At its heart, XCOM has always been a series about loss. Its very nature hinged upon the uphill battles the player fought, the troops they could permanently lose and sheer attrition of the long war, right down to a memorial for your casualties. Now, after all that, Firaxis opted to take away the world itself, declaring the player had lost the war. The experience was stripped down to its bare essentials, twisted to fit their new designs, and rebuilt as a darker, more cynical creation. Yet it’s one that is irrefutably an XCOM experience on every level.
The story here is set several decades after the original game, with earth firmly in the iron grip of the aliens. Rather than defend the planet, your job is now to launch your own Terror Missions against them. Because of this, it’s a definite step up above its predecessor, most notably in terms of atmosphere. With XCOM now limited to a resistance movement, the story reflects this by remaining closer to Enemy Unknown’s tutorial than that game’s threadbare narrative. Chilling, tense and desperate, the cut scenes emphasise how there’s never a moment you feel safe, and rarely a time you can really pause for breath. This thematically reflects the proactive focus, as you are no longer simply waiting for the aliens to up the ante and react. Instead your goal is to seed nations with agents, steal supplies and push back the ticking clock of the mysterious Avatar project.
Because of the new dynamic, the very way you are expected to conduct missions has been radically altered. While time is at a standstill on the geoscape map, the moment you come into contact with a potential resource, from allied resistance groups to black market contacts, a new countdown starts. Stuck there for days, you are left risking alien attacks or even passing up vital opportunities to attack the aliens on their home turf. The moment you move however, your window of opportunity is gone and a vital opportunity to grab new guns, specialists or even food goes up in smoke.
The careful balancing act between survival and blowing up alien buildings serves as the backbone to the new game, taking elements from prior releases and rounding off past mistakes. Rightfully beloved as it was, Enemy Unknown was infamous for the frustrating inability to respond to more than one crisis at a time, always losing faith from someone. While sadly not offering the multitude of bases or response ships some would want, the older Terror Missions have been supplanted by Dark Events. Rather than just losing morale, several occur at a time across the world, and their impact can range from halving your income to directly attacking your base. So, how is this an improvement exactly? While this new dynamic might throw off some players to begin with, you can prepare and head off these events, finding ways to mitigate their impact. It’s through handling these that you are truly allowed to fully go on the offensive towards the later stages of the game.
So, what about the combat itself? As before, it’s recognisably XCOM with more than a few improvements. Immediately the biggest upgrade is the removal of clusters of enemies hidden just out of sight. Rather than having passive units jumping out and yelling “hello!” with a hail of plasma bolts, enemy forces will instead follow patrol routes, only detecting enemy forces within certain proximity. This allows you to set up various ambushes and sudden assaults, something you’ll need quite badly as most old units are back with a vengeance. The cannon fodder sectoids? They’re now effectively armoured necromancers, capable of psychically animating dead troops. The floaters? Unholy death-bringing archangels with firepower on par with a cyberdisc. Oh, and the sectopods? Same bullet spongy armour, same damage output, but with the added fun of being able to stride over buildings, Martian walker style.
Thankfully XCOM itself is hardly without a few fun upgrades. Resource starved as the organisation is, many new gimmicks put the old gadgets to shame with later upgrades making troops intangible, adding power weapons into the mix and stranger things beyond those. The fact they are so varied, and the classes so balanced, also allows for more creative freedom in the game. Rather than following set objectives, you really can build the base more or less however you want, without the game niggling you to finish something.
If this has sounded positive thus far, there’s a definite reason for that. XCOM 2’s failings are few and far between, and are all easily forgivable. While the framerate might stutter at times, that hardly hinders a turn based game, and the occasionally awkward camera angles are only rare occurrences. While human collaborators might be your primary enemy, that only makes it more tense once aliens show up, and allowed Firaxis to turn them into truly terrifying foes. Even the surprisingly limited gun progression, and simplistic base building, can be shrugged at thanks to the sheer versatility on offer. Simply put: There are no real flaws to be found here, just minor shortcomings.
With boundless replay value, a strong narrative and harsh but fair use of RNG, XCOM 2 is a must buy for 2016. Anyone even remotely invested in turn based strategy would do well to grab a copy at the earliest opportunity.
XCOM 2 / DEVELOPER: FIRAXIS / PUBLISHER: 2K GAMES / PLATFORM: PC, OS X, LINUX / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW