A ragged breath escapes my lungs. My top Sniper, callsign ‘Deadshot’, lines up his target, a bug-eyed sectoid crouched behind a tree stump. Tension is high. I’d already taken several hits this mission and couldn’t afford to take another. The quiet whirr of his magnetic rifle lets me know that the slug is away, hurtling towards the target. An otherworldly scream pierces the air. Critical hit. Elated, the oozing corpse of another alien hits the dirt and I move up my Ranger, callsign ‘Deathstroke’, to take the newly opened position. But as he removes the fog of war, a literal nest of humanoid vipers twirl around to hiss at my approaching soldier. I was in for another turn of hell. This is XCOM baby.
XCOM 2 (2016) is a direct sequel to 2012’s excellent series reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Created by the same developmental team Firaxis, XCOM 2 is set 20 years after the last game when, after you failed to defend earth, the aliens have taken the role of a ‘benevolent’ occupying force. They claim to be working in harmony with humanity, and have set up the ADVENT Administration as a visible representation of the influence and apparent philanthropy. You, as the commander of the now-resistance force XCOM, know things are definitely not as they seem and set out in your mobile base the Avenger to uncover the alien’s sinister plot and save the human race from extinction.
Yeah, the story isn’t anything inherently original or impactful. But that ain’t the reason anyone plays XCOM. No, the reason the franchise is so good is the juicy strategy stuffing its gameplay full of difficult decisions and tough manoeuvres.
To those unfamiliar with the basics of XCOM itself (which is a huge shame), its a game of two layers. The more familiar is the standard, turn-based run-and-gun alien assault of bullets, explosions and death. And then there is also the overlay, which involves base-building and worldwide management rather than the nitty-gritty details of ground assaults. This layer has more in common with board-games over anything else.
Runnin’ and Gunnin’
The biggest change, both narrative-wise and gameplay mentality is that you are the aggressor this time. Most of Enemy Unknown had you defending the earth, but 2 is all about taking it back, and the reconstruction of the assault missions reflects this new mentality. Next to Enemy Unknown, there’s more mission variety and time limits that force you to constantly charge (recklessly) forward in order to actually succeed. It keeps up the tension and stops the frequent missions from feeling too similar or stagnant.
On top of that, most missions begin with your crack squad dropping in already concealed. Not only does this reinforce the idea that you’re the guerilla force, but it opens so many new strategy avenues. Should you try and sneak past all the guards, to get to the objective faster? Or should you set up an ambush? Why not both?? It adds a great deal of flexibility to how you approach missions and is by far the best new addition to the run-and-gun layer of gameplay.
However, I should not be hasty to discount the new random terrain of XCOM 2. While in Enemy Unknown there was only a set handful of rotating maps, every single battlefield in 2 is randomly generated. Not only does this infinitely add to replayability, it (like the new mission types) keeps the ground assaults from too feeling stagnant or similar. While there are general aesthetics that remain pretty constant between areas, the structures themselves are always entirely different, and keeps things fresh and exciting.
And now to the most contentious (and possibly off-putting) area of XCOM’s combat layer. Every single shot you take, be it with a pistol or a sniper rifle, is dependant on chance. This obviously means a few poor chance roles can be disastrous and feel incredibly unfair. Even if you do everything right strategically, if chance itself is against you, you are still doomed. And that could obviously be very frustrating to many players. Its unlikely to bother any strategy aficionados, but still something to keep in mind.
Sweet, sweet soldiers
And now to the real heroes – the soliders. XCOM 2 is genius in how it lets you manipulate your force – each member can be recruited, outfitted with certain gear, and (most importantly) can be customised with a very robust system into anyone (or anything) you want. Want to make a squad consisting of all your family in order to let them die in a twisted turn of events? Go ahead. Want to make the actual Suicide Squad in game? Yep, you can do that too.
This robust system obviously means you get very attached to your units. And, unfortunately for the player (but great for the game), Firaxis uses this against you. In a clever twist, if any one of customised squaddies cark it on the battlefield, they stay dead. As in, forever. This system of permadeath adds an entirely new layer of tension and dread to any mission – you make one wrong move, miss one random shot, and its game over for that soldier. Game over man.
Just like how Firaxis expanded on the soldier customisation, so too did they adapt the soldier classes themselves. Each of the original Enemy Unknown classes have been expanded upon and given new tools and skills to utilise. For example, the previous assault class has now become the Ranger class, and comes equipped with a sweet-as sword. Like the game itself, the new classes in XCOM 2 are a refinement over the last iteration, with an added plus of even more variety.
XCOM: The Board-game
The second level of XCOM gameplay, the overlay, isn’t quite as exciting as the explosions of ground combat, but still succeeds in its own right. A huge deviation from Enemy Unknown, this time the player is presented with a map of the world and multiple avenues to spend their time. Like the missions, its about strategic choices and calculated risks. Is it worth spending a few extra days to get more supplies? Or should I continue to expand my territories? And the entire time you’re debating these decisions, the aliens are making steady progress towards their ultimate goal known as The Avatar Project, which is represented as a steadily filling bar at the top of the screen. Always present, always watching. This creates a huge level of tension around XCOM 2’s most precious commodity – time itself – and once again ensures the player can never truly rest. My only criticism of the board-game layout is that its initially poorly explained, leaving the player to steadily learn themselves through trial and error. A small gripe that only affects the first few months, but still an issue.
The other side of the overlay, the base-building, has actually been toned down in complexity from Enemy Unknown. No more adjacent bonuses or satellite relays, the base-building is a straightforward push towards more power, more contacts, and better facilities for your soldiers. Considering planning your base in Enemy Unknown was one of the more restricting areas of gameplay, its refreshing that (once again) Firaxis has chosen to refine it and strip it down to keep it simple. Simple, yet still clear and effective.
More than one type of bug
However, sadly, Sectoids are not the only bug-eyed problems in XCOM 2. Even after several delays and delegated to a single console, there are still a host of creepy-crawlies nestled within the game’s code, and they never hesitate to rear their ugly heads. I’ve had multiple crashes, constant lagging, glitchy animations and even a corrupted save. Disappointing considering the pedigree of the team and the delays. That being said, the first patch has already arrived and dislodged many of the bugs from the code, so hopefully this doesn’t remain a problem for much longer.
The final salute
XCOM 2 is the best kind of sequel. Its clear that the dedicated team at Firaxis have listened to all the feedback following Enemy Unknown and subsequently has solved almost every issue I had. Some disappointing bugs aside and an initially confusing overlay, XCOM 2 is the ultimate strategy game to sink hundreds of hours into. Endlessly replayable, consistently tense, and always exciting, XCOM 2 is the game fans were hoping for. Well done Commander. Well done.
Casual Gamer: Highly Recommended
Hardcore Gamer: Must-Play