Pure PlayStation is no stranger to alien invasions. No matter how many times these green/grey/slimy/insectoid/mechanised conquerors shoot down from the stars, we send them packing. Fighting back against alien overlords who’ve already conquered Earth though? Okay, we’ve done that too. With permadeath and a snazzy top hat? Now there’s something new. That’s what XCOM 2, the sequel to Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown and it’s follow-up Enemy Within, is bringing to the table. Join our own resident ‘Commander’ Dom O’Leary as he fights back against our alien masters to bring you the review:
‘With our objective secured, it’s time to extract. One problem though; we’ve got a wounded man in the field and enemy reinforcements coming in hot. My two comrades at the extraction point lay down some fire against the incoming enemies, but it’s not enough, they’re forced to extract or be cut down from their now-vulnerable position. That leaves me with three enemies between me and my exit, and an unconscious man on my shoulders. I rest ‘Icepick’ against some cover for a moment, and ready my weapon. The enemy mech appears first, but the last of my explosives make short work of him and I manage to make a small advance toward my goal. An enemy grunt pops up and surprises me, but he fires wide, a moment later and he’s riddled with plasma rounds. That just leaves the enemy officer. We engage in a Spaghetti-Western standoff; shots flying, ricocheting off cover and nearby walls, we’re wasting ammo – both desperate to survive. Finally, a good volley from my heavy plasma cannon rips through his chest. My way is clear, both me and Icepick will live to fight another day.’
Dramatic, no? The paragraph above is my own retelling of something that actually happened during one of my campaigns in XCOM 2. It’s also a perfect example of the kind of emergent stories that make XCOM such a fantastic franchise. Firaxis’ XCOM 2 released on PC back in February but, as of September 27th, Blind Squirrel Games have done us the service of porting the game to PS4. The release is currently somewhat held back by a variety of technical issues, but the game underneath the glitches is undeniably worth your time. Read on with me as I discuss why.
First things first, I should make it clear that the edition under review here included DLC from the digital deluxe version of the game: Shen’s Last Gift, Alien Hunters, and Children of Anarchy. These add some significant options into the game, which I will discuss later on, so be aware that if you’re playing the base game some of my comments on the variety of enemies, equipment, and customization, won’t be quite as relevant.
If you’re familiar with either of the existing XCOM reboots, you’ll find the gameplay of XCOM 2 easy to get into. There’s enough here that’s been changed and updated though, to keep it from feeling like a rehash of old material. For a start, you’re now building a resistance movement from scratch – rather than defending against an invasion. This sounds like more of a thematic change, but it actually dramatically changes how the campaign plays out. Instead of managing regions to keep them on side, you’re now developing contacts across the globe to grant you access to new mission areas and resources. Your base is now mobile, but your combat deployment abilities are short range. This means you have to physically move to the part of the world you want to take action in.
No more handy BACS transfers from the council either; they’re mostly dead and their banking privileges have been restricted, it seems, as you’ll now have to manually collect cash drops. This and the other elements mentioned completely change how you will have to manage time as a resource during your campaign. You’re racing against a ‘progress counter’ toward the alien’s ‘Avatar project’ – a kind of alien final solution – and in true XCOM style you’ll have to manage your time and actions wisely to keep them from reaching their goal as you build your army. You can choose to undertake missions that will halt or reverse the enemy’s progress, but your enemy will fight back – building facilities to up their progress, even attacking you on home ground. It creates a delightfully tense balancing act that persists even to the endgame.
Permadeath also makes a glorious return from the previous games. Unless you’re save-scumming, hard, you will lose soldiers throughout your campaign even on easy mode. I liken the emotion that losing your favourite sprites to enemy fire brings to that of losing a pet goldfish – you didn’t think you were that attached, but damn… you’re gonna miss that little guy. It’s one thing I’ve always loved about XCOM, your feelings on permadeath may differ, but the way it is balanced into the difficulty here means it’s more of an emotional tool to increase immersion; rather than a frustration. If you really want to take this to the extreme, the game once again features an ‘Ironman’ mode; where you are restricted to a single save file and every action you take is permanent.
Overall, the campaign is well balanced; the sheer number of missions can feel a little like padding but once you are familiar with your build order and so on, it won’t take you too long to breeze through to the endgame. I would estimate about 20-25 hours for a successful playthrough on your first go, though you can probably extend or shorten this based on how you play (getting your forces decimated within the first 3 missions, for example). The missions themselves provide a good level of variety in terms of objectives. You’ll be stealing data from enemy terminals, blowing up facilities, rescuing hostages (or capturing enemy hostages!), destroying relays, and more.
There’s another wrinkle that’s new to XCOM 2 as well. On most of your missions, with a few exceptions, you’ll begin in ‘concealment’ – a stealth bonus that means you can move around the map and scout out enemy positions, or set up an ambush before revealing yourself. It can be very useful if utilized intelligently, though its practical use is limited by the fact that quite a lot of missions have a turn timer, which means slowly setting up an overwatch ambush can backfire.
This variety in missions, enemies, weapons, and customization can be significantly augmented by the addition of the DLC packs mentioned above. Shen’s Last Gift adds in a mech class and a rather awesome story mission as well as some new enemies, Anarchy’s Children is nothing but crazy soldier customization props, and Alien Hunters adds in new weapons and enemies – including three alien ‘rulers’. These boss enemies are perhaps the most divisive addition to the base game.
Even if you don’t enable the DLC story content, these super tough enemies can spawn at random in your missions. It’s crazy, unpredictable, and exciting, and these enemies add a nice challenge for those with experience. I feel that for new players though, it could come across as a little too unfair. These enemies have armour, three times the health of a normal enemy, special attacks, and they get a turn for every action your soldiers take, including just movement. Intimidating and cool it may be but given that they can appear before you’ve even upgraded your basic grunts, you can easily find your squad devastated and your mission in tatters. I can easily see this turning off some first-timers.
The turn based combat is still as satisfying as ever. There’s no major overhaul here if you’re a veteran commander, but you’ll find some nice new tools and abilities to play with all the same. The classes and skill trees have all been reworked; the ‘ranger’, with their close-range sword attacks, quickly became a favourite of mine. It seems like the branching skill trees now significantly effect how a class plays as well, for example; you can have a sniper that sits back, protecting your soldiers in overwatch and making crazy long range shots – or go the other route and make them a quick-draw pistol killing machine. Just another thing that keeps your options open for multiple playthroughs.
So this game is a ten-out-of-ten, must buy, right? Well, much as I’d like it to be true, the answer is no – in it’s current state. The PS4 version of the game is currently beset by technical issues. As well as the quirky graphical glitches of weapons clipping through objects and so on that you might expect and forgive. Some of the bugs and glitches I encountered included: Turns ending but not switching forcing a reload, revived soldiers staying in a death animation (which in turn made the game go crazy when attempting to give them orders), in-mission cutscenes ending with nothing but a black screen, and more. Add to this the texture pop-in, massive loading times, and frame rate drops, and you can see why there is reason to be cautious, despite the fantastic base game.
Alongside the campaign sits a separate multiplayer mode, in which you will build squads of soldiers from a pool of human and alien troops and face them off against other players online. Quick and ranked matches have a points limit, and mixing and matching your troops and equipment to make the ‘best’ squad is its own kind of fun. There’s also a custom match option if you want to take off the restrictions and go crazy. A few of the technical issues carry over from single player, as you might expect, but it’s functional all the same. I had no problem getting matches in the ranked lobby, but the quick lobby seemed much more empty – on one occasion I was waiting a full ten minutes for a game. Granted though, this was a limited experience and not at a peak time. Multiplayer adds little for me, but it’s there and it works.
I wish I could recommend this game without caveats, but as it stands I have to urge caution for anyone who’s not willing to put up with some technical problems. If you’re a fan of XCOM, you’re going to love this game anyway. Even so it might be worth waiting for a patch or even playing the PC version of the game, where some of the base issues have already been ironed out and no porting worries exist. Having said all that though, you won’t find a better tactical, squad-based, sci-fi, strategy shooter on PS4. Yet.
XCOM 2 is available now wherever ADVENT forces have failed to oppress our revolutionary brothers. You can pick up the base game here for £32.99 on Amazon UK or $53.17 on the US site. You can obtain the digital deluxe edition of the game as a direct download from the PlayStation Store.
Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a digital code purchased by the reviewer. This has no effect on the content of the review or the final score awarded. For more information, please read our Review Policy.