Corporal Alessandra Cancellara is on her way to a mission on the Skyranger when I spot her. Most of my squads are there and look cool as the music theoretically pumps them and me up. But Alessandra, dressed in green with needles holding up her ash-colored bun, stands out. She almost dances in her chair, a bundle of nervous energy and quick grin. I’d probably look like this on my way to a highly tense combat zone, so it suddenly dawns on me: XCOM 2 has managed to find an emotional core.
The first of the reboot XCOMs, 2012 enemy unknown, was a fantastic strategy game. So was the expansion, Enemy within. But if there was a direct criticism of both games, it was that they were stylistically… well, boring. The near future X files-esque alien invasion storyline was only allowed for the most generic of sci-fi, and the game structure never felt fully committed after “well this is how the 1994 X-COM did it.” In that light, XCOM 2 having a clear sense of style is a hugely positive sign.
That sense of style manages to weave and create throughout the entire game XCOM 2 a remarkable improvement over its predecessor almost every conceptual level, but the game misses the chance to make structural improvements.
Long live the revolution!
The core conceptual improvement of XCOM 2 is simple: it takes place in 2035, two decades after the original XCOM, assuming that the aliens won that war. They have taken over Earth and installed a global government called ADVENT to rule/occupy it. You control the remnants of the XCOM organization and fly around the world in a converted alien aircraft carrier to fight for power. In a particularly clever refocus, some of the ethical issues the Enemy within expansion raised and then ignored – such as alien/human hybridization and human mech units – are portrayed as villainous acts in XCOM 2which is a nice addition.
With the new plot, a lot XCOM‘s structural limitation suddenly makes sense. In the original, a global anti-alien organization could nonsensically deploy only six soldiers at a time. In XCOM 2, of course, a resistance movement can only drop a handful of squaddies in small-scale missions. In the previous XCOM, you would inexplicably see the same nationwide American bar & grill level popping up in Nigeria and Nagasaki, as well as Nacogdoches. In XCOM 2did the aliens create a unified global culture where, yes, you could probably see the same architecture in both Siberia and Chile.
It also helps explain why your carrier is clamoring for supplies and how training new recruits can come at a huge cost. Instead of waiting for UFOs to appear, every move you make in this campaign turns into a choice of which perks to prefer and which cons to avoid.
The benefits of this premise extend to the presentation. By turning XCOM to a resistance story, a whole bunch of cool aesthetic ideas come to the table. I especially love the loading screens and their Soviet style alien propaganda and the way your squads appear on ‘Wanted’ screens in the high tech alien cities. There are also plenty of nods to other sci-fi in the near future; the futuristic resistance story reminds me of the last season of Zoomwhile music cues in the most high-tech areas remind me Mass effect even Fantasy star.
The resistance motif also allows for more squaddie customization, which has been greatly improved XCOM 2. There is a much wider range of hairstyles, including long hair without a ponytail for both men and women, plus dreads and afros. Tattoos, bandanas, goggles and armor patterns add a huge amount of personality to individual squads, just like a real personality setting. Alessandra, mentioned at the top, had the nervous “Twitchy” personality, which affects both her demeanor and her barking in battle. There’s even a way to save custom characters to files that can be saved and shared (although this didn’t work as perfectly as I’d hoped when I tried to make all my squaddies X-Men).
XCOM 2 also completely removes the almost totally pointless UFO combat portion of the original game. At first this seems like a good idea (especially if you The Long War mod, where the combat could ruin your whole game), but the removal has the slightly negative side effect of making it corpses as if the players desk has been lost. Instead of actively blowing up and investigating UFOs, the strategic situation now largely consists of waiting for new missions.
There are a few missions that draw UFOs into the game, including one where you attack a grounded UFO and another incredibly intense mission where your aircraft carrier is shot down. But XCOM 2The randomness of the mission, which so often seems like a strength, can bizarrely keep these missions hidden for entire campaigns.
While the tactical core of XCOM 2 has only slightly changed from the original, most of the changes are clear improvements. The biggest change is that almost every mission now has a timer associated with it. For example, aliens attack a transmitter and you have to get to it before it blows up, or a laptop with critical data has to be hacked before time runs out. These are largely good ways to get players out of overly cautious play – most of the missions in 2012 XCOM could be manipulated too easily by just leaving squads waiting in Overwatch. Here you really have to move.
A second big addition is a stealthy mode at the start of most missions, where your characters stay hidden until they attack or get too close to enemies. It’s occasionally cool to use this feature to set kill zones that remove enemy patrols at the start of missions. Most of the time, though, it feels a little over the top. The concept works best when paired with the timed missions: if you only have eight turns to fight your way into a building, it can be hard to decide when to pull the trigger on a “good enough” ambush, instead of waiting another turn for the perfect one. and convincing choice.
The core squaddie classes have also been redesigned. Some, such as the Grenadier (Heavy) and Sharpshooter (Sniper), are conceptually similar to their predecessors, but the close-combat Ranger class has gained a sword and a slew of stealth and melee abilities. The Specialist is a much more interesting variant of this XCOM 1‘s Support class, featuring a drone that can bring healing to allies or hack enemy mechas from afar.
The net effect is somewhat disorienting. None of the classes feel completely ‘normal’, which promotes a sense of tactical teamwork, but it also makes the game arbitrarily difficult. That said, the skills can get really cool at times. I won one battle against Chrysalids by sending a Ranger with the ‘Blademaster’ ability to the front lines. Every time they came near her, she hacked aliens to death before they had a chance to attack.
As for the combat itself, it’s tightly honed improvements on an already great form. XCOM’The two-action turns are back and they still work as good as ever. The new procedurally generated levels add a crucial element of variety to each map.
Meanwhile, the massively destructible environments add some great tactical options. At one point I came across a heavily defended alien installation with two big creepy turrets staring at me from the roof. I fired a grenade at one of them to shred his armor, only to find that the blast collapsed the entire roof, causing the turret to collapse. Watching walls fall while shooting aliens in front and behind them is immensely satisfying.
Destructibility was present in the first XCOM, but several glitches prevented it from being fully understandable. In that game, dice before the shot was fired clearly decided whether a shot was a “hit” or not, regardless of the animation. That’s largely resolved here, as bullets and lasers hit where they should and destroy walls where they don’t. Other quirks have also been fixed: a camera zoom no longer indicates instant death when a shot is fired, and dead squads don’t let their hair loose like helmets. There are still glitches, for example cars collapsing and glass shooting out before their animations actually show the explosions, but they no longer feel like they have spelling errors.
There are several other minor changes, all of them largely positive. Armor no longer just adds hit points, but instead adds a constant defensive buffer for units that need to be dismantled or evaded. Hacking mechanized enemies or ADVENT towers creates choices that are always interesting little bets. This is still arguably the best tactical combat system available in the genre.