If you played 2012's XCOM reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown and were successful in repelling the alien invasion you may be a little disappointed to find out it was, like Indiana Jones's fourth movie, ignored. Set twenty years after the events of XCOM, the world's leaders unconditionally surrendered with the aliens are now projecting a facade of benevolence as the Advent organisation. In a move seemingly lifted from the TV show 'V,' there are those who think there's a deeper purpose to this and slowly but surely start to push back.
We begin in a training mission where you take a squad in an attempt to recover the Commander. For the uninitiated, the Commander is a character that is essentially you. Once the Commander is recovered, you reassume control of the now guerilla organisation known as XCOM. This training mission is an excellent way to be introduced to the game's mechanics especially if you are new to turn-based combat. Nothing has changed in this regard as the two-move per character setup is maintained. What is different is that most encounters start with your unit concealed.
As opposed to XCOM where the enemy knew you were there, XCOM 2's enemies patrol blissfully unaware of our presence until we drop into their sightlines or decide to strike. The main purpose of this ability is to encourage us to set up an ambush. By carefully placing our squad and setting them into overwatch, we can then watch them, hopefully, pick apart the aliens. It is an ingenious mechanic, and in situations where we found ourselves dealing with a countdown timer, it made us consider how long we wished to stay concealed. Another notable change is the fact that each encounter is procedurally generated meaning that any subsequent playthroughs will be unique from the last. It removed the predictability that occurred in XCOM and forced us to approach each mission and its objectives with caution.
In Enemy Unknown we started with worldwide backing to repel the alien threat. XCOM is now a guerilla movement and as such money and resources are hard to come by making upgrading our flying fortress a balancing act. If we cleaned out a room for a communications relay valuable resources are consumed that takes away from upgrading our armour. While this lets us communicate with more outposts, our next encounter could include more foes than we could handle. It is this unpredictability in missions that gave us pause for thought as to when to progress our research and upgrades. Improving our squad to the detriment of all others saw the Advent complete their world-ending plans. Alternatively, when we focussed on contacting other rebels our team was outclassed and outgunned in all but the simplest of missions.
Make no mistake XCOM 2 is brutal. Even if you turn the dial down in difficulty, one misstep can lead to disaster. By learning from our mistakes, we start to find out how to plan our ambushes better. Are there enemies who, by concentrating our efforts on them, make completing our missions easier? One of the new squad types - specialist - is an evolution of support class from the original. They have the ability, if we so choose, to hack enemy robotics. If the group of enemies we discover is near a turret or in the company of an enemy mech, a successful hack could aid our ambush. The countless number of ways to approach each encounter is almost endless and when coupled with a procedurally generated map and objectives the replay value is high. This is doubly so when one considers the likelihood that, like us, you will probably fail a fair few times.
As alluded to earlier, XCOM 2's enemy AI is fiendish in its execution. Even when our assembled warriors resembled extras from Mad Max with advanced weaponry, it could still put up a fight and win. What caught our attention was the clever way that it assessed our team and picked out potential weakness. If it sensed we had a rookie or sub-par member it would concentrate fire in the hopes of panicking or killing them. If we took out everyone but a lone sectoid in an ambush, it would retreat to find another group rather than be outflanked. What's more, when taken outside the combat zone it will keep marching towards its goal relentlessly. This left us, at times, conflicted as to which mission to pursue next, lest the crimson red bar at the top increase another notch indicating Advent's evil endgame is a step closer to fruition. This theme of time and a race against the clock permeates deep within XCOM.
The feeling of loss and ownership is something XCOM 2 did well and reminded us of another war game. Players of a certain vintage may remember Cannon Fodder and the first two characters; Jools & Jops. Named after the developers if you are like us you took it upon yourself to keep them alive as long as possible. Watching them rise through the ranks only to get misty-eyed when a mistimed grenade or an unknown enemy snuffed them out. In XCOM 2, like its predecessor, you can not only name your squad but customise their entire appearance, their nationality as well as the colour of the clothes and their armour. With some of the types on offer with DLC and such like you can create some rather crazy looking soldiers with some bordering on nightmare material.
However what this does is build an emotional attachment to your squad. Now if any of our squad are wounded, it means more and should the ultimately meet their demise it matters even more. In fact, we aborted one mission early after a Ruler (high-level enemy) appeared. Knowing the odds were now heavily in their favour we bugged out just to make sure our squad survived. We suppose this is a blessing of sorts as it does force you to be more considered in your approach but equally, makes you perhaps a little weaker when you go out of your way to protect your squad or a member in particular.
Still, there are times that, no matter how slow and careful you are in your approach it just seems that the AI is out to get you. We have already mentioned about a Ruler enemy which is new to XCOM 2 via the "Alien Hunters" DLC. They are a type of enemy with vastly more health and armour than most of the enemies we encountered and unlike everyone else they perform an action after every one of ours rather than at the end of a turn. We often seemed to face them at rather inconvenient moments often when our squad had just seen heavy action. When you couple this with enemies who are seemingly able to avoid point blank shotgun blasts you do tend to wonder if the game is out to get you.
Unfair AI was not XCOM's only annoyance as we came across a few glitches and encountered far more crashes than one would like. Often in full cover, noted by a filled shield, enemies were able to land hits making us wonder why to be in cover at all. In cutscenes, we noticed that the audio was often out of synch with the visual which was rather jarring when trying to follow the narrative. There was some notable screen tearing as well as situations where the whole game paused and entire moves taking place with no animations triggering. This seemed to occur when we had a close quarters battle with multiple enemies. It seems the game cannot handle what's going on when there are several characters on screen. It can be quite frustrating as on one occasion we suddenly discovered we had one less squadmate but only after continuing the mission with only one controllable character as opposed to two.
Despite these glitches, however, XCOM 2 is a tour de force of the tactical turn-based shooter genre. The game can be relentless and its AI unyielding, but this just makes you want to go back in for more as it is so much fun to play. The feeling when you pull off a successful mission with your squad taking little to no damage in our opinion is one of gaming's biggest highs. Its procedurally generated stash of missions and starting locations ensure each and every run through or re-attempt at a mission is unique. There are countless of hours to be had here and it is one we are more than happy to lose ourselves in.