X-Com 2 and How I Learned To Love The Pain

There is no hope. On a rainy night, in the streets of a neon hued cyberpunk street, my squad of infiltrators are out flanked, out gunned, and out of chances. All hell broke loose when I directed Bawbshway to dash from one point of cover to another, and he unwittingly wandered into the line of sight of a passing patrol of Advent soldiers, leaving him perfectly out of position and the rest of my squad exposed. Things went from bad to worse when Ivan and Jorge both took their reaction shots on the enemy squad only to both miss and have the enemy find flanking positions in full cover. The Nerd Funnel crew was about to get wiped out and there was nothing I could do about it.

This is just one of the many scenarios that has played out across the 50+ hours I have sunk into X-Com 2 since its release. The game can be maddening, frustrating and keyboard-breakingly annoying but there is a special alchemy that takes place somewhere between all the anxiety.

For the uninitiated, X-Com 2 is a turn based strategy game that has you playing a group of resistance fighters taking on the alien overlords that have conquered Earth since the failure to repel them in the original X-Com. You take on the role of The Commander, the voiceless, face less protagonist who will eye-in-the-sky-command his squad of rookies into veterans, then to saviors of the universe status. So while you will be fighting pitch battles using mini-guns, assault rifles, and grenades, a new stealth mechanic has been added that allows you to position your squad and ambush enemy patrols to even the playing field. I really liked this new mechanic, as it added a secondary layer of strategy to the game and even rewarded a crafty player who was willing to sneak a bit before triggering an ambush on an unsuspecting squad of alien jerks.

Beyond the skirmishes that you will be fighting that make up the majority of the game play, you will also do some light base building and tech research. The resource management part of the game plays an almost as important part in your mission as it will allow you to gain valuable weapons, armor and gadgets that will allow help you through the course of missions as you encounter bigger and badder enemies.

Alien Killing Time
Alien Killing Time

And these enemies are truly haunting. While your early engagements will mostly be with enemy troops, you will soon be fighting sectoids, the iconic alien type of the X-Com franchise, along with mutons, snake men, shape-shifters and robots. The design of the aliens is really spectacular, especially when compared with other games of the genre. Graphically the game is smooth with only the occasional wonky moment. There were plenty of times where I was really surprised with the amount of detail put into the characters or the animations that seems to capture the rush of combat. Even your soldiers, which if unmodified are random creations, host a striking amount of detail. However, because you can modify your squad, why wouldn’t you?

Soak In The Badass-dom
Soak In The Badass-dom

Soldiers can be customized and added to your game, allowing you the option to create and play with anyone you can imagine. Despite the number of props and color schemes you could use, the faces are pretty limited, so you will have to use a little imagination if you want to create your best friends. Luckily, there are enough hair styles, props and optional sliders that you can at least capture the essence of almost anyone in the broad strokes.

Although not providing any mechanical bonus, adding people you know, famous celebrities, or even people you hate, can add quite a bit of depth to the experience. When confronted with the decision to save a scientist, who happens to be your best friend, or assassinate an enemy VIP who happens to be your mom, the game suddenly takes on a different sense of urgency. This takes a completely different form when you place your friends in a squad. Because X-Com games like to punish you for mistakes, the biggest mistake you can make is getting one of your soldiers killed. The result of which is the permanent death of that character in that campaign. No regeneration pods, no mystical potions. They are gone. This becomes all the more painful when you have been leveling up that soldier for hours, take a small gamble on a mission and they end up with a face full of blaster. Not a happy day. Couple this stress with the idea that they are someone you are buddies with and the game takes on a whole other intimacy that will really make you feel bad for ordering them to their death.

Although this may sound frustrating, it actually is one of X-Com 2’s biggest strengths. Very few games give you a true sense of consequence to your actions. X-Com 2 does not shy away from that, and in fact really embraces it. In almost every play through, you will lose soldiers. Plain and simple. Characters you care about will get killed, whether by bad luck, bad positioning or a little of both. But no matter what you will feel the sting of it. And this sense of loss for characters that we ostensibly should not care about because underneath it all they are just paper dolls, is the magic of this game.

Obviously, I love this game. It is a blast to play and because the games maps are procedurally generated there is a ton of re-playability. It is exactly what I want out of an X-Com game and it delivers. Couple the base game with the modding support available on Steam and other mod sites, and this game will be playable for a long time to come.

Now, if you will excuse me, I got a planet to save. Assuming Bawbshway doesn’t keep getting my squad killed.