XCOM 2 Preview

XCOM of Future Past.

It was difficult to become overly invested with XCOM 2 at E3 2015 where 2K Games and Firaxis only showed off a short hands-off demo of the game. But it did whet my appetite for turn-based strategy, the taste of which was extensively sated when Firaxis offered more than a hour of hands-on time with an early preview build of XCOM 2 at a private press event.

As some might know from the E3 presentation, XCOM 2 takes place 20 years after the events of the 2012 reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but according to the the developers, this sequel could be more of a what-if scenario where Earth's forces didn't win the battle at the end of the previous game. So whether this is actually canon is up in the air. In this scenario, XCOM was betrayed by the council nations who surrendered to the aliens and, while many of XCOM's defenses were compromised, the resistance has gone into hiding. For the last 20 years, aliens and the council have been pumping propaganda through its ADVENT administration, telling the rest of humanity that XCOM's prior aggression was a misguided attempt to destroy peace from the Elders. The aliens are good, you guys. They just want to keep you safe and kill you.

Fortunately, in the tutorial mission you control your soon-to-be second-in-command named Central who saves your player character, the Commander, who has been kept in a stasis pod of unknown reasons, in time to reach the evac point. From there, you're taken to XCOM's mobile base named Avenger which is just a re-commandeered alien ship and can begin rebuilding XCOM's forces and strength. An-Yi Shen, the daughter of Enemy Unknown's Dr. Raymond Shen, as well as defected ADVENT scientist Dr. Richard Tygan respectively serve as your chief engineer and chief scientist. With their help, your main objective is to prevent the alien's dark events from occurring by completing specific missions across the map, so that the aliens don't gain permanent bonuses for the rest of the campaign.

Your team starts small, but given enough resources, you can fill out your base with additional rooms and a much fuller squad. Over the course of a set number of in-game days, Richard Tygan can unlock new technologies like improved armor that will help forces defeat more difficult units. By spending supplies, which replenishes like income depending on how many areas of the map you control, you can recruit additional slots for soldiers, train these recruits into specific classes, earn tactics that essentially work like perks, craft weapons, and create medkits and boosts for your team. One item in particular that's nigh-essential is the exosuit, which turns one of your units into an armored beast with high health and defense.

Standard units start off as rookies, a tabula rasa of sorts, and it takes just a small amount of experience before they randomly become one of four classes (a fifth class has been noted but not revealed): Grenadier, Ranger, Specialist, Sharpshooter. These four classes are exactly what they sound like, with the exception that the Grenadier can wield heavy weapons like miniguns, Specialists can become hackers or medics, and Rangers can more easily conceal themselves from enemy targets. Better yet, you can customize soldiers to a much expanded degree now, so that you can change the name, gender, and clothing (with more unlockable parts like tattoos as a unit earns more experience).

From the few brief sessions I played, taking care of your units is more important than in past installments. Units who perish will die outright and, since there's only one other class, you can't necessarily replace that unit with a much better one immediately. Wounded soldiers won't be available to take on additional missions until they're healed up over a number of days depending on the severity of their injuries, so you want to make sure that your units are as fully healed and protected as possible, not leaving them in open and without at least half- or full-cover. In fact, you may want your Specialist medic to heal everyone before you finish a mission.

Of course, doing so is easier said than done. Given the nature of the resistance, most missions are based on shock-and-awe, dealing the most damage and moving as quickly as possible to collect an object, sabotage an alien plan, and otherwise perform guerrilla tactics in a limited number of turns. Maps are procedurally generated too, so you'll need to pay attention to areas with cover and high ground.

To aid in combat, your full squad will enter combat entirely concealed, allowing you to set up an ambush with your units waiting in overwatch. So long as you stay out of the enemy's sight and don't step on any enemy watch tiles, you can inflict a high amount of damage. With the right skills, Rangers can remain concealed after an ambush for more stealth damage. As I found out, hacking can be useful in taking mech units and turrets under your own control and for disabling automated watchtower, though failing a hack (which is quite possible since it's percentage-based) can alert everyone to your presence.

As for other improvements, you can loot bodies just by ending a unit's turn in the yellow square surrounding a fallen enemy. You can also carry a wounded soldier to extraction or carry a dead soldier to retain any equipment and not lose it on the battlefield. XCOM 2 will also arrive with full mod support through Steam Workshop, and Firaxis plans on releasing the Unreal Development Kit for players upon release.

XCOM 2 will release exclusively for PC in February 5, 2016.