It's rare, in the massive war that Hollywood has been waging between humans and aliens, that we end up on the losing side. While it may start out with the aliens gaining an early advantage on the basis of better technology or the element of surprise, that advantage doesn't ever last, with a key weakness being exposed by a small group of intrepid heroes, in much the same way that every Scooby-Doo monster scam would have succeeded if not for those damn kids.
XCOM 2 doesn't tell that story. In fact, despite the actions of MY intrepid group of government soldiers who handily thwarted the aliens' initial designs on Earth, Firaxis' sequel explores an Earth that was not as lucky. Through the beauty of Public Relations, Earth lives under an occupation disguised as partnership. The aliens, under the guise of an organization named ADVENT, proclaim only the best of intentions for us, offering gene therapies to fix disease and remove imperfections, and protection through ADVENT soldiers, other humans who have willingly signed up to police their brethren with advanced alien tech.
At least, that's what they want you to believe. Defeated but not destroyed, XCOM, now an underground guerrilla force, knows the truth and they have a plan. Having spent years searching and scouring for their Commander, the faceless controller assumed by the player, the man known as Central completes a daring rescue during the game's tutorial, rescuing the player and unplugging him/her from the aliens' psychic machine interface. From there, the Commander is tasked with not only defeating the alien threat, but exposing their treachery and intentions for all of humanity to see.
Where the previous game saw XCOM based out of an underground location, launching all of their missions from a singular spot to all points around the globe, the new XCOM is mobile, having recommissioned one of the larger crashed UFOs from the first game as a command center, with the whole thing serving the same purpose as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s helicarrier from the Marvel universe. Maintaining the same modular design as the base from the first game, sections of the UFO can be hollowed out, allowing for the construction of specialized rooms like communication centers and power plants.
Upgrades are still researched in the base as well, with everything again completed based on the passage of in game time. It's a little silly that 20 years after I spent all that time researching plasma weaponry and powered armor that I am again having to start with machine guns and frag grenades, but I guess guerrilla beggars can't be choosers when it comes to what they were and were not able to hold on to while running and hiding from the sectoid menace. It was, however, nice to see that autopsies are still completed in the same fashion, with the good doctor in charge ripping open both alien and robot designs alike to provide intel and new ideas for gadgets and what not.
The biggest change to the base view, though, comes in the form of the new map. Where previous days were passed staring at a spinning, holographic globe, the new command center spills out on to a holographic map, where the physical movements of the Avenger (your ship) are played out. Time still passes and is the main measure of any form of progress that is made, but the map really adds a feeling of scale to XCOM's mission. Rather then simply a black ops organization operating behind the shadows from the relative safety of an underground base, moving around the map gives a sense of getting really down and dirty, and the cut scenes used for things like setting up communication relays and helping out in rescue missions gives you an XCOM of the people, rather than random nameless entity sent to show us the greater good.
But the real bread and butter of the XCOM experience is the turn-based tactical combat, where soldiers of all races and creeds go to meet their untimely and often super brutal demise at the hands of ADVENT and their alien masters. As with the previous game, XCOM 2 holds no punches, launching your small squad of between 4-6 soldiers into situations that are as stressful as they are dangerous. Thankfully, their status as guerrilla warriors rather then standing army affords them some level of concealment, granting them actual battlefield time to plan ahead and survey the field. It's a luxury that was not present in the last game, and one that is sorely needed in this one.
It's also a change that, at times, is sorely wasted. Many of XCOM 2's missions come with a timer, a set number of turns to reach some random objective. As the timer starts at the beginning of combat, rather than when your troops break concealment, taking the time to set up an ambush often works against you. While it does detract in those specific situations, I found the addition of timers to combat a net positive. So much of the first game was spent hanging back, slowly inching your way forward with your soldiers perpetually in overwatch position. The timers force a more aggressive approach, making you have to play around that fine line between life and death far more than in XCOM:EU's base game loop.
They also put an added twist on the overall story, as the main overview map is dominated by a countdown timer to the aliens' win condition, a project called Avatar. While I won't get into specifics on what Avatar is, figuring out how to deal with that timer while also working with limited resources is key to getting anywhere in XCOM 2. It wastes no time in establishing that ADVENT is in control, and while they may not be able to target you directly outside of a few UFO missions you may just choose to skip, their presence is always felt, and in the case of the map, literally hanging over you like a red blocked Sword of Damocles.
Working the are some old XCOM stalwart classes like the Heavy (now called a Grenadier) and Sniper, mixed in with some new ones. The Support class brings a drone with it into combat, allowing it to serve either on offensive role, by hacking all the robotic support the aliens bring with them into battle, or a defensive, spreading the medikit love using their drone's increased range. I loved all the different looks they brought to the battlefield, and my hacker support saved the day numerous times in the late game with absolutely clutch shut downs on a number of terrifying Sectopods, the aliens' own version of an AT-AT Walker.
The assault class, now named Ranger, was also tuned, adding a a vicious sword to their already devastating shotgun attacks. By working their skill tree, it's also possible to keep the Ranger concealed even when the rest of the party is outed, leaving them to strike from the shadows for some real devastating results. There's also a psychic class to play with, but just like the previous game, it requires some upgrades done to the base and a specialized room in order to train a soldier in psywarfare. They are, without a doubt, some of the best soldiers to take out with you on missions, and are complete beasts when trained out to the upper echelon of their skill set. Mind you, you'll need that kind of strength to go up against some of the new alien types, as there are more then a few new baddies to compliment old “favorites” like the Muton and Sectoid.
With all the upgrades done to both the systems and quality of life, it's a real shame to see some of the old graphical issues back. The camera still ends up in odd positions, whether during actual play or the frequent close up shots of bodies in motion. More than once I was met with slow-down during the match, most often when XCOM 2 was working its math magic in the background between turns. I was quite thankful to not see a return of the save glitch I ran into during my review playthrough of the last game on the PS3, as extended sessions showed no issues with actually loading an encounter, even if the load times themselves were often a bit on the obscene side of length. It also would seem from other impressions that my experience with possible breaks was on the more favorable side - since I didn't really experience many issues, it wouldn't be my place to comment on them.
Those few returning flaws aside, XCOM 2 is an experience. Much like its predecessor, Firaxis again delivers a fantastic mix of tactical combat and strategy, held together by an almost scarily stressful bow bathed in the blood of your fallen warriors. If you have any interest at all in turn-based games, you owe yourself this game as a gift, and honestly, even if you have little to no interest, playing this may just get that engine started. I think this may be the first unmissable game this year.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!