I got on the XCOM train rather late, not actually playing the vanilla game until about 2 years after its release and moving on to Enemy Within not long after that first playthrough. I have not even had the chance to delve into the well-known and highly regarded Long War mod. In my short time, the valuable lessons I learned from XCOM were that thin men are unfair, air battles are tense for all the wrong reasons, and to never name any units after anyone you care about even a little bit.
Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing Commander and protecting the Earth from an endless swarm of increasingly dangerous aliens. Trying to, at least. According to Firaxis, I did a pretty poor job.
The story of XCOM 2 is the first thing that stirred my excitement for the sequel. The ending of Enemy Unknown had me wondering where they could have possibly gone for a sequel, and XCOM 2 has taken the unexpected route of the original campaign against the aliens ending in total failure. It is a route that I have never seen a sequel take before, where the player actually winning is considered the wrong outcome. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other examples of this happening somewhere, but it will be my first personal experience with a twist like this. XCOM is down, and this time they get to be on offense.
It takes care of many of the logical issues present in the first game. Namely, why is my organization created solely to combat alien threats equipped with a single Skyranger only capable of sending out six guys at a time? Why is the safety of the entire planet resting on a single base in Asia that houses a roster of a few dozen soldiers? Why is my elite military unit recruiting rookies who can barely figure out which way their guns are supposed to point?
In the original XCOM, these seemed like silly constraints to place upon the defending team. In XCOM 2, they are just the reality of being stuck in a bad situation while facing impossible odds. We get to play as the attacking team. We choose our targets and make do with what resources and personnel we can scrape together. XCOM has become the true underdog, and in a strategy game, that is always a fun position to dig your way out of.
It is also nice to see that Bradford will be returning, more jaded and grizzled, and has gotten over his crippling fear of engaging enemies at close range.
But while setting, story, and atmosphere are all big components in making a good game great, they will do little to advance a bad game into the realm of acceptable.
I have never been one to buy much into hype. I truly believe that game designers and publishers will happily lie and cheat if it means boosting their sales numbers, so things like pre-rendered trailers and over-excited pitchmen have little effect on me. Typically, I see a reliance on these things as an attempt to hide something.
Luckily, the team behind XCOM 2 has been more than happy to talk plenty about the actual game mechanics. While it is expected that they keep some things hidden to leave some mystery surrounding their product, they have shared enough information to pique my interest.
The enemy cast has been partially revealed, and there are enough differences to keep the aliens feeling fresh and threatening, while still being recognizable as the bad guys I loved blasting with plasma during Enemy Unknown. From the thin men shedding their human skins to reveal their real forms, to chryssalids being more fragile but more infectious, seeing how the aliens have evolved between XCOM and XCOM 2 is a surprise I am looking forward to uncovering. The fear of running into a challenge that my guys can’t handle will hover over me once again, and that is a feeling I have not felt in an XCOM playthrough in some time.
But while the new enemies look potentially terrifying, I am even more excited to delve into the new classes on offer for the XCOM soldiers. While the soldier classes in Enemy Unknown seemed more rooted in traditional roles—the sniper, the explosions guy, the support, and the gunner—XCOM 2 has shown some interesting and unexpected additions.
While the Ranger draws most of the attention with the startling out of place (and CLOSE RANGE) sword, it is actually the specialist that I am more interested in. The original support class in Enemy Unknown was thematically fun, but their usefulness fell off into the late game. Medkits and smoke screens were never necessary once your squad was able to nuke any threat in a single turn, and when the ghost grenades of Enemy Within rolled around, the poor support class felt even more disempowered.
The specialist will make use of a little robot buddy known as the Gremlin, and this class seems to be a much more capable support role. The information shared so far seems to hint that the Gremlin will be able to specialize in healing, battlefield control, or buffing up allied units. A unit class that actually focuses on improving the other units in the squad is a concept that I am looking forward to playing around with while trying to wrest control of the Earth away from its alien overlords.
There are plenty of other things that interest me, but nothing that has gotten me truly hyped. More mission types that involve objectives besides murdering every alien in sight, the ability to call in the Skyranger for extraction to a location of your choosing, and being able to ambush enemies and choose when an engagement starts are all fun-sounding additions that I will need to see more of before I am truly convinced that they are game-changing.
The one huge thing that is most assuredly game-changing, however, is the addition of full mod support.
While I have not played the Long War mod for Enemy Within, I have seen much of what it has to offer through the magic of streaming and YouTube. Going into detail about the mod would require an entire article itself, but it includes increased squad sizes, dozens of new weapons, brand new classes with deeper customization, and an overall more challenging experience. The full list of changes from the Long War can be found here, and the mod is still being developed at this time.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about the Long War is that it was created without official mod support. All of its massive game changes are present in a game that was never intended to be modded.
I can only imagine what might happen when modders are given access to proper tools and code from day one. New classes, new enemies, even entire new campaigns may be at our fingertips once the modders are let loose. I have no doubt that another Long War type mod will eventually be made for XCOM 2, and it is refreshing to see the developers so openly embrace the modding scene and allow the community to alter their game with full support.
I could spend all day speculating on what mods we might possibly see, but the very idea that XCOM 2’s developers are so open to letting fans shape the game is a huge step in pushing me from skeptical to enthused. After all, there is very little that modders cannot fix, and a good game can be truly made great when its player base is empowered to implement their own ideas directly.
Here’s hoping that XCOM 2 will be able to support a console release sometime down the line.
Some additional thoughts from Mark Richard:
Exclusivity is generally not a consumer-friendly practice and I echo Clint’s hopes of a console release somewhere down the line if possible. It’s concerning so many loyal fans of the new series have seemingly been left without a definitive answer. However …
Going PC exclusive following a multi-platform release is very rare. This isn’t a decision with an insulting explanation like the Rise of the Tomb Raider announcement, nor is there likely to be a financial handout involved on a platform with an open market. XCOM 2 Lead designer Jake Solomon wants to push XCOM 2 to the limit, which includes having procedurally generated maps. Firaxis claim if they’re going to craft such a sequel, it has to be focused on the platform they have the expertise in.
And you know what? I can accept that. Developers should make the games they want to make. If The Long War mod is any indication, the possibilities are absolutely tantalizing. I’m not excited about PC exclusivity in regards to console owners being deprived of what could be a great title. I’m excited about PC exclusivity because of what it means for the design of the game. It changes everything.