* Please note, this isn’t a traditional Player 2 review. As we had already reviewed Xcom 2 on its PC release we thought a different approach was required to cover the console version. For the original review please head here:
Sacrifice and Retreat – Xcom 2
There are few things I’d sacrifice an actual life for. I suppose, on certain days, I’d give up my irksome younger brother for a brilliant morning coffee. I’d also part with one (or both) of my poo-machine guinea pigs in exchange for a half hour phone call from Stephen King. But otherwise, I’m quite respectful of the preciousness of life. If possible, I like to get through each day with minimal bloodshed (we all know accidents happen).
So we come to XCOM 2, a game that asks you to sell the entire human race down the toilet before the first mission even takes place. It truly does not stuff around. By the time the third mission had steamrolled by, I wore the expression of a dad chaperone at a Five SOS concert. This game is bleak as heck. You’re constantly on the back foot, gasping for air, clutching at the last blade of grass at the cliff’s edge. And so often that final blade of hope breaks, resulting in an alien-led frenzy of death. I’m seeing the words “critical hit” in my nightmares. Every mission takes me about three hours because I’m constantly playing out scenarios and getting jacked-off with the awful results. My current save files (stuff Ironman, I’m sorry) are: Shit, Shit 2, Shit 3, Shit 4, Shit 5 and Shit 6. I’m sure by the end of the week I’ll need about twenty Shits.
Yet across all this massacre, beyond the rookie soldiers holding their exposed intestines and screaming for a medic that will never come, there’s something that keeps me hooked, and I think it is the act of sacrifice itself. This morning, I had a mission where I had to infiltrate a crashed UFO and hack a terminal within a certain number of moves. The only guy close enough to do this was down to his last three bars of health. Now, this guy was one of my awesome dudes. I mean, he has a sword and everything. I didn’t want to lose him, but every time I played Shit 4 out, he would invariably meet his doom. I saw the poor bastard die so many times that it started to feel cruel to cling to the hope that I might get him out alive. The key, I discovered, was to use my flashbangs to disorient as many aliens as possible and to set up my snipers on Overwatch and pray to Christ that their percentage-dice-roll shots connected. In the end, I got my entire squad out, albeit with a few injured. I was in that damn spaceship for two hours and you know what? I loved it. I loved the idea that I might get myself into such a chess-locked position that I’d need to sacrifice a fairly levelled soldier, yet a combination of experimentation and sheer luck got me out of it.
It’s often in retreat that some amazing moment occurs in XCOM 2. Snipers can be a bit useless, to be honest. They can’t move and shoot in the same turn and, similarly, if they’ve taken a shot then they can only use their handgun for Overwatch. But set up that perfect moment when they’re fully loaded, watching over your squad, as a dirty alien bastard dares to stick its nose out from behind cover, and it’s a fist-gripping party in my lounge room! Early on, I was actually okay with a few of my squad getting killed – this is a global war after all. It was during this murderous general phase that I experienced the incredible situation of controlling the last soldier alive, on his last bar of health, on his last turn, with his last loaded bullet, against the last alien on the map. I tell you what, when that 53% shot connected, I felt like Emilio Estevez at the end of The Mighty Ducks.
I guess I want humanity to win overall. It would be nice to overthrow the Advent and get back to trolling each other on the internet. However, XCOM 2 is less about the metagame for me and more about the tight interplay of possible moves within each mission. As you gain more weapons, skills and even soldiers per-mission, the enemy mirrors your gains with nastier enemy types and more of them. Sacrifice becomes a tactical move to make only under the direst circumstances, so it might even be useful to take a rookie or two along just to send them out quickly to snag an objective. And always, always have a plan of retreat.
I guess the only criticism I have is that I would have liked the game to adapt a bit more to my personal story. A mission might have two objectives: save at least 6 civilians and defeat all Advent forces. If you save the citizens but decide to retreat due to losing two squad members, the mission comes up a loss, which doesn’t sit right with me. There are a million bloody aliens on the planet anyway, so shouldn’t me saving some human lives have counted as a half win? This black/white reaction of your bosses (who, by the way, do stuff all as far as I can tell) is a bit disappointing. “Your efforts have been disappointing.” Well, guess what, I didn’t bloody see you out there sticking your sword into a snake-man!
The PS4 version has a few frame rate and audio hitches, with mission loads that give you enough time to have a pee AND make a coffee (this may reveal a bit too much about my personal gaming cycle). I’m sure these things are perfectly fixable via a patch or seven. So yeah, XCOM 2, it’s great. It’s probably approaching my game of the year, or at the very least even so far with Uncharted 4. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to go and literally load a Shit.