No one was quite sure what we’d get when 2K Games rebooted the beloved XCOM series, largely dormant for over a decade, with 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown. What we got, it turned out, was one of the best strategy games in recent memory. Against the odds, 2K succeeded in paying homage to the franchise while branching into new territory.
They’ve channeled a lot of that magic into XCOM 2, the direct sequel to Enemy Unknown. But while it captures the same feel and adds a few excellent new features, some odd design decisions and bugs prevent it from hitting the same high notes.
It’s been 20 years since the events of Enemy Unknown. Despite Earth’s best efforts of fending off a bizarre menagerie of aliens, things haven’t gone quite as planned. The world has come under control of the ADVENT Administration, a government agency that is really just a bunch of aliens wearing people masks. XCOM, Earth’s one and only defense force, has regrouped underground as a resistance movement and, after a daring rescue, recovers their commander (read: you) from the alien containment tube you’ve stuck inside for two decades. Needless to say, you’re pretty pissed.
Luckily, there are lots of aliens wandering around on which to take out your pent up aggression. The core gameplay of Enemy Unknown has remained largely intact: This is still a tactical, squad-based strategy game where you send a handful of outnumbered troops to take on aliens in various locations across the globe. In between missions, it’s up to you to decide where to spend your time, whether it’s developing new weapons or contacting new nations to increase your monthly income.
The squad combat was the most refined aspect of Enemy Unknown and its return in XCOM 2 heralds some handy evolutions, the biggest of which is “concealment.” In the last game, every mission would start with your soldiers blindly wandering the map searching for aliens to fight. Bump into one, and the aliens would instantly be aware of your presence and scatter into cover.
In XCOM 2, most missions begin with your squad concealed, essentially keeping you in stealth mode until you make your first attack or walk over red tiles indicating the alien field of view. The benefits of this system are huge, allowing you to set up ambushes that were heretofore impossible. Example: You can set three of your soldiers into concealed ‘overwatch’ mode (in which they’ll automatically engage anything that comes into range) while the fourth charges into battle with the newly added sword weapon. After being spotted but making an advantageous first attack, the rest of your squad will open fire before the aliens have a chance to take a turn. It’s a killer new feature that melds nicely with XCOM’s tough-as-nails gameplay.
And yet, once you’ve been spotted, some of the old, annoying elements of XCOM come marching back. A well-executed plan with your very best soldiers can still instantly go to pot when several invisible aliens pop into view and wreck shop. If you’re a true maniac that doesn’t believe in reloading an older save when things go awry, you’re likely to be majorly hamstrung by these moments, with well-worn veteran soldiers dying in the face of bad timing rather than bad tactics.
But other squad improvements manage to make up for the occasionally unfair staging. Classes feel more varied and interesting this time around. Specialists, for example, come packing a handy robot that can be used as a hacking tool or a maneuverable battlefield medic. The aforementioned sword weapon, wielded exclusively by the Ranger class, turns a more generic assault unit into a super aggressive, risk vs. reward-style beast capable of taking out major bosses up close in a single turn. Every member of your unit is a unique, invaluable asset, rather than just a generic clone of the guy who died two missions ago.
When it’s all working (and you don’t get an unlucky alien spawn), you really do start to feel like the master of your domain…at which point there’s a good chance something odd will happen. There are a fair number of bugs in XCOM 2, some of which have the potential to ruin a mission outright. In one instance, instead of my Ranger charging two nearby aliens from her perch on a rooftop, she inexplicably fell through the ceiling to her death. The camera also tends to go haywire during attack phases. Staring into a wall and having to guess whether or not your shot landed is no fun.
Of course, combat is only part of XCOM 2. The meta-game has undergone some pretty major changes since Enemy Unknown. On the surface, things look pretty similar: you build and upgrade a base of operations while plotting out your conquests on a world map. But the introduction to how it all works feels rushed, and even as someone who completed the last game, I was overwhelmed by choice.
What upgrades should I make to my base first? What’s the benefit of making contact with East Asia versus Western Europe? If I don’t take this mission, will that screw me for the rest of the game? XCOM 2 frequently gives you pop-ups saying “DOING THIS WILL BE A BAD IDEA” but, after following the lead of these pop-ups for more than 10 hours, I found myself in a very bad spot. The aliens had made serious progress on their ominous-sounding “Avatar Project,” I was almost out of healthy soldiers and all of the upgrades I had invested in turned out to be mostly worthless.
The meta-game in Enemy Unknown also caused a lot of confusion, but the solution was simple enough: build a ton of satellites and you’ll be fine. In XCOM 2 I found myself wishing I had a similar sort of flag to follow. After 12 hours I had learned much about what I should have been doing the whole time, but it still put me in a major pickle. Rather than starting from scratch, I ended up dialing down the difficulty until things were back under control.
In a lot of ways, the new meta-game changes (and many of the overall changes in XCOM 2) feel like they were designed for expert players. The game’s “Veteran” setting is just one notch above the easiest, and it’s a serious brute. Even on easy mode, losing soldiers and struggling with resources is common if you’ve made ill-informed decisions early on.
It should also be noted that one of the best features from Enemy Unknown, the intuitive, controller-based user-interface, has been excised from XCOM 2 (at least at launch). If you’re one of the many people who play PC games with a gamepad from the comfort of your couch, you’ll have to wait for a post-release patch.
It’s clear that XCOM 2 is an ambitious effort, with just about every mechanic from Enemy Unknown going under the knife in some way. Most of the changes are for the best, leading to another genuinely fun, tense romp through an embattled world desperate for your strategic brilliance. It stumbles a bit, however, and a handful of issues make the experience clumsy and overcomplicated, forcing players to pay an exorbitant price for their own ignorance. But hey, isn’t saving the human race worth a little saving and reloading?
: Peerless tactical strategy combat; unique and varied classes with lots of personalization; concealment mode rewards careful planning
: Confusing metagame with limited player guidance; bugs ruin some of the fun; no controller support at launch