A red-headed Specialist sits in the Skyranger, a smirk on her scarred face. She’s just completed her fourteenth mission and this time, everyone came back. That accounts for the smirk. The scars are the result of a massive injury that had her out of action for a month. She’s had her nerve broken and gotten it back, she’d the best medic on the team and she’s probably going to die before the ADVENT government and their alien overlords are overthrown.
None of this is explained to you when you’re playing XCOM 2, the PC-exclusive sequel to 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown. This is what you’ve learned about the character, and others like her, as they’ve moved from Resistance rookies to high-ranking soldiers leading the fight against alien occupation on Earth. And when one of them dies, it’s going to hurt. Badly.
Not So Futile
XCOM 2 puts players back in the role of the Commander, the military brain behind the resistance effort that is fighting against alien occupation. From the events of Enemy Unknown, the aliens have won. The world has fallen under their sway and there are human collaborators to deal with in addition to upgraded alien threats, not to mention the (sometimes very) odd human-alien hybrid.
As before, play is split into several different components. There’s the research arm, where players will determine which equipment and upgrades to make a priority. There’s the combat, which remains more tense than you’d reasonably expect from a turn-based game mechanic. And then there’s Resistance expansion in the Geoscape overview screen, where players will have to choose between varying objectives to stave off the Avatar Project while staging hit-and-run attacks on entrenched alien occupiers. Taken all together they equate to vast swatches to missing time for players.
Doing Your Homework
In order to fight, you need gear. And to get gear, you need to do research. The question is: Which research? Do you wait three weeks to research better armour, possibly prolonging your soldier’s lives in the long run, or do you hammer through five or six smaller projects in the same time period and hoover in those upgrades? A Muton autopsy or the Viper first? Which is going to help more?
And you have to balance this research against the Supplies and the Intel you have at your disposal. Do you make extra items for your soldiers or push on to the next upgrade? And how does this fit into your overall strategy against the alien menace? You need to keep your repurposed alien spaceship staffed, powered and capable of contacting the Resistance around the world, after all, and you’ll have to balance your R&D, weapon purchases and soldiers against that. It’s an agonising, deliberate logistical nightmare and it’s all we want to do right now.
Run And Gun
XCOM 2 isn’t all micro-management however. Eventually you need to put boots on the ground, either in service of the Resistance or the depleted Council or to mess with the alien’s Avatar Project which has a scary red counter mid-screen forcing you ahead at a ferocious clip. For that, you turn to your trusty team of four to six soldiers and some turn-based magic.
Players have control over five character classes. The close-range Ranger, the tactical Sharpshooter, the medic/hacker Specialist and their little Gremlin, as well as the bullet-hose-toting Grenadier. You can also opt to train up a Psi soldier capable of mind-controlling enemies on the battlefield but that’s a substantial investment right there.
Thankfully, it pays. There’s a new stealth mechanic in play, where players can position troops just so before opening fire. When it works, it’s absolute magic. An entire checkout can be obliterated in mere seconds, without a single loss to your team. That’s a morale booster and players will find it is a welcome addition to the already-spectacular turn-based combat that XCOM is known for. If tooling around the Geoscape was absorbing, taking a tactical approach to your objectives is doubly so.
Profit And Loss
Your team can be customised down to their gear, haircut, biographical info, weapon and armour colours and a few other touches besides. So when a Faceless walks up and whomps your soldiers into the ground, you’re not losing a nameless digital trooper. You cared about that soldier. A lot. And losing them to one of the new enemy types, like the Archon, Andromedon, Viper or one of the upgraded Sectoids (seriously, screw those Psi-equipped monsters) or Berserkers, is a real wrench.
Sometimes you just have to cut your losses, as much as you hate to. XCOM 2 constantly has you scrambling for enough resources to keep the fight going. There’s always a soldier in sick-bay, a dead comrade left behind and a new cache of supplies to locate but if you’re sitting in one place, the aliens are just running out the clock and you’re screwed. XCOM 2 never seems to reach a point where you’re comfortable and if you ever think you’ve gotten to that point, you’re going to get slapped down. Hard.
XCOM 2 has some rare qualities. It makes turn-based play exciting, for one, but it also makes you care about randomly-generated characters. These are not just AI units, they’re soldiers that you’ve seen move up through the ranks, given custom weapons and gear and are used to seeing in battle. And losing them to the aliens can be crushing. If you ever wanted a sense of what guerrilla warfare against an interplanetary foe would feel like, XCOM 2 has your fix. Just make sure that you free up time in eight-hours blocks for the Resistance. They need you, Commander, more than ever.