Remember that alien invasion in 2012 and the creation of the XCOM organisation to fight back under your command? Well, as it turns out, you lost. However, this feels thematically spot on. Based on your average playthrough of XCOM Enemy Unknown, with the countless soldiers you lost and retires required to win, losing the war overall makes sense and sets up this sequel rather nicely.
Now with XCOM 2, the enemy is no longer unknown and 20 years have passed since Earth was conquered. Humanity now lives alongside the aliens, seemingly benefiting from their advanced technology, but of course the aliens have their own agenda. XCOM has been reduced to a small resistance force, but once they rescue you and place you back in command, as well as secure a power core, they have the means to fight back. This time around your resources are even more limited and engagements take up a guerrilla war style; flying all over the world in a modified alien ship to search out support and aid pockets of resistance, whilst gathering the evidence needed to prove to the rest of the world that the aliens are not as benevolent as they seem.
It feel pleasantly familiar. Your home base – the modified alien ship – acts very much like it did in the previous instalment, allowing you to research new technology, upgrade and promote your troops, and build new rooms to accommodate and fulfil the advancements you need to step up your fight against the aliens. Moreover, thanks to the passing 20 years, there’s now more history involved. It’s a more personal story this time around. In fact there’s a great deal more storytelling. There’s been logical improvements to base-technologies that are easier to accept. Meanwhile, the reason for your capture by the aliens makes the fight more emotional, enhanced further by any knowledge you have from the previous title.
Your engagements with the aliens are much different as well. You’re fighting a more tactical war this time. Rather than taking the alien menace straight on, you’re attacking strategically important targets and locations, striking from the shadows. This manifests itself in a new stealth mechanic. The majority of you missions start you concealed from the enemy, strongly encouraging you to sneak up on your targets, scope out the area as much as possible, and place your troops in the best position to attack. This is further driven home by just how effective the alien forces are.
Enemy AI is excellent. They’ll look for opportunities to flank you, they call in or wait for reinforcements so to face you with superior numbers, and their weaponry can decimate your troops in a shot or two. It’s staggeringly difficult at first, however, once you figure out all the mechanics and how to best use each class of soldier you have, things get a little easier.
Using the terrain to protect yourself and draw the enemy to you is a big part of the strategy, with elevation playing an even bigger part than in Enemy Unknown. Setting a Sharpshooter up on overwatch a fair distance from the battlefield whist your Grenadier flushes enemies out of cover can be a recipe for success. Meanwhile, Staying hidden but allowing your Ranger to get in close and slit some throats whilst your Specialist is flying a drone around to scope the area and complete the primary objective, is another sound strategy. However, XCOM 2 uses procedural map and objective generation to provide a different mission each time you leave the dropship, meaning no campaign playthrough is the same, extending XCOM 2’s longevity a great deal and putting the ownness on you to devise the best strategies. The terrain, your available units and their upgrades, your mission object, how long you can stay concealed, and the countless choices you make each turn can all add up to very different encounters with your enemy; figuring out how to deal with the hand your draw is part of the fun.
And it is fun, hugely so. Much like its predecessor it’s tactically compelling and rewarding to figure out the puzzle that is the battlefield. This is also the case for upgrading your soldiers. Each class has two upgrade paths that benefit different styles of play, and developing enough soldiers with a diverse set of skills to help in different missions is a criticle and involved consideration. It involves you sending rookies out to gain experience, giving you the risk/reward consideration for mission success verses soldier experience. And of course, XCOM 2 is hugely challenging and your will lose countless troops, but often this is an inevitable cost to complete the objective, making the story even more personal and gripping and gives the risk/reward even more weight.
Fortunately, you can opt to retreat if an objective is too risky or difficult to complete, saving your precious squad. You can also save anywhere and reload to your heart’s content, but with no checkpoints in-mission you better remember to do so. Unfortunately, however, loading times when reloading a save are a little on the long side, which isn’t much of a surprise when you see how beautiful XCOM 2 looks.
A varied colour palette and densely packed environments makes each mission a visual treat. Meanwhile, cinematic camera angles during the action phase of a turn builds the tension whilst superb sound effects from the weapons makes a critical shot all the more exciting and rewarding, if it hits. Of course actually hitting a target is sometimes unfair, with occasions where point blank shots on enemies miss and unobstructed lines of fire have an entirely arbitrary percentage to hit. Incidentally the aliens will also sometimes shoot straight through walls and nail impossible shots on your soldiers. Further bugs also hamper the experience slightly, with characters sometimes freezing in place and not executing commands for 10-15 seconds, and cutscenes occasionally hit frame rate problems.
Fortunately, the fun outweighs the occasional frustration; no matter how often you fail a mission there’s always plenty of alternative actions you can take to try and find success, and exploring them is joyous. Despite its steep difficulty this is a turn-based strategy masterpiece with a wonderfully engaging story to compliment it, although it is a shame that the DLC from the PC version isn’t bundled with it as standard and is instead available separately.
Thanks to Xbox and 2K Games for supporting TiX