I don’t mean “I’m excited that this videogame sequel is coming out,” but rather that the game itself works so hard and does so much to create a constant sense of near-euphoric drama. In an age where sequels=darker, because far too many people believe that The Empire Strikes Back is the highest watermark of popular culture, XCOM 2 [official site]s lurch towards brightly-coloured celebratory heroism is a welcome one – and it does this even though, thematically, we’re talking a post-alien-invasion Earth and all the horror that implies. It wouldn’t be unfair to invoke Independence Day comparisons, but it wouldn’t be quite correct either: XCOM 2 does have that hoorah-heroism, but fortunately it’s bereft of flag-waving. This is the bright dystopia, the heroic rebellion rather than the forlorn resistance.
When I play XCOM 2, I feel incredibly excited most of the time, and it’s not just because of soaring military march soundtrack – there are dozens of tiny things it does to make me feel like an action hero (or a least a commander of action heroes).
Screw it, I’m doing a list. It’s either that or weirdly disassociated paragraphs.
1) The Music
I’m a big fan of XCOM 1’s soundtrack; it shares a composer with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and thus has a similar brand of moody synths, evoking Tangerine Dream at their best. But the tone was always “bad things are about to happen.” In XCOM 2, the tone is “OH MY GOD AMAZING THINGS ARE ABOUT TO HAPPEN”, even though the game’s setting is a far more horrific one. Every mission briefing is soundtracked as though this is the climactic encounter. Every Skyranger landing feels like I’ve come to save the day, not just perform a routine intel op. Every post-battle screen makes me feel like my guys just graduated with firsts from the University Of Awesome. It should be ridiculous. Hell, it sounds ridiculous when written down. But it works so well. XCOM is going to save the fucking world, yo.
A semi-new feature is evacuation, building on those XCOM 1 missions where you had to escort a VIP to a specific exit point on the map. There’s a whole lot more of that now, both with and without Fedexing NPCs. There are quite a few missions which involve smash’n’grabbing some alien artefact then getting out of dodge, or carrying someone’s prone body over your shoulder, robbing you of the ability to fire. Often, you can even do it mid-mission, calling in a Skyranger on the spot to get your (remaining) guys out of a tricky situation, or even just because you’re in a hurry or want an even more dramatic conclusion. I suspect this will play an even larger role at the hardest difficulties, when your surviving units have to carry their unconscious mates to safety in order that you don’t suffer a complete wipe-out. I might even have to leave a man behind, for the greater good. But evacuation is no mere glowing rectangle or a forlorn sense of defeat: it’s signal flares and ropes dropped from the sky then your guys scooped away amid a hail of (admittedly sometimes imagined) gunfire. We got in there. We did our job. We got out. Hoo-rah.
Among the many new soldier customisations is to choose an attitude for each unit, which is basically the stance they take in inventory screens and when idle on missions. It’s all the Aliens tropes you’d want it to be, and it makes roster scenes look brilliant. You’ve got the cocksure woman leaning back with a shotgun resting on her shoulder. The twitchy sniper jerking his head around to spy danger in every corner. The uptight, improbably stiffbacked senior officer. The slumped defeatist. These don’t just play a role in posey pre-battle screens, but actively affect how you design and characterise your squad. Yeah, that pose totally needs to be paired with a cigarette in the mouth. She’s getting a bandanna. Joe Cool over there needs some hipster shades. Cowboy hat right here. Scars and tats on her. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire XCOM.
4) Wounded soldiers
Even being messed up seems absurdly heroic. After a battle, you see all your guys stride out of the Skyranger towards the camera. Just as they reach it, anyone Wounded suddenly sags, their energy spent. Anyone Gravely Wounded falls to one knee. The message is clear: we’ve held our pain back for as long as we had to. Only now that the battle is done will we succumb. Even then, sit and watch and they’ll lift their heads, look around, as if ready to go back out there if they really have to.
Fist-bumps all round for XCOM 2’s animators, basically.
5) Advent arriving by helicarrier
Some XCOM 1 missions featured alien reinforcements being airlifted in from off-map, but XCOM 2 pushes this regularly. Helicarriers will arrive in a short cutscene, dust-clad and light-beaming, from which heavily-armoured human-alien hybrid soldiers will jump and thump to the ground. It’s not just “oh the script says some new guys pop-up now”, it’s “they’re bigger and stronger and have infinite resources and they’re coming for you. Be afraid.” Or, reload and get ready for more. Feels good.
6) Your best units star on the main menu screen
One of the overall concepts of XCOM 2 is that your most senior soldiers are not just random joes, but the real stars of the story. Until they get themselves killed, at least. So the Half-Life 2-esque main menu screen will display one of your best units crouched in an action pose, ready to go mess up some Advent goons. I didn’t even notice at first, because my Rookies and Squaddies all had nondescript hair and nondescript beige or olive armour, so I thought I was just seeing a generi-unit. Then suddenly my best Ranger, who looks like Robyn and Guile had a lovechild who grew up to be really, really into happy hardcore, was all over the front page. Ready for action, making the game mine.
Related to the above, your longest-serving officers start showing up on in-game Wanted billboards. It’s a little touch, but one which makes you think you’re really achieving something. The aliens are afraid of you. You might actually save the world.
8) Looting dilemmas
Borrowing the Meld collection concept in XCOM: Enemy Within, you’ll often find yourself in a quandry about whether to carefully push through your objectives or take a risk to grab some bonus loot. Some enemies will drop bonuses when killed, which are usually weapon modifications (such as +5% aim or free reloads). Given you’ve usually shot someone from some distance away, you may well have to send a unit into the lion’s den if you want to go get that pick-up – and you can’t just wait until the coast is clear because the drops self-destruct after a few turns. Very game-y, yes, but it’s effective at reducing the over-reliance on creep’n’Overwatch that characterised XCOM 1.
9) Timed missions
Much more of them, much more variety of them, often with oodles of strange alien architecture – a relief after far too many identical bomb-defusal missions in XCOM 1. The urgency works, rather than feels like a routine. You’re making a choice whether to engage, to push on and even, as the turn time runs down, to take crazy risks in order to go deactivate some evil computer before it’s too late.
10) Lots of dramatic jumps and slides down ladders
Again, well done animators. All the running and jumping looks very cool.
An important new mechanic, and one which evolves as your soldiers develop new abilities. Like the looting dilemma, it’s a new anxiety about where to go, and adds a pounding sense of drama once you reveal yourselves to the aliens. It’s on. Go do something about it.
12) Melee attacks
Particularly when your Ranger does a full two-action sprint that ends with cleaving a Snakeperson in two. That full sprint has a pay off, as opposed to the traditional worry that you’ve just squandered an action purely so someone can go crouch behind a rock.
13) Tons of environmental damage
More scenery – walls and doors and windows and cars and all sorts – can be destroyed than in XCOM 1, but even the stuff that can’t be entirely smashed treats you with a storm of debris being chipped off it. Even missed shots can feel satisfying as a result.
14) Snipers’ sidearms
No crappy little pistol for when your deadeyes are out of ammo or actions: they get Dirty Harry Magnums, cocked and drawn and fired like a rocket. Sure, the damage is comparatively minor, but it no longer feels like a sad little compromise.
And one thing that makes me a whole lot less excited: Like many others, XCOM 2 doesn’t run at all well on my PC. I can get it to perfectly playable so long as I compromise on visual bells and whistles, but 60 frames is a dim and distant dream. Not too much of an issue for a turn-based game, but unfortunately it’s accompanied by irregular huge drops in framerate and accompanying lagginess. My PC’s also running so damned hot – just to run this at pretty much medium settings – that there’s no moisture left in the air of my room and it sounds like there’s a small motorbike under my desk. Something’s up, and I do hope it’s fixed soon.
I can cope though. XCOM 2 is, after all, very very exciting.
For more on XCOM 2, visit our XCOM 2 guide hub.