It’s been more than three years since Jake Solomon and his team showed the world that XCOM doesn’t have to be just some old game that many of us played when we were kids because the series is more than capable of conquering the hearts and minds of modern gamers as well. Now the good folks over at Firaxis have returned with a new and improved sequel that blows Enemy Unknown out of the water in pretty much every way. Well, perhaps sequel is a bit of a strange term in this case since XCOM 2 doesn’t necessarily continue the story of the original, however, I suppose that’s not all that important in the grand scheme of things anyway. The developers did put a little more effort into the story this time around but at the end of the day, you’ll come to care more about the lives and deaths of your soldiers than anything else in the game, including the plot. Such is the way of XCOM 2.
So what’s so interesting about the soldiers anyway? Much like in any other XCOM game, your troops start off as mere rookies without any impressive skills, unless you count the fact that your guys sometimes can’t even land a point blank shot on an alien that is. For the first few missions, you will feel helpless in the face of the enemy as you pray that your soldiers don’t fall victim to a Sectoid’s Mind Control or a Lancer’s stun baton. However, those who manage to make it through the first couple of hours of XCOM 2 and earn a few promotions in the process will become specialized killing machines that grow more and more reliable as the game progresses. Sure, you’ll probably lose a few people along the way but that’s the beauty of it. XCOM 2 forces you to take into consideration every outcome before making a move because every turn could be the last for your soldiers.
As a way of expanding upon the feeling of attachment you inevitably develop for your squad, Firaxis added even more customization options than in the previous title, which makes it even harder to cope with the loss when your carefully designed solider gets killed, or worse. Yes, there are fates worst than death in XCOM 2, such as getting captured – and likely probed – by the aliens or getting turned into a Psi Zombie, to name just a few examples. Couple that with the fact that your soldiers can get stunned or knocked unconscious now and it’s easy to see why it’s even harder to keep your people alive and get through a mission without suffering casualties in XCOM 2. Oh, did I mention that most missions have a turn limit now?
Thanks to all these changes the player is forced to think more strategically about every decision and make every move count, which gets even more frustrating when something inevitably goes wrong. In addition, most maps are randomly generated this time, so you’ll need to be creative when positioning your soldiers and quickly adapt to the new surroundings because you’ll rarely come across the same mission twice. This is a very welcome addition to the series and a vast improvement over Enemy Unknown where it felt like you’ve memorized every map in the game after just a few hours of gameplay. Aside from maps and missions, Firaxis also changed a number of things when it comes to base management, funding, and the global map. Air combat has been removed completely this time around because apparently XCOM lost pretty much everything in the initial invasion, including all its aircraft and bases. Instead, the organization now flies around in a stolen alien supply ship dubbed “Avenger” that also doubles as a mobile base. Due to its very nature, the Avenger offers fewer options when it comes to base building, however, it makes up for that on the global map where you can use its mobility to fly around different continents in order to contact resistance cells, gather supplies, visit the black market and more.
The global map has been improved considerably in XCOM 2 and not just because there’s more stuff to do than simply select the next mission, but also because it adds an additional layer of strategy on top of what the series was already offering. Do you want to spend four days collecting those supplies you so desperately need or do you want to spend three days making contact with a new region in order to benefit from future bonuses? Like most other things in XCOM 2, the choice is entirely up to you but at the same time, each choice on the global map can have consequences as you’ll often find yourself in the unfortunate position of forgoing a good opportunity and pursue a different one because you won’t have the luxury of postponing things for too long in this game. To make matters worse, the aliens won’t be twiddling their thumbs either. In fact, they are constantly working on a game-ending project that you have a limited time at your disposal to stop. In other words, the constant sense of urgency found in the turn-based missions can be found here as well. Fortunately, the developers were wise enough to remove the old Council and replace it with a much better mechanic for funding XCOM that actually makes sense.
But while most aspects of the game have been improved since its predecessor, the gear progression could have been a bit more fleshed out if you ask me. When it comes to weapons and armor you’ll just go through the motions and equip your soldiers with improved versions of their previous gear as soon as you are able to complete the relevant research. That’s not necessarily such a bad thing, but it would have been great to have gear with similar damage and armor values but different situational bonuses just to make things a little bit more interesting and make soldiers unique not just in the way they look, but also in the way they fight. Luckily, there’s a wide range of new utility items that can make your guys a bit more specialized towards certain roles while accessories like weapon add-ons and personal combat sims can give them some extra bonuses. There’s also a new hacking mechanic that can turn your Specialist into something more than just a mere healer that throws a smoke grenade every once in a while.
In fact, I would argue that a well-equipped hacker is one of the most useful and versatile types of soldiers you’ll have in XCOM 2 given that he or she can still heal and also hack into access points to gain various bonuses, deal large amounts of damage to robotic units or even temporarily turn them against your other foes. Then again, the new Psionics path is not to be overlooked either as Firaxis added a number of new extremely powerful abilities that can make a Psi Operative a true force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. I found that using a hacker to gain control of a robotic enemy along with a Psi Operative to do the same with an organic one is a great way to even the odds in difficult missions, especially since the enemy almost always outnumbers you two to one. As for the other classes, Assault, Heavy and Snipers are known in XCOM 2 as Ranger, Gunner and Sharpshooters, and they play pretty much the same as before, with the most notable exception being the Ranger who now comes equipped with a melee weapon that usually has close to 100% hit chance, which is a breath of fresh air in a game where everyone misses half of the time.
By now it must seem like you can just breeze through XCOM 2 thanks to the new toys and abilities of your soldiers, but make no mistake because the enemy has also stepped up its game. Big time. Thanks to the fact that they pretty much rule the Earth and are keeping humanity on a short leash now, the aliens have brought even more powerful creatures to the battlefield and have even engineered humanoid enforcers called ADVENT in order to keep people in line in a semi-peaceful way. You, of course, lead the resistance and are charged with thwarting their plans by any means necessary. Going up against the new foes is far from being a walk in the park, particularly since each type of alien you encounter is scarier than the last. Among them, you’ll come across familiar faces such as Sectoids, Mutons or Chryssalids, each more powerful than the last time you saw them in Enemy Unknown. Other aliens like the Viper or Archon are similar to their older counterparts – Thin Men and Floaters – but look completely different and are a whole lot stronger than before.
Using a hacker to gain control of a robotic enemy along with a Psi Operative to do the same with an organic one is a great way to even the odds in difficult missions, especially since the enemy almost always outnumbers you two to one.The real danger, however, are the entirely new aliens, some of which will give you a run for your money every time you fight them. While the Sectopod is as annoying as ever, enemies like the Gatekeeper or the Andromedon are even more difficult to defeat due to their powerful abilities. I have to give special props to Firaxis for the design of these aliens as they – along with the Codex – are some of the most unique and interesting enemies I’ve ever come across in a video game. Though every enemy in XCOM 2 is very well designed, the Gatekeeper and Andromedon are really something else. However, much like in every XCOM game, even these enemies can become easier to defeat once you figure out their strengths and weaknesses. The Codex might be an exception to this rule as it is a lot more unpredictable than most of its friends, though granted, it’s not as tough as them. Then there are also Avatars, but talking about them in detail would spoil too much so let’s just say they’re the ultimate badasses and leave it at that.
Everything I just said is merely the beginning, however, because XCOM 2 was built with modding support in mind, which means that new aliens, maps, soldier classes and more are bound to show up sooner or later thanks to the modding community. Interestingly enough, three mods courtesy of Long War Studios were already available for the game on day one; but since then many more have been added to the Steam Workshop and even more are likely being carefully crafted as we speak. Modding support combined with the several pieces of upcoming DLC and the randomly generated elements greatly increase the replayability value of the game and pretty much ensure that we’re going to play XCOM 2 for years to come. But even if you play it just once, that’s still about 50 to 60 hours of quality gameplay if you like to take your sweet time with it and you should definitely do that otherwise you won’t be prepared for the final encounter, which is quite a bit more difficult than the rest of the game.
XCOM 2 has plenty to offer but no game is perfect and this is no exception. Though there are few flaws to talk about when it comes to the actual gameplay, we can spend quite a bit of time discussing some of the technical issues found throughout the game. Likely the most noticeable of such issues are related to performance, which seems to vary from player to player, but the consensus is that Firaxis could have done a bit better in that department. The loading times also tend to seem unnaturally long even on high-end machines for some reason. Another problem that I’ve encountered myself is that the game didn’t seem to be able to load any save files when I first started playing and the only way to fix this was to relog into Windows with a different username and play it that way, though it’s possible that this was an issue with Steam and not the actual game. Some of the bugs and technical issues have already been resolved by Firaxis and although others remain, they are generally just a minor nuisance that won’t affect the overall experience too much.
To make a long story short, XCOM 2 is a damn good game and quite possibly the best turn-based strategy title ever made. Well, maybe it’s a bit too soon to give it that distinction but in my book it’s definitely up there with the likes of the original UFO: Enemy Unknown (yeah, I said it), the Civilization series or some of the older Heroes of Might & Magic games. Quite frankly, XCOM 2 is an essential title for any serious PC gamer and an excellent contender for Game of the Year. In a day and age when bad ports abound and games are streamlined just so they can appeal to a larger audience, Firaxis decided to give us a PC exclusive that trusts us with being smart and patient enough to beat its numerous challenges and eventually win the day. Some might call it a risky move, but based on its huge success I say that it was definitely the right call. We are smart and patient enough and we need more games like XCOM 2. Good luck out there, Commander.