XCOM has been one of those games that, whilst not quite enough of a secret to be a sleeper hit, has been one of the quiet success stories of modern gaming. That’s not only just looking at the critical success but also how far it’s gone since its return. A game that has been playable on two generations of console, Mac OS’s and even made the leap to mobile without losing any of the game’s original PC strategy allure.
XCOM 2 launched on PC and Mac in 2015 and, frankly, there were issues. The game’s changes worked really well, the conceit in the story was a great follow up, and it had everything that had made the first two games (Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within) so good. What it didn’t do was run that well. It wasn’t plagued with bugs as the overdramatic will tell you but it was prone to graphical issues, frame slow downs and such that pointed to a difficult optimisation process. A console port at that time wasn’t even considered. But now we are here and I’ve enjoyed this experience a lot more than I thought I would, possibly more than I did on a PC.
That sounds like a bit of a loaded statement so let me clarify that with the things that have struck me in this port: Accessibility, UI design and controllability.
It’s one of the inescapable positives of console gaming (patches and recent game installs aside) that you are put into the game experience very quickly. As a turn based strategy game, you will be spending a lot of time in XCOM 2 exploring your options. Along with the strategising and tinkering comes the hesitation of commitment and guilt of responsibility. All of this takes time. Time that you don’t want to be using fiddling around with menus, sub menus, glossaries, controls, or prompts.
Whilst the game does make a bit of an assumption that you have played an XCOM title before, or are enough of a genre fan that you don’t need endless tutorials or coddling, it gets you in to its mechanics and systems like base building very quickly. Obviously if this is your first time then it can be quite overwhelming but like the character (for lack of a better term) you play in the Commander, you’re expected to hit the ground running. As you do carry on playing, this overload of information does surprisingly stick and you get in to the swing of the games processes.
Part of this is because the control mapping is sensible and actually very limited. Pretty much every strategy game has a system of sub menus where you decide on the things that you do. Selecting your doctor, scientist or barracks takes you to a menu of choices where you say yes to something, cancel something or back out to the previous menu, which in this case is the overview of your base. You don’t need six or seven controls for this and XCOM 2 realises this. It’s simple, easy to navigate mapping of the controller is intuitive. The menus and information go as deep as you want them to. You could play a whole game not knowing anything about Advent units and still get exactly what the game is about, with it rewarding you if you choose to delve.
It’s this UI design that works so well on consoles and because of how well it has been optimised by Blind Squirrel Studios, it is on par if not superior to PC in many regards. The conversion isn’t without its issues though. As admirable as the effort has been to make game work, some performance problems are unavoidable.
Loading times for missions can be long. They aren’t the longest but you do begin to notice how long you’ve been waiting at times. There are definite frame rate issues, especially apparent in these loading/cutscene points. Screen tear occurs as does some freezing.
There are occasional times where the controls in combat seem to escape you. For example, the mapping of the bumper and trigger keys are great and easily indicated but it takes a bit of used to when remembering that these are menus as well. You can spend a good few minutes changing the selection to overwatch instead of which alien you hope will meet a brutal end. The D-pad is instead used to spin the map. It’s easy to get used to but you will forget at vital, tense moments as your hands gravitate to what feels more natural.
You are going to have small patches where things might glitch a bit with the destructible scenery, or clip or anything that looks a bit odd. Thankfully, in my playthroughs, I’ve had very little of the graphical glitches I read from others but it is a port of a game that had bugs to begin with, no matter how good a job has been done here. The game will always be fun but the levels at times do feel rather stock. Of course the enjoyment comes not from that but the investment you have in the little virtual rebels tackling these courses and the frustrating percentage based number generation that assigns your hits for maximum gaming vitriol. This is the kind of game you play online against a pre arranged opponent. A friend or some other life form. Whilst you can do more computer based matches, going up against a human is best but sadly hard to come by. But be assured there are fans out there and if you look, you will find them.
As you can probably tell, I’m reaching a bit here to find criticisms of which there are little. XCOM has always been a pedigree strategy title and one of the rare ones that survived the move to console, let alone excel on it. The game moves – it ebbs and flows with your morale as much as the generation of levels, rallying of rebels and liberation of locals. Its skint resources become bountiful and scarce by your demands and its soldiers, and the mark their stories leave, live and die by your hand as closely as they ever have. And just when you’ve mastered its intricacies, enjoyed its nostalgia and conquered its delicate balance, it reminds you how bastard hard it is. You’ll love it, Commander.
Version tested – Xbox One