XCOM2 has its Moments of Fun

Posted on May 14, 2023 by Richard Goulter

XCOM and Civilization: They’re Okay

I recently picked up the XCOM 2 Collection for the Nintendo Switch. I was lucky to catch it on sale at a discount of 85%.

I just completed a playthrough of the base game. The collection also includes the expansion “War of the Chosen”, but I didn’t want to dive into too much content at once.

The Nintendo Switch isn’t quite powerful enough to run the game. (Frequently, with common interactions, the game slows down to a crawl). But, it gets the job done.

XCOM 2 was released in 2016, and is a sequel to XCOM: Enemy Unknown which was released in 2012.

I kinda put XCOM and Civilization in the same bucket: They’re from the same publisher. Some people really like them. They’re turn-based games, which involve strategic game over a long game. (Albeit, XCOM’s meat is with turn-based tactics, and Civilization’s turn-based gameplay is strategic).
They both also kinda have a flavour of unfairness to them. (Civilization was controversial for having cases where a spearman can defeat a tank). They both also take such a long time to play (& tend to have long feedback loops), that I find it hard to really get a deep intuitive understanding of the strategic considerations.

What New in XCOM 2

Recall, the XCOM gameplay involves two phases/modes: a base-building phase where you build specialised buildings & research improvements; and a mission-phase where your soldiers skirmish with alien forces in turn-based tactics gameplay. (The broad game loop, then, is base-building improves your skirmishing capabilities; and your skirmishing earns you resources with which to build up your base).

At its core, the skirmishing is turn-based tactics in a square grid-based map, where you control a few soldiers who can take cover behind walls (cover is either ‘full’ or ‘half’); each turn involves moving all your units, a unit may move a limited distance, or use its turn to shoot its gun. – Whether your unit successfully hits the target it’s trying to shoot is probabilistic: you’re shown that a unit has a X% chance to hit. (ranging from e.g. 95% for if the target really close, to 10% if the it is really far away).
One significant mechanic is the ‘overwatch’ ability: instead of shooting their gun, a unit might be put into ‘overwatch’, where they will then shoot at the first target that moves within their range.
Units have different classes, and different abilities they might use their action points on. (e.g. sniper, medic, wizard).

XCOM 2 of course added some stuff.

I think the base-building strategic part is somewhat more dynamic in XCOM 2 than it was in the first game. Your base is like a flying castle/carrier, and it needs to be re-located in order to complete tasks. – In the first game, you started with all the countries in the council and had to minimize losses; whereas in this game, you start with no territories and have to build up your domination. I prefer this constructive approach.

In terms of the missions:

One mechanic they added was a ‘stealth’ mechanic at the start of the level.
On most missions, the level starts out where your units are ‘concealed’ (enemies aren’t in an alert state). This leads to a nice dynamic where you can essentially set up an ambush against an enemy squad, by sneaking your units up close to the enemy, and then shooting the enemy all at once.

Many of the missions now have a turn limit.
This was added to discourage turtling. But, it’s a bit obnoxious, and sometimes doesn’t make sense.
One type of mission where it makes sense is strike missions against a landed UFO: it makes sense that the crew of a landed UFO may not be alerted to an enemy’s presence (and indeed, in this half of the mission, there isn’t a turn limit); and it makes sense that, once alerted, the UFO might try to take off within X turns (or send an alert out within X turns).
But, for other missions, the turn limit doesn’t seem to make as much sense in tandem with the stealth mechanic. (“Enemies start unalerted; but there’s a time limit” is itself a neat strategical consideration, though; since the more time you take to leverage an advantage from stealth means more effort is required to beat the goal in the turn limit).

I don’t recall it being possible in the previous XCOM game, but in XCOM 2 many of the enemy units are robots, and these can be ‘hacked’ so you can control the robot for a few turns.

XCOM is Not Entirely to My Taste

To be honest, I think the intended XCOM playing experience is not to my taste.

I don’t like the RNG fuckery.

Largely the probabilistic combat mechanics.. this means that, even if you make reasonable decisions in order to stop the enemy, your actions may still be ineffective. (It doesn’t matter what decisions you make if all of your shots miss). To a lesser extent, it’s also possible that enemies can show up at an inconvenient time (e.g. spotting one enemy in a squad then aggros the whole enemy squad), and so you learn to ‘game’ the mechanics to avoid this (with XCOM rules, you never want to have your final unit move further than your other units).
– Whenever I felt XCOM was being ‘unfair’, as a casual player I just reloaded an earlier save & avoided making the same mistake. This isn’t a “fun” way to play, but it’s less not-fun than playing an ‘unfair’ game.

XCOM seems to be about “eh, make what you can with what you’re given”.
The first tutorial mission does a good job of setting this up, where it gives you only a handful of soldiers, kills one of them and badly wounds the other.

I know there are some players who can play the game on the hardest difficulty without reloading a save, sure. – But I reckon such people know the rules of the game much more intimately than someone who’s just doing a blind playthrough and doesn’t know the boundaries.

What’s Fun

I did complete one playthrough. Partly for the sake of completing it.

As much as I generally dislike the game, there were some parts which were quite fun:

I did like the new stealth mechanic.
It’s a lot of fun to set up an ambush and completely wipe out an enemy.
It is possible to screw up, so the stealth mechanic is not a freebie.
– I felt it was a lot of fun to get all of my units into overwatch mode, and to then break stealth by using a grenade (or some other attack which damaged multiple units). The whole squad firing their weapons at once reminds me of the overkill scene in Generation Kill
– Maybe it would be overpowered, but I wonder if having a “synchronised shot” system would also work nicely with this mechanic.

I liked using the sharpshooter (sniper), especially once I was able to upgrade all the unit’s abilities.
Initially, the sharpshooter’s rifle’s magazine has only 3 rounds. Shooting consumes the sharpshooter’s whole turn, so at least 1 turn out of 4 has to be used to reload.
It’s possible to upgrade the sharpshooter’s rifle with an upgrade that gives the magazine an extra 3 rounds (to a total of 6).
This synergises with:
For one, there’s an ability “kill zone”, which has the unit shoot at anything which moves within an area.
For another, there’s an ability where the sharpshooter can keep making shots, so long as each shot they take kills an enemy.
Both of these really encourage effective tactical use of the sharpshooter. The “kill zone” is very powerful to use when setting up the ambush at the start of the level (since enemies will move to cover once the stealth breaks, and thus would trigger the kill zone’s reaction shot).
The “keep shooting so long as you kill units” is also a very powerful way of dealing with situations where you face a large number of enemies at once; you can get your other squadmates to destroy the cover the enemies are hiding behind (to ensure a better hit), to shred some of the enemy’s armour (so that the marksman is more likely to kill the enemy), or to bring a powerful enemy’s health down just enough.

There are times when enemy reinforcements will be fast-roped in from an enemy dropship; the location they show up is marked 1 turn before they insert. – This gives you the opportunity to ambush these units; I found that pretty fun too.

It’s Enthralling, but Undermined by not being Fun

I remember from Zero Punctuation’s review of the previous XCOM game, ZP asks rhetorically “Is it fun? Let me play one more level to check… hours later, I noticed it was 2am. Let’s pencil that in as a ‘yes’”.

And I agree that the game is enthralling.

But, I think it’s enthralling in not such a nice way.

The main driving motivation is “if I just get X, then later Y will not be so bad”. (“once I get the laser guns, then combat will be easier”, “once I get more resources, then my base will be more powerful”, etc.).

Factorio (which I really enjoy playing) also has prominently has “your actions make things easier later” as a driving motivation.
(Whereas, say, shooter games, or RPGs don’t necessarily).
For Factorio, building more stuff means that later I’ll be able to build even more stuff. – e.g. In Factorio’s early game, you might notice that you’re not mining enough copper; so you’ll build more copper miners to speed things up. In the late game, you’ll build bots which then allow you to focus on building your base at a higher level.

But for XCOM?
For XCOM, the draw of continuing to play feels like “just one more thing, and them I’m safe”.

It would be an exaggeration to say that XCOM’s gameplay is all about rolling a dice.
But, I don’t think it’s the same level of exaggeration to say that XCOM wants you to consider what happens when it rolls the dice low, and your shots miss, or you fail to hack the robot, etc.
– Once you have powerful guns, it’s less of a worry if one soldier misses, since another soldier is likely to hit. Once you have the powerful armour, you don’t have to worry about being OHKO’d by random enemies.

So, while obviously a game is ‘not fun’ if it’s trivially easy,
a game is also not fun if it’s unfair.
– I’d say ‘fun’ is about whether I can make decisions where I can feel responsible for things not going well. And XCOM’s RNG fuckery undermines that, even if the worst stuff is a long tail.

With XCOM, in order for me to feel that something is my fault, I have to have fucked up pretty badly.

I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished much by winning, I feel relieved I didn’t roll low RNG.

And XCOM2 Has Too Many Not-Fun Moments

Okay, so I keep banging on about how XCOM has RNG fuckery.

I’m sure I haven’t experienced the worst, but here were some moments in my playthrough which were pretty annoying:

I saw XCOM described as “hope your units avoid critical hits at the start, and by the end your units are glass cannons”.
This seems quite accurate.

I somewhat didn’t like the turn-limit.
Well, since I was fine with save-scumming, it’s not such an issue.
But, I feel the design goals of “you’d better go fast” really conflict with the design goals of “you have to be able to mitigate for when RNG doesn’t go your way”.

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