Are We the Bad Guys? Can't Discuss; Shooting - XCOM2
On the occasions where I do manage to take off my fedora long enough to actually admit that mainstream titles still hold interest for me, I usually find myself going back to the same group of select studios, chief among them Firaxis. Firaxis has long held my loyalty for creating the inimitable greatness of the Civilization series, but if that hadn't been enough, they earned my love forever when they finally brought justice to XCOM. I've already gone on at length about XCOM in two different posts, and suffice it to say that as a fan of the original Micropose game, having lived through disappointing sequel after disappointing sequel, I was not only relieved, but absolutely thrilled with Firaxis' effort. So it was with a mix of trepidation and enthusiasm that I watched the approaching release date of XCOM 2, like a hawk with indigestion.
Well, having finally picked the game up at Steam's Summer Sale (because, let's face it, $79.99 for a base game with DLC on top of that is p-r-e-t-t-y stiff), I can now say that the hawk no longer has indigestion, he is soaring. XCOM 2 improves upon its predecessor in almost every way imaginable, and - despite my gripe not one sentence ago about price tags and DLC - feels much more like a complete game straight out of the box than XCOM did. The only real problem I had with Firaxis' first instalment was the impression that the game was, frankly, unfinished without the inclusion of Enemy Within. With XCOM 2, I never felt that for a moment. Most of the DLC for XCOM 2 is actually add-on material meant to customize your soldiers, rather than a significant alteration of gameplay. There are still some new units and items that offer more flexibility, but here it feels like an extra, rather than something missed out on. Some gamers might feel like that's a disappointment, but for me I approve of games that offer fully fleshed-out experiences rather than waiting for expansion packs to do the job.
XCOM 2 picks up with the idea that the player character blew it in the first game, and the aliens kicked the crap out of humanity. Rather than proceed outright with Exterminatus, however, the alien overseers have instead established a global puppet government with authoritarian dominance. Their organization, known as ADVENT, maintains a strong military presence in the form of almost-human soldiers and officers. ADVENT is welcomed by a majority of the world, offering advanced medical science in the form of numerous "gene therapy" clinics. At these magical facilities, people can supposedly have all of their flaws taken away, thanks to the introduction of alien DNA. Of course, not everybody is buying it. A Resistance, led by Colonel "Central" Bradford from the first game, conducts guerilla missions against the oppressive ADVENT Coalition, and one of their first tasks is to free you. WELCOME BACK, COMMANDER.
From there, gameplay is fairly similar and yet distinctly fresh. You command a small squad of soldiers in a turn-based tactical game, and in between missions you are responsible for managing resources and making command decisions. The big difference here is in the nature of said individual missions and command decisions. You're on the run here, even more than when you were operating from the shadows as the XCOM Initiative. Rather than operate from a fixed position, you're on the move at all times, based in a gigantic alien helicarrier. The missions you take on are now...well, in another situation, you'd call them "terrorism." Sure, there's some noble actions you take, like defending resistance camps from alien attack, but you also kidnap people, bomb installations, and hijack supplies.
All of which is great for variety and for gameplay, but it does raise some troubling ethical questions, which I wish the game took some time to dive into. One thing the DLC "Alien Hunters" does particularly well is atmosphere and ethical quandaries, as you uncover a genetics project secretly run by Dr. Vahlen, the sketchy scientist from the first game. The mission where you investigate the ruins of her secret laboratory is one of the best in the game, and has some genuinely creepy beats that heighten the tension. The whole thing is narrated in the background by audio logs that Vahlen left behind, which are really effective at setting up the eerie themes of science put to nefarious purpose. It's just a shame that the rest of the game doesn't quite delve into ethics as well.
There's no real doubt here, no questioning of methods, no character development. And it's a shame too, because I feel like the opportunity is here, with fresh new faces on the Rebellion team and some hints at some really interesting backstories. Dr. Tygan, for instance, is a former ADVENT scientist who surgically removed his own neural implant to fight for the resistance. An extreme action like that is ripe for storytelling, but it's only lightly touched on. In fact, if I'm being completely honest, the whole game seems like a bit of a right-wing wet dream: all the fears about the alien "other" are justified. The vague foreign enemy is evil, and he's coming to corrupt humanity, and whatever tactics we take to stop them are 100% justified. We'll wag our fingers in admonishment at the aliens manipulating genes, but we'll happily inject our soldiers with combat stimulants and slap them in Psionic chambers to mess with their brains. And if the odd autopsy makes you squeamish, well you're probably just a communist.
Honestly, I'm probably overthinking it. At the end of the day, XCOM2 is hugely fun, a big improvement over it's already quite good predecessor, and features endless addictive gameplay that we've all come to expect from Firaxis. We're not here to debate philosophy, we're here to uncover dark deeds and blast aliens in the face. XCOM2 is a fantastic retread, covering familiar ground while expanding into new territories. It will go down in my book as a game to revisit time and again, but with some fine tuning into the horror of your own activities, the propaganda and cruel conspiracies of the aliens, and the mushy lines in between, it could've been a timeless classic.
Maybe XCOM3 will get there...
...I've got a release date to stalk.