Sometimes I think I’ll never unlock XCOM 2’s Valhalla achievement. Beating this game on its hardest setting in Ironman mode feels like it’s beyond me. I don’t have the tactical wherewithal to even know where I’d start and, believe me, I’ve tried. I sent my best crew, New Kids on The Block, to their deaths, they came home in body bags after Donnie Wahlberg screwed up trying to skulljack an Advent officer, he got his band-mates killed, all of them, even wee Joey. I’ll keep fighting though; I’ll keep sending terrible celebrities into the combat zone until one day that prize is mine.
It’s been twenty years since the events of Enemy Within and earth is now completely in the hands of the aliens under the guise of Advent. Spamming the airwaves with their propaganda, Advent have cemented the notion that they came to earth in peace, to better the lives of humans, and that attacks against them from the now guerrilla XCOM are very much based on old prejudices. As Unification Day celebrations and speeches get under way, XCOM, now a rag-tag bunch of freedom fighters, take the opportunity to launch an explosive attack against Advent forces, which serves as your opening and tutorial here.
The underdog premise of XCOM 2 makes for an immediately more engaging setting than the previous entries in the series. You’re no longer part of a stuffy, government funded war machine with all manner of military hardware at your disposal; here you’re a desperate and scattered network of rebels working from the shadows against a vastly superior alien machine. Indeed striking from the shadows is the order of the day here, working itself as it does into the very heart of the gameplay through one of the biggest changes to XCOM’s action, Concealment.
You’ll more often than not begin missions in a state of concealment, hidden from the enemy, albeit briefly, giving you a chance to manoeuvre your squad into flanking positions, set up beautifully choreographed ambushes and utilise that all-important overwatch to ensure that when you’re spotted, you can at least begin an engagement with the upper hand. Concealment ends when any one of your four-man squad step on an indicated tile, break windows or doors, attack the enemy, or get flanked, and then, with a hideously guttural roar, Advent forces will rain all manner of hot shit down upon you.
It’s an exciting addition that immediately makes this sequel feel unique. The ebb and flow of battle, whilst still recognisable, takes on a different tempo entirely, aided further by the second major addition to the gameplay, timed objectives.
A majority of the missions in XCOM 2 will see you forced to succeed in your primary objective in a set number of turns or your mission instantly fails. It may sound awful, timed missions generally are and especially in a game where you are already completely stressed dealing with everything else, but, amazingly, it changes the game entirely for the better. Missions that may have been a slog, a slow progression forward, are now infused with excitement, you need to take the initiative and be decisive, it adds a whole new layer to the game and eradicates much of the tedium of the old way of playing. Everything about XCOM 2 is soaked in urgency.
The Advent constantly and consistently show an impressive level of intelligence during encounters; flanking you, outmaneuvering you at every opportunity and punishing you for the smallest mistake. Don’t take the time to move your soldier into proper cover? You’re toast. Leave a squad member open to attack and the advent aliens will strike and make you pay the price. Proper, studious use of cover and overwatch tactics are essential to survival here.
Luckily your roster of recruits have access to a plethora of new techniques, weapons, and abilities to fight back and, across the five classes of fighter available, the new abilities on offer feed beautifully into the fast-paced, cut and thrust nature of combat here. Rangers can get up close and personal with brutal sword attacks whilst your specialists are armed with flying Gremlin drones which operate as flying hospitals or death machines depending on the skill tree options you decide to make. Indeed XCOM 2 offers a fantastically deep level of choice when it comes to your soldier’s skills, enabling the game to cater for all sorts of styles of play.
Take your ranger class, with their melee sword attacks, as you progress you can imbue them with the ability to remain in concealment even after the rest of their team have been discovered, add to this extra attack damage through the Shadowstrike perk and you’re basically creating teams of amazing ninjas, capable of striking silently at the Advent forces from the shadows. Grenadiers, on the other hand, can be outfitted to withstand brutal punishment through enhanced blast armour and are capable of dealing massive structural damage to areas, reducing alien cover and pinning multiple targets down, taking the fight loud and direct to the enemy.
XCOM 2 also changes the pace of battle by enabling you to expand on the old two-moves approach to combat. Where you initially only get two moves with a soldier before ending their turn, here you can add all sorts of perks and upgrades that see the number of moves you can take extended greatly. The Return Fire perk (for example) enables your soldier to automatically fire back at enemies who target them, leading to increased attacking chances, or, through scavenging the battlefield for enemy drops you can find upgrades which give your troops all manner of new abilities, such as being able to freely reload a weapon without using up a move, instantly increasing the tactical options available during a turn.
Moving away from the almost overwhelming number of new skills and perks, customisation of your troops has also been greatly enhanced here. To begin with you may be too bogged down with the constant struggle to outperform your enemy in battle to bother with it, but, once you get more comfortable and have got a few troops who you’ve been to hell and back with, you’ll find yourself spending more and more time in the armoury, customising up every last detail of your soldiers.
There’s an amazing amount of options here, giving you the ability to change pretty much everything about your roster of recruits. You can add hats, hairstyles, masks, change voices, and even create your own biographies to give your best killers fitting back stories. The attention to detail is really something; check out how only veteran soldiers have access to scars, they’ve earned those burns and stab wounds. All of this is extended infinitely by the possibilities introduced by the already blossoming mod scene. There are all manner of voice packs and outfits available through Steam, all adding to the already startling customisation options. I mean, Star Wars helmets anyone?
I’ve lost countless hours to the customisation screen, mostly recreating old boybands to send to their deaths. Add to this the procedurally generated nature of the missions and maps and you’ve got a game with almost infinite replayability supported by a community that are already cranking out some really fun additions.
Base management is now, even more so than in Enemy Within, an integral and fully-realised part of the game and it’s aboard XCOM’s Avenger HQ, a repurposed alien ship, that you’ll interact with your staff to decide on every minute and vitally important decision. An lovingly detailed side-on view of the Avenger lets you ping around between Research, Armory, Engineering and Command where you’ll spend a great deal of the game, hopefully, making decisions that will stand to you as your campaign unfolds. It’s also here that you’ll step up to the Geoscape and get a real feel for the ebb and flow of the battle you’re in. You’ll expand your resistance network and access vital supplies by making contact with new regions on the map, gain access to the black market, an absolutely vital way of generating much-needed currency, and send your troops out on missions in the Skyranger.
The Geoscape is always brimming with missions to take on and decisions to make. Should you expand into new territories, making contact with more resistance outposts and gaining supplies or head off for the next rescue mission? There is an overwhelming sense of responsibility and panic as you look at the map here, so many different paths to take, all of them urgent and all of this compounded by that big red Doomsday clock ticking down towards oblivion.
The importance of picking and choosing how you spend your time and resources is as important, if not more so, than how you perform on the battlefield here. Mistakes or badly considered choices can have longstanding consequences for your efforts, and it’s here, especially early on, that you’ll find frustration with XCOM 2.
Every decision you make can have dire consequences. If you don’t upgrade your armour or weapons early enough you’ll be in deep shit a couple of missions down the line. I actually had to restart my campaign on a few occasions as the realisation dawned on me that I’d overspent or chose entirely the wrong things to be researching.
This frustration does carry into battles as well as you’ll often get completely decimated as new types of enemy are unloaded on you in the middle of a fight without any introduction to their skills. This can lead to you absolutely spamming the reload button, constantly replaying missions, totally frustrated and at a loss to figure out how to pull your soldiers through a mission.
There are other nagging problems, XCOM is a viciously difficult game and as such it feels particularly annoying when, standing face to face with an enemy, you unload a sniper rifle or rocket launcher with your hit chance reading 97% and miss completely. It’s the nature of the combat but, when it’s already brutally difficult, this can feel like a little too much.
There are other criticisms: after a tough first half, XCOM 2 starts to become slightly easier just when you’d expect the difficulty to be cranking up further. Once your troops have been leveled to a certain point, battles are less insurmountable than before and, even though it’s nice to not be getting destroyed for a change, it does feel odd.
Away from the actual gameplay, stuttering on load screens, random crashes, long pauses, and hanging during battles have all been intermittent issues during my time with XCOM 2. Online forums are full of fixes and guides to overcome many of the performance issues, there’s even a mod (“Stop Wasting My Time”) which speeds things up and helps with the occasionally very long pauses in action as your enemy decides what it should do next. It’s a shame because, beyond these technical issues, this is a gloriously detailed, beautifully-realised game. Locations are alive with tiny details, there’s a vast array of wonderfully grotesque enemy types rocking some really awesome looking armour. The chatter between your teammates and HQ adds a great deal to the battles and there’s great voice acting supporting a cracking story, which I won’t spoil a moment of.
XCOM 2 is, in almost every way, a perfect sequel. It’s a deep, tough, intelligent strategy game that offers you endless hours of intense fighting against some of the best enemy AI you’ll encounter. It’s a game that creates moments you’ll remember with characters you’ve created and care about and is quite possibly the best example of its genre to date.
Amazingly intense, tough and exciting strategy.
Brilliant story and beautiful looking.
Incredibly difficult at times.