I’m convinced XCOM 2 isn’t a game that is trying to make anyone actually like it. Working my way through a procedurally generated level with the utmost care, it takes pleasure in throwing unpredictability and mayhem in a way that has consequences reaching further than the four-man team wipe its just handed to me on a platter. Its Sectoids grin evilly as they turn my troops against each other, my commanders scold me for my poor performance and the Advent look set to win this war yet again. XCOM 2, at all odds, doesn’t want me to win.
Sure other games try to promise this type of challenge, but XCOM 2 is one of the rare ones that actually delivers. Through refinement over reinvention, XCOM 2 manages to pick the pace of its predecessor and throw even more challenges at your nameless Commander, creating an engaging, if a little unwelcoming, strategy game that will test your wits and patience in equal measure.
At its core, XCOM 2 differs very little from the reboot that managed to propel the franchise name to the top of a new generation’s favourite games list. You’ll take small groups of soldiers into turn-based battle, with battlefields themselves segmented into tiles that both limit your movements and abilities throughout. Each troop is given two action points per turn, and the way they’re utilised in both offense and defence in each turn plays a big role in how many men make it make in time. There’s the same calculated randomness in attacks here mixed in with some welcomed procedural generation for stage designs, and at first it seems like the XCOM you’ve known and loved before.
It changes with some incredibly well designed context though. XCOM 2 takes place 20 years after the first game, which assumes you failed in your mission to stop the alien invasion. Hence Advent now controls most of the world, with XCOM operating from the shadows with limited resources, limited support and the odds stacked as much as possible against them. You’re fighting a guerrilla war now, attempting to halt Advent’s plans to wipe out the human race while also hiding from the very people you’re sworn to protect.
What makes the premise so engrossing though is how it directly feeds into XCOM 2’s improved gameplay. The Advent are everywhere now, and so XCOM are the ones launching the surprise attacks. Most missions, for example, begin in a state of concealment – one of the most useful and interesting new additions to XCOM 2’s combat. While concealed enemies won’t be aware of your squad, and hence not actively hunt you during turns. This make movement and discretion vital as you line up your team for vital ambushes, sometimes ensuring you several free kills before the enemy is even aware you’re there.
Concealment alone is a worth feature that immediately makes XCOM 2 feel different, and it’s importance to master only serves to amplify how important your moves are in this sequel. XCOM at times felt like a slow burning slog, allowing you to carefully and meticulously plan your movement to keep casualties low and kills high. XCOM 2 on the other hand demands to same amount of precision with more pressure, with many of its main, side and otherwise optional missions often putting all sorts of parameters in front of you to hasten your actions.
VIPs will have limited moves to escape the map, while others will task you with saving civilians before they’re slaughtered in cold blood. The urgency that XCOM 2 forges into its missions adds an increasingly difficult layer of gameplay to contend with, as you’re always questioning the safety of your soldiers versus the completion of the mission. Having permadeath return with is what makes it so effective, as singular errors can spell victory just as easily as utter defeat. Add to that a persistent counter that governs the entire game and the Advent’s progress towards success, and XCOM 2 turns into a ticking time bomb that never feels like its getting easier.
The same could be said for your odds against the Advent and their increasingly growing roster, with XCOM 2 throwing as many curveballs as call-backs to past enemies. The new batch seek out your strategic loopholes like missiles, forcing you to revaluate you winning logic on a mission by mission basis. And it’s relentless from the start too, with mind-controlling Sectoids and long reaching, exposed Thin men doing their best to thin your XCOM ranks with an array of different abilities you’ll have to learn to deal with.
Thankfully some of the times in the shadows have taught your XCOM battalion a few things, including some new abilities that feed into the fast, close-quarters nature of most mission. Rangers are especially useful here, using their deadly swords to deliver critical attacks up close and personal, while Specialists seek to control the battlefield with their accompanying drone. All five classes can be mixed up to fill up to six squad slots for missions, bolstered by weapon, armour and equipment upgrades that you research in the underground XCOM headquarters, The Avenger.
Just like the last game, base-management brings with it its own set of headaches, and rounds off the other half of the entire experience. From The Avenger you’ll converse with your research and engineering teams to rapidly improve the tools you’re meant to work with, while slowly expanding your space aboard the alien ship to accommodate new wings, new resources and better chances to come back from missions without missing limbs. The delicate balance between resources, intelligence and power is at play here, scrutinising your decisions with long standing ramifications.
It sometimes feel a little unfair in this regard too, especially in the early moments of the game. Although XCOM 2 is essentially an effort in accepting your decisions and making them work, actually succeeding seems to reply heavily on some vital decisions within the first few moments. Not upgrading armour, for example, at the beginning has massive implications for the game a few engagement in, and it just detracts from the idea what all decisions can be worked with to a degree. Rather than making these clear, XCOM 2 forces you to learn this the hard way – even if it means restarting a fairly long campaign.
This loosely extends to XCOM 2’s massive world map, but here decisions that you take an ignore make their consequences known far more explicitly. Here you are able to fly the Avenger around the world, helping other rebel cells in other countries, gathering supplies and other-wise just keeping the ticking Advent Avatar Project counter down. This, much like the first game, injects a different type of strategy into XCOM 2, and it’s no more apparent when you’re faced with the tough decision of choosing between one objective or another.
Balancing simple Intel and resource gathering over saving lives is sometimes a decision you’ll have to make, while the imposing threat of alien victory looms over. The idea of a timed playthrough seems strict, but it works rather well in the context of the story and gameplay, and it keeps things moving at a brisk pace.
And even if XCOM 2 is doing its best to rush you from one point to the next, its sometimes best to take a look around an appreciate just how great the entire world looks in utter distress. XCOM 2 is a big step up visually from its predecessor, with maps littered with detail, effects and colour to make them all stand out on their own. The Avenger is similarly detailed, and some closer looks reveal nice little touches that show the encroaching alien technology trying to claw back its invaded space.
It engrosses you in Advents bleak future, even if that mean dealing with some notably terrible performance on PC. Playing on a GTX 980Ti I experienced multiple framerate drops well into the 30s at times, as well as a few hard crashes and logic stutters (the game simply didn’t know the next turn was meant to start). These are being addressed by Firaxis and multiple workarounds exist, but for a game exclusive to PC it’s just depressing.
Ultimately its not enough to warrant you stay away from XCOM 2 though, because doing so would be a disservice. XCOM 2 is almost the perfect sequel in every way, improving on its already established formula with some needed enhancements that further contextualise the crisis you find yourself in from the start. It’s unforgivingly unfair at times and forces you to have a sense of clairvoyance, but its a rewarding experience more often than not.
Last Updated: February 15, 2016