Brave New XCOM.
From the get go, XCOM 2 asks you to accept an alternate timeline where the humans do not succeed in repelling the aliens in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Fast forward twenty years to 2035 and the aliens have all but integrated with humanity by force, establishing futuristic colonies governed by the ADVENT Administration which blasts pro-alien propaganda like it's going out of style. Even now, it smears the remnants of the XCOM program as radical terrorists who seek to undermine years of seemingly peaceful
occupation co-existence, but XCOM knows better than that. And you do too. In response, XCOM 2 also brings an alternate version of turn-based action that's based on shock-and-awe guerrilla warfare—for better and worse.
As the direct what-if sequel to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 places you in the role of a commander where you'll meet a ragtag group of characters, new and old, who believe that humanity's last best hope still has a fighting chance. With the odds almost unceremoniously stacked against you, you must combine forces with other pockets of resistance around the world, destroy key facilities central to the alien military industrial complex, and prevent ADVENT from completing the ominous Avatar project.
In between missions, you'll find a fairly well-crafted, well-paced story that's told through gorgeous cut-scenes, with idle chatter between characters while you're busy maintaining the ship. Beyond that, I don't want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say, XCOM 2 will keep you engaged from plot point to plot point in a straightforward way without becoming overly sentimental or melodramatic. A definite part of the attachment will come from the robust customization system for soldiers that will give you the tools to create digital clones of your friends and family, if just to give you motivation to keep your soldiers alive.
At its core, XCOM 2 breaks down into three moving parts you must manage as scrappily as you can: the command center overlay, the Avenger ship itself, and the classic grid-based tactical gameplay XCOM is known for. Your primary mission is to stall the alien's Avatar project at all costs, with a series of red dots along the top of the map overlay that counts how close XCOM—and humanity along with it—is to the proverbial armageddon.
To stymie the oncoming tide, you'll need to destroy black site locations peppered about the map, but to access them, you must first connect regions of resistance together to learn their locations. Moreover, you'll want to prevent “dark events” that negatively impact your progress by performing time-sensitive guerrilla ops as soon as they become available. You can't prevent every dark event from happening, but you can get rid of the nastiest ones first. I'm sure that more than a few developers at Firaxis Games must be fans of the popular but extremely stressful board game Pandemic, because the tension is very similar here in the best nerve-wracking way possible.
That's mainly because nearly everything in XCOM 2 works on a timer, and the map overlay is no exception. Piloting the ship to a location, scanning a region for resources, heading to the black market, making contact with resistance—all of this takes in-game time, time you rarely have. The clocks on the next alien facility construction and the next dark event tick down, threateningly so, and your plans will be constantly interrupted by notifications of new guerrilla ops or aliens attacking resistance camps. Immediate threats are pests like that. These interruptions pop up a bit too frequently, though, and since the game recommends that you don't ignore them, you're more or less meant to follow along a directed path.
Similarly, ship management is about filling buckets and claiming resources. Taking back alien corpses and other alien technology from firefights will let your scientists uncover new secrets, advance the storyline, and fashion blueprints that your engineers can craft. So long as you have enough supplies, which act as the primary currency, you can build better equipment, armor, and items that will improve the survivability of your troops. Additionally, they can be traded in for additional soldiers and staff members, specialized rooms that have been cleared out by engineers, and perks at the guerrilla training school.
Of course, supplies are almost always in short, err, supply, so you'll probably need to spend some acquired intel to purchase some more in black market deals, though intel is required in establishing contacts and revealing hidden dark events. Ultimately you'll find yourself spending every last resource to narrow the gap between your soldiers and the ever-growing alien threat who enjoy throwing a new enemy type at you just when you think you've found your footing.
For that matter, XCOM 2 isn't for the feint of heart. Even on the simplest rookie difficulty, the game expects you to be adept at the XCOM series or the tactical RPG genre in general. Beyond the opening tutorial which explains only the barest of basics, you're pretty much thrown into the hot seat and must learn on the fly. So don't be surprised if the opening missions see your squad either dead or gravely wounded. This lack of hand-holding isn't necessarily a terrible thing, though, as you will feel more accomplished for figuring out how the combat system operates.
As XCOM veterans would expect, XCOM 2 follows along with a solid class-based tactical system that incorporates everything from cover and line of sight, to weapon range and elevation. This time around, standard rookies can be promoted to the sniping sharpshooter, explosives-heavy grenadier, sword-wielding ranger, and the specialist for healing and hacking support. Later on, you can unlock the Psi Operative that can buff members and disregard armor and cover when attacking organic enemies. Earning kills on the battlefield will give each class skill points in granting one of two special perks in each rank, making it more important to keep your squad members alive no matter what as the game progresses. Wounded soldiers will need time to heal as well, so it's in your best interest to make sure that your soldiers are always in cover and that you keep your healing specialists close by.
Since XCOM 2's combat is more oriented toward guerrilla tactics than its predecessor, that's easier said than done. Most missions have a countdown (there's that timer again!) where you must race toward a particular location in a certain number of turns or fail the mission. So don't expect that you can leave your soldiers in overwatch and sit around waiting for enemies to come into range all the time. Instead, you'll need to channel your inner Rambo and kill every last alien that moves; in fact, more often than not, one of your objectives is to eliminate all threats anyway. Besides, the more aliens you eliminate, the more experience you earn and the more alien corpses are left behind as resources.
As such, stealth in the form of concealment has been added in XCOM 2 to give your squad the ability to set up an ambush and take out the first wave of enemies. If you place your squad members in the right spots in overwatch and avoid tiles with a warning sign, you should be able to take out at least two aliens in a single turn. It can take a few tries to plan an ambush properly, but the payoff is well worth the effort.
However, on the flip side the game doesn't reward you for using concealment for the entire mission. About halfway through the campaign, I managed to defeat a black site facility by avoiding every enemy and not firing a single shot. I only broke concealment since planting a tiny charge, for some reason, alerts every alien on the map; otherwise, I got in and out quickly without a scratch. But though it's far more difficult to complete missions this way, I earned nothing extra for it—no experience and no loot whatsoever.
All told, XCOM 2 lends itself to a lot of trial and error, or put more plainly, a lot of saving and reloading. A part of this is due to percentage-based hacking which is determined by random dice rolls. Failing a hack typically leads to terrible consequences so reloading and performing the hack at another time is sometimes the better option. Another part is that when new groups of enemies are found, they tend to have the upper hand, as they swoop into cover and then take another turn almost immediately.
Moreover, the game doesn't give you a lot of information to begin with. It doesn't tell you how your aim percentage will change depending on your position until you've actually gotten to that position, nor the direction by which enemies will likely patrol an area until you're caught, nor the fact that vehicles might explode until it happens, nor the fact that fall damage exists until you use a grenade on an upper floor. See a pattern? XCOM 2 is all about learning the hard way.
Figuring out line of sight can be difficult too since bullets can frequently go through objects. One time, an enemy was able to fire a laser through a tiny crack in the wall that was barely visible and kill my healer behind cover about twelve tiles away. (I'm not bitter…) And more than several times, I was surprised that my sniper could actually aim at a target that was seemingly behind multiple obstacles and obstructions. There's no indication of weapon range that's all that clear, which contributes to more trial and error.
Still, the combat system isn't too difficult to manage, especially once your squad has access to the E.X.O. Suit and the Spider Suit for their added abilities and extra health. With time and a lot of patience, you might have the skills at earning a flawless rating where no soldiers suffer any wounds. It's just frustrating that XCOM 2 keeps important information at arm's length. Luckily, Firaxis or the community themselves will likely patch in some of these elements over time through updates and mods.
[Note: The servers for the PvP mode in the game are not available before launch. We will update this review with the PvP portion of the review after it is live.]
XCOM 2 more or less maintains the XCOM series as one of the best strategy titles today. The very nature of concealment and fast-and-loose guerrilla tactics lends itself to an almost obsessive amount of trial and error, but that doesn't mean you won't want to try over and over again until you pass unscathed. I've sunk hours into XCOM 2, and there's no doubt that you will too. With an unnerving sense of persistent tension and procedurally-generated maps that extend the value of every map, XCOM 2 survives the hype train with just a graze.