XCOM 2 certainly knows how to instil fear, and it’s not from jump scares or something chasing you. Instead it’s the pure tension and terror you feel as an enemy closes the gap on your soldier, you know you’ve messed up and now they’re doomed. There’s never enough time in XCOM 2, with so much to do; an alien occupation to drive off and humanity to save, hopefully without losing too many of your soldiers that you’ve spent hours training up. You’re in a constant race to try and stay one step ahead of the enemy.
The sequel to 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown is set 20 years after the events of the first game, and things did not go well. XCOM lost the secret war against the invading forces, and now humanity is under the “care” and “protection” of the ADVENT coalition; a front for the aliens. Since their arrival, the aliens openly offered peace and guidance to humanity. In secret however there’s something much more sinister happening.
The prologue mission sees you take control over a squad of soldiers rescuing a VIP. The VIP in question is you, the commander, who has been kept prisoner in some kind of stasis. This mission functions as a nice introduction as well as a basic tutorial for new players and a refresher for veterans. From there the world opens up to let you explore and begin your mission to remove the occupying force from the planet.
XCOM stays with its tried and perfected turn based combat system, each member of the squad being allotted a movement phase and then an action, or extended movement in the form of dash, at the expense of the action. Later skills offer various twists on this, allowing for move manoeuvrability and options when engaging enemies. Firing at an enemy requires an action, though the odds of a hit are dependent on positioning, the weapon used and a soldier skill, so positioning and careful planning is essential to success.
The biggest twist to this over the first game is that now humans are the guerrilla force. This means that most missions start with your squad being hidden until they are either spotted or you choose to engage the enemy, giving you ample time to position your troops, get a good vantage point and flank your enemies. This adds a new element of being able to engage enemies with more favourable circumstances. Once you’ve been spotted, the enemy AI is quite adept, engaging threats and taking good cover, meaning skirmishes take a few turns before either they’re dead or you are.
Different soldiers have different classes for different roles and situations. A ranger is an excellent long range sniper and can provide good rear support and overwatch from a vantage point. Soldiers can also spec out for every level they gain and these skills can refine their role further, adding all sorts of useful equipment and skills to help fight enemies. The specialist gets a little drone called a gremlin that can be outfitted to perform a medic role from a distance. These help to diversify and push roles further, as you deal with more situations and worse odds. There is a catch to the combat and that is that injury and death matters. If a soldier is badly wounded they may need time to recover, but if they are killed then they’re gone for good. If things go really far south you can lose a full squad of highly levelled operatives.
As well as being able to refine your soldiers’ roles in combat, they are also fully customisable, from their nickname and gender to headgear and masks, colours and weapons, all giving you the opportunity to make them really stand out. This adds another depth of detail and investment in your solders, although having a stealth character in bright pink armour does seem a tad ridiculous. All this investment in your soldiers makes it all the more heart wrenching when they die in combat.
There’s a lot of variation in enemies, from advent soldiers to the psionic enemies and snake-like vipers. All require different tactics and have their own dangers and specific abilities. Armoured targets and mechs also make an appearance and need a different kind of fighting – luckily certain classes are better at taking on different challenges, for example the gunner class can be good at shredding armour and suppressing enemies.
The second gameplay element comes in the form of the Avenger, a mobile base of operations. Using this sees you fly around the global map to different regions, making contact with the resistance in those regions, picking up supplies, and moving to strike zones to initiate missions.
From here you can also research new technologies from samples and corpses you collect in the field. These help to increase your arsenal and abilities so that you can perform better in the field. Having more scientists will help to research faster. However, you aren’t the only one researching bigger guns. ADVENT are also working against you and changing their tactics as well as making life a lot harder. These dark events mean you have to think on your feet and change tactics in order to keep up with an impending change. The engineering section allows you to actually build the stuff you research as well as using engineers to clear out empty rooms and build facilities that will help you in the long run as you attempt to alter the course of the war.
Resource management is really the heart of what can make XCOM 2 be a challenge; managing Intel, supplies and personnel are all essential for success. The biggest resource you need to manage however is time as all research and building stuff takes up its own allocation. No matter how much you wish you could, you can’t save everyone and get to every mission. This means you face some tough choices and often different operations will give you different rewards but possibly come with their own consequences. The dark event missions highlight this the most, with the option to stop only one counter-research, and that could mean having to choose between the lesser of two evils. This system, along with all the others, means that every choice you make in XCOM 2 has consequences. Ignoring a mission to gather resources or stopping one dark event branch means having to endure another. A single move could make the difference between victory and defeat.
XCOM 2 looks visually stunning, between the lighting effects for the neon and futuristic cityscapes to the detail on soldiers and enemies. It also conveys a sense of world and place as all objects and environments have their own story depending on the location they are in.
XCOM 2 delivers yet another stunning strategy game that weaves deep mechanics throughout everything it does. This leaves actions with consequence and decisions with weight, with deciding who to help and squad investment meaning death leaves a heavy impact. While it can be both brutal and relentless in difficulty, the sense of accomplishment from overcoming each obstacle is profound.