There are some things you should know when you consider my review:
- I’m a “hardcore casual” gamer. I will spend dozens of hours exploring all the corners of a game, but only if it doesn’t abuse me with unrelenting punishment and frustration for meager rewards.
- I loved XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM: Enemy Within.
- I can perform basic modding, especially if all that I need to do is edit a text file. (That skill, and the relatively simple server configuration files, were the saving grace of ARK: Survival Evolved for me.)
- I have written a second piece with the technical details in it. Some of you will want this, but not everybody.
Here’s the high-level version of my personal experience with the game: I pre-ordered it on Steam, and began playing almost as soon as it unlocked. I began the game on Rookie mode (the easiest of the modes) and after the tutorial the game hung and I had to restart. I tried again, same tutorial mission, and AGAIN it hung. So I went out to YouTube and watched the cutscene that goes between the tutorial mission and actual gameplay.
This, as you might expect, is a pretty ugly blemish on my experience with the game. Right out of the gate I was frustrated, and angry, and bored. The tutorial plays exactly the same way every time.
I began a third game, this time with the tutorial disabled. The first real mission played fine, and I found that like XCOM:EU/EW, the game was pretty punishing if I made a dumb mistake, like trying to advance my sight-lines with the last move of the turn, popping aggro on a new pod of enemies who now get to move *twice* before I can recover.
I lost a soldier on the first mission, which, to be fair, is exactly what I expected.
I was not playing in Ironman mode. I could save-scum, and reload from a save just prior to a fatal mistake or a really bad random result. During my Rookie mode playthrough I think I did that five or six times, but only when something went spectacularly badly, like when the Codex AOE ability was revealed, or when my mouse hiccuped and threw one of my soldiers into a flanked crossfire rather than full cover.
I enjoyed the story, and stretched out my time before running the final missions (the one where Bradford says “there’s no turning back, Commander.”) The final battle was brutal, and delightful. I felt like it was a far better final fight than the one in XCOM EU:EW. The ending of the game was suitably triumphant. Meeting the win conditions gave me cutscenes that felt like an actual victory, even though the world is probably still a mess.
I thought I had the game out of my system, but no, I needed to play some more. So I cranked up the difficulty to “Commander” (the third of four difficulties) and re-played the last few missions that way. It was definitely tougher, but I handled it with no problems.
Then I tried starting a game on “Commander” difficulty. After about six hours of grueling, tedious play I had an absolutely disastrous mission in which my panicked soldiers began very effectively killing each other. Rather than save-scum, I rage-quit. This is the point at which I must either embrace buyer’s remorse, or look into cracking open the config files.
I know I’m capable of eventually beating a non-twitch strategy game, provided I put enough time into it. I also know that this is not how I want to spend my leisure time. I don’t have anything to prove. Come on! I get to make comics for a living. If gamers want to compare fancy-pants, that is what I have hanging in my closet. I don’t need a merit-badge sash covered with Cheevos.
(Chill, gamerfolk. I do respect your cheevos. I just don’t covet them.)
As it happens, the XCOM 2 config files are a modder’s dream. After a little reading I realized the extent of what was possible. I then decided that I wanted the following things:
- Legendary amounts of opponents, with legendary hit points and armor, all trying as hard as they could to kill me.
- Soldiers who could actually hit things once they flanked them.
- A couple more soldiers.
- Weapons that do just enough more damage that a solid, non-critical hit will actually kill a base-level enemy.
My next playthrough was on what I like to call “Legendary Super-Squad Ironman” difficulty: Legend, with Ironman enabled, and a wide range of upgrades to my soldiers and their gear. Their equipment was about 25% better, their offense scores were 20% to 30% better, and it took a little less XP for them to level up. They got more grenades (2 instead of 1) and could move an additional square. Oh, and I began with six soldiers instead of four.
My tweaks are documented at https://howardtayler.com/2016/03/xcom-2-the-legendary-super-squad-mods/ along with instructions that should make it easier for others to follow along.
I know the hardcore XCOMmers are eyerolling at this. “That might as well be EASY mode.” Sure, whatever. I undercut the game’s ability to destroy me with simple misfortune. The game remained very unforgiving of poor tactics or lazy play. What this meant is that I was consistently rewarded for paying attention, and for playing well.
This playthrough was thrilling. I did not live in anxious terror with every turn. I did get a little sloppy here and there, and on several occasions I got myself into some amazingly awful binds. I lost soldiers that way, but I felt like I had earned the loss. I also had some fantastic superhero moments when a top-level ability like Reaper or Serial turned what could have been a TPK into some wounded soldiers flying home owing the Ranger a round of drinks for life.
If you’re saying “but that’s not XCOM,” feel free to shout at the screen. I spent $75 on something called “XCOM 2”, and I take enormous pleasure in having enjoyed every penny.
(To further upset the hardcore crowd, XCOM 2 doesn’t disable achievements when it is modded. I now have a merit badge sash full of Cheevos, some of which I cheated very carefully for. I still respect your Cheevos, though. Even if I can’t be sure how you got them.)
The first round of DLC is coming out this week. It’s cosmetic stuff—more costumes, more face-paints—that won’t affect game play much, but I did enjoy several hours customizing my soldiers with just the original stuff, so, yeah, I’m in.
What I really want, however, is some new story bits. My dream DLC is a campaign built upon post-win missions in which my top soldiers are teamed up with rookie and squaddie resistance fighters, selected at random, and must mop up chrysalid infestations while saving civilians, and maybe finding pockets of Something Else toward the end.
Whatever it is, though, I’m up for it. I pre-bought the DLC, and plan to squeeze as much joy from it as I can. If that means hacking the config files some more, hey, maybe there will be proper instructions online by then. If not, oh well. I paid for a sandbox, and I do know how to use this shovel.