It’s true, as a commander I failed XCOM during 2012’s alien invasion. Playing on Ironman mode (which disables the reloading of saves) and the classic difficulty level, there was always one moment, one unlucky miss, one misfortunate step out of position, that resulted in a cascade of failure while the squad I commanded collapsed before me. At some point during the campaign I would break down and resign. The aliens can have this planet. Fortunately for my failings, that is the position we find the Earth in during XCOM 2. The aliens won that first war, obviously, and now dominate the population. On the face of it they’re guiding humanity to a new evolution: gene-therapy curing illness and a greater longevity to life. On the face of it...
Your commander persona awakens years later aboard a stolen alien ship, now controlled by the resistance. There are a few who still oppose the overlords. You have been rescued from the aliens’ grasp and must now lead the new renegade XCOM to stop whatever sinister plans the extraterrestrials really have. Some of the old cast return, central officer Bradford again leads (though the war has apparently been hard on him, changing his voice and more disturbingly race), but there’s a new science officer and engineer to meet. As is the way of XCOM, some of your old comrades did not survive the invasion.
The bulk of XCOM 2’s gameplay follows its modern predecessor. You must run the resistance: researching alien technology, upgrading the base (now a huge flying machine) and sending a squadron of troops out on turn-based missions hoping to thwart the alien threat. What is interesting however is how the developers have made small changes to the formula, some of which we saw in the expansion Enemy Within, that overall dramatically improve the game.
The setting, for example, makes far more sense than any previous XCOM game. During an alien invasion that threatens to wipe out all life, you would think that the governments of the world would combine resources to ensure the safety of humanity. Instead you found yourself struggling to balance the books, while only ever being allowed to field six soldiers at once to defeat whatever the aliens throw at you. If you think about it for more than a few seconds, XCOM’s story (any of the expansive series of games) was completely farcical. It’s lucky it was such an excellent game to play. In the resistance however your resources are naturally limited. You are fighting an oppressive regime, and must slowly build up contacts around the globe to grow. Resources are lacking because you’re literally scavenging from deserted army bases, or whatever you can find, and you can only afford to send tiny squads on missions, because that is all you can spare.
This theme of resistance and covert operations runs through the rest of the gameplay as well. The squad now enter most missions concealed, allowing them to navigate the map without alerting the attention of enemies. This first section of each mission is extremely satisfying as you scout out their positions, and hatch a deadly plan to eliminate as many as possible before they can return fire. Often this will involve flanking them, and ensuring, that no matter where they run, you can break their cover. Other times you might wait for them to group and simply throw an explosive at their feet and start it off with a bang. It is fairly simple to remain undetected until you wish to reveal yourself as tiles that would cause the concealment to break are conveniently marked. Yet there are those times where you get spotted, possibly by ignorantly running into the view of a previously unseen enemy. Then everything goes to shit, in a way that only XCOM does. Everyone’s dead and they’re not coming back.
The balance with the concealments comes in the form of timed mission objectives (something Firaxis learnt from the release of the excellent expansion Enemy Within) . You may want to stay hidden for longer, but in many missions there will be a clock ticking down (in turns) warning you that you will fail if you do not proceed quicker. This can range from a bomb exploding to hacking an access point before the connection is shut down. Whatever the mission, the rush ensures that you cannot wait around too long or risk failure. Balancing risky sprints with high rewards is one of the most satisfying experiences the game has to offer. Until it goes wrong and your risk does not pay off, and all your troops lie dead on the floor. Bradford’s screaming at you again.
If they do not die, each unit can be assigned a class, promoted and given special skills that help on missions. The format is similar to XCOM but the classes have been renamed and adjusted. The sniper class, now called the sharpshooter, remains hilariously overpowered seemingly the only person who can hit their target from any range and do considerable damage. They’re also the only class given a pistol (everyone else must reload, even while staring straight at the enemy). The grenadier (or the heavy as it was) is left largely untouched, launching grenades across the map and generally breaking everything with their miniguns. Meanwhile I have trepidations about using the ranger class who seems to have been converted into a suicidal version of the assault trooper. Armed with a shotgun and sword, they can sprint towards an enemy and then use the sword to slice them open. Only it has a surprisingly high miss chance, and does relatively low damage. Far too often you will attempt to finish off an alien that’s holed up behind cover, but will swing and miss, leaving your unit stood directly next to them as it enters your foe’s turn. We all know what happens next.
Perhaps the most interesting and dramatically changed class is the specialist. They still act as a support unit, but now they are equipped with a crazy flying drone that can do more work than any other unit on the battlefield. They can heal your allies, and hack into your foes turning their mechanical units against them. It’s extremely amusing to convert one of their many monstrous battle units to your cause, then launch a payload of their grenades down on themselves and all the aliens around them. These hacks, like many things in XCOM 2, are statistics based and so have a chance of failure depending on your hacker’s skill and the alien’s resistance. If it goes wrong, it can go very wrong, making those units much harder to defeat. It’s that risk versus reward system coming into effect again.
Those that played XCOM will know that one of the most entertaining, and ultimately depressing, sections of the game is the customisation area. In XCOM 2 this has been largely improved with each trooper highly customisable (though perhaps fortunately not to the extent of some RPGs for example), from name to face to armour, allowing you to bring your friends and family with you on the mission to save the Earth. Before they get executed in the heat of battle. Probably by your own panicked aunt. Still, it’s amusing to give each trooper an attitude and some props such as glasses, or cigars to make them feel more real. You might even grow an attachment to some of them. A dangerously short-lived attachment.
And the list of improvements goes on. The aliens themselves seem far better equipped with skills that can completely alter the tide of batter in their favour. The viper (remember the snakemen from the original UFO: Enemy Unknown?), in a move heavily reminiscent of the Smoker from Left 4 Dead, can drag your units from cover with its tongue, disabling them and often killing them if no backup is around. Meanwhile stun lancers will charge on your position with a complete disregard for their own life, just so they can knock your troops unconscious with their zapping sticks. At times it’s hilariously unfair. When they make XCOM 3, no doubt we’ll have lost this battle as well.
Perhaps the most impressive change to the format is the integration of procedurally generated maps, something many complained about the lack of in XCOM (since it existed back in 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown). While not completely random, levels are now made of blocks that combine together to form a cohesive whole. It’s pulled off surprisingly well, nearly all levels we’ve encountered feel designed as battlefields, to such an extent you stop thinking they are random at all. Admittedly later on after hours of playing you begin to notice familiar building layouts creeping in, slightly ruining that feeling of venturing into the unknown as you hide in rooms you’ve seen before, but even then you’re never sure what might be round the corner or in the next building. It adds a huge sense of replayability to the game which was slightly lacking in the fixed maps of XCOM.
But there may well be a cost to this procedural generation, in the form of bugs and errors, something, that in a game so similar to its predecessor, simply should not exist. The release build of XCOM 2 is frustrating. It’s rarely game breaking, but far too often will you find yourself unable to see inside of buildings, despite your troops being hidden in there, the roof not becoming transparent as intended. Other times your team will sit still for long periods of time, the game seemingly stuck in suspended animation. Models will disappear, line of sight will randomly break and the camera gets stuck in walls regularly. It’s also incredibly slow, seemingly everything designed to waste the player’s time with slow animations occurring on any action and long unnecessary loading screens (bizarrely skippable by hitting the caps lock key). It also requires a much more beefy machine to run, despite graphically seeming no more impressive than 2012’s release, and even with such a machine it jerks around at random intervals.
But it seems like a small price to pay for such an immense and enjoyable strategic experience. Particularly given the team at Firaxis will no doubt patch out most of the problems, and if they don’t a team of modders will (the game is extremely moddable with editable .ini files open to anyone who wants to play with them). XCOM 2 is an improvement in almost every way over it’s modern predecessor. It’s still not the same as the original series (check out Xenonauts if you’re still pining with nostalgia), but we’re quickly coming to the opinion that this reimagining may actually be an improvement. It is so slick, clever and intense that there are very few strategy games that can compare.