XCOM 2 is a turn-based tactics game that looks like the one you know, but isn’t. It’s about sacrifice. Which sounds noble, until you remember there’s an Aztec definition of that word.
You’re still puppeteering the interdependent triumvirate of military, research and engineering, pulling apart the secrets of a superior enemy so that you can beat it to death with its own arms. But there’s a fourth, unseen department that also falls under your remit: human resources. Learning to use people as currency is the key to your success in a shining sequel which Firaxis have acknowledged is simply harder than its predecessor.
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Does a mission’s potential profit outweigh its likely costs? If you’re talking 112 supplies versus a couple of rookies recruited for 25 each, that probably checks out. Can you really afford to equip one of those rookies with an incendiary bomb? It’ll increase his chances of survival, but if he carks it on the way to evac you’ll have to fork out for another grenade worth four recruits. Better one more sad etching on the memorial wall than an empty bank account for the month.
In this way XCOM now evokes the spirit of Space Hulk, the Warhammer 40K board game to which the series owes overwatch, more than ever before. Viewed from one angle, it’s honourable: soldiers willingly going to their deaths so that a scrappy band of freedom fighters can grow to spearhead a proper resistance movement. From another, it’s brutally utilitarian: you’re exploiting the nobility of your pawns, sacrificing one piece to save two or three others - or worse, raise the funds for shiny new armour.
XCOM 2’s new way of thinking is right there in the base management, where you now allocate individual engineers as human upgrades to your comms and other systems. You won’t come around to it right away - but once you do, you’ll find yourself thinking around your strategic problems in callous new ways.
The change is reflected on the ground. This is a guerilla fight, in which familiar mechanics are refitted to tell a very different story. An untimed mission, in which you might take a turn just to heal and reload everybody’s weapons, is a luxury you’re rarely afforded. Far more often you’re racing to an objective and then to an evac point - one you’ve placed yourself or, cruelly, a fixed point on the other side of the map. Frequently, you’ll be rushed by the appearance of a red flare burning away on the tarmac: the harbinger of a shipful of reinforcements next turn.
Anybody who doesn’t reach the evac zone is captured, or for the purposes of the campaign, dead. It’s harsh. Unbending. And yet the fact that you’re unconcerned about mopping up every last enemy on the map is freeing. It turns out there’s a special kind of ingenuity borne of desperation. You might complete a mission without firing a single shot. Doesn’t sound like XCOM, does it? But it is, now.
That’s enabled by concealment, the cloaked mode that sees Enemy Unknown’s winningly simple cover system elegantly repurposed for stealth. There are still only two types of object in the world - medium or high - but for the first part of a mission you’re usually working to avoid line of sight rather than enemy fire, dodging the vision radii of alien patrols, CCTV stations and jumpy civilians.
On one occasion, ill-prepared for a Very Difficult mission and with all of my best soldiers in the infirmary, I knew I couldn’t possibly face the odds as the game was going to calculate them. So I opted not to. Heart pounding, peering out from behind bins and park benches, I edged towards the objective - some crucial documents in the back of an ADVENT truck. The alien escort was none the wiser until a soldier barged past and hopped into the van, and a plasma grenade landed at their feet.
For one wrathful turn they caused as much trouble as they could, overkilling the poor greenhorn I’d designated as bait on the far end of the map. Then I called down the helicopter, bundling a wounded but lucky document-wielding soldier and his colleagues into it as ADVENT’s fiercest looked furiously on.
In Enemy Unknown, that was a mission you’d never attempt, knowing it to be doomed. But here it’s a standout moment - a celebration of mad, brash tactics and patient execution. More than that, if you’re a thrifty spender of human lives, these snatched victories are a way to recover from those mid-campaign moments where you’ve fallen behind the tech curve of your enemies.
Let’s talk about the global metagame. Now flattened into an atlas which you whizz across in your mobile base, it’s lots of fun.
“Maybe once this is all over,” sighs Central Officer Bradford at one point, “We should take this ship and go colonise one of their planets.”
It’s said in weary jest, but highlights XCOM 2’s fundamental role-reversal. You’re the invader, disturbing the uneasy peace Earth has made with the aliens. You’ll conduct supply raids, visit various continental regions to stir up resistance and funding, and dodge the UFOs you once scoured the planet for.
There’s a skeletal ruleset at work. Every month you’re given the opportunity to prevent one of three dark events: ADVENT schemes that might improve, for instance, their ammo, armour or ability to call down reinforcements. Meanwhile, separate timers count down the weeks til the next retaliation event - gruelling fights which can lose you regions - and the installation of new alien facilities. You’ll want to assault as many facilities as you can, because they expedite the progress of the Avatar project: a covert alien operation that means campaign failure if it’s completed.
A lot of the strategy lies in deciding where you go and how long you stay. If it’s going to take seven days to research better armour, and your best grenadier is set to be in the hospital for fourteen, it’s perhaps best to land at XCOM HQ, thereby halving her recovery time and leaving you in rude health to tackle a facility within the week.
Firaxis throw you a rope when you’re most struggling - a gaggle of free rookies after a squad wipe, for example - and there are failsafes built in to counteract any major screw-ups you might make: you can always harvest the Intel needed to contact new regions at HQ, and trade Intel for supplies on the black market.
It must have been tempting for the studio to embrace the board game leanings apparent here: let a day be a turn and have done with it. But the presence of time, trickling by in seconds as you consider your next building or research job, rushing by in days as you pick up resources, is important. The on-screen Avatar progress bar is a doomsday clock always at three minutes to midnight, and moving the hands yourself is never not tense.
What the metagame does best is convey the sense that the aliens are evolving along with you. By smothering some of their plans, denying them the light they need to thrive, you’re actually defining the way the plant does grow. The ADVENT you’re facing late in the campaign is your ADVENT, distinguished in small ways from the aliens in everyone else’s campaigns.
This expanded strategy layer still wouldn’t stand up as a game in itself, but it doesn’t have to. It exists to feed into the battles that remain the glowing elerium core of XCOM.
I do wonder if Enemy Unknown’s most dedicated vets will have a harder time adapting to XCOM 2 than those for whom leapfrogging from cover to cover isn’t second nature. They’ll need to fight familiar urges if they’re to succeed in missions that reward clean escapes over attempts to clear the battlefield. Learning to sprint for evac, even when there are still high-percentage shots to be had, even when you think there might yet be a chance of overcoming the odds, is a lesson that doesn’t come without heavy losses.
Overwatch can now be removed with a well-placed shot, and you’ll need to know how to free up your soldiers from reaction fire and the constriction of vipers so that they can make it to the chopper. It’s like the river-crossing riddle with the fox, the chicken, and the sack of corn - only the corn is your objective, and you’ll sometimes want to let the chicken get eaten to ship the sack out safely (the fox is a Corporal nicknamed ‘All Day’, obv).
Stealth, casually-explored in the Enemy Within expansion, is now wholly integrated into XCOM. The fact that you’re employing tried and true cover principles means that, when you are discovered, your troops tend to be in broadly sensible positions and the game slips naturally into the normal flow of combat.
You’ll associate Enemy Within with a hypnotic rhythm of cover-hugging, pushing your squad forward until they disturbed a nest of sectoids. Those enemies would define the parameters of the battlefield - but here it’s often on you to choose where and how the fight begins, considering the placement of your objective and eventual evac point. XCOM 2 encourages a holistic kind of thinking that was never really necessary in its predecessor.
Of course, concealment is in constant tension with the timers and threat of reinforcements. The longer you spend scouting and repositioning, the tighter your subsequent escape will have to be. There’s no part of the game that isn’t laced with heart-stopping urgency, like viper poison.
If there’s a problem with the newly-procedural map generation, it’s the proximity of spawned groups of aliens. Too frequently the outcome of a battle is decided because you’re triggered two or three patrols at once, leading to insurmountable numbers and flanking crises.
That’s something you can incorporate into your tactics - using battle scanners and stealth specialists to scout ahead and make your moves accordingly. But it can be frustrating to lose a long struggle because of a single movement mistake. I once reloaded a save and turned a squad wipe into a unqualified victory, simply by directing my ranger a few squares further to the left. It’s a flaw that discourages the sort of clever flanking maneuvers XCOM 2 otherwise advocates.
Firaxis have been open about the fact that XCOM embraces an irregular difficulty curve - more like a monitored heartbeat than a gentle incline - and so it proves in the late game, when you’re rewarded for your struggle, the monstrous decisions you’ve made, with an easing off. Your weapons capabilities start to match ADVENT’s, you’re fielding 50% more soldiers, and your armour is tough enough to see several soldiers make Colonel. The satisfaction of killing off a whole patrol from concealment before its troopers have even made it to cover is profound.
Happily, XCOM 2’s storytelling is worthy of the mechanical scaffolding it’s draped across. Given that the same alien overlords revealed their intent to us in Bond villain monologue at the close of Enemy Unknown, Firaxis have done a fantastic job of instilling them with new mystery and menace.
The prevailing theme is of facade: time has passed, an invading force has become a ruling one - but what for? Why haven't they simply stripped Earth of its resources and moved on to another victim? For what purpose the gleaming ADVENT cities? Genuine discovery awaits, compounded by the awful surprises dealt by a new set of aliens - at once reminiscent of their predecessors and terrifyingly novel.
That this story of desperation and ingenuity should come from Firaxis, who had no cause to be ingenious, who weren't desperate but instead buoyed by the hard-won success of Enemy Unknown, is all the more remarkable. The studio is known for handing new iterations of Civ off to younger, less-proven designers, but this is braver still. XCOM 2 is no iteration at all, but an inspired rework. A new underdog story that requires new, underhand tactics.
Okay, picture the scene. You don’t know it yet, but you will: it’s the quintessential XCOM 2 scenario.
The skyranger hits the dirt, and the squad are already on borrowed time: eight turns til forced evac. A successful mission, all things considered - one ADVENT government official executed, several snakepeople left twitching in wriggle mortis. In the negative column, one soldier slumped across the shoulder of Lieutenant Soto, and a slug in the side of the team’s sniper, Major McGregor (‘The Kid’, though the comrades who christened her haven’t lived long enough to tell the rookies why).
No one is dead; the evac point is in sight. But now reinforcements have landed, blocking the exit. An ADVENT officer, dressed in segmented armour that covers his eyes, points like an angry red wasp. He’s flanked by three troopers and a psychotic stun lancer.
It’s the last turn on the clock - anyone who doesn't get to evac is lost. The Kid is closest - too close, trapped by a trooper in almost-certainly-lethal overwatch. There are no actions to spare on grenades. If time hadn’t already stopped, it certainly would now. What would you do?
I know what I did. I had Soto let the comrade she was carrying slide gently to the floor. I told her to level her mag cannon and carve a chunk out of the soldier pinning my sniper, removing overwatch. I asked her to watch as the remainder of her squad flew away.
You think I’m a monster. That’s because you don’t know yet. But you will.