The XCOM series has long been a favorite of turn-based strategy fans, and with 2012’s revival of the series by 2K and Firaxis, the franchise came into the modern era with great acclaim. Of course, with high praise comes even higher expectations for the inevitable sequel, giving XCOM 2 a lot to live up to. Would the developers take this opportunity to dumb down the series, making it more palatable to the mainstream gamer? Would they dilute the things that made the first game so great? Luckily for XCOM fans and newcomers alike, the answer to both of those questions is an emphatic “no.”
XCOM hasn’t really been a series known for its deep story line. Sure, there was always an underlying narrative thread, but the games largely skipped over this in favor of focusing on gameplay. With XCOM 2 they seem to have hit a nice middle ground, including an interesting story for fans to digest, while still keeping the focus squarely on what really matters.
XCOM 2 turns the tables on the franchise a bit by having the aliens actually in charge this time around. The long dreaded invasion that XCOM fought so hard to prevent has taken place, and humans are firmly under the control of the alien invaders via the organization known as Advent. To fight back against Advent and the aliens that control them, you and your soldiers have gone mobile, taking over an alien ship and establishing a base in the sky. Your main goal is to fight back against the alien occupation, but you’ll soon find that the aliens have a goal of their own.
The Avatar Project is a shadowy and mysterious military operation that seems to be the key to total control over the planet. By performing certain actions, taking on various missions, and generally causing trouble for the aliens, you and your team can slow down this project. At the same time you can search for ways to fight back, and ultimately figure out how to take back the Earth.
The core of the actual missions is still classic XCOM
To do this you’ll be taking on a lot of different missions, but also managing your ship and the Resistance as a whole. XCOM 2, like its predecessor, is sort of two games in one. There are the actual turn-based missions, but also you have to take a more broad approach to the conflict, moving your base to different locations, and scanning to achieve various results. Even here you have the ever-present ticking clock of the Avatar Project pushing you forward, as you decide how much time to devote to your endeavors.
Occasionally you’ll be presented with time-sensitive missions that have to be tackled right then, or abandoned entirely. Each month presents you with a new series of Dark Events, which the aliens can enact to thwart you in various ways. To stop them you can take on a more challenging mission, but you only have time for one. Whenever these pop up you have to decide which of the available missions is most important, weighing the reward and detrimental effect it enacts against each other.
The core of the actual missions is still classic XCOM, as you have your squad take on the forces of Advent in turn-based combat. Moving your soldiers around the battlefield, utilizing cover, firing at nearby enemies, and setting your soldiers to Overwatch so they attack anything that moves. It’ll all feel familiar to XCOM veterans, and will be just as fun this time around.
There have still been changes though, some of which are quite significant. The shift in the story actually factors into the gameplay a bit as your operations are usually more along the lines of guerrilla attacks, or quick search and rescue/destroy. Elevation also plays a larger role, as most missions feature rooftops for your soldiers to climb on and fire on the enemies below. You can also destroy parts of the environment using explosives, which leads to endless strategy as you get rid of an enemy’s cover, or deal damage to particularly troublesome foes, even if they’re hidden behind walls. Those foes have also seem many changes, as the enemy roster has been almost completely redesigned. Many of the classes might be the same, but their tactics and abilities are not.
The biggest shift however, is that you begin some missions in Concealment, meaning the enemy doesn’t know where you are, or even that you are there. This seemingly small change alters the beginning of many missions in a very significant way, as you move about the map looking for enemies, but also planning your first attack. By positioning your soldiers correctly, and utilizing Overwatch you can set up ambushes that will shift the odds in your favor. Of course, there’s nothing quite as painful as setting up a perfect ambush, only to watch as your shots miss and the enemy regains the upper hand.
This pain and frustration will be a constant element of your XCOM 2 experience, as the game is a true challenge from start to finish. Any worry that the game would be made easier in this sequel will quickly be forgotten as you are beaten over and over again. The game is almost indifferent to making sure that you are winning, presenting you with tough challenges and leaving it in your hands. This can lead to frustration, but it also causes true gaming joy as you overcome the odds and prove your skill.
Of course, sometimes the randomness can become a bit too much. For example, you would assume that if you had an 80% or higher chance of hitting your target, you’d actually hit it almost every time, but in XCOM 2 it feels a bit like a coin toss. Maybe it actually does follow the odds and it just doesn’t seem like it though. This is likely due to the fact that every shot, every choice is vitally important to the survival of your squad, and the mission at hand.
Everything in XCOM 2 has a feeling of importance to it, whether it’s getting your soldiers to the extraction point, or deciding what tech to research next. Of course, this is especially true during combat, as your soldiers don’t respawn if they die, they simply are removed from your roster forever. For rookies this isn’t a huge deal, but the more you use your soldiers, the more they level up, and the more abilities they unlock. Watching one of your hard fought Lieutenants get killed is always frustrating, but it gives the game and the choices you make a feeling of gravity and importance.
And you’ll be making a whole lot of choices during your time with XCOM 2, not just during combat missions either. Back at the base you can research new items, clear out and upgrade different rooms, assign engineers or scientists to various tasks, upgrade your weapons and armor, and much more. Every choice either builds up your capabilities, or pushes you closer to achieving the final goal of stopping the aliens. Making mistakes here can certainly cost you, as it is totally possible to lose the game and have to start all over again, which isn’t really a problem thanks to the procedurally generated levels allowing for endless replays.
Replayability is a big part of the XCOM 2 experience, with multiple elements beyond the procedurally generated maps pushing for it. Custom characters allow you to create whoever you want, and allow them to pop up in different parts of the game. You can even share your creations, or import someone else’s. Mods are also a huge part of the game, with Firaxis and 2K pushing them in a big way. Even at launch you should have some mods to choose from, with much more coming later from the community.
Multiplayer also adds to XCOM 2’s replayability factor. It hasn’t seen too many changes from the previous game, still allowing two players to face off against each other in standard turn-based games. The new enemy types do alter the landscape a bit though, allowing for more strategic options within the matches.
Unfortunately, while Firaxis and 2K did a fantastic job in finetuning the gameplay experience of XCOM 2, it is not necessarily a stable one in a technical sense. Framerate seemed to be a constant issue, taking significant dips if the action got too crazy, or the game was transitioning into some new area. Locking it at 30 and setting the graphics options lower helped, but never created a truly solid experience. Glitches also pop up, with thankfully only a few being truly impactful. Nothing ever got so bad that a reload didn’t fix it, but some players might be turned off by the technical issues present here.
XCOM 2 surpasses most of the expectations that fans could have for the sequel to such a great game. The core gameplay is still the same fine-tuned tactical perfection, with a few tweaks that really enhance the experience this time around. Newcomers might find a bit of a learning wall as they try to figure out how all of the game elements come together, but once it clicks XCOM 2 will quickly become an addiction. Technical issues do mar the experience somewhat though, so hopefully they are handled quickly with updates.