In 2012, Firaxis took on the seemingly impossible task of reviving one of the most beloved PC games ever made. The original X-COM is widely considered to be one of the masterpieces of the nineties golden age, and since its release there have been sequels, spin-offs and unofficial revivals, but Firaxis’ XCOM was a complete, licensed reinterpretation. It was also rather good. Now, with XCOM 2 [official site] ready for release, Firaxis aim to improve on the formula that made Enemy Unknown such a triumph. Here’s wot I think.
There are going to be a lot of videos showing you a lot of things that happen in XCOM 2. Not all of the things, because on some levels the game is what you make of it, but you’ll be able to see enough before you have a chance to play to spoil some of the surprises. There are no spoilers here, concerning the specifics of the creatures and constructs you’ll face, or the missions you’ll need to undertake.
While this is a game to be chewed over and replayed time and time again (I’ve finished the campaign once and started it more than a dozen times), the first playthrough is a wonderful thing. In this post-invasion, and indeed post-occupation, storyline, you might think that the term “Enemy Unknown” no longer applies, but whether you’re facing adaptations of old foes or encountering fresh horrors, XCOM 2 has the ability to surprise and shock at almost every turn of its hefty plot.
Part of the weight of that plot comes from the characters – the pre-built characters, who some might see as an unnecessary distraction from their own, hand-crafted soldiers. There’s much more dialogue between the folks back at base than in Enemy Unknown. Whether it’s your new head of engineering expressing discomfort at the apparent lack of ethical concern in the dark of the laboratories or the melacholy reflections of your constant companion, Central Officer Bradford.
He’s my favourite, Bradford. He’s mostly referred to simply as Central, which led to an odd situation when I came to write this review and Googled him to find out exactly what his rank is. Without thinking, I typed in “Bradford Central” rather than “Bradford Central XCOM” and discovered both a Premier Inn and a Travelodge. Appropriate. Like the manager of an inner city chain hotel, XCOM’s Bradford appeals to me because he shows all of the scars, stresses and gray hairs of invasion and the intervening years of occupation.
He has come close to losing all hope and the cracks in his armour are visible whenever losses mount during a mission – hearing him panic and even come close to admonishing your command shows the value of these talking heads as tools to heighten the intensity of combat. They may not be strictly necessary but, like the environmental details that tell the history of Advent’s rise and humanity’s fall, the cast are one cog in the machine that communicates XCOM 2’s themes.
And this is a game thick with thematic pleasures. As an organisation, XCOM are far removed from their origins as an elite international military force. The scrappy ragtag collection of soldiers that you send out into the field from the mobile Avenger base are, if their customisable bios are to be believed, equal parts heroes and villains. Not quite the Suicide Squad, perhaps, but they’re people who are good at surviving and killing, for one reason or another, and the recruitment policy tends toward “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to any criminal background.
Given that everything is customisable – from names to bios, appearance, demeanour and clothing – your XCOM might still be made up of the brightest and best that humanity has to offer. My two favourite soldiers, in my victorious campaign, were cut from very different cloth – a sharpshooter who looked like a professional future-warrior, tricked out in the most immaculate gear imaginable, and a one-eyed grenadier who looked like a salty sailor on prolonged shore leave. Class acts, both of them, and they’ll crop up in future campaigns thanks to the ability to save created characters into a pool from which new recruits are drawn.
All of that, you might think, is fluff. The icing on the cake. Thankfully, this is one of the most delicious and nutritious cakes you’ll ever eat. As a tactical combat game, XCOM 2 has few peers. It’s such an astonishingly intelligent sequel that, in hindsight, the first game seems like a test run. Every element has been rethought and retooled, and while it was the strategic layer that required the most attention, it’s in the tactical layer that the genius of the design shines through most brightly.
As I moved through the campaign, there were ample moments when the rules, theme and emergent stories combined to create scenes that illustrated the best of the game. Like last year’s best turn-based game, Invisible, Inc., XCOM 2 appears to generate tension and opportunities for desperate heroism effortlessly, and that’s because so much effort has been spent on the overall structure of both the tactical and strategic layers.
The most effective and most complex changes are all structural, mainly to be found in the flow of the campaign, and the tight control of skills and equipment. As mentioned at the top, I’m not going to spoil the specifics of the abilities for each of the five classes but the elegance of the design is in the way that every choice and every upgrade forces you away from the simple ‘move, cover shoot’ flow that defines the early stages of the campaign.
There are, on both the XCOM and Advent sides, many abilities that disrupt the normal flow of the battlefield. The most basic of these, as you might expect, are grenades and other explosive area of effect weapons. They force you to split and scatter, and to find new cover when current defences are destroyed.
But you’ll want to separate your troops anyway because that way they can flank the enemy, sidestepping any attempts to cower behind cover of their own. That process of protecting yourself and flanking the enemy is the core of XCOM. Until it isn’t.
Even the game’s earliest stages upset any routines you might fall into. Every enemy you’ll meet, the most basic Advent soldier aside, can do far more than fire a gun. Sectoids push and pull your troops around the map, using a combination of direct mind control and other psionic attacks with semi-random outcomes. Other enemies make a habit of destroying cover or directing danger toward your previously secure units, or forcing a retreat. Thankfully, you can fight back in similar ways.