4.3 Overall Score
Fun Factor: 3/10
Replay Value: 4/10
Art Direction: 6/10

Excellent turn-based strategy game.

Virtually unplayable.

Firaxes Games/2K Games

XCOM 2, by Firaxis Games, is a heartbreaking, tragic failure. It is, literally, unplayable.

As in earlier installments of the franchise, the player commands XCOM against the extraterrestrial enemies of humanity. The player makes strategic decisions about resource allocations, and how to direct the war. Then the game zooms them into a tactical mission where they command their soldiers in firefights with ET hostiles, XCOM soldiers using the weapons and tactics that their Commander’s decisions have put into their hands.

The results of the tactical missions have lasting effects. If Sergeant Mahmoud, Grenadier, gets killed in Operation Rotting Fire, then the money spent recruiting him is gone, so are his hard-won abilities, and so might be his equipment, if you have to abandon his body on the field. But if Mahmoud survives and retrieves valuable alien artifacts, your squad is better equipped for the next fight.

XCOM 2’s crippling flaw is that at Rookie difficulty, the game is a pushover. But at Veteran difficulty, one level higher, the game is impossible. The wastage rate for soldiers is unsustainable under any conditions. One ambush goes wrong, two valuable high-ranking soldiers are lost, and the squad is underpowered for the next few missions. This leads to more losses, either of powerful high-ranking soldiers, or of expensive rookies who will not become high-ranking because they are dead now. Lost battles slow down the rate of resource acquisition, which cripples scientific research and the speed of weapon and equipment upgrades. But the enemy forces grow rapidly more powerful, regardless. Four or five desperate hours later, struggling to keep any portion of his force alive in one Kobayashi Maru after another, the player finally sees that their campaign never recovered from that one ambush when Sergeant Mahmoud blundered into that Advent Trooper.

Even though XCOM is a guerrilla force, it isn’t permitted the guerrilla’s defining tactic – to fight not to win, but to avoid obliteration. Any time the player declines to tackle a mission, there are dire consequences in lost income, or tactical advantages the enemy gains for future missions. And the alien Avatar Project moves constantly toward completion, which is alien victory. The player has no choice but to fight every fight.

One mistake, on the battlefield, in research, in engineering, or in facility construction, can be irrecoverably fatal. But which mistake that was is only clear in hindsight hours later.

And Firaxis Games knows this. That is why the game explicitly discourages players from playing on Ironman mode. The game designers fully expect players to beat their Kobayashi Maru only by reloading every time anything goes wrong. It’s save scum, or die.

This is horribly, horribly stupid, because it destroys the defining atmosphere of the game. You just reload away the negative consequences of your bad decisions or bad luck. So the feel of a long campaign with ups and downs goes away. Your campaign is only perfect victories.

But save scumming still jams the player into an absurd hell of Chrysalid charges and Muton suppressing fire on The Edge of Tomorrow. The player’s force will be inadequately experienced and equipped for the missions XCOM faces, and the only way forward will be to charge into one losing battle after another, reloading and reloading until you gain the victory, and do it again for the next mission, until you finally get the promotions and equipment upgrades that will give you a fighting chance. Although even that is a chimerical goal – the game sabotages the fun of advancing your gear by immediately upping the alien threat, so that the Commander is running on an arms race hamster wheel.

And you do not have Tom Cruise’s advantage of learning from the failed missions, because each procedurally generated map is different, and pits you against a different enemy force, deployed differently.

What is especially tormenting about this is that XCOM 2 is an excellent, excellent turn-based strategy game – destroyed by a difficulty level that makes it unplayable except as an endless save-scumming rave lit by muzzle flashes and incendiary grenades. If the resources available to the Commander were 50% larger, it would be my favorite. Instead, it is the biggest disappointment since Rainbow Six: Siege was all multiplayer on servers that apparently don’t exist.




Brian Downes
Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through Amazon.com. He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

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