XCOM 2 picks up 20 years after the events of series reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Earth has been comprehensively invaded by aliens of various shapes and sizes, and an evil, oppressive puppet government called Advent has been established. You play as the ‘Commander’ from Enemy Unknown, recently rescued from an Advent stasis chamber.
The tone from the outset certainly feels unique in its hopelessness. Saving the world, while a clichéd objective, feels almost impossible at the beginning of XCOM 2. This makes every early victory, whether it’s cleaning out a room of alien debris, extracting an endangered scientist or simply getting every one of your troops home from a mission alive, extremely satisfying.
Those who have played Enemy Unknown will know what to expect from the moment-to-moment gameplay. There’s base and resource management balanced out by the turn-based strategy missions that you send your soldiers on. This time your base of operations is mobile in the form of the Avenger: a captured alien supply ship refitted for your needs. Here you can perform autopsies on captured alien corpses, research various gadgets and weaponry, build facilities that allow you to create more advanced items to take into battle, as well as customise and outfit your soldiers.
The missions themselves are rollercoasters of emotion. XCOM 2’s tutorial elicited more feelings from me than a lot of games do in their entirety. When one of my random tutorial soldiers was killed by a masked Advent Soldier she cried out in a strained voice, “tell my kids I …” before crumpling to the ground in a bloody heap. This intensity increases dramatically when the soldier in danger is not just some placeholder for a tutorial but a character that you’ve customised, named and given a backstory. Like a lot of unforgiving games the lows can be grim, but it also means the highs are euphoric. Coming back from a mission with all your soldiers in good health and getting an “excellent” rating feels fantastic.
Unfortunately this intense connection doesn’t permeate to all of the games characters. Your top scientist Tygan, chief engineer Shen and second-in-command Central are all quite forgettable and, for me at least, very difficult to care about. The same goes for a lot of the flavour text and dialogue that triggers when you’re managing the Avenger. Shen or Tygan will start waffling on about how important this particular project is or how grateful they are for such and such. The voice acting isn’t fantastic either and the monotonous delivery of dull information only furthers my apathy. When you’re trying to fight a global conflict and manage an entire military organisation, their chatter is just background noise.
There are of course some new additions to the gameplay, the most prominent being the concealment mechanic. When a mission starts all your soldiers are now concealed from the enemy. This essentially means they can move unseen until they carry out an attack, smash through a door or window, or simply get too close to an alien. Concealment makes setting up ambushes and getting your bearings a lot easier than in the previous games. When utilised well, this feature can give you quite an advantage on the enemy. There’s nothing more satisfying than carefully getting your team into position, setting them to overwatch and then getting your front man to take the shot. The enemy scrambles for cover and your soldiers unleash hell.
As for changes to the global map, there are now dark events which are planned Advent attacks that your own forces have been able to predict. Your team has a certain amount of time before they’ll occur and the only way to stop them is by carrying out specific side missions. You will have to make a tough choice about which of these dark events you want to counter, as the mission you don’t choose will disappear. It’s a simple way of breaking up the seemingly endless stream of side missions, but at times it just felt like one more thing to worry about, as opposed to anything meaningful.
My favourite new feature in XCOM 2 is the new destruction engine that’s been implemented. You can blow up cover, vehicles and even buildings which not only looks incredible in action, but also offers great strategic opportunities. In one mission I was attempting to extract a civilian VIP. My soldiers were on a rooftop when two Advent troops and a Sectoid jumped us. I’d been quite careless, thinking I had the mission in the bag, so these aliens had quite a good line of sight on the VIP. Throwing caution to the wind, I selected my demolition guy, shot a grenade at a grouping of two aliens, and watched as a large section of roof completely gave way, dropping them two floors below. My soldiers were now in a great position to mop them up, and the mission was a great success.
The graphics settings are as detailed as you’d expect for a PC exclusive and the background of the main menu serves as a good way to see how different settings look without having to load in and out of a mission first. There are definitely some performance issues however. I did some reading and it seems even people with absolute beasts of computers are still struggling to get a solid 60fps. Here’s hoping for some solid patches on that front. The art style and general aesthetic is quite pleasing to the eye; you can definitely feel the higher production value this time around. The loading screens in particular are very cool.
XCOM 2 has everything you can hope for in a sequel. It maintains the solid foundations of traditional gameplay, while bringing in new mechanics and features that keep things fresh and interesting. Given developer Firaxis’ support of the modding community (including hiring modders of Enemy Unknown to work on XCOM 2), the game will likely stay fresh and interesting long after you’ve finished the main story.