In our Double Take reviews, we like to compare notes and give you a side-by-side view of our impressions and opinions. In this installment, we're taking a look at turn-based strategy game XCOM 2.
Andy's Take: A Brilliant Human Power Fantasy
XCOM 2 is one of the most successful video game power fantasies I’ve ever experienced. This might seem a little paradoxical, given the game’s infamous difficulty and quite a lot of Steam user reviews full of bitter tears of utter despair. But that’s exactly my point: while most power fantasies are shallow affairs that stroke your ego even though you’ve achieved nothing of note, the best power fantasies really let you work (and pay) for your smug, self-satisfied grin.
XCOM 2 wastes no time to establish the player as an underdog. Humanity is enslaved, and your ill-prepared band of silly-looking freedom fighters is its only hope. The enemy has superior numbers and technology. An almost every mission seems to introduce some new type of terrifying abomination that could rip your squad apart in a single turn. There are so many ways to die: being obliterated by some energy weapon, strangled to death by an alien-snake’s tongue, smashed to a pulp by some raging monstrosity, psyonically brain-melted into oblivion, blown to smithereens standing right next to a burning car… And if you are like me, people are absolutely going to die, as long as you’re able to refrain from loading an earlier save game.
And yet, as you are struggling through the game, you’ll eventually get to play with the same toys as the aliens, and more. Every few days you’ll research and build some new brilliant gadget, such as poison grenades that can obliterate whole groups of enemies, scanners that allow devastating ambushes, or armour that lets you grapple onto roofs Batman-style. Your soldiers’ slowly unlocking abilities are perhaps even more overpowering, allowing you, if executed correctly, to hack enemy robots, attack several times in a single turn, unleash brutal machete attacks if an alien comes too close, or to become concealed from the enemy in the middle of a mission.
Using these innumerous tactical possibilities is an absolute delight; one of my favourite moments was successfully hacking a robot with my specialist, making it join its friends on a roof and blasting the whole thing to pieces, resulting in an uncomfortable fall for all involved; or using my sharpshooter’s free pistol attack in a timed VIP-abduction to nonchalantly gun down the last enemy in the very last turn before a forced extraction.
Make no mistake: XCOM 2 is still challenging later on in the game, but such triumphant moments occur frequently enough that most of your successes, whether a single defeated enemy or a successful mission, feel worthy of a celebration; after all, your soldiers have beaten the odds, turned the tables, before jumping onto them and performing a little victory dance. And the game’s style, its graphics, animations and music, all perfectly underscore this power fantasy. The way the game conveys some of the drama and energy of cinematic action sequences despite belonging to arguably the slowest and most cerebral genre of them all is nothing short of astonishing. It’s far from perfect, with camera angles obstinately focusing on some wall behind which all the drama is unfolding, or soldiers missing even though it looked like a hit, and many similar problems. But the tension and high stakes of the gameplay makes up for most of these small deficiencies, and when a pivotal action succeeds and you see its results dramatically presented in slow motion, there is little that feels more empowering.
Anyone with a heart will grow attached to and proud of their soldiers, even though they are defined through nothing more than their abilities, looks, and successes or failures on the field. And yet it’s so easy to imbue them with personalities, and to let yourself be deceived into thinking about them as characters of a sort, however archetypical. The importance of customisation shouldn’t be underestimated. To me, forcing my trusty soldiers into garishly coloured armour and tacky accessories to turn them into ridiculous caricatures of cartoon coolness was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. Especially if your zebra-striped, gun-slinging, chain-smoking sharpshooter humiliates the aliens by taking down some lumbering robot-monstrosity with nothing more than a single shot of her pistol and an expression of cold contempt.
Gabriela Santiago, gaudy-yet-lethal nemesis of alien overlords everywhere
In some ways, however, this is not just your personal power fantasy, but humanity’s. All humans have been made equal through alien enslavement and oppression. Your soldiers are men and women of all ethnicities and nationalities, tasked to protect all of humanity. You can even select an option that will make your soldiers respond in the language of their nationality.
XCOM 2 is a celebration of a supposed human ingenuity, tenacity and loyalty. Yes, these aliens – at least at the beginning – have far superior weaponry and technology, they are physically and mentally stronger than humans, and they’ve already conquered earth and established a quasi-fascist dictatorship. Eventually, your resistance will work towards an equilibrium of power, but all your gadgets are reverse-engineered or repurposed alien technology. This is an interesting conceit, since humans are essentially beating the aliens at their own game, but they do not rely on brute strength and terror as the aliens, but on subtlety and flexibility instead. We may see aliens blown to pieces by heavy weaponry, but the fantasy of XCOM 2 relies more on a celebration of the human spirit than on the military fetishism of other games. Playing and succeeding at XCOM 2 therefore not only makes you feel good about yourself as an individual, but arguably also about yourself as a part of your species, supposing that you, dear reader, are a human. My apologies if you’re not.
Yes, there are plenty of other games that let you fight aliens or monsters that threaten humanity, but games in which you play as gruff white soldier-men, or lone heroes don’t really count; ultimately, they are unadulterated ego trips. Even though you’re playing XCOM 2 alone, losing feels like communal suffering, winning like a result of inspiring teamwork. And this team, after all, represents many nations and ethnicities all over the globe.
This circle-jerking around the brilliance of Us can certainly be criticised on several grounds: that the game’s inclusiveness is founded on a very Western point-of-view, that it takes the othering of alien species and a narrative of victimhood to unify humanity (without the ironical punch, for example, of the ending of Alan Moore’s Watchmen), or even that the only species on this planet the game is interested in is the homo sapiens. Not to mention the game’s inane writing and presentation of its story, which are utterly devoid of humour or self-consciousness despite the potentially wonderful silliness of it all.
I think there are good arguments to be made for all of these points. But in the end, nothing really detracts from the success of what the game tries to achieve, or from the laudable ways in which it refrains from dehumanising or excluding representations of certain groups (well, except for the aliens, of course). XCOM 2 delivers a brilliant and decidedly human power trip that is absolutely worth the time and practice it demands of you.
Morgane's Take: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Acceptance, Love