When the XCOM series returned with Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, it was a triumphant return to the strategic roots of the series. We’ve since seen a spin-off in the shape of ‘the bureau’, a so-so third person shooter – but XCOM 2 returns the series to what it does best: highly strategical warfare with an alien race. We met with Firaxis over the summer and learned that their ambitions for the game were best met using a PC version, so console gamers will have to do without a new XCOM for the time being.
In many ways, XCOM 2 is a true sequel to Enemy Unknown (and the expanded version, Enemy Within), but it’s a vastly different game with a different tone to it – which also brings a new approach to the gameplay. In Enemy Unknown, the human and alien sides would face off and fight for control of our planet, creating the appearance of an evenly matched fight where the right decisions make all the difference. Of course the latter is still true in XCOM 2, but here you’ve already lost the war for our planet and now you have to fight back to reclaim what was once ours.
This means that you’re taking on the role of the resistance, which brings a number of exciting changes with it. You’ll be using guerilla tactics, because you’ll often find yourself heavily outnumbered. Many of your missions will also start with your squad in hiding, and the opponents being unaware of your presence. The ability to catch them by surprise and deal a devastating first blow is an exciting – and often crucial – one. Fighting back from a position of defeat is a great angle, and slowly turning the tide of war in your favor is immensely satisfying, though there’s more to it than the battle tactics just mentioned.
That’s because you’re not just playing individual missions and levels – there’s also a bigger game to play here, and that revolves around the world map and the management of your base. Losing too many soldiers and resources might very well mean that you won’t stand a chance of beating the game, even though you narrowly escaped with a win in the last three missions. There’s a great deal of uncertainty that comes with this though, since the game doesn’t tell you how you’re doing in the grand scheme of things. As a result, you’ll find yourself often replaying a level to get a better result because you’re afraid of the price you might otherwise pay later on. This somewhat breaks the momentum of the campaign, especially when it turns out that going back wasn’t really needed.
The vague status of your overall campaign means you’ll be saving and reloading often, but you’ll likely do this anyway because of the challenging nature of the game’s missions. The odds are almost never in your favor, and you’ll lose characters in nearly every mission. Smart decisions can make you hold on to that one character who’s far more experienced, but one wrong move can result in the loss of hours of training – quickly forcing a reload because of what that loss might mean later on. Regardless of this… you’ll be losing men and women, and it’s up to you to decide what outcome you can live with. This makes base and soldier management a crucial and integral part of the game which connects the individual missions to the overall battle for earth – and Firaxis has made sure that everything’s wonderfully integrated. You need to invest in skills and technologies to ensure success in later missions, and having your own affairs in order is crucial in being able to eventually turn the battle for earth around.
Aside from the role that you take on as mankind’s resistance to the alien occupation, there is also the matter of time. In XCOM 2, time is limited – as are the number of moves available to you in each level. This has to do with the overall plot of the game – think of it as wanting to attack the Empire’s Death Star before it’s finished – but it also changes the core gameplay in a fundamental way. In Enemy Unknown, a successful tactic could be to go about things very carefully – sticking to cover and carefully maneuvering your units around the battlefield. With a countdown clock looming, this is a luxury that XCOM 2 doesn’t afford you. Instead, you’ll have to take risks – and bold moves are either rewarded or severely punished in this game.
XCOM 2 is an extremely difficult game – which challenges coming from many sides. It’s also a rewarding and incredibly well balanced game though, steering you towards that ‘reload’ button rather than the ‘quit’ button. It’s a little daunting for newcomers – who’d be better off playing the also excellent Enemy Unknown first, but it’s a wonderful sequel that fans of the series will more than welcome. Aside from the strategic changes, the game also sports a major jump forward in terms of its visual presentation. Most importantly, XCOM 2 retains the status of the XCOM name being a true benchmark for the turn-based strategy genre.