Review: XCOM 2 (PS4)
XCOM 2 released back in February for PC and it received quite the fanfare and praise. It was touted as a refinement and improvement on the existing franchise while crafting its very own unique personality. We reviewed the game back when it first released and, as you can see, it surely deserved the praise it got. Fast forward to now and the game has officially released on the PS4 and Xbox One. Admittedly, this made me hesitant since the PC version already struggled with performance and given the previous port of XCOM: Enemy Unknown to consoles, this might turn into a disaster.
I will be reviewing the game separately based on my own experiences with it considering I haven’t played it on PC, but you can skip down to learn what the console port offers if you so desire.
Welcome back, Commander
XCOM 2 certainly ups the ante with the plot it established in the previous game. The aliens have taken over and thoroughly embedded themselves into the landscape, granting themselves control over the human population. The story revolves around a resistance made up of the previous XCOM initiative that was in charge of eradicating the aliens. You’re, of course, the Commander, who gets portrayed as this brilliant being capable of unparamount tactical skill. No matter how much you may suck when you actually get on the battlefield.
The narrative is structured in an unorthodox fashion where you get set objectives that you can complete while doing various other missions. Through these high priority missions, you get to see what horrific experiments and human rights violations the aliens are up to.
The story of the game is on the high side of adequate and on the low side of brilliant. It’s not exactly something that will change your life, but it is a truly entertaining and interesting tale. You feel invested in this resistance movement and being on the precipice of a huge scale global shift is certainly a tantalising proposition.
So many layers
That heading almost feels like an understatement. Since this game is at its core a tactical and strategy-centric game, expect to see a lot of possible systems in place. There are two main layers to the game namely the tactical layer and the combat layer. The tactical layer consists of the things you do outside of combat. In contrast to Enemy Unknown, your base is now mobile and you can fly around the planet and accomplish missions, alerts or just collect strategic resources. Behind this layer is even more layers you have to concern yourself with. There is research you have to do and the priority of this research can sometimes spell your victory or your doom. You can build more facilities to contact more regions, build experimental weaponry, manage your power and so on and so forth. A non-tactical mind might struggle with this initial blitzkrieg of options and avenues, but the game does a great job of explaining everything to you.
The combat layer is when your soldiers are in the field and you need to command their actions. You will need to be aware of cover, lines of sight, soldier positioning and all of that good stuff. Your units can fall within one of four classes, each with their own abilities and capabilities. The game also relies on RNG and probability, with changes to miss shots and the like. A new system unique to the game is Concealment, which allows your units to sneak around the battlefield and get into strategic positions or flank the enemy. You can also use Overwatch to shoot the aliens as soon as they scramble from their positions and hopefully kill them before they get the chance to retaliate.
The combat, for all its complexity, can basically be boiled down to leveraging your advantages and making smart decisions with your available resources. It also requires you to strategise on the fly and this makes the game endlessly enjoyable. You get placed in such unique positions that requires some creative thinking and luck to get out on the other side. When you achieve a pleasant outcome out of a seemingly impossible situation, the rush of euphoria is second to none. The aliens are menacing, dangerous and take no prisoners.
We in this now, boys
Something that struck me about XCOM 2 was just how personal it felt. You can customise your soldiers with their own names, attire and essentially create a personality for them. They’re just a bunch of soldiers on the battlefield, but you feel a deep connection to them and when one or all of them dies in a barrage of unavoidable attacks, you get heartbroken. Look at those magnificent bastards that I’ve made above. They were my team, the soldiers that went through so much crap together and survived to see the other side. I made a German sniper called Hans Gruber that actually speaks German, for goodness sake.
Customisation options are more often than not a waste of time or just a gentle sprinkling, but it was a major positive for me in this game. The journey felt personal and intimate rather than something disjointed.
Console woes and changes
And here is where everything falls apart. The console port of XCOM 2 isn’t very good. Like I said in the introduction of the review, the PC version already had trouble with performance, even if you have a monstrous PC. Playing on PS4, my experience was absolutely rife with performance problems. The first thing that I’ve noticed is how incredibly long the loading times are. It takes 2 minutes when you load a save or head into a mission sometimes. It’s certainly a good way to counter save scumming, but that’s just ridiculous.
The frame rate chugs like a Bulls fan at a Saturday braai. You will go through combat encounters with the notion of a stable 30 frames per second experience only existing in the abstract. When too much is going on on screen, which happens frequently, the game will run like it is on the edge of crashing. Environments and character positions might change out of nowhere and glitches can either be hilarious or catastrophic. The game has crashed a total of 5 times for me during my 25-hour playtime and I can count on one hand when the performance was smooth.
It’s playable, sure, but you will constantly be frustrated with the less than ideal performance and that takes away from the experience considerably. After a while you almost get used to it, but that doesn’t excuse it.
As for changes to the console version, it’s essentially just the control scheme. They optimised the control scheme to fit the controller really well and you will feel comfortable playing it within a short time. It doesn’t beat keyboard and mouse, obviously, but it can be considered an excellent alternative.
This is ground control, you really made the grade
XCOM 2 is simply exceptional. It has a solid narrative, the mechanics are at the peak of their capability and the game is incredibly addictive to play. You will always want to do one more mission and the emerging gameplay makes sure that everything is fresh and new. There’s a ton of content and you will probably do a second playthrough with all of the hard lessons you learned with your first. It’s exceptional value for money and you will probably love it to death.
However, the console version really lets the experience down. Sure, it’s a way for a ton of people to actually play it, but the performance is so shoddy and unoptimised that it takes a lot away from the otherwise masterful experience. I don’t know if I just had bad luck with my version or if my PS4 wants to go on strike, but I had so many problems that it couldn’t be ignored.
The game is still well worth playing, even with its technical difficulties, but it might be advised that you wait for a significant patch before buying the game.