When XCOM: Enemy Unknown released back in 2012, it was an enormous breath of fresh air fro the tactical genre of video games. More exciting was the fact that the game appeared on consoles as well as PC. The expansion pack, Enemy Within, released shortly after, and it was just as well received as the original game. The spin-off, XCOM Declassified mucked with things a bit, but was still a fun game. Cue the sequel to Enemy Within: XCOM 2, which sees a PC-only release. More aliens to kill! More countries to save! Jump into the Skyranger and I’ll give you a full briefing.
XCOM 2 takes place 20 years after the end of the original game, and things have taken a somewhat downward turn for humanity. The aliens have created an organization called ADVENT to help keep the human population in control. As the Commander of the original XCOM forces, it’s up to you to rally together the troops and take up the standard to bring the alien invasion to its knees. And this time, your XCOM command center is a mobile base called the Avenger, so your Skyrangers don’t have to do as much moving around as they used to. However, the time span has made a lot of changes on the alien side, too, and you’ve been out of commission for the duration. Guess how much catching up you have?
Back to boot camp
If you played either of the original XCOM games (and I don’t mean ORIGINAL originals, but the new gen originals, you pedant), you’ll be immediately at home and familiar with XCOM 2. The mobile Avenger base looks and feels a lot like the original base did, and there are even rooms to be “excavated” of alien tech. The scientist and engineer you worked with previously (Dr Vahlen and Dr Shen) are gone, but replaced with Dr Richard Tygan, an ex-ADVENT scientist, and Lily Shen, Dr Shen’s daughter, and these two serve the same purpose as Vahlen and old Shen. The geoscape, while not identical to the old one, is still fairly familiar in nature, allowing you to direct your operations. And the battlefield looks and plays in an almost identical manner to the originals. Like before, you have to research weapons and armour and goods, but the in-universe reason for it—the 20 year hiatus—is a perfectly acceptable one for having to do it all again. Some games don’t even offer that much.
One of the fun things you can do in XCOM 2 is customize the dickens out of your troops, even going so far as to give them really complex, deep background stories if you wish. Firaxis really want you to feel close to the soldiers you command. Having them die on the battlefield, like before, is a keen loss. You can, of course, go and check out the memorial onboard the Avenger in case you didn’t feel as if you were steeped in enough guilt.
No time to explain! Get in the skyranger!
Like before, everything is ridiculously scarce, but there one resource that I had plenty of in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and certainly have felt a keen dearth of in XCOM 2: time. In some missions, you’ve got a time limit (well, turn limit) on when to complete certain objectives, from hacking an ADVENT computer to destroying a key target to simply getting your forces in and out on time. This limit caused me more heartache and frustration in the early game than any other feature. Within the first eight or ten missions, you’re still getting things going, and if you’d had a particularly bad mission before that puts your best people out of commission, you’re stuck with a bunch of rookies for the next. And trust me, you don’t want rookies handling a time-sensitive mission. Until you manage to get your teams trained up enough, this will be a common problem in the early game. It also means that you can’t sneak across the battlefield and bide your time. And if you’re not fighting timed missions, there are plenty of calls for your time in the geoscape. Do you go get supplies or bomb a precious base or rescue some forces? Do you heal your injured forces or move your base to a more accessible point? The pressures on your time are crazy, and to cap this off you’ve also got a nebulous ADVENT project called “The Avatar Project” that keeps ticking; if it reaches completion, it’s game over, so you also have missions that are aimed at putting the Avatar project off schedule, so do you do those, or scan for supplies, or do a mission that will net you new staff, or…? It’s difficult being in charge of these world-shaking decisions.
XCOM 2 I found was noticeably more difficult than the original games, even on the less demanding difficulty settings. The timed missions really did me in, but the alien AI seemed a lot more canny, especially in the early game when you’re commanding the barely-armed dregs of an army. A single mutant sectoid is enough to turn your team to jelly, and you can be sure that any downed foe won’t stay dead for long, because new sectoids have the ability to zombify the dead, if they’re not mind controlling your own people. While it makes for a frustrating early experience, as your troops become more experienced and more capable in the field, the tide will start turning. But it’s a long, painful slog to get there. And funnily enough, more rewarding once you’re finally strong enough.
While more XCOM is really a good thing, this game has some crazy game-breaking bugs, despite being released on a single platform to “make development simpler”. I encountered game crashes, mesh pop, and the occasional bad AI. While the patient among you could probably wait until at least one patch has been issued, the game still runs OK most of the time. Bear in mind that the minimum specs ask for a fairly decent machine, too, so if you’re running anything less than a minibeast, expect a slow, less than spectacular show.
Overall, however, I can still recommend XCOM 2 to players who thoroughly enjoyed the originals. Much of what happens in this game won’t make sense to someone not familiar with the game’s mythos, so people looking for a gentle introduction should go back to the beginning. However, it’s not a complete problem if you want to just jump in here; just know you’ll be a little out of your depth for a while. Otherwise, let loose on the aliens with your guns and tear them a new one.