Lieutenant Vaclev Skorski is stood atop the burning ruins of an alien warehouse. He’s wounded and down to the last shot of his sniper rifle. Ahead of him, crouched behind the low cover of a clump of rocks, is his squadmate - the last remnant of what had been a five man team. Bearing down on his comrade, who is making a final dash for the evac zone, are a hulking robotic walker and an alien assault trooper. Skorski is the last thing between the success of the mission and a slaughter. He takes aim, knowing that, with enemy reinforcements inbound, covering for his teammate means certain death for himself.
Such moments are scattered throughout XCOM 2, the sequel to 2K and Firaxis Games’ squad-based tactics game XCOM: Enemy Unknown from 2012. There are very few games that can be punctuated with snapshots of pure emotion, drama and, at times, rage while leaving the player wanting so much more. XCOM 2 is one of those games.
In Enemy Unknown the player is tasked with defending Earth from an unknown alien threat, using the might of the world’s combined nations to be a bulwark against the extraterrestrial menace. XCOM 2 reveals just how fruitless that effort was. 20 years on the aliens have almost totally subjugated Earth’s population, installing themselves as governors, overlords and even deities under the umbrella name of the ADVENT. Only a few still try to fight back against these outer-space oppressors, and it’s up to you to lead them from scattered bands of fugitives to a full-fledged rebellion.
You’re not alone, though. As with the previous XCOM titles and the tactics games of yore on which they were based, you’ll take on the aliens using a squad of willing soldiers. The game expands upon the soldier classes from the original, dumping the catch-all (and rather boring) support class to replace it with the ‘specialist’ - a robot-controlling hacker who can send ADVENT systems haywire or provide healing and defense boosts to comrades. The heavy class is reinvented as the ‘grenadier’ while assault troopers are now named ‘raiders’ and have the extra caveat of an indescribably cool sword for melee combat. The sniper is given the synonymously restyled moniker of ‘sharpshooter’ and remains your man of choice for attacking from range.
These men and women took an unlikely spotlight in Enemy Unknown, as the developers gave players the chance to customise their armour, features, nationalities and names. Effectively you could create a team based upon your family, friends or fellow gamers. XCOM 2 has taken everything that made the system great and improved it tenfold.
Each soldier under your command has a host of customisable options, which only increase as they rank up. You can change the colour and style of the armour, give them hats, bandanas, glasses, tattoos, scars, hairstyles and even change the combat patterns of their weapons. I’m unashamed to admit that I made a wholly unmanly squeal of glee when I discovered that I could give my grizzled veteran a cigar to chomp on. Your squad’s nationality can even be properly reflected with the developers adding in a load of new voice tracks for French, German, Spanish and British soldiers (hopefully more languages are on their way). All of these options aid the player in crafting a team of warriors that they feel wholly connected to. Something which makes throwing them into the crucible of war all that much harder.
Ground operations in XCOM 2, selected from the navigation screen in your home base, take the shape of turn-based movement and combat, where you troops navigate the world around them across a series of tiles. Each trooper has a certain radius in which they can move and then perform another action (like shooting or taking cover) and another, wider radius in which they can ‘dash’. Dashing allows you to move your units further but as a result they’re unable to perform an action.
Maps provide both high and low ground for your people to traverse, as well as buildings, low walls, debris and environmental features all to use to your advantage. Moving across this landscape is crucial in order to position your units in cover - if your enemy catches you out of cover, you're dead meat. Cover can come in the form of half-cover and full cover, displayed rather neatly by a shield that appears next to your soldier’s floating health bar. Each gives a defensive bonus and can increase the chance of the enemy missing, with full cover making the best protection. Flanking someone in cover (or catching someone in the open) gives the attacker a juicy boost to their aim and critical chance.
Utilising cover is something that ties in with a new feature added to XCOM 2. Since your units are resistance fighters dropped behind lines, in most missions you will start undercover. This means that until you trip an alarm, set off a trap, startle a civilian or get into an enemy’s field of view, you can move around the map freely. It also allows you to set up deadly ambushes using the games ‘overwatch’ action, which gives your troopers a free shot on anything that moves nearby.
You’ll need to use every trick at your disposal in XCOM 2, as the ADVENT aren't here to play around. The aliens from the Enemy Unknown have been settled on Earth for some time and are more powerful for it. Sectoids - once the lowest ranking enemy in the game - are now powerful mid-game units that can disorientate and debuff your units while ADVENT troops (humans modified by the aliens) flank and close the distance.
The ADVENT forces are varied and require a considerable amount of tactical thought. Even amongst its foot soldiers there are officers, grunts, sword-wielding assault troopers and heavily armoured damage-soakers. The aliens also bring mechs and robots to the party, as well as more grotesque creatures like the gooey ‘Faceless’ and reptilian ‘Venom’ units. XCOM 2 has gone a long way to make the ADVENT seem both human and alien. Facilities and surroundings will bear all the hallmarks of Earth’s near-future yet be defended by snake-men and dimension-hopping guardians.
Defeating these foes is a matter of (albeit cleverly hidden) dice rolls. Highlighting an enemy will give you a percentage chance of hitting it, and often times these figures can be misleading and infuriating. There aren’t many feelings like watching a shot with 23% chance to hit slamming home, except perhaps the one where you watch a 95% shotgun blast completely miss its target. In XCOM 2 every shot counts, because another famous hallmark of the series is back with a vengeance: it’s punishingly hard.
One mistake is all it can take to watch your entire squad be systematically slaughtered. While your grizzled veterans may be able to stare defeat in the face you’ll often be accompanied by rookies who will panic in the face of odds, death and alien menace. By the time the mid-game arrives you’ll be churning through these poor squaddies like a First World War general. You’re forever outnumbered in XCOM 2, and you need to make sure that every piece of cover, every vantage point and every flanking opportunity is taken. If you don’t you’ll often stare defeat in the face only halfway through a mission, knowing that in the next few turns your squad is going to be flanked and brutally murdered. Although these occasions can become frustrating (maddening even) it leaves the player with a burning desire to try again, to improve their tactics and learn how to defeat each enemy type one by one at the next mission, despite being furnished with a squad of fresh-faced rookies.
Supporting your ground operations is The Avenger, XCOM 2’s home base during the campaign. A repurposed alien vessel, it acts in a similar ant-farm fashion to the home base from Enemy Unknown. It houses permanent rooms like the armoury, command centre and research labs but can also be outfitted with additional rooms through excavating the rubble in the ship’s centre. Your efforts here can be supplemented by rescuing and recruiting scientists and engineers, who will speed up research and construction among other skills.
The Avenger feels a lot more populated than the XCOM base did in the predecessor. You’ll recognise your soldiers wandering around the ship, chatting to each other, doing push ups in the training room or drinking to fallen comrades in the bar. Scientists and engineers you put to work will be visible as they go about their jobs. The night and day cycle is even reflected on the outsides of the ship, where you watch the sky grow dark and the sun rise again.
XCOM 2 has given pretty much every graphical feature in the previous game a polish to update it to modern standards and it goes without saying that the game is flawless in its design and looks. Every battlefield oozes style and really set the scene for your operations against the ADVENT. Soldiers grimace, wince and shout as they fight, while hair, toolkits and weapons sway in convincing ways. Enemy and friendly animations are smooth and detailed - from leaping over barriers to climbing ladders - and I can’t recall any time where my immersion was jarred by clunky movement.
Similarly, composer Tim Wynn has done a fabulous job in creating an epic action-movie feel that accompanies the game. The game’s soundtrack is cinematic in its crescendos and swells and palpably tense when things are going awry. The sound effects are also spot-on: guns crack, rattle and boom while alien mag-weapons make suitably science-fiction pops, zaps and fizzes.
They say the little things matter in gaming and XCOM 2 has that in spades. The title screen changes to reflect your squad, putting your customised soldiers in the videos. You’ll see scrolling news holograms depicting the soldiers in your team with the most kills, splattered all over with warning signs. Spent ammunition lies about the floor beneath your troops after they’ve fired. You can save your favourite soldiers to a character pool and resurrect their looks in the body of a new recruit. The game has even improved the pre-mission screen - watching your squad turn on their heels and strut towards the transport is such a cool way to start things off.
As I come to the end of the review I find there’s actually very little else to say about a game of such a magnitude. Despite being a fan of the XCOM series as a whole I never expected this new entry to be as polished, intricate, immersive, beautiful and exciting as it is. I’ve had to tear myself away from the screen multiple times because I’d got so invested I’d forgotten to eat. XCOM 2 is one of those titles that appear once in a blue moon and set the benchmark for gaming; from start to finish there wasn’t a moment I did not completely enjoy playing it. XCOM 2 is not only one of the greatest strategy games of all time, it’s also one of the greatest videogames of all time.
XCOM 2 (Reviewed on Windows)
Outstanding. Why do you not have this game already?
Despite being a fan of the XCOM series as a whole I never expected this new entry to be as polished, intricate, immersive, beautiful and exciting as it is. XCOM 2 is not only one of the greatest strategy games of all time, it’s also one of the greatest videogames of all time.