X-Com 2 review

Originally posted 2016-02-10 17:00:02.

The war has been lost. The aliens have won and have successfully taken control of the planet. The only resistance standing between the invaders and humanity is a handful of underfunded and overwhelmed soldiers, scientists and engineers. And you.

So goes the story for X-Com 2, the sequel to Fireaxis’ surprisingly good 2011 turn based strategy reboot of the X-Com series, Enemy Unknown. After laying down the ground work in the first instalment the developers have set out to improve on almost every aspect of the original game. And putting aside a few niggling issues they have achieved their goal, crafting one of the best strategy games in recent memory.

The improvements are apparent the second you fire up your first campaign. The story itself takes place 20 years after the events of the first game, with the earth now under alien control. Shiny new cities and cutting edge gene therapy centres have all been erected in the sites where the old world once stood, the benevolence they represent masking the invader’s sinister agenda. You are dropped into the middle of this, a guerrilla force intent on disrupting their plans by any means necessary. Not only does this allow the developers to come up with a much more varied selection of missions, but it makes for a much more interesting story.

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About 30 seconds before everything went wrong

Gameplay will be instantly familiar to anyone who played Enemy Unknown; players navigate their soldier units around the map, constantly seeking better tactical positions to gain the upper hand over the enemy, with the intention of completing the set objectives. But while Enemy Unknown constantly sought to put you on the front foot, X-Com 2 is determined to force you to constantly rethink your tactics and positioning. Make no mistake, this is a seriously tough game; I would recommend all but the most seasoned of players start on the Rookie difficulty setting, and be prepared to die a great deal. But as you become familiar with the new mechanics you will marvel at the range of options you have to approach a problem.

As an example, you now start most missions in concealment, meaning the enemy are unaware of your presence. This allows you to manoeuvre your troops into the ideal position, outflanking and preparing before springing the perfect ambush. This is among the most satisfying new mechanics, and there is no greater thrill than seeing four aliens cut down before they even can even get a shot off. There is now also a turn counter present for most missions, which adds a sense of urgency to proceedings. This doesn’t mean you should just dash forward blindly, however; the two move turn system means that you are better off advancing slowly, one move at a time, so as to avoid leaving one of your men exposed.

Character classes have been revamped as well, and while the sharpshooter and grenadier are simple rejigs of the sniper and heavy classes from the previous game it’s the other two options that offer the greatest range of new tactics. Specialists are accompanied by a floating bot that offers a range of tactical functions, including hacking turrets & robotic enemies and providing cover or healing for other team mates, without the need to break cover, while the ranger carries a sword for close range attacks and can act as a stealth unit. Neither of these is offering anything revolutionary, but their abilities are just another layer of gameplay goodness for you to learn and use to your advantage.

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Sgt Sam Vimes – he never made to the rank of Commander

Outside of the main game, there have been several upgrades to other aspects of the game. Character customisation now has much more depth, with everything from armour colour to headgear fully changeable (I spent far more time than any self respecting thirty year old should tweaking tattoos and naming all of my soldiers after Discworld characters). Your new base of operations has also been given an overhaul and perfectly fits with the resistance fighter theme.

But in spite of all of the numerous improvements there are also some frustrations to be found. The UI between missions is confusing, and it can take a while to find what you are looking for. There is also a lack of real tutorial or explanation, especially when scanning for new missions, and the sheer numbers of options could overwhelm the more casual player. This is compounded by the way the campaign unfolds; with little direction as to the best course of action it’s very easy to unwittingly box yourself into a corner without realizing it. There is nothing more frustrating than discovering, twenty or so hours into the game, that an uninformed decision you made in the first five hours has left you facing almost insurmountable odds as the alien threat becomes greater later on. My advice would be to create multiple saves as you progress, and don’t be afraid to reload an older game if needed.

Ultimately, however, these few faults dim when viewing the game as a whole. Superbly balanced and deep gameplay, an engaging story and tons of customisation means that X-Com 2 is easily the first must play game of 2016. Head out and pick it up as soon as possible; humanity is counting on you.

Ryan Tandy