If you are someone who enjoys sci-fi and tactical games, then XCOM 2 is probably already on your radar – blasting aliens, tactical combat scenarios, persistent RPG features and permadeath for your units should already have you foaming at the mouth. XCOM: Enemy Unknown enjoyed considerable success but also came with a fair amount of bugs and so XCOM 2 arrives with quite a lot to live up to.
If ain't broke, don't fix it as the old adage goes and Firaxis have made sure to harken back to the success of its predecessor where possible. There are moments where it can be difficult to tell apart the 2 games - there is a definite graphical improvement but the majority of animations and gameplay lines up identically which leaves a feeling somewhere between nostalgia and deja vu at times. Where some developers could simply create a sequel that exists only as a rehash, XCOM 2 has added enough new mechanics and features that the gameplay feels fresh and inviting, even for someone like myself who spent countless hours on XCOM 1.
The twist in the formula here all stems from Firaxis taking failure in the last outing as canon. Right at the outset of XCOM 2, you find out that mankind has proved too ineffectual to hold off the invading alien threat and Earth has been overrun and society has been overtaken by the Advent forces. Small pockets of resistance fighters still remain, facing the monumental task of overthrowing the alien forces that occupy just about every position of power. The narrative immediately feels more ordered and rests much more naturally within the game's world. The tutorial mission even provides the perfect set up for the player's role in the world: it has you taking on the role of a group of guerilla fighters who, without wanting to spoil a really cool games narrative moment, are tasked with violently relieving the invading forces of a particularly potent artefact.
You are the commander of these resistance forces. Rather than throwing your weight about the globe as a juggernaut, you’re instead reduced to a desperate scrabble to claw a subjugated humanity back into contention. In the first game you feel that you are in control of events, overseeing it all from your headquarters unlike in XCOM 2 where you are constantly struggling against a totalitarian enemy as the weaker, oppressed force. It's an inspired introduction into the game's narrative and cleverly twists the formula of the story to the inverse of what it was. This all makes the small squad that you operate through entire regiments of enemies truly feel like the guerrilla warfare experience you would imagine it to be and lends the inimitable XCOM feeling where each level feels like its own action film that puts you firmly in control. But control and comfort are not ideas that Firaxis want you to feel for too long...
You’re outnumbered and outgunned. Enemies like the sectoid have returned from the previous games with new psionic abilities that can instantly destroy any meaningful tactics you've set up, adding to the overarching theme of urgency consistently presented in XCOM 2. Even when the game doesn't literally pit you against the clock (and be warned, Firaxis really, really love to pit you against the clock), you often feel the need to rush before your forces get overwhelmed.
Luckily, not every new addition is designed to hurt you. New soldier types and upgrade paths allow you to tailor each squad and mission even more closely to the play style that suits you. Each class feels nicely balanced and equally useful, add on top of that the new attack types and suddenly the possibilities start to feel endless. The addition of the new Concealment system in XCOM 2 offers a much needed depth of options in how and when you engage the enemy. Whereas in XCOM: Enemy Unknown the enemies attack as soon as they are triggered, when units drop into a mission in XCOM 2, they are completely hidden from the enemy forces. Moving forward, cover to cover, it’s actually possibly to creep right up to a group of alien soldiers without being spotted. There's much to be said for painstakingly manoeuvring your squad so that when you open fire you cut down an entire, unsuspecting patrol in one turn.
Of course, this is still an XCOM game and the difficulty feels just as punishing as the previous instalment, if not more so. The enemy AI is unrelenting and feels much smarter than it used to be. Move too fast and it's likely you'll have one of your soldiers isolated and overwhelmed by a group of enemies before you can say Vigilo Confido. You could always try turtling your forces and defending against the onslaught but you better be prepared to have your men and women flanked and smashed apart. One particularly memorable moment in my playthrough was having a towering, misshapen brute instagib my sniper because I had left her stranded away from the squad because I hadn't felt the need to move her from her position of overwatch.
Still sounding too easy for a soldier squashing, brute killing badass such as yourself? For all the masochistic xenophobes out there, the return of Ironman Mode where autosaves are automatic and there's no loading back a previous save really makes you think twice before you blindly charge your most veteran soldiers forward and risk losing them forever. If this is your first time playing this series, this probably isn't recommended for a first playthrough of XCOM 2 as it's almost guaranteed you'll end up watching every soldier you have painstakingly developed die many times over due to momentary lapses of tactical judgement. If, like me, you enjoy feeling the full suffering of your mistakes then Ironman Mode is more than just an enjoyable feature – it's a rite of passage that separates the commanders from the boys.
Soldier customisation is back from the previous games but this time round there is a much greater depth to it, which can initially be quite overwhelming – be prepared to spend some quality time in the headquarters screens organising your personnel and gear. If you've played Enemy Unknown then you'll be right at home here but newcomers to the series may struggle at the outset of the game with organising and overseeing the soldier loadouts as well as developing new gear as it becomes available. Everything is editable, from what hat your soldier has to tattoos and scars. There are heaps of new items available even a few only hours in compared to the last game and in a game with so many different styles of play this a really welcome addition to the XCOM experience. You can add mods to weapons like the autoloader which allows a soldier to reload their primary weapon for free on a turn or scopes which provide bonuses to aim. Not only this but you are also able to change the colour and many other features about the armour and weapons of your soldiers. When I tell you that there's a chance your soldiers will be generated with Guile's hair from Street Fighter, I'm sure you can imagine the glee to be felt when seeing a Johnny Bravo lookalike drive a sword through a behemoth of flesh and claws.
Now the important stuff: the ability to name your soldiers after your most loved or hated ones makes a triumphant return in XCOM 2. Sending your closest friends to their death is definitely something all players should try at least once but do be prepared for that awkward moment where a greedy blunder leads to your best friend being torn apart in a hail of laser beams. If it comes to that, you can always head down to the Bar/Memorial area where you can see a list of all the brave people you have failed in your career as saviour of humanity and Earth.
It's touches like these that distract from the moments where XCOM 2 feels too much like a clichéd B-movie and instead feels like the AAA science fiction game that it most definitely is. Whenever the game starts to feel tropey, there often immediately follows a slight surprise that definitively marks the XCOM formula of denying all immediate expectations. A game which can be both frustratingly punishing and extremely rewarding is something that could definitely be observed more often in other modern titles, where usually accessibility comes at the price of more hardcore gameplay.
Firaxis have made tremendous strides to provide new mechanics and gameplay options for players who are still unsure what the XCOM series can offer them whilst retaining all the features that fans of Enemy Unknown have grown to love and now expect from the series. XCOM 2 is more than just a fantastic XCOM game, it's a polished and cohesive AAA experience that shines with a level of quality not often felt in these bleak, modern days.