In the first XCOM game, you play out a narrative as old as the Sci-Fi genre itself: Earth is invaded by an overwhelming alien force. A hastily-formed coalition of nations comes together, founds XCOM and, under the control of Commander “The Commander”, takes the fight back to the aliens. In a series of surgical strikes against the alien leadership and resources, XCOM takes the alien war machine apart piece by piece. While initially out-gunned and grossly outnumbered, XCOM triumphs in the end through human tenacity, willpower and the realization that as a species, we really love explosives. The aliens are booted back to whatever corner of space they crawled out of, Earth is saved, humanity is forever changed, yadda yadda, roll credits as the hero rides into the sunset with his loving gal by his side.
It’s quite clear that from that ending, no sequel can sprout, so Firaxis did what many XCOM players did on higher difficulties – they wrote in a surrender. XCOM 2 begins 20 years after that very same invasion fought in the previous game, only this time around the little green (grey, actually) men win. Not only do they win, but they obliterate human resistance within months. So total is their victory, so unquestioned is their triumph, that humanity has no choice but to become part of the aliens’ Happy Commune of Happiness and Joy. An alien-appointed human “Speaker” addresses crowds of adoring people as the aliens are now perceived not as conquerors, but rather as liberators. They bring gifts and medicine, and if you just ignore your neighbor’s disappearance everything will be a-okay.
Naturally, the aliens are plotting something evil. Behind those welcoming smiles and gene-therapy clinics are devious plots and plans to do something horrible to all of mankind – but I won’t spoil the plot for you. Suffice to say that within the first 30 minutes of play you’ll receive a brand new “Doomsday Clock”, this time counting towards the completion of “The Avatar Project”, the big bad something that will eliminate any chance of humanity ever regaining freedom and independence. It’s actually pretty evil.
As well as a new type of Doomsday Clock, XCOM 2 borrows other elements from its predecessor – to the point where if you’ve played the first game to completion, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any major changes. Don’t get me wrong, I loved XCOM and I love XCOM 2, but I do wish a bit more original ideas and mechanics made it to the sequel. In terms of basic mechanics, we’re looking at mostly a carbon copy: You command a squad of 4 troopers, which can be upgraded to a squad of 6, in a turn-based scenario where it’s humans vs. aliens. Each unit gets 2 action points which are usually a move action and an “Action” action (like shooting) and the winner is whoever isn’t left a bullet-riddled mess by the end. XCOM 2 expands on the “Kill The Baddies” formula by adding additional mission parameters like “Hack Item X” or “Kidnap/Assassinate Target” but more often than not scenarios are still resolved through the barrel of a rifle.
A few new mechanics do set XCOM 2 apart from its predecessor. Most obvious is the much-anticipated “Conceal” mechanic. Since aliens now control almost everything, XCOM can’t just drop a heavily-armed squad on top of the aliens and start blasting. Subtlety is required and that comes in the form of concealment. In the beginning of most missions, the aliens don’t actually know you’re there. They’ll keep to their routines, patrol their routes, stand around their guard posts and do whatever it is alien scum do with the last minutes of their lives. This gives you the chance to scout the immediate area, deploy your team to advantageous positions, take cover and do a bit of light hacking. Then, when all the pieces are in place, you open fire and ideally eliminate the aliens with a well-planned strike as they try to scramble to cover amidst a rain of bullets. I say “ideally” because anyone who played XCOM knows that a 99% hit is as good as a 100% miss when you really need to make that one bullet count.
XCOM’s base is likewise adapted to the circumstance. No longer do you have the advantage of a fortified concrete bunker in an undisclosed location. This time you’re going mobile, using an old alien supply craft which you slowly but steadily adapt to human habitation. Digging through scrap replaces XCOM’s dirt and your ground-based steam vents are replaced by exposed power coils of your new flying base but the overall base-management experience remains fairly similar. The one welcome change is how you manage your staff – specifically, your non-combatants. Your engineers are no longer just numbers but are actual people (often rescued in previous missions) and they can be individually assigned to wherever their skills will help you most. From boosting new construction to operating medical equipment, engineers are far more important and valuable this time around. Scientists, unfortunately, are still mostly numbers on a spreadsheet.
XCOM 2 also takes a different approach to its class system. With a more specialized skill tree, the game’s 5 classes feel like a lot more. For one, the PSI Operatives are now a class all by themselves as opposed to a side-grade to an already powerful soldier. With a special training facility dedicated to them, XCOM 2 takes the PSI Operative to where it should have been – a “Spellcaster” type to kill aliens with the power of their mind, usually while quipping one-liners that sound like they came from an 80s action movie. The other classes are remixes of what we’ve seen before, with some adjustments for balance. Your Sharpshooters are your extreme-range specialists, either taking down a target from half a map away using a sniper rifle or going at it up-close and personal with a pistol. The Heavy remains mostly the same with many of the skills from the previous XCOM making a comeback. The Support class is now your medic/support hybrid, using a remote drone to heal your squad or bring terror to the hearts of the aliens’ mechanical troops. Last but not least the Assault class has been reborn as the Rangers. In addition to shotgun-to-your-face skills the Rangers are masters of concealment and swordplay. Yes, XCOM 2 has swords and they are absolutely beastly when used properly; nothing says “Get off my planet” like a plasma machete to the soft bits.
Not just your troops got new toys, though – the aliens had a lot of time to settle in and get comfortable, resulting in some changes and additions to their already staggering arsenal of ways to make murder. Sectoids are now taller and more human-like, with psychic abilities far exceeding what we’ve seen before; Thin Men are back to their native form as giant poison-spitting snakes; Mutons are… well… Mutons. You can’t really improve the design on a massive muscular brute charging through the battlefield armed with plasma weaponry and high-end armor. Don’t worry, though, there are a lot more surprises waiting for your down the line as you progress through the story.
Progressing through the story is accomplished in the standard way: you complete missions, perform research, unravel the alien master plan piece by piece until it’s one again alien-stompin’ time. What has changed is how the aliens react to your progress. The aliens no longer have a linear “Do this, do that” thinking but rather they take an active stance on squashing your tiny rebellion. This comes to bear as “Dark Events” – every now and then, the aliens are going to work on making your life even harder than it is now. It can be through additional armor to their troops, a way to reduce your resource income or even by dispatching a UFO to hunt you down. Some of those missions can only be revealed by spending time scanning for them, and even then you’re not likely to be able to counter every curve-ball the aliens throw at you. This adds a surprising amount of replayability to the game as apart from the already randomized missions and equipment, these Dark Events add yet another twist to make each playthrough feel different and unique.
XCOM 2 also goes to great lengths in allowing you to personalize your team, in almost every way. From the functional features like weapon upgrades to the cosmetic features like coloring and naming those weapons, you can doll-up your squad in fresh and creative ways. The game wants you to know that this is a guerrilla warfare scenario and it’s perfectly fine for your elite Ranger to run around wearing a blood-spattered Hockey mask and waving a shotgun fondly named “Lumpy”. With Unreal Engine 3.5 powering the show, expect a new level of eye-candy as Lumpy makes aliens go splat in the most beautiful ways.
Firaxis has also done a great service to the XCOM 2 community when, at launch, they released the entire modding toolkit required to create new content for the game. Along with complete Steam Workshop integration, XCOM 2 is Bethesda-levels of mod-friendly. In fact, the game released with several mods made by the talented people at Long War Studios, and more are being created every day. With anything from minor adjustments to entire new campaigns now in the realm of possibility, expect great things to come from the community. Needless to say, the replayability value is going through the roof here.
If XCOM 2 has one side that is substantially weak, it’s the multiplayer. To put it simply, with all the great and cool new stuff added to the campaign, MP remained mostly the same: A player vs. player deathmatch with a squad constructed to be within a point limit. The customization options, so important and game-changing in the single-player experience, are mostly missing with just cosmetic options available. There is also a very limited pool of units to pick from and on top of that there are some technical difficulties, that although will no doubt be resolved given time and patches, are frustrating and experience-ruining. It’s a shame that with such a great single-player experience, multiplayer hasn’t received nearly as much polish and attention.
XCOM 2 feels like a sequel should feel. It takes all the good elements its predecessor had and integrates them – sometimes leaving them as-is, sometimes improving upon them. It then adds a thin layer of brand new stuff and finishes off with a good polish to the narrative, which is surprisingly interesting this time around. As a game that’s great both as a sequel and as an entry-point to the genre, XCOM 2 does so much right that it’s hard not to recommend.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.