“Hey man, I got the new X-COM game, X-COM 2,” my gaming friend said.
“Yeah, can’t wait to play it myself. Like you, I’m a big X-COM fan and have been playing the games since the original,” I replied giddily.
“So the new one has time limits on turns. But it’s not that much of a big deal,” he said, furtively.
I suddenly heard the sound of brakes going off in my head. “Uh…what? What do you mean—they have timed turns now?”
“Yeah, but I mean, it works with the game because it forces you to move along and not camp and…stuff.”
“Wait. Let me get this right. X-COM is a tactical game, but now the developers want to limit the amount of turns you have to complete missions?”
“Yeah…but it sort of works. Besides, I use a mod where it helps out with that…” he trailed off, sounding as if he was trying to convince himself more than me that this time limit thing was acceptable.
Soon thereafter, when I received my review copy of X-COM 2, I reluctantly installed it and fired it up. The intro was impressive enough. It detailed the game’s new backstory which was an interesting one indeed. The aliens had finally taken over Earth and ruled humanity with a wafer-thin veneer of beneficence. They have a sneering PR man who prattles on to the masses that everything is cool between mankind and their new alien hosts, but have installed an armed “peacekeeping” force called the Advent just to ensure that things run smoothly.
Of course, there are some nefarious goings-on behind the scenes all the while as the aliens are hatching all sorts of murky plots, and have plans seem to revolve around either co-opting human DNA or turning us all into Soylent Green. Inevitably, pockets of resistance begin to emerge and one of them is your trusty gaggle of leftover X-COM survivors who have been forced to go underground—literally (in the beginning at least).
I must say that this whole set-up was intriguing. I’d played 1994’s MicroProse original game, titled X-Com UFO Defense (AKA UFO: Enemy Unknown), and like many other games at the time, fell in love with its careful approach to gameplay. Its premise was simple—in the wake of a massive alien invasion, your international cadre of resistance fighters took it to the aliens, at first with primitive, Earthly weapons, but then later, as you overcame more of your alien foes, you began to MacGyver their own weapons and equipment. I must say that it was really satisfying to turn your foe’s comparatively advanced hardware against them and eventually swing the odds in your favor.
I also played the follow-up companion piece, X-COM: Terror from the Deep, which I also lost many hours to. As it offered more complex maps, less available ammo during missions, and stronger alien enemies, it was a considerably more difficult game, although not so much as to be futile and rage quit-worthy. I skipped the next generation of X-COM games, including the low budget (in every sense of the term) X-COM: First Alien Invasion, since I wanted to relegate the series to a warm and fuzzy place in my memory banks.
I did, however, play Firaxis Game’s reboot of the series, beginning with the oh-so-originally-titled XCOM: Enemy Unknown in 2012, as well as its follow-up, 2013’s XCOM: Enemy Within, and found them fun yet sort of “been there, done that.” I mean, how many times can you make evil aliens invading innocent Earth and trying to take over and eradicate mankind, interesting?
So, with this all in mind, I didn’t know what to expect with X-COM 2. After the initial set-up I was promptly plopped right down into a tactical situation where I had command of a couple of X-COM operators who were tasked with retrieving some do-dad or another. Right then and there I noticed, up in the right corner of the screen, the damned timer that my friend had tried to convince me wasn’t so bad. Yet, I was expected to creep and sneak up on my Advent foes. I don’t know what planet the developers are living on, but careful tactics and artificially imposed time limits are incongruous in a series like X-COM which has built its entire legacy around thorough planning and the meticulous execution of said plans. In this regard, forcing players to work within the confines of a certain number of turns is just preposterous.
The more that developers cave in to the increasingly short attention span of many gamers out there, the less of a quality product you’ll get. Just because so many people have the attention spans of goldfish on crack doesn’t mean you have to go along with that sad trend. Here’s a message to the lot of you hyper-active types:
Seriously, Firaxis managed to ruin an incredible franchise for the most part, in my opinion, by eschewing what made the series so great in the first place—patience and thoughtfulness, things that aren’t exactly popular in today’s spastic, constantly-hungry-for-stimulation culture.
Anyway, basically the game revolves around your surviving X-COM operatives zipping around in their captured and re-purposed alien ship headquarters, ala the flying airship in The Avenger’s superhero films, and trying to unite disparate (and desperate) rag-tag factions of guerilla fighters, and together, sticking it to those dastardly aliens in order to take back your beloved planet.
The gameplay is very similar to the last two games, Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within—you advance your squad on grid-style maps, from an isometric perspective, and eventually encounter aliens which you must either kill, or in some cases, capture (for use in experiments). One pleasant surprise that I did notice was that they brought back melee weapons from X-COM: Terror from the Deep, which fit the more closed-in battles. However, the time limits are just absurd. Coupled with a strange stealth system where sometimes you can tell what the aliens can see (their field of view is sometimes outlined in red tiles) and sometimes you can’t, and you’ve got a haphazard and muddled affair.
The graphics are quite splendid, even on mid-range gaming PCs, with well-realized character models and shiny, brilliantly-designed weapons and gear. The environments are also well-done, with interesting and varied locales rendered with an articulate attention to detail in each of them. 4k gaming folks will really get a kick out of zooming in to see all of that graphical goodness, although I did notice some clipping issues when things moved in closer for action shots, such as rifles disappearing into walls and things of that nature.
I did find it odd that around 90% percent of all of my X-COM operatives, including recruits, were skinny females. I mean, did I miss a part where they explained that the aliens had killed off most of the male population or something? It really suspended my sense of disbelief to have virtually all-female X-COM squads taking on large, imposing aliens, all the while carrying massive weapons and gear with their little scrawny arms and donning heavy, bulky suits of armor on the lithe bodies. With the size of the arms and armor that you outfit your operators with, even full-grown men would have trouble towing it all around, let alone spindly women.
In all, I found X-COM 2’s storyline to be its greatest asset—after 20 some-odd years, they’ve finally come up with something halfway original which engaged me almost as much as the first game. However, the forced time limits and unavailable option to turn them off thoroughly took the whole thing off its rails for me, and I therefore can’t give X-COM 2 a decent score until they fix this glaring issue, if they ever do. Fans of the series who are fast-twitch gamer-types may like this sort of rushed fare, so they could like it the way it is. I, for one, am big on having the option to play games the way that they suit me, rather than being forced to play one way or another. Having options is always superior to not having them, any way you slice it.
X-COM 2 features some really fancy visuals that gamers will really enjoy. Try showing them off to your friends on a new gaming laptop or gaming PC:
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