The year is 2035, and today we mark the 20th year anniversary of our liberation from Self. Advent soldiers keep our beautiful cities bright and clean from those who would reject the helping hand offered to us by our alien benefactors. As we stand here in New Providence, under its radiant glow of technology and security, we look back at the struggle mankind had in accepting the brilliant future bestowed upon the people of Earth. Our streets are safer, thanks to the help of our benevolent friends, and security is assured by their watchful eye. What more could anyone want?
How about the truth?
We were always so sure of ourselves as a species, but we were just children. The “truth” being spread by these alien “benefactors” is a lie. Twenty years ago, we beat them back with using their own technology; we captured them, we dissected them, we turned their weapons against them. We even sieged their battleships. Little did we know that we didn’t stand a chance. The most insurgent of enemies are the ones that look like friends. They gave us technology to feed us, clothe us, and improve every aspect of our lives, but nobody ever asked what they took in return. We are animals: penned, fat, happy, and waiting for the slaughter cages. I don’t know what they have in store for us, but the truth is simple — if the XCOM team can’t free the people from this lie, we might not have a humanity left to save.
XCOM 2 opens 20 years after XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Once again you are cast as the Commander of the XCOM unit, though this time without the support of a unified Council, or the backing of other nations. Battered and broken, the team is now more of a guerilla fighting unit, seizing any opportunity to harass the enemy. Using the extremely limited resources you can scrape together, you must wage war against the alien invaders, digging them out of a society too scared or complacent to even want your help.
I was very happy to see that XCOM 2 immediately feels accessible to anyone who has played the previous titles, but there are a great many additions to the formula. In some cases, more is not always better, but here the new classes, exploration mechanics, and tweaks on the familiar make the game feel exciting and new. Much of the nagging issues from Enemy Unknown have been addressed, and XCOM 2 feels far more polished as a result.
I recently went into great depth regarding the technology that powers the map-building and modding efforts that helped to bring XCOM 2 to life, but seeing it in motion is an entirely different beast. The maps truly are seamless, and even more detailed than the hand-crafted maps from the game’s predecessor. Since XCOM 2 uses a real-time lighting engine, missions can take place day or night, so you aren’t stuck with the “grocery store at night” map that seemed to come up so frequently in Enemy Unknown. Suffice it to say, the large swaths of effort needed to create several thousand map combinations dynamically is extensive, but I’m happy to report that it works flawlessly. On no occasion did I see the seams of some misdirected combination of tile types.
If there were two aspects of XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within that never quite felt fair, it was the random feel of damage, and the fact that it was impossible to ambush the enemy. No matter what you did, the moment an enemy came into view, they got the first movement action. As a result, it was impossible to catch them out in the open. To fix this, Firaxis has created a Concealment mechanic. At the start of nearly every mission, you don’t know where the enemies are (their placement is also dynamic), and they don’t know where you are either. Until you engage or walk into their field of view, you’ll remain in the shadows. This mechanic allows you to ambush your foes, creating bottlenecks and flanking opportunities.
In Enemy Unknown, there wasn’t a lot of pressure around how long it took you to execute your mission. Enemy Within added “Meld” (the precious orange material used for upgrades in that game, but not XCOM 2) that expired after just a few rounds, pushing players out of their comfort zone in a risk-reward mechanic. This continues in XCOM 2 as enemies will drop equipment in the field. Your soldiers can rush over and pick up that gear and integrate it into their modular weapons, but only if they reach them in time. This can overextend your lines, or expose you to incoming fire, so that same risk-reward element persists. Also, some missions have a countdown clock to destroy an object, rescue a VIP, and other primary or secondary objectives. It isn’t for all of them, but when those missions do come up you’ll feel the pressure.
I feel there is one other thing about loot I should mention — you can lose it. I don’t mean the timer expires and that enemy loot disappears from play. What I mean is, if an XCOM operative is killed, their gear drops on the ground. If you want to retrieve it, you’ll need to use the new carry system that allows you to haul the body back to an extraction point. If you are playing “Iron Man” style (that is, not backing up to a previous save upon death), this mechanic becomes very important to your long-term equipment needs. There are other uses for it when you get to the Black Market, but I’m not going to spoil that bit of fun.
The biggest driver of the pressure I just mentioned is an improved AI. Enemies are smarter (though pathfinding on both sides can still be rather random), have more health, and sport powers and weapons that make even the lowliest of soldiers very dangerous. It’s very clear that the Long War Mod team’s influence here is strong. To help cover the gap, there have been a great many upgrades for the XCOM team. Better armor types, specialized ammunition, new skills courtesy of character classes, and modular weapons extend the usual upgrade arc. Having to worry about armor penetration as well as damage adds a degree of difficulty, while retaining simplicity in its execution.
Mechanically, there have been a great many upgrades to the engine beyond the obvious visual uplift. Most notably is a new line-of-sight indicator. No longer will you have to guess if your soldier can strike an enemy from whatever vantage or cover point you’ve selected. A small crosshair near an enemy’s health bar will indicate that you’ll be able to target them, should you move to where your cursor has currently landed. This simple change makes a world of tactical difference, preventing you from charging headlong into the enemy sightlines without then being able to use your forward position. Couple that with a red-eye indicator that shows visual radius of the enemy during the stealth section of combat, and you have a completely new angle for combat.
One of your special classes, the Specialist, comes with a little friend — the Gremlin. The Gremlin is a multi-purpose drone that can be huge force multiplier in the field. Depending on the selected skill trees, the Gremlin can be a healer in the field, it can stun enemies, or it can remotely hack objectives. The hacking mechanic is as simple as a button press, but it carries with it a good bit of risk-reward. With a sort of dice roll mechanic, you have a percent chance of success, as well as a choice between two other possible outcomes. In one example, I had a 47 percent chance of taking control of two random enemies, and an 18 percent chance of mass disorientation, but failure would cause the enemy to haul in another load of reinforcements. It can make a difficult mission harder, or it can turn the tide of battle, but choosing to roll the dice is in your hands.
Alongside the wide variety of mission maps we also get equally-diverse mission types. One moment you might be rescuing VIPs including scientists, engineers, or other soldiers. The next you may be the tip of the spear, running hit-and-run sabotage missions against Advent. Some missions are entirely intel retrieval, while others are straight up dogfights with the enemy. The variety wipes clean memories of the repetition of XCOM 2’s predecessors and replaces it with a the tension of the unknown. Every mission is a surprise, and the ebb and flow of that combat tension holds your attention.
To facilitate the guerrilla warfare battle style present in XCOM 2, you’ll be using two ships — the Skyranger to help get you in and out of the local area, and the Avenger. The Avenger is a retrofitted mobile base that essentially serves as your long range strike craft, home, training base, research center, and much more. This freedom of movement between countries feels far more engaging than the “where do I put my next satellite?” limitation of Enemy Unknown. There is an eventual bit of additional pressure that affects this metagame that prevents you from slowly plodding around to retrieve all of the intel and supplies possible, but I’ll let you discover that on your own. The open ended engagement mechanics of XCOM 2 make every moment feel fresh. It feels like you are taking the fight to the enemy instead this time around, and that subtle change is the shot in the arm this sequel needed.
XCOM 2 is a masterstroke, but it isn’t without issues. With a dynamic map using dynamic camera angles, there are certainly times where you’ll view the cinematic moments from behind a truck, or deeply seated behind a hunk of building. You’ll even occasionally simply see a black screen while alien threats growl and do whatever else they do in the dark. I’ve seen enemies make impossible shots through cover they can’t possibly have seen through, but it never felt as unfair as the previous game. It’s a challenge I can appreciate with only some minor issues.
XCOM 2 is meant to be played differently than you might intend. Your characters are meant to die, and you are meant to mourn them (there’s now a place to do exactly that) and somehow soldier on. The game features an incredible amount of customization that wasn’t present before, and as a result you’ll be more attached than ever. You might even stop naming them silly names and dressing them all in pink. You’ll eventually even start to play favorites with those hard-fought mods and pickups. As you put these soldiers in the field they’ll earn scars. They’ll get scared, but if they survive they’ll be stronger for it. You’ll be less cavalier with their safety and you’ll feel it when they are lost in the heat of battle. It’s such a minor thing, but it has a real impact when you join your soldiers in the mess hall and see the expansive memorial wall.
I don’t want to ruin any of the plot arc from XCOM 2, but it is a far more nuanced one than its predecessor. From the tutorial to the final turn of the story, XCOM 2 is everything I hoped it could be and so much more. The multilayered complexities combined with its dynamic nature makes your choices matter. The game is difficult, even downright ruthlessly punishing at times, but in the context of the ragtag mission of the embattled XCOM team, it all seems appropriately fair. Having to casevac (short for casualty evacuation) a soldier means losing another soldier from the field to carry the wounded, but you may find it’s your only option if you want to avoid being unprepared for later missions. Like everything else in XCOM 2, choices have consequences, both beneficial and otherwise.
It is rare when the sequel surpasses its predecessor, but XCOM 2 does it with style and verve. Unlike grenades in Enemy Unknown, everything in XCOM 2 matters. Choices have purpose, lives are no longer trivial. Maps no longer repeat, and neither do outcomes. XCOM 2 is punishing, but that just makes success taste that much sweeter.