My relationship with XCOM 2 was a troubled one.
I use the word "relationship" there intentionally, and ultimately many of the adjectives I use to describe the game are the sorts of words you might use to describe someone with whom you’d had a passionate, and at times complicated, affair. In describing the game I say things like "difficult," "inflexible," "quirky," "stubborn"; but then in the next breath I might say things like "smart," "attractive," "impressive" and "rewarding."
This is a game that will infuriate you in one moment and then delight you in the very next – or, vice versa – which is a complicated emotional roller coaster that one should not engage lightly. This is not the game you’ll play at the end of a long day to unwind. But if you can set aside your preconceived notions of what this game is supposed to be and instead allow yourself to accept and enjoy what the game is, you might just find that XCOM 2 is one of the best strategy titles released in years.
Or you’ll throw your computer through a window.
By the end of my first few days with XCOM 2, I was far closer to the latter than the former. Picking up the game on opening day, I entered my first few missions with the tattered remains of the defeated XCOM team excited but with a lack of respect for what I’d later perceive as the game’s over-the-top difficulty. By the end of day two, I’d had enough of the game and reached the unfortunate conclusion that this round was not for me.
At the time, playing XCOM 2 felt like having a mean big brother. It would put you in tough, sometimes painful situations and ask you to choose between two or three equally bad options. Then, whichever option you choose, it would somehow try to make that the worst result after the fact, and then give you a good wedgie at the end of it all – just to really drive home the point that XCOM 2 is kind of a jerk.
“I’m going to kill your favorite squadmates,” the game would seem to say capriciously, and then two minutes later it would punish you for letting your squadmates die. It was the video game version of Stop Hitting Yourself, and there’s only so much of that I’m interested in dealing with in my life. So I quit playing entirely, wrote the game off as not my kind of thing at best, and moved on with my life.
As it turns out, I was 100% wrong about XCOM 2.
The problem, as it turns out, wasn’t that XCOM 2 somehow had it out for me. The problem was that I was being lazy and stupid while I was playing it. Now, I have to stress here that I’m not calling anyone lazy or stupid for finding XCOM 2 to not be fun or to be too difficult, just that for me, it turned out to be my problem. I’ve gotten very used to playing strategy games that recognize and adapt to a new player, and that have mechanics in the game that allow the player to catch up or at least stabilize if the player drops the ball once or twice.
This game seems to have no such mechanic. The reality is that XCOM 2 never takes its foot off the pedal, even if you ask it really nicely. The upside of this is that decisions have weight, not only in the execution of turn-based fights, but in the way you set up those fights, the way you’ve equipped your crew, the way you’ve balanced their skills to be complementary, the way you’ve researched new technologies, the way you’ve prioritized your meager budget between R&D versus live-fire application, and a thousand other things. The downside is that you have a million opportunities to shoot yourself in the foot.
If you don’t know this, or you don’t fully appreciate this going in, it’s going to be a slog. The reality is that a handful of bad decisions even through the first few missions of the game may reverberate all the way through to the end – particularly if you’re a purist and play in Ironman mode or individually limit your ability to save-scum.
I hasten to point out: This does not describe my approach. I am unabashed in the apocalyptic scumminess of my saving philosophy. The interesting thing, though, is that the more I accepted and adapted to XCOM 2’s model, the less I had to resort to my nefarious ways.
When I first played the game, I came away feeling like too much rode on a single roll of the dice, and that a game could be entirely won or lost if your sniper missed that 93% shot. What I eventually realized was that if you were in a position where success or failure lived on the head of a pin and a roll of the dice, you’d already lost – whether you knew it or not. It doesn’t matter if the shot connects or not, because this game isn’t about that. This game is about how you set up the shots so that no one or two rolls matter all that much.
You don’t win or lose XCOM 2 in the battles. You win or lose XCOM 2 on your ship. The most important screen in the game is the one right before you leave for a mission, where you’re choosing your loadout. The balance between the mission types, your reserve pool, your available equipment and the way they will all work together are what matters. That's where you should spend a ton of time. What can you give up to make space for something you can’t?
Here’s the thing: If that sniper’s roll matters so much, it means he’s on an island. He’s not supported, and he’s probably not supporting. It’s the videogame realization of an old concept: Work together or die alone. Everything needs to support everything else, and often taking the shot is the last thing you do – not the first.
Before firing, you eliminate cover. Before firing, you get into a position that assumes everything else will fail. Before firing, you toss a mimic beacon into the thick of things. Before firing, you have your Psi-soldier know exactly who he’s going to target with a stasis if things go south. Before firing, you think about how you’re going to make sure no alien reinforcements get triggered during your battle. Before firing, you analyze whether you can delay the engagement and instead move one step closer to the goal. Before firing, you toss a flashbang grenade, or smoke grenade, or maybe even just send in a Gremlin on a combat protocol to get the sure-thing-damage.
Only when you’ve exhausted all of that, do you take the shot. And if you can’t do those other things, it might just mean you lost this battle when your crew was standing around outside the dropship waiting for you to say the word.
Once I started playing the game this way, I fell in love with it. It’s a hard thing to love, because it’s buggy, and it’s quirky, and it’s capricious, and it’s not really on your side. And all of those things are part of what makes it great.