• Morgane Ghilardi & Andreas Inderwildi

Double Take: XCOM 2 Review

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

Let me start by stating, for the record, that I’ve thrown some Kylo Ren style tantrums while playing XCOM 2. While I don’t think I’m alone in this, it gives you an idea of the emotional rollercoaster I’ve been on since the game came out in early February. I can’t say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this game because it has some major issues that I will go into in a minute. In spite of its wrinkles, however, I'm happy to say that I love this game.

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

Bad news first. One of the major weaknesses of this game is the flow of information, or lack thereof. This problem manifests itself on various levels. The tutorial is supposed to happen organically, with in-game commentaries and as part of the story/campaign’s development. The player is mostly supposed to learn by doing, which is fine in and of itself. However, it felt like I was left to my own devices a little too soon, for instance when the game is not very forthcoming about the huge benefits of some of the infrastructure that can be installed in the Avenger, the game’s main campaign hub.

I’ve played the first XCOM reboot, so the concept of expanding your assets in order to improve your chances on individual missions and in the overall campaign was not lost on me. However, I had to break off my first campaign fifteen hours in, realizing that I had played myself into a very tight spot where I didn’t have enough engineers or well-trained soldiers to take on the first Black Site. The odds never seemed to be in my favor, and I was losing people left and right – with the difficulty set on “Veteran”, mind you.

The second campaign went extremely well, though. I was aware of the pitfalls of not investing in the right infrastructure – like an Advanced War Center – and the right research in the Proving Grounds. In a way, I think that’s fine. Let there be a learning curve. But the level of frustration rose to the point where I didn’t want to continue playing, and I felt that this wasn’t due to my lack of understanding of the parameters of the game, but because the game seemed to inexplicably keep essential information from me.

One example is the Black Market trade. Do not expect there to be any exact item stats. You’ll just have to guess how much damage a missed shot will do with a stock installed or by how much your aim is increased with a scope on your rifle. Another good example is near the end, where there is a mission on which you can only take three soldiers. Before engaging you can choose to buy an extra slot for intel, among other things. Only upon engaging in the mission and getting to the prep screen – where you will not be able to disengage, as you usually can – will they tell you that you can only take three soldiers, i.e. four if you bought the extra slot.

As is traditional, useful hints are provided when the game is loading, e.g. that building a power relay on an exposed power coil will guarantee a greater power output. Makes sense, I guess. Other things, like the fact that the engineering drones you get from building a workshop only serve the vertically and horizontally adjacent rooms, will only become clear when they’re already in place. That seems like an important bit of information. In the end, I need to have the facts and numbers in front of me before devoting resources and time to an excavation. Essential information can’t be in the margins.

We Are Not Amused

The other issue concerns the tone of the writing. The way you can customize your characters tells me that the intent is to have fun with the military-themed game. While you could go for a very serious play-through, creating nothing but tough-as-nails Dutch impersonators, the game leaves a lot of room for silliness, which I think is very, very important. I have a personal distaste for gamifications of war that imply that they are reflecting any kind of reality, so I think it is important a game like this acknowledges its own “gaminess”. I see that writing this kind of game is somewhat difficult when it comes to the tone.

It’s not exactly story-heavy, arguably because it needs to be repeatable in a very specific way. It’s a strategy game that invites you to sit down again and again, trying various approaches and focusing on differing tactical assets offered to you. So I see why you wouldn’t want a very complex or time-consuming storyline clogging up the fast-paced and modular evolution of a campaign.

Yet, there is obviously a commitment to have the story be more than just window-dressing, to engage the player emotionally to at least some degree. And this is done by adding a hue of pathos to the story. Which, again, is fine, if it’s done well. However, the attempt at gravitas clashes with the story, because the final revelation – SPOILER! that the aliens are harvesting human DNA by putting humans in a blender and making alien-hybrids out them – isn’t even a revelation! All I could think was, “Wait, wasn’t that clear from the beginning?” I’m not saying this to pat my massive intellect on the metaphorical back, because it's not that I saw this big twist coming – it's that it isn’t even a twist. I thought we were all clear on this aspect of the story from the very beginning.

I didn’t really care though, because I don't think the story contributed that much to the whole experience. And that’s a bit of a shame, because the writing did manage to get a few giggles out of me, and there's the rub: If they had focused on being campy, on emphasizing the silliness of it all, I would have been all set to engage emotionally.

The discussions about the ADVENT Burgers made of some sort of mystery meat were great. I wanted more of that. I would have loved to find in-game magazines about life with aliens, or to hear more interactions about cobra-like aliens who have boobs – BOOBS, people! Or what if one of the soldiers got flack for wearing tacky stuff like zebra-striped cowboy hats? The point is, I would have been on board with a lot more comedy, because it would have provided the right tone for a plot that is, in essence, more than a little silly to begin with. The pseudoscience, the drama of alien invasion, the man in the shadows who obviously narrates trailers in his free time – would all have been much more bearable with a big side of funny. I didn’t need the tension between Shen and Tygen, for instance, which never evolves beyond her being bitchy about his scientific callousness (versus her boundless compassion, even for robotic killing-machines, probably because of her ovaries). More Whedonesque banter, however, could have made this game fantastic.

The Big But

In spite of these weaknesses, I feel that I’ve gotten a lot out of this game. I became very attached to my team (which I managed to keep from the beginning to the end, whoop whoop!), and was amazed at how fun it is to be thrown these crazy curve-balls from time to time. Losing all hope and then managing to beat the odds anyway allowed me to experience the most excellent endorphin rushes. After ploughing through this game like Empress Furiosa through the desert, I still want to sit down and try again on a higher difficulty level (no “Iron Man” mode for me yet, though.)

So, while I hope that the performance issues get fixed soon, and that the next installment or expansion might really come back to the whacky roots of the franchise, I am happy with this game and can only recommend it. Just be ready to reach for your stress ball every once in a while.

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