Welcome back, Commander… to XCOM.
The governments you fought to defend twenty years ago, in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, have been crushed under the heel of a new world order known as the Advent Coalition. You were captured and put on ice until finally being sprung from a stasis tube by surviving resistance forces. Now you command a mobile force of these high-tech insurgents, out to topple humanity’s overlords and restore freedom to the galaxy. Fortunately, keeping the globe from panicking while you’re at it isn’t a problem this time around.
Unfortunately, staving off absolute genocide is.
XCOM has always been about secretive, asymmetrical warfare. “Black ops” on a planetary scale. Although The Bureau: XCOM Declassified departed briefly from the franchise’s origins as an isometric-view tactical sandbox, this basic concept has never changed. XCOM 2 continues and expands that legacy under the steady aegis of Firaxis Games.
Similar to Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 puts you right into the action with a crucial mission already in progress serving as your combat tutorial. Dissimilarly, this one is completely on-the-rails. You will be forced to make stupid decisions, in order to demonstrate that stupid decisions will get your operatives killed. In order to ensure you complete the mission successfully, it’s all completely scripted as to where you can move, who you can shoot, and even whether or not you hit them.
Other than this relatively minor quibble, the tutorial does what it’s supposed to, which is to get players new to XCOM familiar with basic tactics, abilities and controls. Even if you don’t run the tutorial, your first mission will still be related to it, as you’ll be blowing up an alien monument to provide a distraction for Operation Gatecrasher. On the plus side, this one is randomized for spawn points, map sites and even weather, so it won’t seem all that much of a chore on subsequent replays. Which, if you’ve ever played XCOM games before, you’re aware you’ll be doing quite a lot.
When it comes to sound quality, at least, you’re not likely to mind much. Voice acting and music in XCOM 2 are solid, easily on par with Enemy Unknown. The dynamic musical score sweeps between somber menace and stirring anthem as the situation calls for, and troops that panic sound genuinely freaked out. Even if you consider yourself something of a hard-nosed bastard when it comes to pixels on a screen, you might nonetheless find your sympathies provoked.
ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER
Many of the core game mechanics from Enemy Unknown are in evidence here, though often renamed, reworked, and more complicated. For example, instead of using Satellites to extend and secure an alliance of member nations, you’ll develop Comms so as to network with resistance cells in neighboring regions. You must then scan for their exact location, which requires expending some Intel (more on that later), before you can make contact. Since you can only discover and run missions within your area of influence, expanding your Comms network is even more crucial to victory than Satellites once were.
Another major departure from Enemy Unknown is the base-building system. This time around, it’s a captured and repurposed alien transport called Avenger. You’ve got a Skyranger on board for inserting your team into various missions, but it hasn’t got the range needed to cross the globe. You’ll first have to move Avenger into a given region, then launch your strikes against local targets.
Avenger isn’t exactly in top condition when you get her, either. In fact, it’s not even mobile (if you run the tutorial), so your first real mission will be to obtain an energy core to get her engines up and running. Debris has to be cleared from most of the craft before you’ll be able to use its capacious interior for much of anything. On the plus side, clearing areas will net you extra supplies, alien alloys, and access to Exposed Power Coils, which give you a boost in power production the same way Steam Vents did in Enemy Unknown.
Even labs and workshops function differently. The former will enhance the speed at which your existing scientific cadres works, rather than granting you more scientists. The latter lets you build and deploy Gremlin drones to operate parts of the Avenger, which otherwise would require a qualified Engineer.
The Guerilla Tactics School (which you should probably invest in sooner rather than later) lets you expand the size of your deployable squads and improve their performance. The Advanced Warfare Center allows troops to re-train their perk trees and also provides superior medical support to the wounded, getting them back into the action twice as fast. Then there’s the Psi Lab, which turns raw recruits into frighteningly effective battle-brainiacs.
If nothing else, Commander, your time-management skills are going to be sorely tested. Where grateful member nations would once deposit funds into your handy bank account, you now have to go collect supply drops. You can’t just sell a bunch of stuff to the Black Market to raise cash, either, you’ll have to find and visit their secret location first. Random discoveries will sometimes pop up on your map offering supplies, parts, or even new recruits, which will require you to commit even more time to fetch them.
Supplies aren’t the only important currency. We’ve already mentioned Intel, which can be obtained by rescuing deep-cover operatives and conducting radio scans from your home territory. Beyond its value in expanding your resistance network, it can also be used to uncover and counter enemy operations, as well as obtain goods and personnel from the Black Market.
You may recall Enemy Unknown‘s “Three-Mission Monte”, where you could only respond to one of three simultaneous alien attacks. This time around you’ll have to spend Intel to uncover details about the third if you want the option of trying to stop it. Often, this third mission directly supports the mysterious “Avatar Project”, which will kick off a final countdown timer if the aliens make enough progress towards it. Luckily for you, successful attacks against Avatar operations (both in Three-Mission Monte and on the global map) can slow or reverse this relentless advance towards humanity’s doom.
From time to time, the aliens will also find and assault resistance bases with Retaliation Strikes. Essentially identical to the Terror Ops of Enemy Unknown, you’ve got to stop your civilians from being slaughtered while not getting your entire response team killed in the process. Failure will lose you the support of the region attacked – no surprise, considering your supporters will all be dead in that event.
Stealth also plays an important part in your struggle. On most missions, your troops will be clandestinely inserted to the strike zone, starting off unheard and unseen by the enemy. However, as soon as any one of them is spotted (whether by stumbling into a foe’s observation range or by opening fire), the entire squad will be exposed to all nearby enemy forces. If you can isolate an alien patrol and wipe it out without alerting any others, you don’t go back into stealth mode, but at least the remaining baddies will have to make line-of-sight contact before mounting an assault. Most operations also include fairly tight time constraints, and you’ll need to conduct reconnaissance quickly to best pick where, when or even if you have to fight.
XCOM: CLASS WARFARE
As with Enemy Unknown, all your troops start out as Rookies until they get some combat experience, at which point they become Squaddies and randomly take on any of four classes of soldier – Specialists, Rangers, Grenadiers and Sharpshooters. Your first four Squaddies are exempt from the random draw, as they are used to introduce new players to each class. If you build the Guerrilla Warfare Center on the Avenger, you can train one Rookie at a time to be a specific class. Psi Operatives are also trainable if you build the Psi Lab.
Specialists are your battlefield technology experts. Right from the beginning, their unobtrusive flying drones can be used to remotely hack into doors, safes, and enemy surveillance installations, as well as provide temporary boosts to a squad member’s defenses. Failing a hack attempt will alert Advent troops to your presence. But if you score a critical success, there’s a wide array of random beneficial results, both tactical and strategic in nature. Other troops can hack into safes and doors as well (these being mission-critical), but have to be right next to the target to do so.
As your Specialists rank up, their perks go one of two ways, either Medical or Combat. Being able to heal someone up, stop them from bleeding out, or get them back up after being knocked unconscious, all become much more valuable when you can do it without exposing your medic to hostile fire. Combat options are all about zapping and hacking, which becomes exceptionally valuable later on when you start running into heavily armored robotic units.
Rangers take the place of Enemy Unknown‘s Assault class, and damned if they aren’t good at it. These practitioners of stealth and blade also know how to handle rifles and grenades, but there’s something to be said for being able to sneak up on a patrolling robot and slice it in twain before it even knows you’re there.
Grenadiers are your heavy weapon guys. They start off packing a double-payload of grenades with a launcher for extra range, plus a chain-gun for getting more personal. Although you can give any of your weapons a custom name, we suggest refraining from use of “Sasha”… just in case.
Sharpshooters put steel on skull, at ranges that can go beyond enemy spotting capability. Their perk tree lets you either maximize long-distance death-dealing or give them a pistolero’s skills, for when you just gotta ask an alien if they feel lucky.
Psi Operatives are powerful combat psychics, trained in the same way other classes are, but using the Psi Lab instead of the Guerrilla Warfare Center to do so. Their psychic amplifiers, which can be upgraded as your technological progress allows, permit some of the most devastating attacks you’ll have access to, as well as defenses for both the Operative and their team against psionic assaults.
QUEST OF THE AVATAR
Ultimately, defeating the alien menace relies on stopping their Avatar Project. For this, you’ll need to build a Shadow Chamber aboard the Avenger, capture and research Project-related technology, discover the hidden network developing the Project, and take out its key facilities. Anything else one could say would be spoileriffic, but the important takeaway here is that this is how XCOM 2 progresses. So you’ll want to strike a balance. If you rush through your campaign, your forces and their gear will be underdeveloped when it really counts. On the other hand, lollygagging may also come back to bite you.
XCOM 2 provides the knife-edge… but you’re the one who decides how to dance on it, Commander.
There’s a couple of things about the user interface to gripe about, such as NPCs who’re standing right in front of you yet don’t move their lips while talking. A choppy picture-in-picture appears, like they’re telepathically sending you a badly lip-syncing video of them talking. Instead of, you know, just talking. Since this isn’t a problem for any of the cutscenes, and since all the audio is prepared material anyways, this just comes across as a sloppy time-saver for the development team.
There’s also the fact that every time you go to the Bridge, you’ll automatically interface with the global map by diving headfirst into it, which for me at least never ceases to be disorienting. Apparently, this is supposed to represent your globe turning into a flat map, but why bother with the global hologram in the first place if you’re never going to use it? This wouldn’t be so much of an issue, except that every time you’re doing something on the main map and get interrupted by an event taking place (which is a lot) you get dragged out of the map and then have to go back into it to finish whatever you were doing.
The biggest and most noticeable problem is that XCOM 2 eats up RAM like crazy. On my Windows 7 platform, it started at over 2 gigs and ramped up to the 3.5 mark in no time. One of my TechRaptor colleagues noticed usage on his Windows 10 system went as high as 6 gigs. Loading times increase, and gameplay almost begins to stutter due to frame loss. This particularly shows itself when transitioning between actions, characters, and the AI, with attendant glitching. Things like hacking attempts where the drone flies off the battlefield, trying to hack empty space. Enemies charging at your troops through solid walls. Supply drops which don’t give supplies. Disappearing mission objectives.
Considering these issues, I do not recommend playing on Ironman Mode (which does not allow multiple saves). You’ll thank me when, at some point, you’ve managed to do everything just right, only to have a crucial grenade fall through the ground as though a gopher had intercepted it.
Either way, it’s another solid entry to the franchise for 2K and Firaxis that is well worth your attention, and that’s before considering that Steam Workshop already has hundreds of mods ready to let you tweak gameplay to your heart’s content. Some full-conversion mods are either out or in the works as well, such as Long War and Dragonpunk. So even after you deliver the final blow to that last alien monster, you’ll know it doesn’t have to be…
TechRaptor was given a code for the purposes of review. XCOM 2 was reviewed on the PC platform using Windows 7.
A solid followup to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 delivers on story, action, and tension. It's nonetheless in serious need of optimization to correct glitching and framerate issues.