When I was somewhere between 7 and 9 years old, X-Com: Terror from the Deep made me cry. True story. It’s a thoroughly depressing tale involving a wayward grenade, my favourite veteran soldier and a level of childish innocence which ensured I hadn’t yet grasped the concept that saving your game every 10 seconds (as opposed to every three hours) is really the only way to play the original X-Com games. Actually, it’s the only way to play the newer XCOM games as well. Point is, when The Incident occurred and the game murdered my favourite trooper I just sort of stared blankly at the screen for a while, letting the realisation sink in, and then the tears burst forth like hot death from a rowdy plasma rifle. Considering that most of the other games I played around that time were far more forgiving, charming affairs like Day of the Tentacle and the Monkey Island series, it was pretty rough.
It’s weird, but in a way Terror from the Deep helped teach me about loss. Of course, the sheer absurdity of the situation meant that my parents (and everybody else, really) couldn’t possibly sympathise with me or understand how I could be so upset over something that to them was so completely meaningless. I was incredibly sad for a very long time in kid terms. At least 10 minutes I’d say, before I buried the sobs and moved on to throwing rocks at other rocks or whatever I did when I was that age. My memory of the whole thing is understandably a tad fuzzy, but I didn’t play Terror from the Deep again until many years later, even though I’d loved it intensely before The Incident.
In fact, I’ll bet Terror from the Deep is a large part of the reason why I’m almost unbearably cautious when playing most similarly punishing games since. And it taught me a valuable lesson that’s stuck with me forever: Dane, for the love of gerbils, save your game you twit.
Fast-forward to 2016. It’s many, many years later, and I’m playing XCOM 2. Steam tells me I’m more than 40 hours into it, and yet I still don’t feel anywhere near prepared to write this review. Maybe it’s because there’s so much depth to the game that I’m still constantly being surprised by it, and that I still feel completely overwhelmed by its systems and nuances. Maybe it’s because the dramatic excitement it generates means that even after 40 hours it still feels wonderfully fresh. Maybe it’s because I can tell this is a game that I’ll return to for years to come, that’s carved itself a permanent home on my hard drive. Maybe it’s because it’s still kicking my ass, and I’m a sucker for the punishment it consistently delivers.
XCOM 2 is fantastic. Enemy Unknown and its expansion Enemy Within (which I’ve never played, but I’m told is really great) are excellent games, and if you’ve played them XCOM 2 will feel immediately familiar in many ways – but it adds a chunk of clever newness that makes it feel like a smarter, more varied game.
The core premise is largely the same: you’re at the helm of the XCOM organisation, and your job is to battle an alien menace that’s threatening the planet. Except you lost the war long ago, and 20 years have passed since Earth’s governments surrendered to the invaders. Earth’s inhabitants exist under the propagandist rule of their otherworldly oppressors. XCOM is on the run, forced to use guerrilla strikes and hit-and-run tactics to disrupt the alien machine. Not only does this make for an immediately interesting (if not especially vital) narrative, but it changes the way XCOM operates in both superficial and meaningful ways, and the nature of the missions you and your troops tackle.
For one thing, XCOM’s base is no longer a static entity, watching and waiting for alien activity. You’re now housed on the Avenger, a mobile base that can rapidly traverse the globe, evading detection while protecting and uniting the global resistance, fighting to awaken ordinary people to the truth of this new world order. The Avenger represents one half of the game. It’s here that you use your crew of scientists and engineers to research new technologies, fashion new weapons and items, and build new facilities that’ll bolster your odds against the ever-evolving alien threat. Your scientists can be put to work researching new types of armour, for example. Your engineers can prepare medikits and build rooms that do everything from generating power to increasing the number of soldiers you can take on each mission. In between all that, there’s the “geoscape” – a holographic map of the globe, which is what you use to decide where the Avenger is most needed. From here, you can fly to different regions to establish contact with the splintered resistance groups, to scan for potential targets and react to urgent threats, and to embark on missions that’ll earn you key rewards while weakening the enemy.
Those missions are the real meat of the game. Firstly, you should know that they don’t happen in real-time, so if turn-based tactical games aren’t your thing, it may be best to steer clear – although XCOM really does manage to be more immediately exhilarating than most turn-based games, so in no way should you assume it’s “boring” or “lame” or whatever other words people typically use to describe turn-based stuff. You carefully direct your small squad of soldiers around the map, using the unique abilities afforded to them by their respective soldier classes and trying to keep the odds as much in your favour as you can when enemies appear. Most actions besides movement are affected by random chance. Attacking enemies, dodging enemy fire, hacking into alien networks – almost all of these are dictated by a certain amount of luck, and the trick is to learn to remove as much reliance on that luck as possible. It’s a constant game of balancing risk with reward, and this can inevitably lead to an immense amount of frustration when nothing seems to be going right for you, and when supposed certainties turn into catastrophic failures – but it can also lead to moments of glorious triumph where you completely defy the odds and manage to achieve something spectacularly unexpected.
My favourite addition to XCOM 2‘s combat is its Concealment mechanic. Basically it’s what it says on the tin: at the start of most missions your squad is undetected by enemy forces, allowing you to get a feel for the mission area and do a bit of recon on the enemies you’ll be facing – but most importantly it gives you the opportunity to set up ambushes that can quickly obliterate a few enemies before they have a chance to react, thereby drastically altering the course of the mission. It’s an excellent addition and not only does it add a fresh set of tactical options to a game that’s already tactically rich, but it also fits with the game’s narrative themes. Similarly, there’s also the ability to loot gear that’s dropped by enemies, which ties into the notion that XCOM is working with anything and everything it can get it hands on.
In action, it’s intensely satisfying. I’m almost literally on the edge of my seat for every encounter, and more than once I’ve shouted a triumphant “YES!” or yelled at one of my troops out of sheer frustration. The tension is relentless, frequently slicing huge chunks out of your emotions, and as expected the game does an exceptional job of making you feel attached to your soldiers. It’s not just that your most experienced operatives become valuable commodities due to the powerful abilities (which are tied to the various character classes) they unlock with each successful promotion. It’s that you go through hell with these virtual people, and you naturally start developing strong bonds with them as they impress and disappoint you. Seeing your favourites fall in battle or anxiously awaiting their return to duty after they’ve been wounded is sheer torture, or at least it is to me. At the moment my primary five-soldier squad has two South Africans in it: Mosi Luthuli and Lewis Taylor. Mosi’s the team’s medic. Lewis is a hacker largely responsible for dealing with any mechanical threats that arise. I like to think that the two South Africans get along like a house on fire given their shared heritage – especially since they’ve somehow both developed Australian accents, which is equal parts odd, sad and hilarious. Mosi’s thrown himself in harm’s way countless times to safeguard and heal his squadmates when things become grim, and Lewis is renowned for swinging the odds in the team’s favour by hacking into deadly security turrets and mechs and turning them against their alien masters. If Mosi and/or Lewis were to die, I’d be devastated. It’d be just like Terror from the Deep all over again. I’d probably weep uncontrollably for at least five minutes while spooning a giant stuffed toy. But then I’d get over it, Because I’ve been saving my game. Lots.
The drama that the game’s various mechanics are so effective at generating cannot be overstated. The most grueling missions start to feel like self-contained sci-fi action movies, and wield a desperate sense of momentum. One second everything’s under control, the next your whole squad is frantically retreating from a towering mechanical monstrosity covered in DEATH LASERS. Some missions are strictly timed and require that your team get in, complete their objective and reach an evac point within a set number of turns. In one mission I was forced to leave a sniper behind to valiantly cover the escape of the rest of my squad. In another excursion my directive was to rescue a VIP, which I eventually managed to do after a vicious skirmish – but only one of my operatives (the only fresh recruit among them, in fact) managed to reach the evac point in time. It’s brutal, but the other three knew the risks and all that. The sense of theatricality is complemented by the fact that missions and maps are now partially randomly generated, which means you’re never quite sure what to expect.
My only real complaint about XCOM 2 lies in the state in which it was launched. It’s an absolute system hog, and even the beefiest of PCs struggle to run the game at a steady frame rate. That, and it’s plagued by a fair amount of bugs. The action camera that amplifies and emphasises certain events often breaks completely, especially when using certain special abilities that enable multiple attacks per turn. The game went through a stage of violently crashing every time I tried to load from a certain quick save file, but only once I was already loaded into the mission, and it didn’t happen in the main menu. Animations sometimes don’t trigger. Aside from the crashing, I’ve not encountered any other major technical glitches, but it’s still disappointing that the game launched with a slew of technical failings.
Still, what a delicious thing this XCOM 2 is. There’s so much stuff to like, so many goodies to tinker with, so many exciting things to discover in its depths. I honestly can’t bring myself to play it in Iron Man mode (a difficulty setting which only allows you one save slot and is constantly auto-saving to ensure you can’t backtrack) because I find the game plenty stressful without it, but I’m so glad it exists because I imagine it dials up the drama and desperation tactics to the point where the rest of life’s stresses will feel completely arbitrary and insignificant. I love that even though the game’s narrative is suitably doom-and-gloom-y, it still feels like an exciting, gung-ho thrill ride full of impossible heroics and colourful lasers. I love that there are so many ways to customise your XCOM operatives, strengthening your attachment to them and their continued survival. Most of all, I love that the game’s still endlessly exciting to me 40 hours in, and that it’s capable of organically weaving stories that, like Terror from the Deep, would help Kid Dane understand that sometimes, shit happens.