First impressions of XCOM 2 on console

by: Randy -
More On: XCOM 2

“Vigilio Confido.” I am watchful; I am relied upon. That’s the XCOM motto. It’s never spoken out loud, but it’s written on their symbol, and it’s written onto the hearts and minds of your soldiers, scientists and engineers. XCOM is back, ladies and gentlemen—and boy does it feel good.

You’re probably wondering why you’re here, Commander. It’s because 20 in-game years ago, XCOM lost. The global defense network that was meant to repel an alien invasion failed. The aliens then took over government and military functions worldwide. So in XCOM 2, the aliens rule the world.

A fraction of the original XCOM still exists, just in a fractured state. Instead of operating across the planet with the weight of every government behind them, XCOM 2 leaves you, Commander, in charge of a now-mobile command center, operating from the fringes of society and in the literal shadows, and striking with guerilla tactics and efficiency. It paints a different picture from the satellite view, but XCOM 2 operates much the same as XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM: Enemy Within.

XCOM 2 is a turn-based strategy game. There are three playing fields. One is that satellite view, the one where you’re looking at a projection of a spinning Earth, where you define your overall strategy. Two is mobile command center, a former alien vessel (though, strangely, the game never talks about that explicitly), giving you a 2D crosscut view of the rooms you’ll build out into a base proper. Three is the one you’ll get cozy with real quick: the tactical, boots-on-the-ground, attain-every-objective, shoot-every-alien view.

A lot happens on every one of those views. I’m only an hour or two in, but the pacing feels good. It feels as good as XCOM: Enemy Unknown felt in 2012. A sorry set of excuses kept me from playing 2013’s XCOM: Enemy Within, but I got the gist of the rebooted XCOM series. I was in love with it then. And if this PlayStation 4 version holds itself together, I’m on track to fall in love with XCOM 2.

Most importantly, the battlefield feels as tense as ever. We’re in the future, sure, but the first couple maps aren’t anything too crazy yet. In fact, they’re remarkable for how mundane they are. The tutorial mission is a rescue operation for yours truly. They pull you out of some cryogenic vat like a sleepy Master Chief from Halo. The next mission is to acquire a power source to fire up your not-flying-just-yet mobile command. The mission I just now finished, the third, is to take out an alien transmitter. These are all very worthy objectives, no doubt. But the maps you’re playing on aren’t hyper fantastical in nature. There’s a little more neon than you’ve seen in Enemy Unknown. The architecture is slightly more slick than the brick office buildings and yellow gas stations of yore. The maps, however, are solidly, squarely built, just like they should be.

You need to know where you stand at all times in XCOM 2. Where you’ve got half cover, where you’ve got full cover, and where you’re exposed. You need to be cognizant at all times where your fog of war reaches beyond your eyes on the field. XCOM 2 is doing an admirable job of this on nearly every front.

But the graphics are hitching, here and there. There’s a little chop to the cutscenes, and a little chop to the movement, when, for action sequences, it gives you a few seconds of over-the-shoulder cam with your soldiers on the move. Maps with multistory buildings have a thing or two to learn about getting out of the camera’s way. A few times I’d only see a health bar on an alien when I should physically see everything that’s happening with that alien, except the walls didn’t cut away properly to reveal the battlefield. And, when the camera follows your soldiers, popping out of cover, fragging an enemy contact, then recovering, the camera films the dead air for maybe one or two seconds too long. That doesn’t sound like much, but everything else happens at such a snappy pace, making the action camera seem a little laggy. “Cut, cut already!” I can almost hear the director shouting.

To stress out your tactics even more, XCOM 2 adds a countdown timer to each mission. At least every mission I’ve engaged so far. Not a real-time clock, but one giving you a countdown to accomplishing the mission objective before everything, I assume, goes into a fail state. I had, for instance, eight turns, I think, to recover the device that now powers my mobile command. They justified it by saying the power source was in an unstable state. It would’ve been a bummer to move toward that objective, take down the alien guards, and then fail because I hit turn number nine, when I only had eight turns to complete it. But that’s not how it went down. On my final turn, I had my squad leader swing herself up onto the truck flatbed holding the unstable power source and pull off a successful hack, stabilizing the power source and, incidentally, adding a permanent +20 to her hacking stat, one of two bonus objectives with a two percent or three percent success rate.

So I like what I’m seeing so far. I’ve been lucky enough to have the infamously random and percentage-driven combat to give me fair rolls of the dice. I’ve been lucky enough that the frame rate stuttering hasn’t deducted much of my enjoyment of the fast-paced cutscenes. And I’ve been lucky enough that the camera (which needs some work around tall structures) hasn’t compromised my strategy too much yet. It’s obvious that it’s not working as intended, and that it’ll require one, maybe two, diligent patches from developer Firaxis—and post-launch support is something I have complete faith and confidence in Firaxis doing. Firaxis knows how to hold up its end of that bargain.

I’m also fist pumping in the air that a strategy game of this caliber has even made it onto console. It’s obvious that strategy games are a tough sell once you leave the PC market. But I’m glad (so glad) XCOM 2 is here. I’m looking forward to the rest of my playthrough. Watch for my full review coming within two weeks. I hope you enjoyed watching the Clinton-Trump debates on Monday night; now if you’ll excuse me, I have our alien overlords to overthrow. Because "Vigilio Confido," Commander.