Love it or hate it, there is no denying that the XCOM franchise has a loyal and vocal fan base, whether it be with die hard fans doing their fifth “Ironman” playthroughs or newcomers raging about that missed 95% shot, it's fair to say they are going to tell you about it, loudly and frequently.
Well prepare thy social media feeds friends, because XCOM is back by way of the appropriately titled, XCOM 2 -- and this time it’s personal, well I mean the last game was personal, but this is even MORE personal. Without giving away any story spoilers, it has been 20 years since the events of the original XCOM project and things have gone poorly for the brave men and women of XCOM. For the citizens of Earth, however, things seem to be going great under the leadership of our new alien overlords, sure there is the odd rumor of people being abducted, but hey conspiracy theorists, gunna theorise.
20 years of alien brainwashing on earth's inhabitants has seen the XCOM project go from humanity’s last hope to being some sort of terrorist style organisation, which has seen the introduction of XCOM 2’s newest mechanic, concealment. Most missions start you off in concealment, allowing you to move your soldiers swiftly through the level until you are either spotted by a civilian, alien, or scanning tower. Smashing a window or firing on an enemy will also remove concealment, but it allows you to set up the sweetest ambushes on unsuspecting alien scum.
Speaking of soldiers, all the classics from XCOM: Enemy Unknown are back -- Snipers, Assault, Heavies and support but all have had a few tweaks. Snipers now have a wicked pistol they can use as well as their usual long range rifle. Assault troopers are now called rangers and have picked up a wicked looking machete which they can use for amazing close range damage. Support soldiers have been upgraded to Specialists and come with a military drone that can hack into the enemy's network, heal teammates or electrocute enemies (depending on the skills chosen). The minigun-wielding Heavy is back, now known as the Grenadier, probably on account of the extremely useful grenade launcher they now have slung over their shoulder.
As expected your trusty soldiers will gain promotions as they complete missions and kill aliens and like in the XCOM: EU you get to choose one of two skills to unlock. These skills are mostly a new type of attack, but can sometimes be a passive ability like returning fire when attacked or being unable to be hit after killing an enemy the turn before. If you do happen to change your mind, you are now able to retrain abilities using one of the new buildings, the Advanced War Centre, which can also increase the healing down time of injured soldiers, I highly recommend you build one of these if you haven’t already.
One of the biggest changes between XCOM: EU and XCOM 2 is the fact that you no longer have to chose a starting location for your base, this is because the crafty folk of the XCOM project managed to repurpose one of the shot down alien ships as a mobile base, that's right XCOM, where we’re going, we don't need roads. This allows you to fly around the globe making contact with various resistance cells, launch supply raids and carry out missions on the Alien Master Race.
The layout of the XCOM home ship, code named Avenger, will be very similar to the layout of the base in the previous game. One major change is the removal of the adjacency bonus provided from, well, adjacent buildings -- things like +2 power for every generator placed next to each other.
It might seem trivial but XCOM: Enemy Unknown copped a lot of flak for its unforgiving hidden mini game, known as the satellite game -- where players tried (and mostly failed) to construct the correct layout of satellite launching buildings in order to provide enough coverage. One exception in XCOM 2 is the workshop, which lets you use drones to man/upgrade adjacent buildings like the power relay or resistance networks. Using these robots allows you to free up engineers that would otherwise need to be manning these positions.
Replacing the satellites from XCOM: EU is a new building known as the Resistance relay, which provides you with the ability to make contact with up to 4 resistance cells. This relay is able to be upgraded and manned by either engineers or drones to increase the number of resistance contacts. The Officer Training school from the previous game has also been replaced with the Guerrilla tactics school which lets you increase your squad size from 4 to a maximum of 6 as well as providing other perks to speed up soldier promotions and the likes.
Things like the renaming of the Officer School, to Guerrilla Tactics gets back to what I was talking about before with the paradigm shift of the XCOM project no longer being ‘the good guys’ in the eyes of the people of earth. From what we see in the missions, the Earth seems to be going great. Technology has been progressed, there’s no longer any wars, diseases are being treated at the free Gene therapy sites that the aliens have been set up (thanks alien Obama), frankly despite the rumors of abductions, this isn't just change, it's progress.
Combat in XCOM 2 is very similar to the combat from the previous games, each soldier is permitted two actions per turn. These actions can be made up of movements, firing at the enemy, using a grenades, healing or reloading. When you do lay down some sweet guerrilla justice on the alien overlords, there is a chance for loot drops, these can be either weapon upgrades or materials for advanced research. Weapon upgrades are a great addition to XCOM 2, they can add things like increased critical chance, reloads that don’t cost an action or larger ammo clip size and many more.
The weapon upgrades in XCOM 2 is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to soldier customization. Armor colours (primary and secondary), armor patterns, arm tattoos, facial hair are just some of the many items able to be tweaked when re-creating your friends, coworkers and loved ones as elite alien killers. This level of game personalisation really adds to the pain of losing a soldier and let's be honest, you WILL lose soldiers, especially on your first game.
If this is your first time with an XCOM game, unless you are some sort of tactical genius your first game will end badly. Personally I feel that enabling the tutorial when first starting a game puts you at a disadvantage as it prioritises researching and building story progression items over utility items such as weapon and armor upgrades. On my first game this left me in an unwinnable place where my weapons were not do enough damage and my armor was not providing enough protection. Perhaps it was just me de-rusting my XCOM skills, but as soon as I restarted without the tutorial dictating which items to research or buildings to build I went from failing missions to completing them with a “Flawless” rank.
Procedurally generated mission maps and multiple mission types keep the game from getting stale and the roster of potential enemies scales with your story progress, so if you find yourself in a position where more damage is required, perhaps research that next weapon technology, instead of what the game is suggesting. The other thing to keep in mind is, if it has all gone tits up - there is no shame in restarting a XCOM playthrough, or hey just do what everyone else does (but says they don’t) and save scum the shit out of it.
XCOM 2 encapsulates everything that I love about videogames, the perfect mix of elation when you land a low percentage shot you have no right in landing and world-ending rage when your sniper misses that 95% clutch shot that gets your favorite soldier killed.
Overall XCOM 2 hits that sweet spot between paying homage to the previous games, but acknowledging and improving on their flaws. It's a brilliant sequel and a masterful game in its own right, and a must buy for fans of the turn-based genre, or fans of games in general.