XCOM 2’s Long War excels through new tactical depths

From the very first mission of The Long War 2, the stakes are different. Your enlarged squad isn’t doing anything as brash as blowing up an Advent statue; instead, they’ve managed to track down an under-strength patrol and are determined to take it down. Two things are immediately clear: the insurgency aren’t as bold as at the beginning of vanilla XCOM 2, but, as individuals and as squads, they’re far more cunning.

Mission one: eight soldiers, all with protective vests, frags and flashbangs. Tougher recruits for a tougher war. The fight for Earth isn’t just longer, it’s broader and more involved at every level. The Long War is available now and we’ve been in the thick of the right for the past few days.

As I played The Long War 2, one question never left my mind: no matter how much longer and harder this might be, is it also more interesting and enjoyable? Bigger isn’t necessarily better. I’m currently playing Darkest Dungeon again, a game that is receiving a shorter mode in a coming update, and even though it’s comfortably one of my favourite games of recent times, I’ll be glad of a condensed mode. After a while, every dungeon starts to look a lot like the last one.

Stretch an XCOM 2 campaign out for an extra thirty, forty or fifty hours (I haven’t completed a Long War 2 campaign yet but I imagine length will vary quite a lot depending on chance and your own efficiency) and all of those extractions, retaliations and data hacks might become extremely repetitive. The pacing of the vanilla game is very deliberate, dropping new enemies and technologies in your path at a steady rate and ensuring that though you have a level of control over events, there’s always a guiding hand to lead you from one narrative beat to the next.

The Long War 2 doesn’t discard or sidestep those narrative beats, apart from the first (the Commander figure that you play no longer has that grand introduction), but it fills the spaces in between the major steps forward with much more of the tactical pleasures and emergent narratives that are the series’ key strength. Every time I’ve sent a squad into combat, I’ve been tense and excited all over again, which is incredible considering the tens of hours I’ve already poured into XCOM 2. For reasons that I’ll go into shortly, the tactical side of the game is not just the best it’s ever been, it’s so much improved that I’ll find it hard to back to vanilla. The improvements to the strategic side, which is where I thought The Long War 2 might make the most dramatic changes, don’t all feel as meaningful.

That’s partly simply because more time is spent in combat than on the Geoscape or in the Avenger base. It might have a strategic five o’clock shadow, but XCOM 2 is a game primarily about tactical combat. That hasn’t changed here, and I didn’t expect a mod to rewrite the game’s structure entirely, but what has been added does enhance the sense of fighting a war rather than progressing through a series of missions.

Most meaningful among the changes is the ability to field several squads simultaneously. It’s a change that makes itself known throughout the entire game. Primarily, it’s a way to deal with several threats or opportunities at the same time, tearing up the binary approach that XCOM 2 originally took. If Advent are attacking civilians in West Africa and New Australia, you can send one squad to each location rather than choosing who should live and who should die.

Complications arise in that you don’t get a fleet of Skyrangers to zip your people around the map and you’ll need to take the Avenger to each location, dropping off the squad and then moving on to your next stop. That makes the actual base feel much more like a mobile thing that exists on a map rather than a cursor that you move to a place simply to activate the mission in that place.

When you drop a squad at a mission location, in most cases they no longer jump straight into combat. There’s an infiltration period, which is a smart thematic fit and one of The Long War’s biggest game-changing additions. The infiltration period is the time it takes for your soldiers to locate their target, while remaining hidden among the general population or out in the sticks. They’re doing all the cool secret agent stuff and preparing for the final objective and the escape that follows.

All of those timed missions feel much more fitting now that they’re explicitly the final moments of a week-long effort, involving subterfuge, espionage and commando take-downs. That you don’t get to see any of the former is understandable, and I would have liked some flavour text or occasional choices to make along the way, but when you have two squads out in the world, infiltrating Advent cities, there’s a splendid sense of urgency.

Infiltration isn’t just window-dressing though. Missions have an expiry date and when you arrive at the location, every change you make to your squad, from adding new members to changing their equipment, affects the time you’ll need to complete infiltration. If you can hit 100% before the expiry date, which forces you to either launch the mission or abort, then you’ll face weaker Advent forces. Anything less than 100% and they’ll be reinforced. You can spend Intel to boost the rate of infiltration but it mostly depends on the makeup of your squad.

Remember how the first mission gives you eight soldiers? You can send ten on the next if you reckon that’s the best way to get the job done. My favourite thing about The Long War 2 is that it makes me think about squad-building far more seriously than XCOM ever has before. Do I want to risk sending a rookie, in the hopes she’ll get those first kills and start her climb through the ranks? Should I risk all of my best soldiers on a single target or split them between all of my active squads? Would it be smart to send a Shinobi-only squad, just three, to attempt the kind of fast, sneaky surgical strike that a larger mob couldn’t manage?

Every soldier you add to a squad increases infiltration time, though some have abilities that lessen the impact. Giving them certain equipment also modifies the timing – suppressors are an early assist – so you’ll need to balance taking the best possible squad and ensuring you face the weakest enemy forces.

The multi-squad management and infiltration are the most significant changes to the Geoscape, or at least the most visible ones. You can also give basic instructions to civilians in the areas you’ve contacted and have some control over, using a simple menu that allocates them to gather intel, supplies or new recruits. It’s a little like a simplified version of the system in Jagged Alliance 2, right down to those folks appearing in missions that take place in the area. While the personnel management does allow for some level of control it really comes down to boosting the flow of resources when needed. There’s usually a correct way to adjust the settings, depending on your expenditure or discoveries that month, so it felt like one more plate to spin rather than the meaningful choices everywhere else in the mod.

And, thankfully, meaningful choices are Long War’s bread and butter. All of those decisions made during the infiltration phase pay off when you take control. All soldiers now have three slots for utility items but leaving one or all empty makes them more mobile. Immediately there is more to consider when building a squad and between turns in every mission. Flashbangs, frags and specialist equipment come into play far more often, not just through optional equipment but in the expanded skillset of every class (as well as the addition of a new class, Technical, which is halfway toward being a MEC trooper, with flames and rockets built into a single back-up weapon).

Each of the nine classes has a secondary weapon that is available at all times. If you’re wondering how we got to nine classes, there’s the brand new Technical class plus the three introduced in a previous mod from the Long War team. All of their mods are included in The Long War 2. The back-up weapons range from sawed-off shotguns for Rangers, which are devastating at close quarters but only have one shot per barrel, and a stun abililty for Assault troops. They all provide more options, informing how you engage with the enemy, how you improvise when things go wrong (more than ever, things will go wrong) and how you snatch victory from the jaws, claws and splash damage of defeat.

All of that along with new mission types and maps that, unless I’ve just been lucky with layouts, immediately feel larger and more varied completely refresh the tactical game. The opening mission ended with a shootout that levelled an entire church on my first attempt, and a sneaky, slick and effective suburban assault on the next. We didn’t take a scratch. My first attempt to break a group of civilians out of Advent cells in a city centre left me with a post-mission debrief that spoke of victory – every civilian saved! – and disaster – three soldiers left behind and captured. New Advent retaliation missions sometimes require evacuation rather than the simpler rescue missions seen previously, and there are chains of missions that have a lasting impact on the world map. Those, I will not spoil.

Everything is tied together by a more active Advent AI. On the Geoscape, Advent forces move to reinforce vulnerable areas in response to your actions, which adds another wrinkle to strategic decision-making. Sometimes attacking a weak spot isn’t worthwhile, particularly later in the game, because it might lead to heightened security in that region. On the flipside, Advent can be distracted, moving their pieces around the board to counter your actions and leaving themselves vulnerable where a blow against the Avatar Project can be effective in the long-term.

Stopping that project is still the goal and even in this extended campaign, the clock is ticking. The existence of new short-term targets keeps things interesting even when you don’t have end-game solutions in sight, and keeping XCOM running efficiently takes more time and energy than previously. The Long War matches its length with density, of choice and of action, and the increased difficulty challenges your skill and knowledge rather than your endurance.

The mod makes XCOM 2 feel new again. Tougher and smarter on every front. Even if the civilian management isn’t as interesting as I’d hoped, the greater tactical and strategic depth makes itself known immediately, and everything has been implemented intelligently within XCOM 2’s narrative and framework. New missions and tactical abilities fit with the resistance setting, and the ability to send in the kind of superheroic warriors that are typical of Firaxis’ take on the series while also occasionally relying on a mass of rookies makes every mission feel that little bit more unique.

A more reactive war on the Geoscape is a delight, but the soldiers are the heart of XCOM and they’re better and more varied than ever. From the very first mission, you’ll have rookies more capable than any you’ve seen before, and greater threats to counter them. By the mid-game you might have two Rangers with skillsets so different that they might as well be custom classes. In this Long War, the people are your most precious resource. Oh, and the robots too. If a new class and skills weren’t enough to make your squad stand out from the crowd, you can permanently steal Advent MECs now.

The Long War 2 mod is available now, from the Steam Workshop.

46 Comments

  1. DarkMalice says:

    I’ll just be in the corner cleaning myself.

  2. Shadow says:

    Holy crap, I didn’t know this was out already. The official ongoing XCOM 2 posts talk about the mod’s features as if it were still unreleased.

    Does LW2 integrate the official DLC, like the alien leaders and robot class?

    Also, I wonder if the popular small, quality of life mods are compatible. Not to mention certain cosmetic mods such as the hands-down amazing Capnbubs Accessories Pack.

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      Adam Smith says:

      Includes all the official Long War team mods but I haven’t been able to test it with others yet.

    • Catesby says:

      For what it’s worth, Mister Capnbubs is responsible for many of the new assets in this mod, too. Coilguns, muton elites and so forth.

      Which is to say: hurrah!

    • bills6693 says:

      With regards mod compatibility, this may help: link to reddit.com

      Short answer – quality of life mods should still work, accessories etc should also still work.

  3. stringerdell says:

    Wasnt this only announced the other day?? Can’t believe its out already. What a nice surprise!

    • bglamb says:

      Weirdly, RPS reported yesterday that “Long War 2 is still largely cloaked in shadow and mystery, which also covers details like a release date.”

      And today, “we’ve been in the thick of the right for the past few days.”

      I guess they had preview code and then it got released as a surprise? Either that or the team have all been plugging away at it without telling Alice.

  4. popej says:

    Jesus it’s out!

  5. stringerdell says:

    My god this sounds like the game Xcom 2 should have been. And it was already one of my favourite things ever.

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      MajorLag says:

      I don’t know about that. For seasoned XCOM veterans it sounds pretty great, especially ones with a lot of extra time on their hands, but it also sounds vastly overcomplicated and time consuming.

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    Nauallis says:

    How smoothly does it run compared to the base game? I’m not looking for FPS numbers, because I don’t really care, but I am curious if it has janky loading hiccups, or occasionally clips a polygon or a texture, the same as the base game?

    • modzero says:

      I (on GTX970 and, what probably matters more, i5-2500K and 16Gb and a spinning disk hdd) had some occasional jankiness, but it wasn’t too bad. The way they wiped the floor with me was much worse.

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        Nauallis says:

        Thanks for the reply. My specs are essentially the same, so that’s helpful.

  7. Ross Turner says:

    Wow, announced and then released!? Are they the Apple of game development?

    Can’t wait to get stuck into this but it’ll have to wait until I have a spare few hours a week. So maybe sometime in 2018 :(

  8. TeePee says:

    I really want to be excited for this, but I started XCOM 2 for the first time last night, and from my early experiences, I can tell that LW2 is just going to be the gaming equivalent of having a Sectoid foot toe-punt me in the face for eternity.

    As much as I love the idea of XCOM as a game (and I do enjoy playing it), I’m simply not that good at it. I suspect this isn’t going to make LW2 a very happy experience for me.

    • Xocrates says:

      XCOM 2 is weird in that while you’re learning to play it the difficulty is a kick in face, but once you do it’s easier than than the previous game.

      By which I mean: don’t get discouraged by XCOM 2 apparent difficulty. The game is more forgiving than it appears and it gives you all the tools to do the job, but keep the quickload button nearby while you’re figuring it out.

      • TeePee says:

        Yeah, I’m finding it’s a lot more prone to causing cries of ‘oh come ON!’ than the previous game in the series. Maybe I’ve just had a rough ride with the RNG, maybe it’s the fact that I’m just not very good, but I’m in early stages at the moment, and I’m having a hard time just putting out 4-5 fit troops sometimes. One lucky shot from a Sectoid, and I lose my only Ranger for three weeks.

        Is it a case of it being more of a difficulty plateau than a difficulty curve?

        • bglamb says:

          I was awful (but loved it) until I started watching some better players on YouTube. I watched a few hours of BeagleRush and learned a lot!

        • Xocrates says:

          It’s more a case of the game taking some pleasure in surprising you in unpleasant ways than a problem with the difficulty curve. Once you figure out how a lot of stuff work the game becomes much easier.

          For example: Sectoids will almost never shoot you on their first turn (usually preferring some psychic bullshit) so you can usually ignore them first round and then focus fire them in the second. The only problem is if they mind control someone, but a flashbang on the sectoid will break that.

          Also: Get an advanced warfare center as soon as possible. It decreases your heal times by half and gives the chance of your soldiers getting a bonus random skill when they level (once per soldier) so you want that early on.

          • TeePee says:

            Yeah, this has been my experience. I do feel like I’ve seen more ‘bullshit’ moments in my short time with XCOM 2 – not bad RNG rolls or anything like that, I can live with that as part of the genre, but moments that seem designed solely to mess with the player through outside skullduggery than through tactical skill – enemy spawns deliberately put in places that are going to catch you in a terrible position if you’re following the natural line of cover etc.

            I’m guessing in mid-late game it’s less of an issue, as you’re a lot more OP then, but in early game for a newbie, it’s pretty frustrating to lose not because of a tactical error, but because you didn’t know where the enemy was going to spawn, and the timed mission didn’t offer you the luxury of scouting the area properly.

            Also, thank you for the tip – I did a little light reading prior to starting up, and pretty much everything I looked at said that AWC and GWC were number 1 & 2 on the list, so I’ve followed that advice.

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            Nauallis says:

            I remember having the same feelings of “this is BS” that you’re describing, at least for the first couple of playthroughs that I started. Xocrates basically covers everything for you in a nutshell. What’s funny is that RNG actually rolls in your favor on Rookie & Veteran, and doesn’t tell you. I don’t know if this has been updated since launch. Some simple searching would probably reveal that.

            But here’s a link to how the RNG operated originally, worth a read: link to reddit.com

  9. Rack says:

    Harder. Okay.
    Better. Sounds good.
    Slower. And I’m out.

    • thehuw says:

      With you on this, hard. I get that some people prefer a longer, more “epic” experience, but… well, Adam mentions how glad he is of the condensed mode in Darkest Dungeon, and I almost think XCOM 2, especially with the DLC, needed that more than it needed extending. If the “Not-So-Long War” option from the original LW is still in this, I think I’m in, but otherwise, not a chance.

  10. Shiddyshad says:

    Serendipity! Just picked up my PC copy of Xcom 2 in this month’s Humble Bundle. This will be way better than just starting a new playthrough of the campaign.

    • jonfitt says:

      Maybe. I haven’t played LW2, but I don’t know if it would make sense to jump right to maximum complexity first time. It’s already different enough from XCOM1.

  11. RuySan says:

    I wish they got rid the game of the awful pod system. Don’t get me wrong, I love these games, but they would be even perfect without this stupid system. At least XCOM 2 has many timed systems to counter the “pull-pod and overwatch” tactic, but it’s not enough.

    • jonfitt says:

      The pod system allows the enemy to move around in units, and it’s not quite like XCOM1 where it’s a single blob which resolves to units once they spot you. In XCOM2 you can have one person in stealth go ahead of everyone and spot enemies who move around, and then choose when to activate them.

      It’s just annoying that they get that free move to cover. I’d like to have it where if they spot you on their turn they move to cover as-is, but if you spot them you get the drop on them and they don’t get a free move.

      It would encourage you to find them before they find you.

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        MajorLag says:

        But when they spot you, you don’t get shot in the face immediately, you get a turn before they do. Their free move to cover is only fair.

        • JayWrenFlew says:

          I liked the “itchy trigger tentacle” second wave setting in the original Long War, I wish it could be applied to enemies that find you on their turn.

  12. jonfitt says:

    How hard is this compared to the base game? I was an accomplished XCOM and XCOM:EW player, and my first game of XCOM2 was a kick in the nuts on “Normal” difficulty.
    With judicious use of the save system to overcome the most unfair random elements, I did complete it (including the extra DLC alien hunting which was v. hard). By then end I had got on top of things, but it still had the “pull too many pods at once and you’re dead” aspect.

    Also, I found that I had played plenty of missions by the end of XCOM2 and really wanted to get to the end.

    So I guess I am looking for more varied, and interesting, but I’m not looking for “Longer” or “Harder” which the LW1 mod was.

    • stringerdell says:

      Its a lot more varied and interesting but a LOT longer and ‘hard’ doesnt begin to cover it.

      I thought I was hot shit because I finished a commander/ironman run of XCOM 2 but I already restarted on veteran and am seriously pondering rookie mode… its brutal

  13. dare says:

    Nooo! I just started my first Long War campaign in regular XCOM and now there’s this! My poor, thinly stretched free time!

    I think I’m going to have to play the regular Long War all the way until my inevitable defeat, and then switch to XCOM 2 Long War as a continuation of that story. (And after I lose that as well, I can always hope that XCOM 3 picks up assuming that’s what happened.)

    • jonfitt says:

      I think XCOM3 (or XCOM2: Terror From The Deep) surely must continue assuming you won. Otherwise it’s a bit too dire a setup.

      In the original TFTD the destruction of the base on Mars (Cydonia) causes a signal to be sent to wake buried ships under the ocean, which had been buried for aeons. That’s a good sci-fi premise and allowed the change of terrain.

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        lasikbear says:

        Makes for a good excuse for restarting you at the bottom of the tech tree. “Shit, all our cool guns don’t work underwater, and none of our soldiers are properly trained for this.”

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        MajorLag says:

        I think XCOM3 will be more interesting than that. The ending to both XCOM and XCOM2 hinted at some kind of bigger bad that the Etherials/Elders were trying to fight and that your victory would ultimately doom everyone.

  14. Unportant says:

    Any chance there’s improvement to visibility/hit-detection? In my brief time with 2 I’ve been completely bummed by it feeling WORSE than the original in these regards. I’m constantly being spotted on rooftops from impossible angles, being shot through solid walls …

    • Darloth says:

      There is a mod that fixes some outright visibility bugs, if that helps.

  15. Vulgar_Monkey says:

    Any word on if they have overall campaign modifiers like Second Wave in Xcom1?

  16. snugglez says:

    Is there any mod that makes the strategic layer more like dwarf-fortress? What I really want is an unforgiving and difficult game, but that also creates starting conditions that are affected by my previous failed play-throughs. In a sense, I guess I want a third layer on top of the strategic layer that is unlose-able– just because you lost the war, doesn’t mean you start from scratch. Rather, your new xcom command will be able to pick up where the last one left off (though without the resources the old one had built up. Actually, would be cool to be able to visit old bases to try to extract some of the old tech the previous game had researched/captured).

    Sooooo… anything like that? :)

  17. Devilon says:

    Having sunk around 20 hours into this mod, I can honestly say I hate it and it’s only for masochists. Your soldiers at the beginning of the game couldn’t hit the sky if they aimed up. If by some miracle they actually hit something, one damage is what you can expect. Flanking is nearly worthless and the enemy doesn’t miss even with your troops in high cover. Even at 200% infiltration, you’ll still end up losing a squad (small) to the ‘light resistance’ you’ll run into.

    • Ickleslimer says:

      Trust me, if you think LW2’s aiming is masochistic, you mustn’t have played LW1. In this I’d say your aiming is maybe 3/4s of what it normally is. From my experience, but hey, maybe I’m just good with my angles or lucky with the RNG. I get 100% hit rates sometimes.

      In LW1, I’d say you get around 1/3 of what you normally get. The aliens however, have no penalties whatsoever.