Acoin flip can have cruel consequences in XCOM
2’ s turn-based battles. On the wrong end of a 50/50 flip, Martha Schwartz, with 31 enemy kills to her name, was mauled to death by a 12-foot-tall mud monster in a nameless European town. With the rest of the team dead, out of ammo, or ensnared by a giant alien snake, it was down to her to land the shot to save her life. She took out the wall of a nearby house instead, and was crushed unceremoniously seconds later.
XCOM 2 is full of setbacks that feel horribly unfair in the moment. However, a post-operation inquiry would reveal a series of tactical errors in the run up to Martha’s death. She was too far away from the group, and could have opted for better cover; a teammate might have sent a drone to boost her defence; the snake could have been eliminated by a grenade several turns earlier. XCOM 2 is ostensibly a strategy game about overthrowing a totalitarian alien regime, but really it’s a war against the forces of probability. Every move tilts the odds in a system that is primed to destroy you. It’s tough, but completely gripping.
XCOM 2 assumes that the campaign to defend Earth from alien attack in 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown failed. The aliens are in charge, and you must take the helm of a recovered alien vessel called The Avenger to track down resistance groups. You spend a lot of time looking at a cross-section of your enormous airship, clearing the alien detritus out of its bowels to install new facilities and crash-zooming on scientists to initiate research projects. From the bridge you access the world map, where you move The Avenger between continents to scan for resistance cells, recruit rookies and claim resource caches. These scans are interrupted by alien attacks and missions that require you to deploy soldiers and take charge in turn-based scenarios.
The strategic layer and the combat layer support each other beautifully. Every corpse you drop in battle can be sold or studied to unlock research and resources. Damage taken can put a soldier out of action for weeks, requiring a diversion of resources in the strategic layer that might otherwise be spent on research. Successful research in turn unlocks new gadgets and weapons that improve your troops’ ability to survive a fight. Success means maintaining a favourable feedback loop between these two systems in the face of constant disruption. In combat, this is supplied by extremely dangerous Retaliation attacks that have you racing to save civilians under assault from the enemy’s most dangerous troops. On the strategic end, a doomsday timer called the Avatar Project ticks towards your total destruction.
The game creates tension around the choice between expansion or consolidation. You set back the doom timer by hitting Avatar facilities, which means expensive forays into new continents. Do you delay and improve your equipment ahead of an incoming attack, or strike out into new areas? Likewise, in battle, most objectives involve hacking terminals and rescuing hostages against a turn limit.
The relationship between the combat and strategic systems, and the way both mirror the same dilemmas, is one of the exceptional aspects of XCOM 2’ s design, and those dilemmas are expressed in a refreshingly bloat-free manner. You’re only likely to have around six missions and scan sites at any given point, and combat encounters are largely meted out by the enemy. This carefully curates the points at which you can engage with the game, but rather than feeling limiting, it focuses complex management into a narrow series of important decisions. It’s rare to play a strategy game where every decision genuinely matters. That’s also true in combat, where the game punishes mistakes, to a problematic degree in the early stages of a campaign. Soldier classes and enemy types have been reinvented, though a few nods to Enemy Unknown remain. Sharpshooters replace snipers, but can now be levelled into gunslingers that can clear up weak enemies. The support class wields heavy guns and grenade launchers that can shred cover. The specialist’s personal drone can be sent afield to defend and heal soldiers, or zap enemies. It can also be used to hack devices, but this is the most underdeveloped feature, a dice roll that can apply negative effects to the enemy, or let you take control of an alien unit for a few turns.
The fourth class, the ranger, is a good mascot for the directed risk-taking XCOM 2 demands. The blade strapped to its back can down an enemy in one strike – vital against aliens that can quickly multiply and dominate a fight. The blow leaves the ranger hopelessly exposed, of course. At higher levels they can dodge all reaction fire as they run to their target, becoming an unstoppable homing nuclear option when a powerful foe absolutely has to be removed. These heroic moments, like every action in battle, are captured up close by dramatic camera angles that show off XCOM’s colourful aesthetic – detailed, but cartoonish enough to allow mechs to coexist with giant cobra monsters.
There’s very little holding XCOM 2 back. The stretch to your first armour upgrade is long, and during this period soldiers can be instantly wiped out by all but the weakest enemy forces. Occasionally the camera will wander through walls, or focus on a stationary soldier for half a minute before they execute their action. A lack of foreknowledge about how the game’s technology will evolve hurts you on your first playthrough, too, but procedurally generated battlefields and a wealth of customisation and upgrade options, including paths for psychic and exoskeleton-augmented troops, means we’ll be replaying for a hundred hours to come, cursing and scowling, but loving every minute.
Ostensibly it’s a game about overthrowing aliens, but really it’s a war against the forces of probability