My squad of soldiers touch down in the city to rescue their long lost comrade, PeanutButterGamer. They slide along the walls of the city around a group of aliens and set up an ambush. The sniper takes the shot and the rest of the squad mows them down. They then scurry to the extraction point before the escort leaves. As PeanutButterGamer climbs aboard, ChaseFaceShow stays behind to ensure the getaway. As the squad flies off, they catch a glimpse of ChaseFaceShow taking a plasma shot to the face. This is one of the many stories you’ll create in “XCOM 2.”
“XCOM 2” is the direct sequel to the 2012 “XCOM” series reboot, “XCOM: Enemy Unknown.” And for better or for worse, developer Firaxis Games delivers exactly what fans of “XCOM” want.
In “Enemy Unknown,” XCOM, or “Extraterrestrial Combat Force”, was defending Earth from an alien invasion. But 20 years later in “XCOM 2,” the aliens have completely taken over the planet, establishing a totalitarian regime and conducting horrific genetic experiments on their citizens. So it’s up to XCOM, now reduced to a guerrilla movement, and you as their commander to topple the regime and restore humanity to the planet.
You do so by moving to different parts of world and conducting a variety of missions. Missions consist of moving your comrades across the map like chess pieces, all the while making sure you’re in cover at all times. When it comes time to shoot some aliens, you select each one and, if the hit percentage is in your favor, gun them down. The percentage of shooting aliens and being shot at in return is governed by your position on the map and whether or not you’re in half or full cover, making smart use of terrain a must.
Your comrades also have access to many different techniques aside from just shooting; you can set a comrade to overwatch to have it automatically attack enemies that cross their sights, toss a grenade, heal soldiers, and more. And as soldiers earn kills, they’re offered even more skills as they level up in their assigned class. For instance, the specialist earns even more utility in healing comrades and hacking enemy infrastructure with their drones and the ranger unlocks even stronger sword attacks and even stealth abilities.
Gameplay is pretty much the exact same as “Enemy Unknown,” but the new additions keep things fresh. By far the biggest addition is the mechanic of concealment. In most missions, your soldiers start out completely hidden from enemy troops. So long as you keep out of the sight tiles of both enemies and security cameras, you’ll be able to sneak around them. This allows you to reach time-sensitive objectives quicker or set up ambushes that allow you to decimate entire squads of enemies before they head to cover. Not only does this tie into the guerrilla theme of combat, but it gives you and edge and adds a whole new layer of strategic depth.
Another subtle but welcome change is the Line of Sight indicator. When your soldier moves to a tile, a targeting ridicule appears next to an enemy’s health bar indicating that your soldier is within shooting range. This removes much of the guess work required for “Enemy Unknown” as you know where to move to hit your enemies. However, getting your soldiers and the enemy both in your camera so you can actually see the indicator can be a bit tricky if they’re far away from each other.
While the basic rules are relatively easy to wrap your head around, all of the different mission objectives and combinations of enemies allow for multiple different scenarios. You could be rescuing a captured soldier as another stays behind and sacrifices himself or you could be rushing towards an enemy cache right before it explodes. And because enemies appear in waves as you move across the map, the game is filled with quieter moments of tension to balance out the explosive action and intense strategy. “XCOM 2” doesn’t have a story with deep character arcs or themes, but the real story comes from what happens on the battlefield.
“XCOM 2” does not hold your hand, even on normal difficulty. Because soldiers permanently die and their gear disappears unless retrieved after death, and even damaged soldiers are unable to serve in missions for a while, every move counts. Victory is a careful balancing act of having all your soldiers in the right place at the right time, flanking opponents and catching them off guard with well-timed attacks. Aside from critical hits, there are no random number generator shenanigans to save your skin and even high hit percentages can miss. You may be tempted to just inch along the battlefield, but if you play too cautiously you’ll miss a time-sensitive objective. Inefficient and unintelligent strategy without foresight or a plan B will always lead to a mission failure. While gameplay is challenging, mission successes are always a treasure because of it.
But while the game is generally good at keeping things hard yet rewarding, most of the time it leans too much on the “hard” side. And a big factor of this comes from the enemies. Halfway through the campaign of Enemy Unknown, you encounter an enemy that can induce panic in soldiers and even mind control them. In “XCOM 2,” virtually the same enemy is back and is one of the first enemies you encounter in the game. And within the first five hours, you also encounter an enemy that spits poison and can grapple and constrict soldiers, towering and shapeshifting lumps of flesh with long claw swipes and regenerating health, enemies that can teleport and clone themselves, and armored robots that can launch volleys of grenades. And it only gets crazier from there.
Because of how overpowered the aliens are compared to your team, and because they can swarm you in groups of six or even ten, you’ll find that the odds are stacked very much against you at all times. This can turn challenging yet rewarding missions into stressful, frustrating ones at the drop of a hat. One missions was so hard that I had nightmares the night after.
But that’s not the only part of the game, for you have an entire section dedicated to managing what’s left of XCOM while flying around the world in your mobile command center.
The mobile command center gives you access to a variety of options that give you an edge over the aliens. The research department gives you access to equipment and upgrades for soldiers, the engineering department puts together your new equipment and the armory allows you to check in on soldiers and even customize their appearances to your liking (I personally like modeling them after my favorite YouTubers, hence why my team included PeanutButterGamer and ChaseFaceShow). There’s even a memorial/bar so you can pay your respects to fallen soldiers, though the bagpipe music that played in the memorial room in “Enemy Unknown” is strangely absent.
You can also build different rooms in your mobile command center. Once you clear out space and have enough power, you can build everything from communication rooms for making contact with resistance groups around the planet to training schools that give your soldiers extra abilities and even heal them faster. The adjacency mechanic in “Enemy Unknown,” which gives bonuses to rooms if they’re placed next to other rooms, is sadly absent from “XCOM 2” which robs the base building of a huge chunk of its strategy.
Money if of course necessary for your base’s progress. Because you have much less access to money than in “Enemy Unknown,” all of your actions need to be a lot more decisive. Do you invest money on a gauss rifle for more firepower or plated armor for more protection? But progression is also a lot slower, and it can be a long time before you have gear competent enough to be an actual threat to the alien force.
But there’s another form of currency in the form of time. Everything from research projects to flying around the world to extract resources and make contact with regions takes a couple of days to complete. Missions occur every week or so, so you need to plan accordingly in order to be ready for each mission. Many times you have to postpone or even completely ignore an event or a resource to make sure that you’re prepared to take on the alien race. You even have to choose between different missions as each one has different rewards and consequences. Time management and the decision-making process that comes from it gives the game a bit of a rougelike flavor as all of the randomized resources and missions must be taken decisively as often times there’s no going back.
But once again, “XCOM 2” turns up the difficulty a bit too much. You see, you also have the aliens’ Avatar project to deal with. Over time, a progress meter for the project fills up. You can remove progress by completing story missions or destroying alien research facilities. But if you let the project reach completion, it’s an automatic game over and you have to start all the way back at square one. I know that this is to prevent the temptation of just accepting mission after mission and just grinding without completing any actual story missions, but I would appreciate the option to grind if it meant having an actual chance against the aliens. And it just adds more stress in an already stressful game.
The problem with “XCOM 2” is not that it’s difficult, but that it can feel unreasonably difficult at times. I appreciate that “XCOM 2” doesn’t treat you like an idiot and gives you a tough challenge, but some of the scenarios it throws at you are downright overkill. Even if you team is dressed to the 9’s in heavy armor and weaponry, you’ll still feel like you’re hitting a brick wall. All of the hard work raising and upgrading troops can easily be in vain due to permadeath. And if you fail a mission, the consequences can severely limit your ability to fight back. Failure in most cases is simply not an option, and it becomes very tempting to load a saved game state.
But on the occasions that the game does seem fair, you’ll find a very rewarding and meaty experience. The game is worth playing just from all of the different stories you can form from your experiences on the battlefield.
“XCOM 2” was clearly build for people who really, reeeeeally liked “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” and wanted an even more unforgiving challenge. Had the difficulty spikes not been so frequent and the base building involved more strategy, then I would recommend it to everybody without hesitation. But even with these problems, the strategy is still as tight as ever and you’ll still have quite the ride. So if you want an engaging strategy game and can stomach some intense moments, then lace up your combat boots, grab your plasma rifle, and pick up this game.