XCOM 2 Review – Welcome back, Commander

Written by Jack Timson

From her perch in an ADVENT security tower, markswoman ‘Trigger’ Guseva spots the Berserker. It’s a hideous, hundred-pound mountain of raw flesh, calcified bone and unrestrained fury, and it’s just caught sight of scout ‘Cobra’ Kelly.

She’s exposed, having tried to dash ahead towards the objective – a data vault that’s two turns away from self-destructing. Backing up the alien are a pair of semi-human collaborators armed with debilitating stun-lances, but Trigger, along with assault trooper ‘Blitzkrieg’ Schaeffer, manage to cut them down as they dash for cover. But they’ve used up their Overwatch shots, the ‘Zerker is still active, evading the crossfire and making a beeline straight for our scout. Cobra has her full moves but hasn’t got the firepower to take it down, nobody else has a clear shot, and now we have a difficult decision to make – is the completion of Operation: Faceless Tears, the success of which will deny the enemy the use of poisonous bullets for a month, worth the cost of one of our most decorated and powerful soldier’s life?

It’s this cocktail of a sinking heart and the edge-of-your-seat adrenaline, combined with strategic foresight and risk-control that makes XCOM 2, even more so than its predecessor XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a uniquely engaging experience. Never before -or since- has there been a reboot that so cunningly remains faithful to the original mechanics of its MS-DOS ancestor while reinventing everything else for modern audiences. With this established in Enemy Unknown, its sequel absolutely takes things up to eleven and far, far beyond.

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The setting of the stage is a suitably grim one, perhaps even a mockery of the original games’ difficulty. In XCOM 2, humanity’s war of defence never even left the starting gate; within the space of a few months Earth was subjugated by the extra-terrestrial menace. Twenty years later Earth is under the thumb of the alien-controlled ADVENT coalition, a new world order with a sinister agenda at work. You, The Commander, have been busted out of the space-slammer to rejoin the remnants of the XCOM project, as it sets out to organise the scattered embers of human resistance, take back the planet and thwart the aliens’ plans for the human race. This time you’re not just outgunned and outnumbered – you’re also on the run.

XCOM is in command of the Avenger – a retrofitted alien supply ship now serving as a headquarters and base of operations. Here you train your troops, research new technologies, build exotic weapons and command the worldwide resistance effort. You start out dauntingly small, in a small and randomised segment of one of the planet’s continents, and must make contact with new regions to expand your income, your operational range and your ability to slow down the clock that now ticks inexorably against you. This is the Avatar Project – the AI’s win condition which, as the in-game hints forebodingly remind you, cannot be stopped, but only temporarily curtailed by special, region-locked missions. A thrilling race against time indeed.

The strategic layer of the game is massively improved, now centring on the dynamic world map from which you must plan your efforts carefully. You are presented with an abundance of choices and risks for each action you take; scanning sites may yield resources like supplies, rookies or alien materials, but these take precious time to accomplish. Dark Events – enemy wild-cards that can bolster their own forces amongst other things – can be countered through Guerilla Ops missions, but like the Abduction missions of Enemy Unknown, you must pick between one event out of three to foil.

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This randomised and risk-heavy element is what keeps you on your toes and negates a long-term strategy – you must make these decisions on the fly, juggling between benefits and consequences as your current needs dictate. Daunting as it may sound, it’s a very stimulating experience that proves immensely satisfying when you get it right.

The tactical combat gameplay remains fairly similar to the previous game – you command a squad of between four and six fighters, using their abilities and skills to kill exotic creatures and claim victory for the human race. You’ll start off with Rookie-level soldiers – talentless mooks who’ll miss almost every shot and have the survivability of tin-foil in a microwave – but as they rack up kills they’ll end up as one of four soldier classes, whom you will advance in rank and ability to create coherent and efficient squads.

The four classes of Enemy Unknown have been revamped; the Sniper, now known as the Marksman, has a unique alternate skill-tree allowing them to major in the art of pistol-warfare, allowing them to become immensely powerful on the move. The Grenadier, an update from the Heavy, now uses a grenade launcher as its ordinance weapon, allowing them to exploit a wide variety of different explosives to suit the needs of the mission. Psi-Ops, the unlockable fifth class, represent the Psi-powers of Enemy Unknown with a full, separate skill tree of their own, earning abilities at random to become a major wild-card in battle. I would go on, but there are so many new changes to the class formulas that I’m still discovering them myself, and there’s so much variety to choose from that no one player could make a full judgement on all of them at this time.

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The sense of urgency in the strategic level translates in kind into the tactics of ground combat. Many missions are now timed, forcing you to keep your soldiers moving while keeping them combat-effective at the same time. You need to carefully balance speed with firepower – dashing your last soldier the furthest distance ahead, for instance, will risk leaving you face-to-face with a roving band of ADVENT bruisers and no way of countering them. The sheer variety of missions will keep you occupied long into the late game, and learning the expectations of each scenario is paramount in being able to counter the sticky situations that come your way.

Speaking of ‘sticky situations’, the alien threat is not one to be found lacking in its capacity to utterly turn the tables. The first aliens encountered in Enemy Unknown – the diminutive, flimsy Sectoids – have been upgunned into tall, muscular and psionically-powerful beings that act as squad leaders for the rank-and-file ADVENT troops. Wholly-new enemies, such as the incorporeal Codex or the towering Andromedon, have abilities and attacks that can render whole areas hostile to human life and split your squad, leading to total squad-wipes if you’re caught off guard. Learning to adapt to the threat and methodology of each unique foe can be a sudden challenge, but you’ll come to find there are no shortage of strategies that end with their cold, alien corpses on your autopsy table.

Though getting a handle on things is by no means impossible, the difficulty of the game even on easier settings cannot be understated. Your soldiers are almost guaranteed to be wounded, putting them out of action for days depending on the severity, and more often than not you will lose your favourite soldiers to the machinations of the enemy and your own mistakes. It’s this sense of loss and setback that really sets the tone of the entire game; death and defeat don’t stop you, but they can make things far more difficult and put that coveted victory over the alien threat just beyond your reach.

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The trick lies in minimising and consolidating these setbacks, of which there will be many, to keep you on track to achieving your larger goal. You can’t win all the time, and not everybody lives forever. Like one of the classic epics of literature, you and your operation will fall to a point so low you’ll wonder if all hope is lost. But it’s not about how far you fall; it’s about how far you’ll climb back up to reach the peak of that alien-infested, UFO-encrusted space-mountain and punch the Elder aliens square in the mandibles.

Pros

  • Total improvement over all aspects of previous game
  • Massive replay value in randomised elements
  • Addition of deep and challenging strategic level
  • Highly-accessible modding capability

Cons

  • Steep learning curve, even for XCOM veterans
  • Non-fatal but noticeable release bugs

The Short Version: XCOM 2 is not just a vast improvement over the original, or just a thoroughly-enjoyable game, but a test of one’s skill, fortitude and, in the most enjoyable way possible, patience. It may be hard to grasp for some, and the bugs on release may turn up a few noses here and there, but these minor issues are dwarfed by the sheer amount of work that has clearly gone into creating a challenging, deeply-enjoyable and altogether outstanding PC-exclusive sequel.

9/10 

Developer: Firaxis
Publisher: 2K Entertainment
Platforms: PC

Written by Jack Timson

XCOM 2 is available from the following retailers: CD Keys, GreenManGaming and Amazon.

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