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Wot I Think: XCOM 2

Resistance is futile

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.

In terms of both its skilltrees and the equipment unlocked through research, XCOM 2 avoids tiered sets of stat-boosting abilities, weapons and armour. While there's a rough equivalent to the projectiles < laser < plasma path of old, mostly you're increasing options rather than numbers. That's at the very heart of what this game is and why it's such an unqualified success, when it comes to the turn-based combat at the very least. First of all, it is absolutely possible to favour particular styles of play. I barely use any high-level specialists, the drone-driving hacker/support class, because they tend to be taking up a space that I'd rather slot another ranger or sharpshooter into. And no two sharpshooters or rangers need be the same – there are, as before, two separate streams to follow as you upgrade, and you can pick and choose abilities from both of those streams. Equipment offers further differentiation, whether you're utilising the weird and randomised output of the Proving Grounds facility, loot collected in combat to modify weapons, or the armour types that change the functionality of soldiers dramatically without erasing their existing abilities. Want a sniper who can grapple onto buildings and then rain down fire from above without using up even a portion of her turn? It's possible.

Indeed, as well as disrupting the normal flow of the battlefield, much of your time will be spent finding the best ways to extend your turns beyond what is normally allowed. XCOM 2 is built on very basic rules, particularly that foundational move/act/dash mechanic, but it bends all of those rules to breaking point and encourages you to do the same.

Where it differs from a game like Invisible, Inc, or even its own predecessor, is in the planning and approach. Concealment, which I've covered in detail elsewhere, combines with the specialised nature of your troops, to provide plenty of scope for planning and placement before a single shot has been fired. As you choose to send a team into combat, you'll already be figuring out what their approach should be before boots have hit the ground.

And you will have to pick and choose your fights. There were plenty of complaints about the enforced mission choices in Enemy Unknown and, much as I love the game, I fall on the side of the dissenters. Being forced to pick between two outwardly identical missions simply to hold your ground and to prevent the loss of income was rarely interesting. You did what was best for business, with few factors to inform your decision, and wondered why the sixteen highly trained operatives back at home base couldn't deal with two situations simultaneously.

The Avenger mobile base and the guerrilla nature of XCOM's resistance help to suspend disbelief regarding the latter point. For me, it was always the case that XCOM (and X-COM) felt like a fairly ragtag excuse for an elite military organisation. They had to buy individual clips of ammo at one point. A great deal of the long-established functionality of the series, including the limits on recruits and the threadbare stores, make much more sense in the context of the new occupied Earth setting.

But, as with the tactical side of the game, it's in the choices that the strategic layer excels. Or perhaps 'succeeds' rather than 'excels'. We're far from the satellite-chasing repetition and grind of the first game, with a great variety of missions to consider and a new proactive approach to the campaign, but the Geoscape isn't quite the complex tool some might have hoped for.

The influence of The Long War mod is evident. The main difference between this game and its predecessor is in the actions of the aliens. In Enemy Unknown, they were an unseen force that grew up in power; they escalated, inevitably, through a series of mission types and toward an ending. They were set on a linear path and you were playing catch-up.

In XCOM 2, you can observe alien activity right there on the Geoscape. The alien player – and it really does feel like you have an active opponent in the strategic game this time – has a deck of cards from which 'Dark Events' are drawn. These take a while to activate after coming into play and they'll provide buffs and new abilities to the alien forces, or build toward a strike against XCOM's Avenger base.

As in The Long War, this creates the sense of an enemy that evolves and reacts throughout the campaign, and also means that, when given a choice of missions, a couple of new factors to influence your decision. Guerrilla missions, which are the only type that force you to choose between alternatives immediately, counter specific Dark Events. The beauty of this is that you may be better prepared for increased armour plating on Advent soldiers but wary of an attack on the Avenger, and that will nudge you toward one mission or another.

Your preparedness depends on the research you've undertaken and the troops at your disposal, and, again, the game feels less like a linear progression in those regards. The time and resources to pursue every avenue of research and engineering might not be available to you, and a flexible approach is just as likely to succeed as a sequence of perfected build queues.

Broadly speaking, the Geoscape and the base do a fantastic job of guiding you through the various options available. There are two types of icon on the map, which I'll describe as missions and opportunities. The former either move the story forward or set the aliens masterplan back (marked as a literal Doomsday counter at the top of the screen). The latter provide resources of various sorts, including high-rank recruits, or allow you to trade Intel for equipment.

To open up more resources and opportunities, you'll need to spread your influence around the globe. You're not taking the Earth back piece by piece – this isn't XCOM's Risk variant – you're simply expanding your network of communications so that resistance groups around the globe will eventually be able to call on XCOM for assistance, and provide details of alien activity within their region. They might get in touch to let you know they've blocked a rail line to hold up an important shipment of goods that you can swoop in and steal before the blockage is cleared, or direct you toward a databank that you might want to blow up.

Importantly, many of the missions involve you taking the fight to the aliens rather than reacting to an encroachment on your own territory. That makes sense because, after all, you have very little territory left to call your own. Your mates in the resistance are living out in the sticks with none of the mod-cons that life under Advent has to offer (gene therapy, tasty burgers of dubious origin, more gene therapy) and in classic sci-fi Rebel style, you're always going to be outnumbered and outgunned. Your goal is to find the one weak spot that'll bring the machinery of the oppressors tumbling down.

The maps that you fight across are gorgeous and even though they're built from a set of tiles that become recognisable before too long, the randomisation makes every mission feel unique. Varied tilesets for different regions of the world are right at the top of my wishlist for any expansion or ubermod. As things stand, they vary by type of location rather than geographical location, so slums are different to city centres and wilderness areas. You'll spend a lot of time attacking actual Advent outposts and facilities though, and that's where all of of your tactical expertise will be challenged to the full.

XCOM 2 is a very difficult game. Playing on the easiest difficulty is a perfectly legitimate choice, however, if you want to roleplay as the aliens' worst nightmare. You'll still lose soldiers from time to time, if you're even slightly careless, but you'll have a squad of high-ranking Xterminators in no time. The balance seems to shift well between settings, with Normal providing enough of a challenge for me on a first playthrough. I'll gladly move up to Classic for a second playthrough. I haven't had anywhere near long enough to test Impossible but I suspect its aptly named.

I still detect a slight imbalance in the late-game. After struggling mightily up to and beyond the halfway point in the campaign, I found a point where the tables had turned just enough to give me a sense of security. I expected it to be a false sense of security, as these things so often are, but increasing familiarity with the game and a roster of super-soldiers had made my resistance a rather terrifying force.

It's pleasant to feel empowered after so long scrabbling your way up from the ruins. On the strategic side, desperation was harder to evade. The end-game throws a couple of curveballs and I still felt like I was putting out fires all across the globe even as I prepared for the final confrontation.

It's testament to how much I love this game that I've done little else but play it for the last few days and all I want to do is start again. I do have complaints, mostly minor technical quibbles, primarily about the length of loading times when in the Skyranger en route to a mission. If that works out the same for you as it has for me, you'll become very familiar with the way your soldiers shift around in their seats as they prepare for action. I also had one dramatic new alien reveal ruined by a camera that had decided to shoot the action from just inside a building across the street. As horrible noises poured out of my speakers, I was looking at a windowsill.

One crash to report as well, though it's worth mentioning that this is pre-release code and I've been playing for almost 50 hours. It's tied to another one of the slight issues with the game though, which is the pile-up of status checks and the like that can happen during or at the end of a turn. XCOM 2 occasionally feels like an overworked veteran boardgamer trying to keep up with the game while everyone is pushing their figures around the board and forgetting to roll the dice. The crash came when the game was trying to calculate the effect of various burnings and poisonings and I started to switch between characters in the background. I haven't been able to replicate the crash but that hectic pile-up of events does slow the game down a little from time to time.

Enduring extended loadtimes and the occasional wonky camera angle is a small price to pay for a game so accomplished. XCOM 2 is an improvement on its predecessor in every way and the vast majority of those improvements have been applied so intelligently that they risk making Enemy Unknown obsolete. That game was a smart remake of a classic. XCOM 2 is a classic in its own right and as good a sequel as I can remember.

XCOM 2 is out February 5th on Windows, Mac and Linux.

For more on XCOM 2, visit our XCOM 2 guide hub.

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