There was a time when the revival of the science fiction franchise XCOM by Firaxis Games was seen as simply a small-scale, back-up title to the main event. But long before the squad-based shooter disappointed many, the traditional, turn-based strategy XCOM: Enemy Unknown had been launched to near universal acclaim, not only doing the brand justice, but reinvigorating the genre as a whole. The expansion Enemy Within doubled down on the fiction and gameplay - but it was XCOM 2 that had the anticipation in its favor.
PC players have been enjoying the game since February, but the developers have finally released a console version to Xbox One and PS4. It's a longer delay than many gamers are used, so does the ported version seem worth the wait? And after Enemy Unknown's own release on consoles, have the interfaces and controls been improved (along with the performance) on the Xbox One and PS4's hardware? The answer is 'yes' across the board - minus a few technical issues.
For those who have been waiting until XCOM 2 hit consoles to see how it follows on the story of the first game, the twist from Firaxis is the kind of bold and ambitious that would seem alien to other studios (pardon the pun). After spending an entire campaign - or two - battling an alien infestation with the backing of world governments and cutting-edge technology, Firaxis took the fate of the world out of the players' hands: Humanity had lost. The Aliens won. Twenty years have passed. And XCOM has been scattered to the wind.
At least, that's what they want you to think.
The truth is, XCOM still exists, though it's become a shadow of its former self after world leaders and bases either surrendered or were destroyed. Reduced to a covert guerilla military operating in cells around the globe, this new "Resistance" has more than the standard aliens of the original game to contend with. Those monsters are back and scarier than ever, along with entirely new creatures - but it's the humans who serve the aliens - known as the ADVENT - that pose the most insidious threat. The odds seem insurmountable, and fight failing until resistance intelligence locates, then extracts their secret weapon: the Commander.
As the rescued and restored Commander, the player takes on a challenge and campaign that is, in many ways, an inverted form of the original. Now operating as the resilient infection the aliens posed previously, the gameplay, mood, desperation, and constant threat of failure and death have been completely twisted. The main difference is the element of surprise: allowing players to operate unseen prior to attacks, scouting enemy forces, planning and executing ambushes, fundamentally changing the complexion of the standard mission.
While Enemy Unknown's basic gameplay loop saw players taking uneasy steps into hostile territory, unsure of ambushes, it's the player who now stalks their alien prey. Squad members can be led, one by one, up to the very fringe of monitored areas. From there, it's possible to identify secondary targets or assets (now a core layer of the mission objectives), and surround enemy troops and traitors before they know what's about to hit them. And when it hits them... it's glorious.
Make no mistake: you will lose fighters in this game, and the developers make sure you're aware of it from the very start. And knowing now that each fighter is one of a dying breed, every death - every death - carries an extra sting of defeat and desperation (not to mention the always-looming threat of ADVENT launching a surprise attack on your base - potentially ending the campaign in one fell swoop). But as players learn to use surprise, squad tactics, and smart, not hesitant aggression, the reasons for Firaxis' changes make perfect sense.
The core thrill of seeing a squad erupt from 'Overwatch' to let barrages loose on an unsuspecting enemy is augmented by the new tweaks to Squaddie classes. The standards remain (Sniper, Grenadier, Specialist), but the 'Assault' class has been replaced with the fearless and furious Rangers. And before player assume the name means these fighters are ranged characters, realize that sprinting across a battlefield to unleash a sword attack point-blank has a distinct melee feel. The turn-based gameplay remains the same (although clearly increased in difficulty), leaving the fiction to inform the meaning of the mechanics - scrounging alien technology, attacking research centers and extracting assets - and in turn, letting the desperation of the campaign amplify the story ramifications.
It's the kind of tense, story-driven stakes that have kept couch-based players on the edge of their seats, and thankfully, the controls have been adapted to a gamepad with as streamlined and intutitive a control scheme as could be hoped for. The controls will be second nature by the second mission or so, maintaining the tactical-over-twitch sensations. The only real cost of conversion to consoles is nagging framerate drops and flickering during cutscenes, specifically. They're noticable, and a shame; but if the game adapts the feel of playing the game, it's a worthy trade-off (especially with the troubled history of trying to make complex strategy games "work" away from a mouse and keyboard).
In the end, the version of XCOM 2 available on either the Xbox One or PS4 is still, unavoidably, the second best crafted by the development team. The good news is that players who prefer their couch to their desktop won't be missing out on the quality of the experience, even if the level of polish takes a hit. And with every aspect of XCOM 2 contributing to the kinds of investment, tension, and stakes usually relying on players hunched over keyboards, glued to their monitors... well, being a couch potato may have never been a more stressful experience.
In the best way possible - humanity isn't going to survive all by itself, Commander.
XCOM 2 is available now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.