Aliens are all too often depicted as an invading force that must be defeated at all costs. From Independence Day to Mars Attacks, there’s a long list of fiction in which humanity bands together and defeat the aliens. Even the old X-COM games – back when the organisation’s name was hyphenated – would eventually end in the humans somehow repelling the invaders against all the odds.
XCOM 2 proposes a different scenario: What if the aliens won?
Earth is ruled by a seemingly benevolent dictatorship by the aliens, as what remains of the XCOM project struggles as outlawed resistance fighters. After a twenty year absence, the commander’s very fortunate return heralfs a new threat, the ominous and omnipresent Avatar project that’s set to doom humanity.
This shift in perspective gives an all new feel to the series. By contacting resistance cells across the globe rather than maintaining fundings from nations into the XCOM project, the sequel becomes more about creating an uprising and going on the offensive than defending the globe against a common threat. As the game progresses, the technology slowly improves, but the threats also increase in severity.
XCOM 2 is split into two distinct areas, with the first being the management of your resistance efforts. There’s plenty of parallels here from the first game, including researching enemy material, build new weapons, and creating new facilities in rooms full of debris that needs clearing out. Building facilities is simpler this time around, which may turn off the diehard fans of the older X-COM games, but it puts the focus more on the Geoscape map.
It is here that the bulk of the management is handled, as you establish new contacts with regions across the world and investigating any intel that appears. Sometimes it will be just spending a few days investigating an area, but other times it will require sending a squad to take out the enemy. This works far more dynamically than XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s version as it’s not only thematically on point, but also includes an air of tension.
A large part of that is down to the Avatar project’s countdown, which will steadily tick towards your doom. The only real way to reduce it is by destroying the Avatar Facilities that occasionally crop up to attempt to speed up the aliens’ progress. Dark Events also hinder progress by allowing commanders to only choose one mission to disrupt an upcoming debuff. This may sound stressful, but generally it’s down to the player as to what will affect progress the most, which is fair.
Building up a squad of freedom fighters is genuinely a labour of love. Troops that begin as unspecialised rookies can not only gain one of the four major classes and further specialisations as they level up, but also a surprising degree of customisation. With the Character Pool, you can insert models based off your friends into your game, but you can also export them for others to use in their game via Steam Workshop. It’s a nice bit of customisation that goes a long way to broadening the appeal.
Each of the four character classes have their own set of skills to use in the field, and provided they are kept alive, they can learn more as they gain experience on the battlefield. Each promotion steadily turns them into deadly Sharpshooters, drone wielding Specialists, sneaky Rangers, and payload packing Grenadier, while research allows you to turn them into mysterious Psi Operatives. But it’s the skills they unlock that are incredibly fun to use, making the turn-based combat full of options as they rank up.
Starting a mission will, for the most part, see the selected squad and their loadouts drop into the area in concealed mode. This new mode allows the XCOM operatives to get the jump on the patrolling foes, moving within striking distance of them covertly. There’s nothing more satisfying than the perfect ambush; triggering the enemy to run for cover while the rest of the squad picks them off in Overwatch. This won’t happen a lot of the time, but it’s a handy way of picking off the bigger targets.
With the beginning of each mission putting the player on the offensive like this, it dramatically improves the pacing of each mission. Instead of slowly creeping up towards the enemy at an achingly slow pace, it actively encourages you to get in the thick of it. Missions can vary a little from kidnapping/escorting a VIP, blowing up a facility, or defending/destroying alien tech, but it usually boils down to killing the enemies and their reinforcements.
Combat generally feels the same as the first game otherwise, with skills and overwatch playing major roles in completing the objective. It’s actually quite startling just how similar XCOM 2 feels to the combat found in its predecessor, yet somehow it feels more refined. It’s not perfect however, as troops and aliens alike can and will shoot through walls or miss point-black attacks; breaking the immersion somewhat as a result.
As dystopian worlds go, the design of XCOM 2 is striking. Streets in cities have that futuristic look as the alien influence has spread across civilisation. There are, of course, other locations, with various climates represented in this global mission. Some of the effects look especially nice, such as the spiralling fire, but it’s the design of the semi-randomised maps and locales that takes centre stage.
Enemies range from humanoid ADVENT troopers and the redesigned Sectoids in the beginning to more threatening foes such as the Codex, which teleports and can clone itself upon being hit, and the savage Muton that can annihilate foes at close range. Just like in Enemy Unknown, each new foe forces you to adapt tactics, adding to the complexity of the combat.
While the main campaign is an absolute blast, the same can’t be said for the multiplayer, which returns from XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If you’ve ever built a squad in Warhammer and had to care about points values, this is largely similar except one can mix and match between Human characters and the aliens.
From there, it’s a simple case of squaring off against an opponent. It’s a great way of getting used to how the aliens work, but there are lengthy delay between an action being taken and that action being sent and shown on your opponent’s screen, adding a lot of unnecessary waiting.
Depending on your hardware, you may also run into technical difficulties as XCOM 2 isn’t that well optimised. Upon research, it seems to fare better on NVidia graphics cards than AMD, with frame rate and stuttering being a frequent occurrence. Certain options such as the Action Cam tended to trigger this on my PC, so until Firaxis Games have patched it, your mileage will vary depending on your machine.
XCOM 2 somehow manages to improve upon the 2012 series reboot in almost every single way; from the way that the concealment ramps up the pacing, to the minor changes to battles and management that both fit the theme wonderfully and make for great gameplay. Aside from a few moments where the impossible happened and a some optimisation issues XCOM 2 suffers from, this is one uprising worth taking part in.
Disclaimer: Publisher 2K provided us with a “Review” version of the game, which one week after release may differ from the retail version of the game.