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

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