'XCOM 2'

An XCOM ranger takes aim at a Muton in "XCOM 2."

2K Games

The most important decision you make in "XCOM," Firaxis' series of alien warfare strategy games, isn't which soldiers you bring to the procedurally generated battlefield. It isn't which abilities you assign them. It isn't even which tiles you move them to.

It's when you quit and reload the game.

The new "XCOM 2," a February release on PC that just made its way to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, is no different. You play it between two extremes: You can either reload the game every time something doesn't go your way — a missed shot, an enemy left standing — or you can accept the consequences of the game's probability, and play on. 

The degree to which you embrace the latter extreme determines the difficulty of your quest to overthrow the alien occupation in "XCOM 2." If you reload when the game's randomized outcomes don't favor you, your soldiers never take damage — let alone die — and instead accrue difference-making abilities they can deploy on every mission.

A new one I relied on was Reaper, which allows the new Ranger soldier class to chain melee attacks on everyone they can reach so long as they result in kills. With the also-new Implacable ability, which grants Rangers a move after a kill, it's rather powerful. And, again, it's especially powerful in the hands of a player who leaves as little as they can to probability.

With "XCOM 2," however, Firaxis discourages such "save scumming" in a way that's almost certainly inadvertent: It makes reloading take a long time.

My certainty comes from the fact that the sequel's load times are just one of a host of technical issues with its console version. Where reloading takes two to three minutes, the post-mission load times lean more toward five or six. Then there's the sometimes stuttering frame rate, the aliens who pop in and out of the picture, the multistory environments that can't be scanned, the crashes (about 10 in my 30 hours of play), etc.

To some extent, the sequel inherits such problems from "XCOM: Enemy Unknown," a 2012 game of the year contender that rebooted the 1994 classic, and the following year's terrific remix "Enemy Within." But by drastically worsening those problems, "XCOM 2" falls short of its predecessors despite tweaking their strategy formula with many fun new ideas.

Along with the soldier classes and their abilities, "XCOM 2" restructures the missions themselves. Securing crashed UFOs and rescuing frightened civilians return, but new are missions where a distress beacon must be deactivated or a VIP extracted before a certain number of turns take place. Often, these countdown missions also involve alien reinforcements and end only when you move all your (surviving) squad members to the extraction zone. So "XCOM 2" players used to carefully wiping out the opposition will have to cover more ground in this more open-ended warfare.

The meta game of "XCOM 2," where you build facilities, gather resources and make contact with regions of people resisting the alien occupation, also functions on a doomsday clock. You must destroy alien facilities and advance the story to delay the timer, but new variables called Dark Events can fluster your efforts by, for instance, padding the opposition in extra armor. 

That opposition has changed due to the story of "XCOM 2," which takes place 20 years after the first and sees Earth under rule by humanoid aliens called Advent. The visual design of these hybrids and even classic enemies like Sectoids and Mutons mark a disappointing step toward realist horror, and away from the schlocky '50s sci-fi look of the first "XCOM" and spinoff "The Bureau." (Also, I miss the gangly, suited Thin Men.)

At its best, "XCOM 2" delivers more of the thrills of its predecessors. It delivers more exhilaration when your strategic gambits pay off with critical kill shots and flawless mission ratings, and more despair when a missed shot or flanked solder sparks a catastrophic chain reaction of damage and death. And with all its new abilities, new enemies and new rules, it delivers that exhilaration and despair in new ways.

At its worst, "XCOM 2" delivers a lot of long waits. But how many you endure depends on how much harder you want to make an already brilliantly hard game.

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox, or find him on PSN or Xbox Live under the name davewiththeid.

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Features editor for The Citizen.