Some games try to be all things to all people. The Assassin’s Creeds and Grand Theft Autos of the world put forward generic templates intended to draw the biggest audience possible. But other games know exactly what they are and to whom. XCOM is one of these: an unabashedly nerdy series steeped in UFO lore and tabletop-style turn-based gameplay. XCOM 2, the sequel to 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is a strong but not revolutionary followup, sticking to what the original did well and adding a number of new mechanics, to mostly solid results.
Twenty years after the events of Enemy Unknown, an organisation called Advent runs a dystopian society, led by the comically “kool” Speaker and enforced by alien-human hybrids. That’s right: the official canon ending of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that the good guys lost. Sorry, good guys.
Rather than fighting invaders, XCOM is now a broken resistance taking on established oppression. Based out of an oddly conspicuous helicarrier named - I kid you not - the Avenger, XCOM take on Advent in an attempt to drive the aliens out - or to extinction. The “resistance” storyline immediately ups the stakes makes the gameplay more immediate. It’s a great choice on the part of developer Firaxis.
XCOM 2’s more interesting setting is matched by more ambitious storytelling. There are more cutscenes, more voice acting, and a greater sense that a story is taking place alongside your gameplay. But Firaxis haven’t quite got it right. Your character, the Commander, never speaks, and doesn’t even seem to possess a corporeal body. Cutscenes are shown in first person, but the camera glides smoothly as if computer controlled - and if cutscenes are in first person, does that mean the Commander literally hovers over the battlefield when directing missions?
The voice cast may also distract experienced gamers from the story. The “Honest Trailers” narrator plays a significant role, which is impossible to take seriously, while the practice of using actors for multiple roles in games reaches a hilarious extreme when Brandon Keener (Mass Effect’s Garrus Vakarian) ends up playing multiple characters in the same scene.
Missions in XCOM 2 operate the same as ever: move from cover to cover, trying to outflank and outwit your enemies. Tons of new features crop up (carrying wounded soldiers; destructible environments; looting), and they’re integrated in such a way that it feels like they were always there. Most importantly, your squad starts in a state called “Concealment,” inverting the usual “kill everything” approach with a stealth mechanic. It’s entirely possible to set up ambushes and - if you’re really good - make it through missions without any alien contact at all. Objectives are the focus, meaning hasty getaways and nail-biting races against the clock come frequently.
As exciting as that sounds, though, it’s only exciting if you’re into turn-based gameplay (like tabletop games have taught me to be). XCOM 2 is an exceptionally nerdy game, with rules governing line of sight and cover, as well as controversial “chance to hit” dice rolls. Constant movement and tactical positioning are paramount to getting the best chance (calculated by the computer) of hitting your target.
If you’re perturbed by permanent death in video games, get ready to suffer significantly in XCOM 2. Squad customisation is more detailed than ever, granting a distracting level of control over troops’ appearance, background, and demeanour. I elected to use that system to create the Birth.Movies.Death staff within XCOM 2. It’s a good thing there’s no full face customisation, or I would have spent even longer replicating the team than I already did. The results of my efforts were traumatising.
You see, XCOM 2’s deep character customisation brings with it micro-narratives and emotional attachment. Even if your soldiers don’t die, they can still be wounded or develop PTSD, reducing their effectiveness should an uncaring Commander thrust them back into combat. It took only one mission for Devin, Britt, and Sid to become gravely wounded, Devin slashed to ribbons by a shape-shifting Faceless. Scott burned to death, while Brian was shot by his own team while under alien mind control. Only Meredith made it through every mission unscathed, assembling quite the service record. Team Meredith, you guys.
That trauma comes frequently, too, because combat in XCOM 2 is tough. Real tough. XCOM 2’s most annoying tendency is to throw up an unlucky digital dice roll just when victory seems imminent. In this sense the game’s debt to tabletop gaming is the most palpable. Even the greatest tactician can be undone by a poor stroke of luck (and even a 99% chance of hitting your target leaves, to Lloyd Christmas’ satisfaction, a chance to miss), setting in motion a domino effect that can off a whole squad. Many missions have turn limits, too, meaning you can lose simply by taking too long. Sometimes no matter how much tactical thought you put in, you just have to sacrifice someone.
If XCOM 2’s combat evokes tabletop games like Descent and Hero Quest, its bigger-picture game is Pandemic: a grand-scale balancing act where the fate of the world - not just a few squaddies - hangs in the balance. Running an armed resistance takes logistics, after all. The worse half of the game involves building facilities and equipment, researching aliens, and assembling a resistance network. The array of options is bewildering, and honestly, it’s dull and disconnected next to the combat. The in-game advisors don’t do a great job of telling you what’s actually important, so most actions feel like a stab in the dark.
This is probably a good note on which to mention that XCOM 2 is seemingly designed around replays. Sometimes you'll wedge yourself down a losing path, and you just need to restart to get anywhere. You can always savescum your way to victory, but it’s not as rewarding as succeeding legitimately. And since levels are procedurally designed, you’ll never face the exact same combination of enemies and obstacles twice.
Sadly, XCOM 2 is packed with minor bugs and irritations that don’t ruin the experience, but do lessen it somewhat. The action camera is only semi-aware of context, often offering a nice view of a wall as action happens behind it, and even when it does work, poor optimisation means that the action won’t be as smooth or as pretty as it could be. It’s aggressively PC-only, to the point that the only supported gamepad is the Steam Controller, and I can’t help thinking that’s to its detriment. Video game consoles are popular for a reason, even if consumers aren’t aware of it: with a standard hardware model to design for, developers can ensure that performance will remain consistent for everyone. I know PC nerds love tweaking settings and spending thousands of dollars constantly upgrading their “rigs,” but I don't. I only care about the experience.
If you liked XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you’ll be right at home in XCOM 2. Frankly, Firaxis doesn't seem interested in bringing non-fans along for the ride - the lack of console support and the in-the-deep-end story and gameplay confirm that. The studio has pulled a classic election year move in appealing directly and exclusively to its base (with literal base-building, even), and for that base, it works. Maybe even newcomers can find something to enjoy despite it all. But the learning curve’s steep, and the slope is strewn with the bloodied signs of death.