10 things we've learned from the full build of XCOM 2

XCOM 2 Psi Op

When we got our hands on XCOM 2 last month, we weren't shy about how much fun it was. Now that I've spent an extended amount of time with the full build, I'm happy to say that those first impressions weren't far off. XCOM 2 is really good, and improves on much of what made Enemy Unknown great. Unfortunately, some of the things I enjoyed in my initial demo—like hacking—didn't hold up as well over time.

Here are the 10 most significant things I've found—good and bad—from my time with XCOM 2 so far...

The "Overwatch" camera helps showcase how pretty it looks

XCOM: Enemy Unknown wasn’t a bad looking game, but the sequel is noticeably prettier. And you can see that improvement best during the firing animations and the overwatch sequences. Having multiple people trigger Overwatch at once will cause the camera to zoom in, slow down, and cinematically pan between each person firing. This isn’t a new feature, but getting so close to the characters really shows off the new lighting and improved textures. It’s also one of the best moments to admire that new Dundee hat you just put on your Sharpshooter.

Character customization is way more detailed than it needs to be

I sped up about 15 minutes of customizing a rookie soldier for the GIF playing above, just to give you an idea of how deep it goes. But that video doesn’t even touch on personality, voice, armor patterns, tattoos, scars, and all the other armor and decorative pieces that only unlock as you promote each soldier. I was initially disappointed by the available “face props” being limited to bandanas and glasses—but once I leveled some soldiers up, they gained access to eye patches, piercings, cigars, and more.

The character customization is way overboard given how often you’ll see these units up close, but I love everything about it. It lets you really build personal connections with these otherwise randomly generated fighters. I have favorites on my squad, people I’m excited to see grow, and one dude who I genuinely hate (bad attitude, dumb face), but he accidentally got a bunch of kills and became one of my strongest soldiers so now I have to use him. Man, he sucks—but the important part is that he's not bland.

We'll have an extended video taking an in-depth look at the character creation later this week.

The little details dotted around the world are fantastic

Firaxis has talked up the randomization of its maps quite a bit, but some of my favorite parts of each map are the added detail on top of that randomization. The faces you see on the orange, holographic billboard things next to my soldier are the faces of my best soldiers—I know, because I spent a long time customizing them. It’s a little touch, but dropping into a stealth rescue mission and seeing what are essentially wanted posters for your custom characters all over the city goes a long way to building your relationship with both those characters and the world. I also found my soldiers hanging out around my base, talking in the bar, working out, and just relaxing. It made putting care into their creation that much more worth it. That being said...

There are still bugs in this version

Granted, none of them were disastrous (and Firaxis does have another month to iron stuff out before launch) but I was surprised by the frequency with which I encountered bugs. Fortunately, the majority weren’t detrimental to gameplay, but awkward and jumpy animations were pretty commonplace—as seen in the GIF above where my Sharpshooter took a few seconds longer than expected to line-up his Overwatch shot. My favorite part of the this video is actually the background action. My soldier and the enemies are moving in slow motion, while a scared citizen and flapping birds are moving at full speed around them.

But there was a time when I couldn’t perform an action I wanted to (luckily just opening a door) because the button was unresponsive, and I found myself locked on the promotion screen once as well. Like I said, I haven’t seen anything game-breaking yet, but I hope Firaxis can squish some of these problems, because they are blemishes on what is otherwise a very polished experience.

Update: And right after I write this article, I encountered a bug that really screwed with my gameplay experience. I was "spinning the globe", waiting for research to finish, a facility to build, and some soldiers to recover, when I noticed the globe spun past the deadline for all of them and kept on spinning. The research and building was "paused" and my best soldier somehow had -7 days left in her recovery. Once I stopped spinning, I was presented with a mission and everything completed after that was done—but I lost a couple of potentially vital game days and then still couldn't use that soldier in the mission. I am really hoping these problems with the preview build get sorted out because, unlike the video above, that's the type of bug you can't laugh off.

Cars and walls blow up, fire spreads and damages buildings

I find myself thinking about positioning and movement very differently in XCOM 2, primarily because now you can blast through walls. Prisoner trapped in a defended building? Don’t use the front door, make your own! Destructibility has been scaled up to a large degree, and it significantly changes your relationship with the terrain. If you blow up a section of a building it will catch fire, and that fire will slowly spread each turn, destroying pieces of wall and floor along the way. The actions you take have more impact on the world around you, and it can be used as an advantage for both you and your enemies.

Item drops are really good, and force you to go where you don’t want to

When you kill an enemy, they have a chance of dropping materials, weapon mods, and other items that are valuable. The catch is, they only stick around to be picked-up for three turns, and odds are they won’t be in a spot you want to be in. So, on the fly, you’ve got to figure out a way to safely get to that place in the next three turns or miss out on some really good loot.

For example, the ‘Advanced Stock’ weapon mod I picked up in the GIF above makes a soldier's weapon deal two damage to enemies they miss, giving a regular gun a small degree of guaranteed damage. At this early point in the game, finding a random drop like that can be incredibly influential. But if picking up the items means putting yourself in a bad position, at what point does it stop being worth it? Item drops are like spontaneous secondary objectives during a mission, and they do a great job of forcing you out of your comfort zone.

Unfortunately, not all the choices the game presents are so nuanced.

Hacking is neat, but I’m not sure it’s fun.

I currently have a love-hate relationship with the hacking, because it’s a cool spin on the standard combat mechanics, but the risk rarely feels worth the reward. Mainly because the punishment for a failed hack is often really bad, so I never feel comfortable trying unless the odds are squarely on my side.

This differs from simply firing a gun, because the downside of missing is ‘you don’t deal any damage’ (a problem that’s actually solved by the “Stock” weapon mod), whereas the downside for failing a hack is usually empowering the thing you were trying to shutdown. So, while a missed shot can be planned around with proper tactics, a robot suddenly getting increased stats instead of being powered down is much tougher to legislate for.

So while I like the extra options hacking provides, I’m not entirely sold on the system yet. Maybe a highly promoted specialist can make it worth it, but I largely ignored it in favor of just shooting the hackable thing until later in the game.

Making an unexpected wrong move can be exhilarating

In the GIF above, I nearly soiled myself when I sent my Sharpshooter onto that roof. I could have sworn that the remaining enemies were on the street outside the building. Instead, I found myself staring down a mech with my long-range character. Worrisome.

But those moments are just as exciting and tense as taking a well thought out shot. If everything in the game went according to plan it would get stale quick, and XCOM 2 seems to do a better job of challenging your expectations as to where enemies might have set up camp. And this goes double for the game’s incredibly difficult Blacksite missions, which can see patrols of enemies wander into already in-progress fights, foiling whatever plans you had.

Navigating a map is more dangerous than ever, which makes the addition of a turn timer in some missions a stressful but welcome feature. Slow and steady will help you succeed, but not if the extraction chopper is going to leave without you four turns from now. Sometimes you have to risk a surprising giant robot or two to get the job done.

Picking off the little guys is extremely satisfying

There are a lot of generic Advent soldiers with three health at the start of the game, just within reach to one-hit-kill. Of course, they’re still threats, but they aren’t hard to deal with. But I love the little guys in this game, mainly because they’re so satisfying to kill. Making them pop like blood-filled pinatas never seems to get old.

Mod support is going to rock

XCOM 2 launcher screen

My Stormtrooper

Stormtrooper XCOM 2

Click the arrows to enlarge.

This one isn’t even a GIF, it’s just a screenshot of the launcher window. Why? Because even now, when only a select few have access to the game, a “Steam Workshop” button is right below the ‘play’ button. I didn’t have any doubts about Firaxis’ hope of making XCOM 2 endlessly and easily moddable, but seeing that button on the launcher so long before release gave me a huge amount of faith that they really are doing it.

It also got my mind racing about all the different mods that I want to be using RIGHT AWAY. You can see my mod-less attempt at turning a rookie into a Stormtrooper in the boxout, the idea being to bring an army of clones into every battle. And while unlockable pieces like a full helmet will help make my trooper look better, I just know that someone is going to put actual Stormtrooper armor into the game, and I’m almost more excited for that than the actual launch at this point.

XCOM 2 is out February 5th. Until then, check out our coverage so far.

Tom Marks
Tom is PC Gamer’s Associate Editor. He enjoys platformers, puzzles and puzzle-platformers. He also enjoys talking about PC games, which he now no longer does alone. Tune in every Wednesday at 1pm Pacific on Twitch.tv/pcgamer to see Tom host The PC Gamer Show.