The XCOM program is in ruins, humanity has become content to subject to the evil alien overlords, and the only hope is a small resistance force. Right out of the gate XCOM 2 feels like a different game than its predecessor. The mechanics are similar, but with the XCOM initiative almost completely destroyed, the battles are more focused on stealth and guerrilla tactics, rather than trying to root out the enemy, like in the previous game. XCOM 2’s atmosphere of a propaganda driven government, ruled by aliens and human hybrids, shows a world that is lost, and motivates the player to save it. The game also flows seamlessly from its opening cinematic into a first mission which, while heavily guided (the player can’t make any of the decisions for his or herself), it is the best way of dropping players new to the franchise into the game, and establishes the new “on the run” feel of the agency.
In most strategy games there is no back story provided for the person looking over the battlefield and controlling the units. In XCOM 2 [SPOILER] the first set of missions involves getting The Commander (the main character of XCOM) back from alien custody. This explains why players aren’t allowed to control their units freely, and makes it actually feel meaningful when they can finally get back behind the controls and make decisions. The game is also interspersed with pretty cinematics showcasing just how far the world has fallen since the end of the original XCOM game.
The bulk of XCOM 2’s gameplay centers around uniting pockets of resistance around the world and collaborating to overthrow the alien oppressors. This means that a lot of the game’s missions are started from stealth, allowing the players to maneuver their troops into the perfect ambush formation before striking. However, as with its predecessor, XCOM 2 thrives on unexpected events changing the course of a game. Each mission is procedurally generated, meaning that the same tactics will not work twice, and random events such as soldiers panicking, or cover exploding, make missions tense, and fun to replay.
In XCOM the first aliens a player came across were weak and easily dispatched. In XCOM 2, soldiers can be mind-controlled from the very first mission, and the new hybrid, alien-human Advent soldiers are no joke. There were many times where I would set up the perfect strike formation, only to have my front-line soldiers mind-controlled, and begin firing back at me. These moments are what make XCOM 2 great, keeping the gameplay unpredictable, and forcing players to adapt to ever-changing battlefields.
Where XCOM 2’s true strength lies, is in the form of learning from and improving upon its predecessor. XCOM was a fantastic turn-based strategy game, but XCOM 2 takes the formula and adds more depth in terms of combat mechanics and customization. The soldier customization system is incredible. Each unit has a backstory that can be edited, loads of customizable options for appearance, equipment modifications, and unique play-traits. These characters can also be saved to a pool that through mods can be shared with friends, and used to load old characters back in new games. Some of the most fun I had was customizing a soldier named and modeled after my cat, which I subsequently lost on the first mission. It’s the customization that allows attachments to be formed to otherwise flat characters, and to truly feel the pang of hurt when they die, and cannot come back (stares at the memorial wall weeping for Corporal Stormageddon).
As far as combat mechanics go, XCOM 2 has added more details to its unit specialization. Soldiers will rank up to become one of six classes, and as they successfully complete missions, will gain abilities through a skill-tree system. While the system is not that complex (two options per level), it does allow for a great level of variety between soldiers, and allows players to tackle missions in whatever style they prefer. Each soldier’s loadout can also be further customized by loot that drops during the game’s missions. These can range from weapon augmentations to specialized armor pieces that once again help distinguish soldiers from each other.
The loot system in itself is also a great addition in that it can serve to mix up player’s routine in missions. For example, a defensive player might kill an Advent soldier, find that they dropped rare loot, and will only have three turns to collect it before it disappears. This can lead to unwise excursions into heavily fortified territory, that occasionally lead to heavy casualties, and potentially epic customizations.
Adding yet another aspect of replayability and customization to XCOM 2 is the native support for the modding community. From day 1, Steam Workshop mods were integrated into the game, and already there are several that greatly improve it. In the first week, someone had created a mod to make the assault rifle shoot corgis (something I never knew I wanted until I had it), and various other mods have helped to improve the game’s buggy interface. For example, the Stop Wasting My Time Mod by BlueRaja, takes out many of the game’s unnecessary pauses and stutters, creating a smoother and much faster experience. It’s unfortunate that mods are required to fix some of the less polished aspects of the game, but at least the developers allowed and supported them.
This brings me to my one real gripe with XCOM 2: it’s buggy as hell. XCOM was a buggy game as well, but it’s unfortunate to see that some of the same mistakes were made in the sequel. Cut scenes for soldiers killing aliens routinely focus on the wrong area of the battlefield (rendering many of the Ranger’s sweet sword kills as a close-up shot of a nearby tree), and long pauses between actions throw off the game’s pacing (again, can be fixed by BlueRaja’s mod). While these issues do detract from gameplay, it’s not enough to ruin what is otherwise a very enjoyable experience.
In short, the modding community is already working tirelessly to make more incredible additions, and is sure to extend XCOM 2’s life for a long time to come. As a fan of turn-based strategy games, I can say confidently that this is one of the best I have ever played. It is well worth its price tag, and I will be lost in the infinite customization, and trying to complete the ridiculously challenging Iron Man Mode for many hours to come.