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Hands On: XCOM 2's Strategy And Tactics Dissected

It's everything we hoped for.

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With XCOM 2 [official site], Firaxis are not resting on their laurels. The studio’s reboot of the license had a great deal to prove – primarily, it had to satisfactorily answer the question as to why the much-loved series needed to be revived at all.

That obstacle overcome, the sequel is on safer ground and it might have been enough to reskin and reshape ever so slightly. A new setting, a new gang of aliens, and a few new weapons and hairstyles for the defenders of the Earth. Instead, there’s a degree of role-reversal, with the player now attempting to take the planet back from an occupying force rather than protecting it from invaders. There’s a new approach to the strategic side of the game, the return of randomised maps and an in-depth suite of soldier customisation tools.

After a couple of hours with the sequel, I’m more excited about XCOM than I’ve been since the announcement of the reboot.

First of all, a quick recap for those who might think that all of their hard work defeating the aliens on Ironman mode might have been cause for celebration. XCOM lost the war. The sequel takes place decades after the invasion, with Earth governed by the velvet glove and elerium-fuelled powerfist of a human-alien coalition.

There is a peace, of sorts. Clean cities, hybrid guards who prevent civil unrest, checkpoints on every street corner. It’s impossible to look at the urban environments without being creeped the fuck out by the obvious control asserted by the aliens, who are reforming and reshaping the world to fit their own needs as surely as if they had terraformed it from afar.

It’s the kind of society that undoubtedly processes protesters and it’s impossible to tell if people accept the hidden horrors because there have been overall improvements to quality of life provided one doesn’t rock the boat, or if everyone is simply too scared to step out of line. Earth needs heroes and, in a grim and disturbing tutorial sequence, those heroes are introduced.

XCOM, as an organisation, is finished. But a few people who were on the frontlines of the first war have always known that the aliens cannot be trusted. They’ve formed a guerrilla group, operating under the XCOM name, and they’re caught in the hinterland between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters”. In the long-term, historians of the conflict will decide what to call them – in the short-term, alien propaganda has declared them enemies of freedom and a danger to the populace.

The setup doesn’t pull its punches. XCOM initiate a firefight in the streets during a civil ceremony. Civilians panic. Bombs create confusion and chaos, distractions to lure the aliens away from the real target of the operation, and it’s clear that the tables really have turned: not only are XCOM the invading force, they’re performing terror missions of their own.

That Paris is the target of the initial XCOM attack, and that the preview event took place less than a fortnight after the events of November 13th, no doubt made the imagery more potent, but seeing undercover operatives preparing to start a fight in a crowded street was unnerving. The monstrous barks and sinister shakedowns of the authorities mark them out as a worthy foe but it’s clear that XCOM aren’t just taking the fight to the powers that be, they’re taking it to the homes, workplaces and social centres of the entire human race.

The story is important because it informs every other part of the game, just as the initial invasion plot was at the foundation of the B-movie sci-fi shenanigans of Firaxis’ Enemy Unknown and the original UFO/X-COM. It’s still a tale of heroics and humanity vs aliens, not some grimdark exploration of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, but the design of everything from individual soldiers to the strategic Geoscape has been reworked to fit with the new status quo.

The most important change, and the one that convinced me Firaxis aren’t content simply to go bigger and better, is the switch from reactive strategies to proactive strategies. So much time in XCOM was spent waiting for things to happen. Upcoming events formed a neat queue at the bottom right of the screen and you’d click a button to accelerate time while waiting for research or construction to finish, or for the aliens to strike.

In XCOM 2, the aliens are waiting for you to strike. While the Geoscape hasn’t quite become an RTS battlefield, there is a sense of conquering the planet back piece by piece as you engage with local resistance groups and build up a network of supporters. Activating communications and contacts in an area allows you to engage on missions in that area, applying a scalpel to the alien’s infrastructure rather than simply punching UFOs out of the sky.

Allowing the player to chart their own course, rather than simply chucking a few satellites into the sky and hoping to sight the enemy, is just the tip of the iceberg though. The most radical change might well be in the way that the aliens play the game.

That’s an entirely new concept for XCOM. Previously you were fighting against a sort of doomsday clock rather than an intelligent opponent. Your efforts were directed toward the betterment of your own side at the expense of the aliens, but there was no real sense of strategic countermeasures. Sure, a satellite might get blown out of the sky and too much early success would lead to a hard rap on the knuckles, but you were never thinking or being out-thought. You were trying to get to the end of your research trees and hitting every narrative beat before running out of time and resources.

Whether the new systems will be effective or engaging over the length of a campaign, I can’t say. There were strong hints that XCOM’s mobile base can now be attacked – bringing back the base defense missions, the lack of which was seen as one of Enemy Unknown’s missed opportunities – and every choice you make will do more than lower the panic level in a single area. Instead, you’ll pick targets. and attempt to fulfill optional objectives in the field if you’re up to the task, with specific short- and long-term goals in mind.

Rather than spinning plates and attempting to stop the various regions of the world from succumbing to the alien threat, XCOM can strike at various facets of the opposing power structure. The enemy have a long term goal, which is tracked as a sort of doomsday countdown, but their attempts to shut down your resistance are dynamic and mission types will crop up dynamically, based on their actions and your own.

As lead producer Garth DeAngelis told us, “Enemy Unknown was a straight road. This is an open world.”

While the improvements to the somewhat anemic strategic side of the game seem like the most exciting portion of the sequel, the tactical side has changed dramatically as well. The soldiers are still at the heart of the game and they’re fully customisable. As with everything else, the ability to make a squad that look like Mad Max rejects or marauders from the pages of 2000AD ties back to the game’s themes and story. Small randomised backstories describe new recruits as ex-convicts, rebels and dishonourably discharged military types. There are some goody two-shoes thrown into the mix as well but in a world that has been stolen, XCOM are willing to scrape the very bottom of the barrel.

And that’s why it makes sense that you might have a squad leader who is chewing on a cigar in a face full of scar tissue, or a sniper wearing a blood-spattered hockey mask. These aren’t professionals – they’re humanity’s last best hope but they’re far from the clean-cut uniformed soldiers of old.

The increased customisation isn’t simply cosmetic. In the new Proving Grounds facility it’s possible to make new weapons, each with a fresh colour and pattern, and a randomised set of abilities. It’s an attempt to give the guns the same kind of character as the people who wield them and it seems smart, creating greater differentiation within the squad in a tactical sense as well as helping to give distinct personalities and qualities to every recruit.

Class specialisations are much more distinct as well. The introduction of specialists was one of Firaxis’ most significant changes from the original series – soldiers were defined by their abilities and a skilltree rather than simply by their experience, stats and the equipment they carried on any given day. Everyone still carried a gun and relied on firepower to win the day though.

The gap between the classes has increased in the sequel. One might linger at the edge of the battlefield, using a remote drone to heal allies or hack mechanical enemies, either disabling them or taking control momentarily, while another dashes through the thick of the battle, sword in hand, slicing and dicing. New aliens and their gun turrets are also highly specialised, and the combination of such varied abilities on boths sides of the fight threatens to make simple gunfire from cover seem like an outdated tactic.

There’s a risk that the tactical side of the game has too many variables. The story mission I played was wonderfully tense but relied on waves of enemies spawning, pinning my squad in a building. It’s great as a one-off event but the specific objectives, and extreme specialisation in both enemy and XCOM units, could lead to missions where perfection is required, taking away from the joy or despair that comes from improvised victory or defeat.

That’s a minor fear though. A niggling doubt set alongside a great deal of excitement. I haven’t even talked about how the procedurally generated tactical maps work yet. They’re not quite as elaborate as some people might have hoped but they’re an excellent addition. I get the impression that they’ll feel like remixes based around a large pool of basic structures. Certain buildings and blocks of terrain can be shuffled around and/or replaced, but the foundation will remain the same between one visit and the next.

It should be enough to prevent the sense of deja vu that crept into XCOM far too quickly, and side by side with the bolder changes to the strategic layer it’ll make XCOM 2 a much deeper and longer game. That word, ‘longer’, brings The Long War mod to mind and it’s something that has clearly been on Firaxis’ minds as well, not only from a design perspective but in terms of unleashing the potential of modding. Set to be released on PC exclusively, XCOM 2 has had its code restructured to support everything from minor tweaks to total conversions.

From individual encounters all the way up to the final confrontation, the fight against the occupiers promises to be a much more substantial and open game. I was surprised by the complete overhaul of the Geoscape, which is still reliant on those binary choices between missions but feels like an actual strategic layer now, with an AI that is able and willing to focus its own efforts and react to the player’s gains and losses. On the tactical side, it’s fantastic to see the new story and its themes taking centre stage and influencing the look and feel of the fight, right down to the details of the tactical maps, which show the scars and bandages of occupation and reconstruction.

Above all, it’s a relief to see a development team at ease with their own creation. The improvements to the tactical combat and the management of soldiers and the base are building on the strengths of Enemy Unknown, and the bigger picture – the management of the conflict itself – feels like something entirely new. Respectful to the past but not beholden to it. If everything holds together, this could be XCOM’s finest hour.

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Adam Smith

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