The launch of XCOM 2 has been a model advertisement for console gaming. Developers Firaxis decided to make this game desktop-only, available only via Steam, in contrast to the last XCOM which came out on 360 and PS3 as well. The reason was supposedly so that development would be more straightforward and so Firaxis could focus on making the best possible experience for gamers (don’t laugh).
Having spent a few hours with XCOM 2 last night, I’m seriously unimpressed with Firaxis, publishers 2K, and Valve/Steam. Purchasers have reported widespread performance issues with the game, which do not affect every machine–but they certainly affect mine. Although the game’s cutscenes look good, the rendered graphics suffer from atrocious framerate issues, with massive jumping and stuttering. This is especially apparent during action scenes, but it even happens during dialogue and exposition, and it really spoils any sense of immersion. The mission environments also sport some really ugly textures. During the first tutorial mission I was, frankly, disgusted by the graphics, where the environmental textures and generic enemy armour skins brought to mind an N64 game or some cheap and nasty free-to-play game. Not at all what you expect from a brand-new, £35, supposedly AAA game. The game also sports the worst loading times I’ve encountered since playing an unpatched copy of Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines.
You might think it’s unfair to dwell on this too much, as the problems have been acknowledged and Firaxis say they are ‘working furiously’ to fix things. But it beggars belief that a game can get to launch with such rampant and ruinous issues–when it has been developed specifically for PC–without anyone at Firaxis or 2K putting a stop to it. The fact that the game is PC-only makes it even worse. At least if it was on consoles some gamers could choose to play it on another device. As it stands, it’s more or less pot luck whether the game will run properly on your machine. My own PC is not exactly super top-end, but it can run AC: Black Flag, Bioshock Infinite, Hitman Absolution and RE6 on top settings without problems, so it should be more than adequate to run this game smoothly. (It doesn’t make any difference if I set the graphical settings to the lowest possible, the performance issues remain–although they are worse if I set the settings to ‘High’.)
Another disappointment has been the fact the game supposedly was developed with native support for the Steam Controller in mind. I foolishly pre-ordered a Steam Controller about a year ago, and since it arrived I have found it to be completely unusable; it feels more like a novelty tech demo than something anyone would actually expect to play a game with. So I was excited to try it with a game sort-of designed for it. I was amused therefore to find that the game informed me that controllers were not supported (lol), but I could try it anyway. After trying to start the game in Big Picture mode and waiting for 5 or 10 minutes for the game to initialize, I gave up. I had to close down the game and Big Picture mode in task manager and boot the game normally (using my mouse) to get it to load, which it then did immediately. Seriously, Big Picture mode and the Steam Controller just feel to me like monuments to Valve’s endless narcissism.
So… what about XCOM 2’s actual gameplay? Well, beneath all the technical issues this is still XCOM, and it’s good fun. I found the set-up for the game’s story kind of annoying, as it basically says “Remember kicking the aliens asses in the last game? Humanity lost anyway–LOL!” So the scene is set to go through more or less the same process as in the first game. Back in 2013, I thought aspects of the first game’s story strongly brought to mind Mass Effect, and that resemblance is even more pronounced here. But nobody plays XCOM for the story. Tactical combat remains fun, and although the tutorial is quite easy–I got ‘Flawless’ ranks on my first couple of missions despite making a few mistakes–it still feels tense and dramatic.
One change I liked is that the scenery is more destructible than before, which can make it easier for you to turn the tide of battle in your favour, by blowing up enemy cover. I expect it can be used against you later on, too. You’re also able to set up Overwatch ambushes, which is a really cool system that has the potential to set up some awesome emergent gameplay moments. Well, if your framerate doesn’t ruin things, that is. The soldier class archetypes are still there, but there is a twist to each of them which makes them feel fresh and edgy. I also liked how the look of the soldiers is more badass than before, with your squaddies sporting a plethora of cool hairdos, shades, and baseball caps.
So, there is probably a really good XCOM game in here somewhere, and I look forward to playing it. But it’s risible that the game was made available for sale in this condition, inspiring cynicism about everyone involved.