Welcome back, Commander. A lot has changed since you were last in control. 20 years have passed and the alien invasion is no longer called a war. The aliens are in control of pretty much everything now, their propaganda machine working on every channel to keep humanity docile and in check.
If you have never played XCOM before (gasp!) this is a turn-based tactics game, with light RPG progression elements. Your squad of soldiers are your chess pieces, moving around a board with elements of cover to try keep them alive. Cover will improve your defense stat, which the enemy needs to try beat on a roll of his aim stat. All of this is done neatly in the background so that you do not have to worry about it, but for boardgame fans seeing so many glimpses of mechanics from tabletop games is heartwarming – until you get a bad roll on a really important roll.
So much has changed, yet
While the new setting does change several aspects of the game, you still go about things in a fairly similar manner. You need to protect the cells that are providing you with support and supplies, while taking out targets of opportunity around the world map. In the beginning it all feels intimidating: a whole world’s worth of things to click on, each begging for your time. Time is your most critical resource: making contact with people whose very survival relies on being hidden can take a week, while collecting resource caches or hunting down intel could also take a couple days of work. At the same time, the enemy is making progress on some enigmatic endeavour called the Avatar Project. A progress bar for the project looms at the top of your screen, a doomsday clock ticking towards you losing the game. As time progresses, more powerful enemies will start to appear and ADVENT will try to wipe you out with Dark Events: powerful, game changing disasters that occur every month. You can stop some of them from happening, but not all of them, making you choose the nastiest event, the one you wouldn’t be able to handle if it came to happen, and stop that one when the time comes.
The biggest change is the most critical one. You are a guerrilla unit, often tasked with sabotaging critical convoys, rescuing VIPs or hacking access points before they become secure. Thematically it makes sense: you are outnumbered and outgunned and you need to move quickly. Many missions have timed objectives, giving you a few turns to hack a point or to extract, or be left behind. To help with this, you will often start in concealment, with the enemy unaware of your presence. If you stay out of sight and don’t make a noise you can get pretty close to the enemy, giving you a chance to set up an ambush. Put a few soldiers in overwatch before shooting at a patrol and watch as your soldiers kill everything before the aliens get a chance to reach cover. It is an intensely satisfying moment to catch a whole squad before they even get a chance to fire a single shot, which leaves you in good condition for the rest of the mission. From then your concealment is blown and enemies will react to you as soon as they enter your vision, which is about a screen away from them in open terrain.
This is a game about choices. The troops you take out on missions. What you research first. What engineers should focus on or build first. Whether you should make contact with another region or collect a cache of alien goods. If you can afford to wait until your veterans have healed up from the previous fight. Eventually, however, you have to make choices and just see what happens. If you are lucky, you won’t end up in a situation where your entire squad is massacred due to your bad leadership. You can just blame the aliens for being unfair, or something, right?
So pretty, but those pauses
XCOM 2 has been built with high-end PCs in mind. Prepare to make your PC slow down to a crawl as you turn all the various graphics settings up. Considering this is not a game about reflexes I didn’t mind having some frame rate drops to enjoy a really pretty game. The biggest issue, however, was the pauses that could occur before little game triggers. For example, sometimes the sound would play while units stood around doing nothing, before showing the animation sequence of a new enemy spotting you, or a soldier taking an overshot reaction. It breaks the immersion and the pacing of the game, which ruins a lot of the tension. Hearing your soldier complain that he missed a critical shot before seeing the shot makes watching it feel pointless and frustrating. Hopefully this is something that can be patched out, as it peppered the later missions of my playthrough. Some of those moments have to be watched. After spending hours dreading being grappled by the Viper, watching a ranger using bladestorm and slicing the Viper in half before the grapple succeeds often had me scream out “Justice!” at the dying alien. You feel so proud of your veteran soldiers, who have survived so much and slowly worked up the ranks, getting better skills and better weapons. It is a hard slope to climb, but it is really rewarding to reach a new tier of gear and have extra tricks to use on the aliens. Seeing a soldier’s health bar grow is a truly welcome sight.
It was a bold move changing the ending of Enemy Unknown and eradicating Enemy Within, but XCOM 2 is all the stronger, and more interesting, for it. This is a much more intimate, daring group than the sprawling defense force of before. Out of that battered, broken shell a scrappy underdog has emerged, fighting to save people who have forgotten that there ever was a war, thanks to a burgeoning propaganda machine that has dulled their senses and placated them like cattle. XCOM 2 is punishing and relentless, forcing you to question almost every decision you make before thrusting a new disaster in your face.