X-Com 2 (Completed)

I needed a break from Wizardry 8.  Something snappier, something shorter.  It was time for X-Com 2.  I was a fan of the original X-Com and the re-boot, so I was keen to see X-Com 2.

I understand that sequels tread, or should tread, a fine line between keeping enough of the old material to please the established fans, but introducing enough new material to justify being a sequel at all.

I understand that, but personally I prefer inventiveness to repetition.  That made me apprehensive about X-Com 2; I'd played the X-Com reboot to death (finishing it on ironman at hardest difficulty, and finishing the DLC).  Would X-Com 2 just be more of the same?

As it turns out, the answer is "mostly".  But it's an interesting case example of a sequel that tries to tread that line between old and new.  So in this post I've decided to break it down - what did they keep the same, what did they change and what changes could they have made?

"Please sir, can I have some more?" Things unchanged from X-Com (reboot)

X-Com 2, like X-Com 1, is 2 games: a resource-management sim/metagame and a turn-based tactics shooter.  Decisions, successes and failures in one part of the game affect the other.  This is part of the charm of the X-Com series, right back to the original.

In X-Com 2, this dual-game setup is, unsurprisingly, the same.  But the similarities do not, of course, stop there.  The fundamental mechanics of both game types remains the same.

For the shooter, this means that you control a group of 4-6 soldiers, each of whom get two actions per turn, and who can perform basically the same types of actions as they could in X-Com 1.  The systems for movement, cover, chance to hit and damage remains the same, and the kinds of actions available to your units (move, fire, item, skill or overwatch) also remains unchanged.  The victory conditions for each match are also basically the same (with a few tweaks), as are the rewards/penalties for success/failure in each mission.

The net effect of this is that your successful strategies from X-Com 1 will be equally successful in X-Com 2.

Combat in X-Com 2.  Honestly the main change is that some of the icons are different.

At first glance, the metagame/resource management sim appears to have some significant changes.  But on closer examination there are more similarities than differences.  The sim has two key units of currency - money and game time.  Either can be spent on immediate benefits (such as guns or armour) or re-invested into increasing the rate of production.

The important part of the resource management sim is that the player must constantly make significant and irreversible decisions that (often) do not have a clearly "correct" answer.  This is why the player's resources are typically very limited - the player must constantly choose between the lesser of two evils.  Researching guns means not researching armour - and the player does not know which decision will be the "best" in the future.

Research decisions - same as always

The "globe" screen - it has changed, although it's still mission select and "which region will you protect"

The management sim also has some base-building aspects, but these are largely subsidiary.  The main choices are in how to spend money and choosing what technologies to research.

I appreciate this discussion is very broad-strokes, but I feel it's important to identify what, at heart, makes X-Com tick.  If I was going to summarise its success I would say that it's because X-Com feels like a never-ending series of significant decisions, typically made by a player who does not know which decision is "correct" because they cannot foretell the future.  Note that once you've got the aliens on the ropes and victory is all but assured, the game suddenly becomes dull.

X-Com 2 delivers on that basic premise in much the same was as X-Com reboot.  But you'll notice that I said "much the same", but not "exactly the same" - let's take a look at what's different.

Something new - what was different?

Changes to the shooting section

The shooting section has the following significant changes:

  • the new "concealed" mechanic;
  • a new "armour" mechanic, where armour points are deducted from every successful attack unless the armour is destroyed by certain specified attacks;
  • more timed missions;
  • procedural generation of levels;
  • some new character classes (particularly the melee-equipped Ranger), and changes to the skills offered in returning classes;
  • some changes to the aliens' attacks; and
  • changes to the available items, including the ability to make limited customisation to weapons; and
  • all guns now require ammunition.
It sounds impressive but I found that in practice these resulted in only minor tweaks because:
  • The much-maligned time mechanics were not new; it was exactly the same as the one they introduced in the X-Com 1 DLC.
  • The new character classes, aliens, skills and items were interesting, but they were generally just tweaks on established concepts.  For example:
    • In X-Com 2 you can hack enemy robots to either shut them down or take them over.  Or to put it another way, you can now cast psi-panic and mind-control (from X-Com 1) on robots.
    • The snake-men in X-Com 2 have a distance grapple (like a frog's tongue) that pulls one of your soldiers towards the alien, and to take damage each turn.  While this is happening, your unit can't be shot by other aliens.  If you successfully hit the alien at least once, then your man is released and can move that turn.  This sounds nasty, but practically the grappled unit can just run straight back into cover and pick up where he left off.
The net effect is that despite all these changes, the basic strategy of X-Com 1 and 2 is the same - always end a turn in cover, use overwatch as much as possible, try to flank and avoid being flanked.  Everything else is fiddling at the edges.

It's for this reason that I found that the much-lauded procedural generation didn't change a thing.  I did not beat X-Co, 1 by memorising levels, I beat it by constantly applying a winning strategy - the same strategy I used in X-Com 2.

To this I make two exceptions - namely the armour mechanic, which added a whole new factor in making order of attack far more relevant, and the concealed mechanic.

The concealed mechanic is the one you hear the most about in reviews, because it's completely unlikely anything in prior X-Com games.  At the start of certain missions, your units are "concealed" and will be ignored by aliens, who will wander around in tight groups outside of cover, until one of your units is either flanked (i.e. is caught outside of cover) or they wander into a "sightline" square, which surround the aliens in a fairly tightly packed sphere.

The "concealed" mechanic in play

When I first played a concealed mission I was genuinely enthralled.  The game had suddenly become a turn-based stealth game!  This was not only new to X-Com but entirely unique - can anyone else think of a turn-based stealth game?  I immediately tried to complete the entire first mission in "concealed" mode.  Ostensibly I was supposed to hack a computer terminal, so it should have been possible.

That's when I learned that the concealed mechanic doesn't work like that.  There are too many aliens in too close proximity to allow you to wander around for very long.  Worse, sometimes you won't realise that a particular tile is a "sight" square which will reveal your unit until after you've walked into it.

And once a single soldier is revealed, then your entire unit is revealed, and you go back to playing X-Com 1.

After tearing my hair out a few times I realised that I couldn't turn X-Com 2 into turn-based Mark of the Ninja.  Pretty much the only use of concealment is that it allows you to move your units more quickly at the start of the game (because you don't have to worry about overwatch), and you can slaughter the first group of aliens you come across.  Otherwise it's pretty irrelevant.

Changes to the management sim/metagame

The management sim in both games is conceptually the same, but it actually feels quite different.

Yes the concept is different, but that's just window-dressing.  In X-Com 1 you were defending the Earth from being conquered, in X-Com 2 the earth has been conquered and you're a guerilla resistance movement with all the stealth and unpredictability of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

This is not a low-profile mode of transport 

Neither is this

The difference is that in X-Com 1 you were slowly losing the world, but in X-Com 2 you're slowly gaining it.  As the game went on in X-Com 1, the aliens were more likely to take control of various countries, which meant that you (the player) would lose money.  As the aliens got stronger, you got weaker.

This does not happen in X-com 2.  Because your sphere of influence expands not contracts, you feel like time is on your side.  This is dealt with somewhat by a countdown timer showing the Aliens moving to complete their "Avatar Project", which will result in you losing the game.  But the aliens gaining strength never translates to you losing strength.

The base management aspects is also mostly removed.  In X-Com 1, you got significant bonuses for laying out your base in certain specific ways.  This doesn't exist in X-Com 2, but to be honest it's not a big deal.  There was always an optimal base design in X-Com 1, and it wasn't very hard to figure out.  

Missed opportunities - what would have been interesting

How else could they have shaken things up a bit?

I think the secret would lie in forcing me to abandon the strategies I learned in X-Com 1 and learn some new ones.  There would be a lot of ways to do this, but here's a few that struck me.

1.       Better use of the concealed mechanic

I really feel this was a missed opportunity.  They could have, for example, given a stealth option in certain missions for a smaller number of units (say 3) but an opportunity for concealment to return if the aliens are killed quickly enough

I now desperately want to play turn-based Metal Gear Solid.

2.      Get rid of the sniper's squadsight

In X-Com 1, snipers had "squadsight", which basically meant that their weapons had unlimited range.  This made them invincible killing machines in X-Com 1 and pretty much the same applies to X-Com 2.

They made a few tweaks to this in X-Com 2.  For example, they got rid of the Archangel Armour which let a sniper fly, and so gave them a permanent mobile sniping nest.  But it wasn't enough - get rid of it.

3.      Moving maps

Maps that rotate, such as moving bridges or platforms, would make firefights far more dynamic and give players an additional factor to take into account and keep firefights from becoming too static.

4.      Different objectives that demand different playstyles

X-Com 2 ostensibly has a lot of different objectives, but in practice it's always the same objective - kill everyone else on the map.  There is one level in X-Com 2  that is radically different - you have to blow up a tower on the other side of the map and return while enemies continue to spawn.  And it's such a refreshing change.  More variation like this please.  Options might include endlessly spawning enemies and, say, holding ground, tower defence, cross-the-map or stealth missions.

Last word

It might sound like I'm down on X-Com 2, and I'm not.  I enjoyed the game, and if you liked the first game then I recommend it.  I may get the DLC sometime.

But I can't help but wish that it had forced me to break out of my comfort zone from X-Com 1.  At the very least, it should have forced me to come up with a different strategy.

Oh, and I should spare a word for the plot holes, which are ridiculous.  If war-induced grudges could be removed by a good PR campaign, the Middle East would be a very different place.

Release date:         5 Feb 2016 (on PC)
Purchase date:      February 2017
Platform:               PC

Time spent:           Approx 45 hours
Developer:             Firaxis
Lead Designer:      Jake Solomon is credited as "Director"
Recommended if:  You like the old X-Com games (original or reboot) or turn-based tactics games.

Not recommended if:  You don't like strategy games, you can't stand losing (this game is hard until you figured it out) or can't ignore obvious plot holes.