics, a more interesting story and better customisation options. There isn’t a single way in which it doesn’t improve on its predecessor, which is saying a lot considering how good Enemy Unknown is. Barring the odd visual glitch, it is hard to fault XCOM 2.

9.5/10

What did you think of my review? Have you played XCOM 2? Let me know in the comments. Also follow me on Twitter @Andrew_H93.

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