What Is XCOM 2? An Alice And Pip Chat

Pip has never been a fan of turn-based strategy games but Alice is knee-deep in XCOM 2 [official site]. She keeps sending Pip videos of surprisingly competent psychic attacks on aliens and, despite herself, Pip is now not sure whether to try again with the series. Alice attempts to offer a useful primer. The text contains spoilers for some enemy types:


Alice: Philippa.

Pip: Alice, I don’t get XCOM. Please help me to get XCOM! I feel left out.

Alice: Pip, XCOM is a game where you build a guerrilla force to take over the world and turf out its rightful rulers (they put a flag in it and everything!).But don’t worry: you’re the good guys! They’re aliens and you’re humans and this is the Earth (aliens might have a claim to the Earth in a few hundred years but 2035 is too soon).

Pip: Wait, wait, wait, back up. Is this XCOM or XCOM 2?

Alice: This is XCOM 2. XCOM is when the aliens first arrive and start muttering things like “Say, this is a nice planet you’ve got here.”

Pip: So do I need to have played XCOM to get XCOM 2?

Alice: Not really! Mostly it’s a game about making little people move around a grid and try not to get shot in the face. ‘Reclaim Earth from colonising aliens’ is a p. simple pitch, and you’ll only miss out on references to lots of “Oh boy, this reminds me of the last big meat monsters…” and “Oh gosh, you know who would’ve loved to see this meat monster? That guy from the first game.” There are aliens and they’re up to no good, so you want there to be no aliens.

Well, they’re not up to NO good – they’re up to some good. But they’re baddies and the bad outweighs all that.

Pip: I have heard through sources* that the second game assumes XCOM failed in the first one. (* sources being the game’s lead producer so it seemed pretty reliable). Isn’t that a bit off-putting if you managed to win?

Alice: No, it’s great because you get to go back and kill aliens in a whole new way. Only this time you’re doing it in gleaming alien cities with exciting holoboards and some really snazzy outfits. They’re really nice cities. The humans who live in them without being vanished look like they have a great time! They explain the inconsistency in a hand-wavy way which sure, fine, it works, whatever.

Pip: So if these cities are so nice and the outfits are so snazzy and the holoboards are so exciting, why do we want the aliens gone? Can we not be new best friends with them?

Alice: I don’t know, man. It’s one of those dystopias where, yeah okay sometimes people just vanish, but they seem fairly civil aside from that. They keep order, you know. Innumerable bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it in our own cities, at least in XCOM 2 you know what’s up. But SOME PEOPLE have big ideas about ‘liberty’ and all that so ugh, fine, let’s do wars.

Pip, have I gone from joking around to arguing for a fascist state. Because, you know, that’s not… you know. BECAUSE MURDERS ARE FUN, OKAY. THAT’S WHY.

Pip: So it’s definitely a fascist state then? Because from what I’m hearing it’s definitely a futuristic dystopia but I wasn’t sure what was so bad. Was it literally just the danger of suddenly vanishing? Because I struggle with the nature of existence on a fairly regular basis and so far it sounds like one of my average Tuesday worries.

Alice: Oh certainly. And I’m dancing around spoilers to do with where vanished people go.

Pip: OH, I SEE.

Alice: Point is, XCOM are right, the aliens are totally up to naughty things and being unkind rulers. So you get to boot them out.

Pip: Wait. What does XCOM stand for?

Alice: Oh. It’s. Xtraterrestrial… Command Of Murders?

Pip: I see.

Alice: Extra Cool Orange Masks. Xtra.

Pip: So you don’t know. That’s what I’m getting here.

Alice: Xtreme Cool Ovipositor Mashers

Pip: What the dickens is an ovipositor?

Alice: WELL!

Pip: Is it an egg thing?

Alice: Correct.

Pip: Is it something that deposits eggs?

Alice: The eggblaster.

Pip: THE POWER OF SECONDARY SCHOOL LATIN. So you have an egg blaster?

Alice: All Latin ever taught me was how to understand French better, which seemed fair enough

Pip: Alice, I just Googled ovipositors and found out about a fetish I really didn’t even consider existing. [Vice link, clearly NSFW]. Are you basically telling me you have a weaponised version of that?

Alice: No, XCOM don’t but one alien does. Chryssalids. Horrible skittering gits. And that’s even before the eggs. XCOM 1 has a mission where you explore a spooky deserted fishing port and they burst out of dead sharks and whales. They are AWFUL. Justification enough to kill ’em all.

Pip: Is there just one alien race then? The way people talk about it it sounds like “aliens have taken over” but I’ve never been clear if it’s like some big alien conglomerate with loads of species or if there’s one big in-charge species or…?

Alice: There’s an in-charge species who, the end of the first game explains, have a habit of finding sentient life and trying to weaponise it. Their army is a load of different species. In XCOM 2, they’ve started adding humans to their forces.

Pip: So could we team up with the other aliens and save them from being weaponised?

Alice: I think it’s a bit late for them. They’ve been engineered and trained for years to worship the rulers. And, as we have established, their cities are quite nice.

Pip: That is sad. I would like to help them somehow. Maybe they are happy and I am just being presumptuous about them even needing saving, though.

What are the other ones like? I have heard of a “Thin Man” – is that the one with the butt that Alec made Adam look at in his diary?

Alice: [ignoring any and all references to Adam’s flirtatious behaviour] Sometimes I send Psy-Pip to ‘dominate’ aliens, which means you become friends for a whole mission. But that bond breaks when Pip hops into the evac helicopter and leaves them behind.

Pip: OH NO!

What if you left me behind? Would we be friends forever or is it not real friendship? I guess there’s that proverb about butterflies. If you let it go then it might come back but if you hold onto it you’ll mash its wings and it will die horribly.

Alice: You would get captured by other aliens. I think I would later have the option to rescue you, which does actually sounds like fun. Popping open the back of a prisoner transport van to have you roll your eyes and spit “WHAT? Shut up.”

I think the ability’s name ‘Dominate’ suggests it’s more bullying than friendship, really. I can make Psy-Pip stop using it, if you’d rather. But WE’RE FRIENDS, AREN’T WE PIP?

Pip: She can do it for saving the world purposes but she isn’t allowed to get people to come to her birthday party using it. Because that would be hollow and sad.

Alice: Okay. No birthday parties. Mostly I make you befriend Andromedans and throw goop at men. Or have them do it.

Pip: What’s an Andromedan?

Alice: It’s a skinny little alien living in a big robot suit. The robot suit gets REALLY ANGRY if you kill the alien. I think that’s the true friendship of XCOM 2.

Pip: Aww. That’s really lovely! How did they meet? Or rather, how does one acquire a loyalty suit? Asking for a friend.

Alice: He was an alien, she was a robot suit, can I make it any more obvious?

Pip, what would you and your loyalty suit do together? Bearing in mind, before you answer, that I am a big strong friend. I’m essentially a robot suit. What are you saying I’m not doing?

Pip: I think we would just be like one of those movie montages of lovely days out, you know? I would go on the swings and the robot suit would push me

it would help me reach things on high shelves and carry me home in its tummy when I got tired.

Alice: I would watch this. Firaxis, here’s your XCOM 2 expansion idea.

Pip: You don’t do any of that because you are in Scotland ALL THE TIME.

Alice: Pip, I’m in England right now. What are you saying.

Pip: I’m saying we could go find some swings. ANYWAY. What other aliens are there?

Alice: Oh! Thin men! Yes. They are from XCOM. In XCOM 2 they have stopped pretending to be remotely human, and are now snakes in bikinis. It suits them. They were very pale and sickly in XCOM, but in 2 they’re beautifully bronzed.

Pip: New game, new you. WAIT! There was another game. With men in fedoras. I went to a preview event for it. It was like that TV show Dark Skies – that was XCOM as well, yes?

Alice: Yes. Sorta. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, as it came to be known. It’s a bit sad, that one. It started out looking like a slow, creeping horror piece of period sci-fi. I mean, that was what I imagine based on the first trailer. Which is often not representative. I understand it came out as a boring third-person shooter?

Pip: You’re asking me? You know what my memory is like. I remember a petrol station and a man in a fedora.

Alice: Look at this:

I was really excited about that! Slow, creeping infiltration, oddities, and overwhelming power that’ll melt you.

Pip: Aww, that trailer is like how I felt about Dark Skies when I saw adverts for that – I was expecting the same thing and then it was just this boring slog.

Alice: Yes, Dark Skies comparisons are disappointingly apt.

Pip: So, okay, you lot all seem to be having a grand old time in XCOM 2, writing diaries and blowing things up and doing psychic Mean Girl-ing but is 2 significantly different than 1? Like, it’s just straight up not my genre – turn-based tactics makes me panic and I don’t really enjoy it – but I’m wondering if there’s something that will give me a way in, you know?

Alice: Hmm. Maybe imagine XCOM as a squad-based RPG – in terms of classes and things, anyway. You have a lot of different tools, so every turn is an interesting puzzle of risk management and prioritisation. Mistakes are felt relatively quickly, so it’s not one of those games where, ten minutes later, you realise you ballsed it all up. While XCOM 1 gave plenty of spare turns and space between fights to reload, heal, and regroup, 2 has several timers that keep pushing you onwards. You’re always doing SOMETHING suboptimally so you learn to roll with it, accept things happen and move on.

Pip: How similar would you say it is to MGSV, then?

Alice: The great thing about being turn-based is that your decisions aren’t rushed. Your progress is, but you have ages to think about if you want to shoot their face, lob a smoke grenade, retreating, distract them, and so on. It has the interesting decisions and options of MGS but you don’t need to be twitchy.

I mean, it’s a totally different game in many ways, but it’s very similar in terms of decisions: you can handle things in many ways, but here have the space to actually follow through rather than just shoot them because it’s quick and effective. (Just shooting people is effective too, obviously.)

Pip: Yeah, the stories people tell have a similar feeling – they have their squads and their plans and their tales of how it all went wrong or right.

Alice: The turns and grids also make it clearer what you can and can’t do, and how everything works. You won’t try a daring plan which just falls apart because a guard looked a different way – you can see that in advance.

Pip: I do like the idea that I would feel mistakes more immediately. One of the big things for me when it comes to turn-based is the fear that I will only become aware of a mistake a lot later and have utterly wasted a bunch of time.

Alice: That never happens! It’s great. You can see your objective is here, your evac point is there, and while you may move forward in a suboptimal way (up to and including having your entire team dying), you’re not just floundering.

The first XCOM had a lot of having to backtrack to find some aliens who’d e.g. decide to hang out in a nice dell in the woods around a fire. Or wandering aimlessly until you stumble across something. XCOM 2 is always moving onwards.

Pip: And I can name the characters after the casts of various soap operas? Dean Gaffney could be on my team.

Alice: You can even make them look like cheap lookalikes.

Pip: Paul Danan…

Alice: DGAF, they call him. I used to have a neighbour with a DGAF company car. I think they wanted it to be Don’t Give A Fuck but I always thought of old D-Gafs.

Pip: Tell you what, when I have finished The Witness and Firewatch I will try XCOM 2.

Alice: I think you might enjoy the decisions. Some of them. Some are boring and quite overwhelming at first. But I can help. I can be your robot suit, Pip.

Pip: Awesome. Now let’s go find some swings.

If you’re just scratching the surface of XCOM 2, these tips might help you to keep those precious Dean Gaffneys alive.

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  1. DanMan says:

    Well, the base building is where you might regret decisions much later.

    • Malkara says:

      Like not realizing the benefits of the Advanced Warfare Training center and building it after all of your main people are Colonels. :(

      • FLoJ says:

        If you retrain your colonels then they’ll get any hidden perks they missed out on.

        • Booker says:

          Not necessarily. It’s a reroll.

          • FLoJ says:

            Each character is appointed their hidden skill at a certain rank (if they get one at all) – it will only be awarded IF you have an AWC when you select the skill at that rank.

            By retraining the higher ranking soldiers, it causes the hidden perk to ‘trigger’ and activate their hidden perk when you select their usual rank ups.

            Nothing to do with a reroll, it triggers it if it’s there.

      • mike2R says:

        The True Retroactive AWC mod gets around this:
        link to steamcommunity.com

    • Premium User Badge

      Andy_Panthro says:

      Like building a Workshop in a corner, before realising that the gremlins it produces can only help in ADJACENT rooms, and those are rooms you don’t really need the extra help with…

      • Aliasalpha says:

        Especially when “adjacent” specifically means a + shape, gremlins are like the anti-bishops in that they can’t move diagonally

        • aepervius says:

          Now it would be nice to have a workshop mod which allows the gremlin to go everywhere. Not only in adjacent rooms.

        • gpown says:

          you mean… rooks?

        • SuicideKing says:

          Yeah, I didn’t realise that till I made an extra bench.

      • Wisq says:

        Corner can actually be okay, as long as the facilities next to it can both take 2x engineers and are things you’d want fully staffed at all times. E.g. communications or power.

        Now, putting it in a corner and putting a GTS on one side and a lab on the other … yeah, you’re gonna want to move that.

  2. Punning Pundit says:

    All of the cows have disappeared, and yet there are hamburgers.

    • Xzi says:

      Central really wants people to stop eating those. Could they possibly be…PEOPLE?!

      I legit don’t know if that’s true, not that far into the game yet (if there’s any reveal on this at all), but it seems like the obvious conclusion. Lol.

    • Aliasalpha says:

      A potentially more worrying thought; people are presumably still drinking tea & coffee and having cereal, where are they getting the milk??

    • unacom says:

      esta carne de rata…

  3. Fnord73 says:

    Sexist comment #1:

    Sparkle sparkle!

  4. Premium User Badge

    Jaeja says:

    This is the best feature. More of this please.

    • Premium User Badge

      caff says:

      I agree. This article is basically kind of monologue that goes through my brain each time I start up XCOM.

    • Premium User Badge

      magnificent octopus says:

      Seriously. If RPS just turned into all Alice and Pip chats, I’m not sure I would complain.

      • Premium User Badge

        distantlurker says:

        but then you’d vanish from that Utopia and we’d all have to start a guerrilla journalist army to free you from the evil Psy-Pip and ROBOT Alice.

        Sounds efforty.

  5. HopperUK says:

    Could you two figure out Football Manager for me please? Ta.

  6. Premium User Badge

    DrollRemark says:

    Alice: Oh certainly. And I’m dancing around spoilers to do with where vanished people go.

    Pip: OH, I SEE.

    I enjoyed this because I could see exactly what Alice was trying to skirt around at the start of the conversation, and yet Pip was determined to focus straight in on it.

    That’s some good journalism, Pip!

  7. Premium User Badge

    X_kot says:

    Great, now I’m going to feel bad about killing Andromedans…

  8. solahart says:

    X-COM stands for Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, unless the loss of the hyphen in the Firaxis games somehow means it is different.

    Wonderful article, I really loved it!

  9. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I have Alice in my main squad (thanks to the RPS team pool), and she’s become quite the Psi-operator. I’m trying to collect all of the RPS team, but I’m quite late in my game so even if I get them all they might not actually see any action.

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      They won’t be having any of that. We all know everybody at RPS got into games journo for the action.

  10. Booker says:

    Awesome XCOM trailer. Didn’t know it, but it looks great. Too bad that game doesn’t exist.

  11. Raoul Duke says:

    You want to talk about awesome trailers leading to disappointment when the actual product is obtained… here is an early prototype of XCOM (no hyphen). It looks like a glorious hybrid of the X-Files, Syndicate, Signs and of course X-Com itself:

    link to youtube.com

    This brief video is more true to the feel of the original game than the whole of XCOM 1/2 as released. I mean, look how creepy that little grey alien bastard is as he runs around near a creepy cornfield. And listen to that gorgeous, X-Com-y music.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      Here’s another one:

      link to youtube.com

      Time units… reloadable rocket launchers… creepy vibe… you start IN the Skyranger… *sob*

    • PikaBot says:

      Yeah, here’s the thing. They took that prototype out when they were done with it, and gave it to a whole bunch of players to try out. The players who were already avid X-COM fans dug it. But every single other person who touched it hated it.

      If the final product had resembled that prototype, it would have absolutely been an enormous sales flop. That prototype almost killed the project altogether.

      • Raoul Duke says:

        Yeah, that’s exactly what I would expect the guys who decided to ‘streamline’ the hell out of it to say.

        • Xocrates says:

          Which is not the same as saying they are wrong.

        • PikaBot says:

          No, that’s what Jake Solomon, lifelong X-COM devotee and the man behind the prototype you’re mourning over says. He tried twice to make the game you want and both times the results were, in his own words, completely shit.

          They didn’t make “streamlined” XCOM because they hate complexity or think we’re all idiots or whatever, they made it ‘streamlined’ because they tried to remake the old games and it sucked.

          • Raoul Duke says:

            Your argument would make perfect sense if it wasn’t for the fact that I can still fire up the first game, right now, and immediately find that it is a vastly better game than these move-action, class-based cover shooters disguised as strategy games.

            I am deeply suspicious that “the prototypes sucked” was code for “the marketing/executive branches of the organisation decided that they was too confusing for morons and small children, and we want morons and small children to give us money”.

          • PikaBot says:

            I strongly advise you to read this article and get the man’s words himself instead of just spouting off your own wildly incorrect assumptions. They made it. They put it in front of players. The players told them it was awful.

          • Asurmen says:

            Raoul, and your argument would make perfect sense, if every player they gave it to was like you.

  12. wraithgr says:

    I must be the only one who isn’t going bonkers over how original it is that you lost the first one… Sequels have been doing that for a long time, no?

    • Werthead says:

      I did find it amusing that the game actually briefly rationalises it for people who did “win” the original game and then quickly moves on.

    • Premium User Badge

      Sihoiba says:

      Personally it’s the framing device that sets up every other victorious run you had in the first game as you actually working for the aliens that I really like.

    • unacom says:

      …like in UFO Aftermath/Aftershock/Afterlight?

      • wraithgr says:

        Thank you, was trying to come up with a couple of examples and for some reason could only think of the original warcraft…

    • Premium User Badge

      bonuswavepilot says:

      The Idle Thumbs guys made a good point that the plot of the first game is much more like the movie-plot you’d expect in a ‘humans lose to the aliens’ scenario (shadowy extra-governmental international organisation engages in a war of attrition with aliens from without and political machinations from within), as opposed to the new one which sounds more like the sort of plot in which the humans will overcome (rag-tag group of underdogs face down overwhelming odds to halt the unnatural alien agenda and drive them from our home)…

  13. LuNatic says:

    >> I don’t know, man. It’s one of those dystopias where, yeah okay sometimes people just vanish, but they seem fairly civil aside from that.

    So what you’re saying is, the world pretty much turns into Canada?

  14. Kala says:

    Alice: ♫ He was an alien, she was a robot suit, can I make it any more obvious? ♫

    “Pip:it would help me reach things on high shelves and carry me home in its tummy when I got tired.”

    No Pip, that’s Krang off the turtles. you don’t wanna be that :p

    “Maybe imagine XCOM as a squad-based RPG – in terms of classes and things, anyway.”

    Yes! There’s definitely overlap there, anyway.
    It’s a real mishmash of things, you have your turn based strategy in the missions, but then your resource management and base-building, and also your troop management…

    I know it’s not required, but I think the best introduction to Xcom is still the original. The modern remakes are glorious, but the knife-cut tension in the original is horrific.

  15. Monggerel says:


    Honestly, even if I do my best to ignore the appalling performance on my laptop, I just straight up enjoyed Enemy Unknown (and Enemy Within) a lot more.
    I still finished and enjoyed 2’s campaign, but I don’t think I’ll be replaying it any time soon.
    I’m not exactly good at putting into textwords what my feelings on the game were, but I can definitely say I had some serious misgivings about the tone (and kept making Half-Life 2 comparisons in my head, which was stupid). It feels too… heroic and epic? Or something? It feels kinda more cliche than Enemy Unknown’s “we’re a secret multinational organization who sends out unregulatable death squads in the middle of the night to kill unidentified hostiles” and “we subject our soldiers to dangerous gene therapy or just straight up chop their limbs off and put them in robot suits” somehow feels more dire and exciting than XCOM 2’s ♫”Listen to the wind of change”♫ or what not.

  16. Stevostin says:

    I want to stress that I bought the first one based on RPS praise and it turns out to be an abysmally poor tactical game with every optimal decision obvious, packed to the hilt with dull progressive team move over screens until next encounter, and an excessively strong reliance on dice rolls to generate the challenge the game mechanics and AI are unable to put up. Also featuring sub average production value on every front: everything (music, design, animation etc.) being below the average.

    As I never seen any acknowledgment of this here I expect XCOM 2 to be as much a failure of a game. I may be wrong and don’t take my word for it but at least let’s make clear that to some people it’s nothing like what the coverage from that site makes you expect. At best it’s the tactical turn based game for people who never ever play that kind of games. It’s vastly inferior to Shadowrun on that level for instance, and Shadowrun is nothing great. But at least I can sometimes have an hesitation about the best move to make.

    • Xocrates says:

      As someone who has just played XCOM 2 and the Shadowrun: Hong Kong bonus campaign in parallel, the shadowrun argument baffles me.

      Despite, or even because, Shadowrun having more options each individual action matters a lot less than XCOM, and mistakes are rarely seriously punished.

      Granted, this is in comparison to XCOM 2 which improved on many problems that XCOM:EU had, but even so.

      • Stevostin says:

        SR (didn’t play HK) wasn’t very difficult but neither was X-COM and at least it was possible to wonder what to do, fail, find a better solution. In X-Com, you just have units that move and shoots. They all are to be put in cover. They can all carry grenades. Basically it’s just “spread enough”, “make sure everyone can shoot”, “always let them come”. That last bit especially shaped each and every battle.

    • Jimbo says:

      They’ve gone to great lengths to remove the slow creep across the map (mostly successfully). The rest of your description is pretty accurate though. Technically the game is a broken mess, and difficulty is still largely dictated by luck.

      I enjoyed building a team and playing dress-up with them, but the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. The successes and failures rarely felt like my own because of the big luck factor often involved in both. The way the game is designed leaves very little room for any sweet spot in which it can feel challenging but with the outcome in your own hands.