Almost 20 years later, Starship Troopers has only gotten more incisive. Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier (co-writer of Verhoeven’s Robocop) construct an elaborate pisstake around Robert Heinlein’s militarist sci-fi novel, framing an otherwise standard issue war narrative about humanity against a varied collective of giant space bugs with the most fascistic embellishments. Kangaroo courts leading to televised executions; screeching, chickenhawk talking heads quick to shoot down anything resembling reason; teachers openly promoting genocide as legitimate solutions; news reports shot like Riefenstahl propaganda flicks; eugenics hints in dialogue; Doogie Howser as a scientist in an SS coat, no opportunity is wasted to twist the source material in the most mean-spirited fashion possible, director and writer laying bare their contempt of a society which valorizes killing for God and country above all else.
Perhaps the most sly touch of all is how little humanity Verhoeven allows these people to show. Chiselled and predominantly Aryan, despite a first act which takes place in Argentina, the cast–led by wooden Casper van Dien–have motivations ruled by pettiness and vapidity, rising through the ranks as much by a combination of nepotism and slaughtered predecessors as by any merits they possess. The only time they’re alive is when they’re killing or eyeing one another for a lay. This actually puts them a step down from the bugs: with their varied castes and a mindset ruled by collective well-being of the hive, they embody a form of self-sacrifice the humans only pay lip service. Their swarming isn’t out of malice, but an attempt to grind to a halt a force hellbent on extermination.
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Slowdowns and some graphical glitches aside, XCOM 2‘s transition to eighth gen consoles is as smooth as Firaxis’ last couple goes at the franchise. The control scheme for squad movement, tactical setup, lobbing grenades, overwatch, et al. doesn’t stray from the Enemy Unknown/Within cycle. As with any halfway decent sequel (see: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided), the familiarity allows returning players an ease at picking up the handful of new ideas lobbed their way. XCOM 2‘s biggest is a script flip retread of the first game’s plot: the aliens and their plethora of scientific horrors are no longer invaders, but rulers. Erecting shiny cities and speaking of unity, their pseudo-benevolence barely masked by a media one shade removed from Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Earth’s globalist counter-insurgency is now the threat to the status quo, scrounging supplies on the edge of the world and happy to bushwack the occupying forces.
While the variety of guerilla missions is lacking (Enemy Within‘s Covert Operations, allowing players to send a soldier undercover, are a conspicuous absence. A missed opportunity for both world-building and tension), there is a satisfying emphasis on mobility. Ops often begin with a concealed squad, sneaking around to ambush patrolling ETs. Knowing when and how to break from stealth becomes key to success. This new tactical wrinkle is at its most interesting for missions which have a countdown. The potential loss of an objective (or even their ride out) forces players to move further and more quickly, potentially losing that element of surprise by crossing into an enemy’s (or even civilian snitch’s) line of sight. Off time also requires globe-trotting, with XCOM using a hijacked alien ship to establish resistance cells across the world, occasionally fending off retaliation strikes and UFOs. The aliens, themselves, make moves towards a full-scale genocide, tracked along by an ever-increasing counter over the world map. Sabotaging facilities or achieving story goals temporarily buys time, but the counter never stops. We aren’t settled for a long war, but sprinting against annihilation. The coup for XCOM 2 is putting players in the mindset of scrambling fundamentalists.