It’s quickly obvious playing through XCOM 2 that Firaxis has made a worthy successor to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It takes the familiar winning formula of its predecessor and tweaks it in interesting ways to create an ultimately distinct experience by managing to consistently terrify the living hell out of you.
XCOM is now an underground guerrilla operation that needs to be built from the ground up. You’re constructing a resistance network to thwart the aliens and their ADVENT administration which has seized control of Earth over the 20 years since the end of the last game. XCOM are even more of an underdog than in Enemy Unknown, and this is reflected in the gameplay many times over. This is a game that will kick your arse.
The metagame has evolved most dramatically from last time; you’re no longer in control of a static base, but a mobile one- stolen alien aircraft the Avenger. Instead of digging out earth to make space for new facilities, you’re excavating debris-ridden rooms in the bowels of the ship. It’s your job to jet around the globe to build and support the resistance network and foil ADVENT’s operations where you can. This lack of a static facility is also reflected in your having to travel to sites with stashed supplies to pick them up, and there are lots of times where you’ll choose to leave precious supplies for days because of events requiring your immediate attention elsewhere.
Soon on, though, the Avatar Project is unveiled- an omnipresent doomsday timer that you race to delay and set back, otherwise it’s game over. It’s a very effective way of adding a sense of urgency to proceedings, forcing you to really think about which actions and opportunities to prioritise. However, it’s not excellently explained early on how you work against the project, and it takes time playing the game to sort out those conditions.
On-the-ground missions turn up during the metagame in much the same fashion as XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Opportunistic missions make up the bulk of the action as you respond to calls for help from the resistance, or discover missions that help you thwart “dark events” which effectively buff the aliens for a time, giving them better armour, better ammunition, or spawning a UFO that may track down the Avenger if you’re not careful to evade its efforts (believe me when I say that this can have dire consequences).
While you’re on the ground you’ll find the experience is largely unchanged from the last game, with the exception that it’s much, much harder. It’s now a real tooth-and-nail fight to keep your squad alive and unharmed; most of my missions resulted in at least half of my squad being wounded and out of commission for several in-game days, while cruel twists of fate (and a little bit of strategic ineptitude on my part) took several of my favourite soldiers away from me outright.
Your status as a guerrilla operation does come with perks, however; at the start of most missions your squad is “concealed”, which allows you to carefully scout enemies in the area without being spotted and set up ambushes with overwatch. It’s a very satisfying mechanic that adds a layer of strategy to the early mission, and it really helps to reinforce the idea that you’re running an underdog guerrilla movement.
XCOM 2 certainly doesn’t shy away from throwing dangerous enemies at you in the early game, either; Sectoids, psionic menaces who emerged later on in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, turn up pretty much from the get-go here. There are also Vipers, the true form of the Tall Men from the first game. They’re wily bastards that can not only spit poison, but also have the ability to nab your soldiers from halfway across the map before crushing them to death over several turns unless you deal a large amount of damage to them. It’s downright brutal, although once you get your head around the combat mechanics and develop your squad and equipment a bit, you’ll only feel mild terror at the start of each mission.
Speaking of development progression, levelling up and customising your soldiers has become much more important and interesting in XCOM 2. There are four main soldier classes once each character has progressed past Rookie: ranger (sword and shotgun wielding badass), grenadier (heavy machine gun and grenade launcher toting powerhouse), sharpshooter (sniper), and specialist (commands a robot that can attack enemies, heal and buff allies, and hack into enemy machinery from afar). Each gained rank now offers one of two possible new skills for your soldier, giving each character something of a skill tree. For instance the first choice in the development of your ranger either allows you to choose between staying concealed once the rest of your squad blows cover, or extra damage on all sword attacks to increase your lethality. These decisions mount up to create a decent amount of variation that’ll give two advanced soldiers of the same class very different tactics to play with.
Soldiers are now more customisable, allowing you to alter everything from their appearance to their country of origin and name. I greatly enjoyed renaming and customising an entire squad before carrying out an important early mission, which made me far more attached to my soldiers and made me fight harder to keep them alive, an emotional connection only strengthened by the ease of which I could lose them in battle.
Your base development progress is also interesting and engaging. With the ongoing threat of the Avatar Project as well as the increased combat difficulty in the field, you really need to optimise your setup to be as useful as possible. For instance I’d heartily recommend building the Guerrilla Tactics School as soon as you can since it allows you to increase your squad size from 4 to a maximum of 6, vastly increasing your firepower and tactical options in skirmishes. In terms of research, prioritise whatever the story wants you to build, but advances like EXO suit armour and battlefield medicine greatly boost your survivability and magnetic weapons research unlocks gauss weaponry which makes your units a much more potent force to be reckoned with.
With XCOM 2’s increased stakes and difficulty, I’m quite sure that a lot of people will be compelled to restart their game before they complete it the first time once they spot a few optimisation errors they’ve made. I can see a lot of people making regular use of save scumming, and while it kind of goes against the spirit of the game I absolutely cannot fault them for doing so. Not only is the game unforgiving, it’s also not always great at explaining itself. I had to look up a few things that I’d missed the game telling me, like how to expand my Resistance Comms abilities to reach out to new contacts (it’s tied into building a specific facility in the Avenger) to carry out important missions across the globe.
Indeed, quite often the game feels unfair. My soldiers are prone to missing easy shots in battle because the RNG didn’t fall in my favour, and non-mission-vital hacks very rarely succeeded for me, even when I had probability on my side. This proneness for missed shots also extends to enemy aliens, however, who are about as likely to make difficult shots as your soldiers are. And even when you’re inundated with a seemingly endless stream of powerful foes like Mutons, Behemoths and Faceless, you’d be surprised at how well you can come out of the situation on top with a level head and sound tactics. XCOM 2 is beside The Witness in frequency of making me punch the air with glee for taking down a dangerous enemy in an awkward situation. I may have flipped off the screen at an ADVENT Captain or two when my sharpshooter landed a critical hit during a tense firefight.
Despite its many strengths, XCOM 2 is sadly weighed down by some serious technical issues. The frame rate is prone to juddering, turns in combat can sometimes stall for minutes at a time, and the game really struggles to keep up with manoeuvring multilayered buildings, often forcing to you to mess around with tricky camera angles to view the appropriate level. For some reason my game goes crazy and minimised the window when I accidentally hit the Caps Lock key. Action cameras are often obscured by the environment, which becomes especially egregious when you need to hack something and need to guess where to click the “initiate” button because a wall is somehow blocking the hacking interface. Summarily, XCOM 2 is in a bit of a technical shambles at the moment, and while I never encountered anything game breaking these issues are widespread and I wouldn’t blame anyone for skipping the game until things are more stable.
XCOM 2 is a game that kicks my arse, and I love it. It’s mixed up the formula enough to feel like a fresh and earned sequel, and in ways that are appropriate to the narrative. Its layers of alternative strategy and innate replayability make it a must have for fans of the genre if they can look past a few communicational and technical problems.