October 6, 2022

I have very conflicted feelings about XCOM 2… and humanity.

XCOM 2 isn’t a great game… but at the same time I couldn’t stop playing it until I hit the final mission and had completed it.

I have very conflicted feelings about XCOM 2… and humanity.

XCOM 2 isn’t a great game… but at the same time I couldn’t stop playing it until I hit the final mission and had completed it. It hooked me with “One more turn” syndrome as hard as a game can, even as the games numerous problems kept starring me in the face. I would be thinking about how this would be a good place to stop and I could get back to it later, even as I had already pressed the button to spin up the clock again to build to the next mission. And it wasn’t even like I was having that much fun, but I was addicted to the game. I kept playing it not so much for fun but to fill a need.

I can only imagine how bad it could have been if XCOM 2 had actually been a good game.

I stormed forward even as the game itself fell apart around me. It always seemed like the longer a session went, the worse the problems became, as if the game were mirroring my crumbling reality as I passed the point where I should have stopped and gone to bed. Graphical glitches were the most common, especially on maps where there were civilians for the enemy to kill. One time the character I had named after myself broke entirely, at first unable to move after the roof he was standing on had broken around him. But once I got him off he was broken for the rest of mission, with no animations for any of his actions; he would just teleport around the map. The game would also just start to slow down more generally, taking more time to think about its actions, as if it too were sleepy. 

The weirdest was a frame rate drop on an overwatch trigger, as one soldier fired a reaction shot at the enemy. But then, without the camera angle changing, the frame rate returned to normal as the camera slid over to another soldier also triggering overwatch. 

This all sounds super annoying and broken to shit, but in the moment I barely cared because none of the glitches I experienced really interrupted the gameplay loop I was so hooked on. Sure it got in the way of the experience as a whole, but not the turn-based tactics that had me hooked. The fact that it was kind of a buggy piece of garbage was honestly incidental to my experience. 

This is part of a larger thing with me and games, but when I’m playing a game most of the time I don’t really “see” the graphics; what I see are the mechanics and how I can interact with things. When I play Life is Strange and enter a new room I don’t really see it as a person in a room with objects, I just have this thing that needs to rub its face on all the things so that I can see the content. Environmental detail that’s purely aesthetic will completely fade into the background for me if I just play naturally. It makes watching a game a very different experience for me, allowing me to appreciate a lot of aspects of games I wouldn’t otherwise. For example: frame rate was a thing that I didn’t think mattered to me, until I started watching other people play games and I realized that it was directly tied to something I had only experienced previously as a vague feeling that a game was languid and shitty. 

Aesthetics do matter to me, but when I’m deep in a game I tune out most of that stuff. A skybox is never going to matter to me while I’m playing a game. Something that still throws me off when I see people do it is when they intentionally walk slowly to soak in atmosphere or… something, I dunno; that’s completely foreign to me, I always want to go as fast as I can. I can stop if I need to, but if I want to get to a thing I want to get to the thing. 

My bigger point is that people play video games in different ways, at a difference pace, and that’s mine. And for me the bugs I experienced in XCOM 2 didn’t interrupt the pace at which I played the game, even as they slowed it down. It was all about clicking that next button and making that small incremental step towards the ending; even if that button was the play button in Steam because the game had crashed.

That’s insane. I’m a crazy person. I understand. 

The rhythm of XCOM 2, just completely matches what I want (or need) from games, in a way that I assume Fallout 4 worked for many people last year. Sometimes a game is just your thing, on a visceral level, even if it’s a broken, uninspired piece of garbage. 

That’s not something you can adequately explain with logic, because any reason that you put to your affection comes after the fact. You’re working backwards from the parts that appeal to your intellect to justify, or explain why you liked it.

Because if I look at it logically, if I try to form the argument, XCOM 2 is not a good game; or at least it’s very flawed in many ways that frustrate me. And that’s extra frustrating because it’s bad in many of the same ways that XCOM: Enemy Unknown was.

The fog of war system just sucks. Not just because whenever you reveal the elbow of an enemy, all the enemies in the node get alerted and take a free action. But also because of the node system itself, where enemies are almost always grouped in threes, in only a couple variations. This structure wears incredibly thin over the course of the game, and makes encounters very samey overall. The stealth system introduced in XCOM 2 is only a bandage on the problem, alleviating it for only the first encounter, which again only serves to make the problem more apparent. 

Compounding that problem are the new mechanics that put a timer on missions, where you need to rush forward and initiate combat immediately. I assume that it’s all done because Firaxis was afraid of the game being too easy, and specifically wanted to push players out of the comfort of relying on overwatch. I’m all for pushing players to try new strategies in a sequel, but this was a bad solution to that problem. It creates a situation  where the player has no choice. You HAVE to push forward, because there’s always going to be another enemy node waiting for you. The time is balanced for when you know what your doing and pushing forward every turn. Players are simply forced to play aggressively.

Right there, you’ve lost a section of your player base; anyone who wants to play XCOM at a methodical pace and really set up their moves is just going to have a bad time. Not just any portion either, that’s exactly how a large number of people played the last game. It’s one thing to make your game for a specific audience, it’s another to straight up turn the car around and tell some of your players they’ve been playing your game wrong. It ultimately wasn’t a big deal for me, but it’s exactly the kind of short sighted decision that could drive someone up the wall. If the time limit were for additional, optional bonuses, there could be some risk reward there, but failing out the mission and losing your entire team because you timed out things for one less node of enemies is not a situation that allows for much choice. 

I also think the difficulty curve in XCOM 2 is bad. Not quite as bad as in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, where the endgame just became a joke, but still bad. Not because it’s not hard, but because its difficulty all comes in spikes that just punish first time players. It’s uneven, based on what enemies you’ve encountered so far and what upgrades you got. 

I ended up save scumming at a ridiculous difficulty spike that happened because I inadvertently triggered an endgame enemy WAY before I was ready for it, and I did it on a mission that also introduced another incredibly strong enemy I had not seen before. Many of my struggles also occurred just because I didn’t quite understand the upgrade tree and what I should have been prioritizing. I specifically did not understand the way the special research done in the Proving Grounds worked until late in my play through. 

The game both doesn’t explain its systems well, putting different upgrades under different menus and not making clear what’s a single item and what’s for all your units; while also punishing you if you’re not on top of shit. Facing a new strong enemy and being behind on upgrades is a combo that will tear you up. BUT once I had the upgrades and was prepared for the enemies I had to face then the game wasn’t hard at all. I didn’t even lose anyone on the endurance test of a final level. 

That final level itself is another issue in that that it simply stacks up all the enemies you’ve already faced in a series of rooms increasing in difficulty. It’s the most basic structure, and is both disappointing for what it could have been and on par with what I expected having played that far. 

All in all the game feels like a mess. It’s a messterpiece. Cookie cutter elements procedurally pasted all over the place with little thought to structure. Procedurally generated content has its advantages, but I really saw the stitches along the edges here. That the final mission lacked so much imagination is just the icing on the cake. There was so much potential there with it being one of the few real pieces of content built by human hands that they knew players couldn’t avoid on their road to the finish line. But it’s built like every other mission in the game, just throwing enemy after enemy at you with no real thought towards design or structure.

It’s not an accident or necessarily a mistake with how the game was built. It was an intentional design choice targeted toward creating a game that people can play over and over again till the end of days. The success of XCOM: Enemy Unknown had a lot to do with it’s long tail, a phenomena that only exists for publishers on Steam, with Steam sales; as opposed to the long tail of games in the wild, which are moved around as used copies, with none of the money going back to the source. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – there are plenty of procedural games that work – I just think the execution here is poor. It’s not random enough for encounters to continue feeling fresh, and not intricate enough to have texture; it’s just mush.

I was just stuffing my face full of soft porridge.

XCOM 2 plays out at a pace that made it a “page-turner” for me, but its structure – specifically its lack of a good difficulty curve – left me unsatisfied with the meat of the experience. This is an issue much deeper than the myriad technical issues of the game. Those make XCOM 2 a bad product, but it’s the problems with structure that keep me from saying it was a good game; even though it had me completely wrapped for hours. 

I’m not sure the right way to describe how I feel about XCOM 2. “Guilty pleasure” is probably it, but I’m hung up on the “pleasure” part. This isn’t something I know is stupid that I have fun with, it’s more of something that satisfies some animal desire within me, but leaves me cognitively unsatisfied. This isn’t what I want from games, it doesn’t get me excited, but I also can’t dismiss how deeply hooked it had me. That appeal to your lizard brain can be much more powerful than any affection you have that involves any kind of rationality. 

I think its worth recognizing that distinction, because rationality is something we can all share in, but our individual animal hungers cannot quite be communicated through the logic of language. You can’t share that, because there’s nothing there to learn; it’s just a crapshoot if anyone else shares your same dark desires. It’s fine to have them, I just wish people would recognize that within themselves and help draw that line for others better. 

We’re all just animals pretending at rationality. It makes things so much easier if we’re at least self aware about that.