Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Prepare to Die (and Not Know Why)

Game: XCOM 2
Firaxis, 2016 (PC version reviewed)

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first: XCOM 2 is a fucking mess. Continuing the alarming trend of day one technical disasters in high profile releases, at the time of this review XCOM 2 is buggy to the point of brokenness if you’re lucky enough to be able to run it, and reportedly unplayable on a large number of rigs that otherwise ace the listed system requirements. Among the more stable, non-crash-to-desktop bugs are such constant joys as: enemies and allies alike disappearing or teleporting at random. Entire turn phases failing occurring invisibly. Vanishing cursors. Menu items becoming unselectable until a reload. Doors and windows failing to render, leading to your units breaking through them by surprise and eliminating your stealth cover or falling to the fire of hidden foes. Animations hanging constantly and the cinematic camera freezing as often as it functions, sometimes permanently. Clipping errors causing your units to wind up dozens of tiles away from your command point. Items disappearing out of your inventory without a single use.

The lack of an instant-undo button means your only remedy to some of these issues, if any, is a quick quit to desktop. And these are, again, just some of the glitches that don’t result in your GPU melting down to a pool of alien slag. Whether any game is worth putting up with that kind of aggravation, particularly at a $60 launch price tag, is a question very much worth asking.

“Deep Six” refers to the number of point black shots she’s missed in a row.

So why, despite of all that, am I standing at the end of a brutal 45-hour campaign reflecting on how much I enjoyed the experience and whether I’ll play another? Chalk it up to the magic of XCOM, I guess. There’s just something so engrossing in the core formula Firaxis has found in reinventing the series that I find myself sucked into “just one more mission” hours after a squad-wiping series of bugs, personal errors, and trademark XCOM bullshit made me declare that was my last mission, now and forever. And there is oh, so much bullshit to that formula. Part of the weird XCOM paradox is that the things that make it such an interesting procedural narrative experience are the very things that make it a shoddy strategy game. As refreshing as the new squad stealth mechanics are, there’s still a constant element of unpredictability and unfairness in the enemies’ ability to appear out of nowhere and receive a free turn, or the fact that virtually every encounter with a new type of foe ensures you will lose soldiers discovering those foe’s unknown skills, or the glee with which the game flatly refuses to clue you in to which elements of base strategy will lead to a long term win or loss without painful trial and error. Enemy line of sight is a constant mystery. Mission difficulty ratings are largely useless, as a “Very Difficult” op might be a complete breeze if filled only with familiar unit types, whereas an “Easy” one might wipe your entire squad through the appearance of unknown elements without warning. Even many of the more predictable elements seem to have been included frankly just to annoy, such as the stupidity of multi-enemy targeting abilities like the Gunslinger’s “Face Off” forcing you to attack units you have mind-controlled into submission.

Dr. Tygon’s not afraid to let you know how this Archon makes him feel.

The truth is, however, that most of the masochistic pleasures of XCOM 2 are a result of these bullshit elements; some of the most satisfying moments in the game would likely never happen without them. The unpredictability of the abuse is as organic to the player experience as the stories that form around your beleaguered troops and their fallen comrades. You come to value these procedurally generated personalities precisely because of the awful experiences you have “shared” with them, and the constant threat of permadeath lends a weight to your choices even when they turn out to matter less than your luck of the draw (as anyone who’s ever missed an entire turn’s worth of shots can attest).

Bugs aside, XCOM 2’s improvements on the Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within formulae provide a strong framework for those stories to take place in, even if the changes are mostly iterative - and owe an undeniable debt to the fan-made Long War mod for Enemy Within. The base management tools and Pandemic-inspired world map exploration, if poorly explained and overwhelming at first, make for a much deeper and more satisfying strategy experience outside of the missions themselves, to the point where I found myself wishing the battlefield wouldn’t so frequently pull me away from management.

XCOM 2 continues to tease with so many toys and so little cash with which to buy them.

Missions, too, have received major improvements. The new manual evac mechanic not only feels so right but provides a thrilling and life-saving way to pull your team out of a botched mission or rescue incapacitated comrades. Unit skills have been revamped almost completely, with familiar classes progressing in ways that provide much more interesting choices between abilities and team composition. There’s much more variety in the enemies you face as well, with familiar foes showing off reconfigured tactics and newcomers finding all sorts of novel ways to make your life a nightmare.

There’s a flashy, neo-dischoteque vibe to the alien propaganda materials that would’ve been nicer to see more of in the 3D visual design. 

Some things haven’t changed at all. The writing’s just as earnestly awful as ever - even if it is part of the charm - and the story unfolds in ways not only predictable but downright repetitive of its predecessors. A few of the non-timed mission types still try to bore you out of Overwatch creep into making stupid decisions. Visuals have been touched up only a little, and certainly not enough to justify the new technical problems, but the bigger improvements are stylistic, particularly in the now much more varied environmental design. Mechanical improvements notwithstanding, XCOM 2 is an obvious evolution on Enemy Within, and it can struggle to justify its packaging as an independent, fully-priced sequel rather than the sort of thing a studio like Blizzard regularly puts out as a discounted expansion pack. But if you’re anything like me, you may just find XCOM 2 is exactly what you wanted more of out of the series, and all the bugs in the world won’t keep you from that “one last mission” at 3 AM on a Monday.

Liked it.

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