At last I’ve been able to play this amazingly anticipated sequel to one of the most loved strategy titles of all time. There’s a very special place in my heart for Xcom: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. There’s something about the mix of crushing difficulty, impossible lose-lose scenarios, base management and permanent soldier death that comes together in Xcom to create something special. My hopes have literally never been higher for a sequel and my critical eye has never been sharper. I’ve been lucky enough to play the preview code for Xcom recently to take a proper look at what’s going on. To get you in the mood why not watch the following trailer? There’s something wrong with you if you’re reading this preview and this video doesn’t make you smile at least once.
The problem with Xcom 2 was always going to be a case of how much to change and how much to keep the same. When you’re starting from such a strong platform as Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within it must be tempting to play it safe leave everything as it is and just release what is basically more DLC; but that tends to upset fans. On the other hand I’ve seen so many franchises get worse and worse as time goes on and gimmicks and transparent features are added blindly and without consideration for game mechanics. I’ve played a lot of Xcom 2 now and even though the preview stops me progressing too far I find myself going back for more.
There is an obvious respect the team has shown for their previous work and returning commanders will be more than comfortable with the new environment. The UI has certainly been updated with the whole thing feeling just a little bit more refined. The UI in Enemy Unknown was solid and Xcom 2 has built on that. Thankfully, that sense of building a sequel from a position of strength carries through to everything I’ve seen so far.
The most radical changes are certainly the fact that Earth is lost and Xcom is now a resistance force fighting a guerrilla war. You also have a mobile base called ‘The Avenger’ to deploy the Skyranger from and investigate various areas of interest on the Hologlobe which is now a full map of Earth. Xcom are fighting back this time rather than defending and objectives have changed to reflect this. No longer will missions be handed to you after passing time you’re now going to have to pick what to do next to interfere with the Aliens’ plans.
This is one of Xcom 2’s strongest assets and works hand in hand with the new ‘Avatar Project’ which essentially has replaced pleasing the council and different nations as a loss mechanic. Instead the Aliens are working on a mysterious project (I still genuinely don’t know what it is myself) and they will accomplish various objectives to achieve their goals. If they complete enough they complete the Avatar Project and you lose. It’s very much the reverse of the defensive style from Enemy Unknown.
It also leaves you with the worst decisions you’ve ever had – or rather the worse options you’ve ever had. You could spend days picking up valuable resources from a rebel drop, or recruit a mechanic, scientist or soldier. Add into that the Avatar project and you have some serious pressure. Eventually you will have to complete some ‘Blacksite’ missions to keep the aliens from succeeding. They’re tough missions too and you really will have to prioritise every single move you make to earn resources, recruit new people and stop the threat all at the same time.
To make matters worse there is a much heavier reliance on collecting scientist and mechanics too. Now individuals rather than just numbers that increase periodically they can be assigned to rooms in the Avenger usually to increase the productivity of that room. You’re base does not function anywhere near efficiently without them and I often had to miss out on key objectives because I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to recruit another mechanic.
As if that wasn’t enough pressure unless you take on a Blacksite missions it will create various effects to help the aliens and hinder you. They might have a depot of armour which provides them with more health in combat missions or setup checkpoints that reduce the resources you will get from rebel drops. You’re really going to want to do everything but the simple fact is you can’t. There’s a huge layer of strategy added to the Hologlobe and mission selection that really changes Xcom 2 a lot, and in totally the right direction.
Managing the Avenger is largely the same with developing the base becoming a game of prioritising. There are actually fewer slots available to build with on the Avenger than the previous Xcom base but the new buildings are different to reflect this with the emphasis on assigning people rather than building more rooms. There’s a much higher focus on building smart than building fast to get in time for your next council meeting. The impossible choices just feel so right for Xcom and the difficulty and intelligent strategy that goes with it. If you thought it was hard to defend earth from invaders try taking it back from them.
I suppose it’s amazing that I’ve gone this long without mentioning combat, the turn-based beating heart at the centre of Xcom. On first appearances this is were Xcom 2 makes the least changes. Like I said the interface is updated, clearer and generally better to use but it’s definitely still Xcom. However your soldier’s abilities are very different and feel much more tactical. The variations are more complex and each class doesn’t feel so much like they have one go-to ability anymore.
Run & Gun is a great example that makes a return but I rarely use it anymore with the ability for the Ranger class to use their machetes after sprinting. The Sniper’s squad sight is back but now they get it from their very first level so you don’t need to level them up to max before they’re useful. The specialist can remotely hack, heal and stun with the Gremlin drone and I particularly like their ability to do a small amount of pure damage which increases for robotic enemies. The grenadier says it all really but they actually get a decent grenade launcher and a heavy weapon that can hit enemies occasionally.
But to balance this the aliens are going to come back at you harder than ever before. They don’t have as many tactical benefits as your squad but they more than make up for it with firepower. Thin Men no longer take disguise and take their true form as giant snakes that can grab you and constrict you to death. The Sectoid is now a man sized and formidable looking foe. The Muton is much bigger than before, yes bigger. And there are some enemies yet to be revealed that will really screw up your day. And I mean the developers made these things to make your life as hard as possible – which they’re very good at. You really need to use your new abilities, weapons and tactics to win battles which drives home the guerrilla warfare style Xcom has had to adopt. The reliance on abilities and critical thinking in this way takes the battles out of the research department and into your hands as a commander.
Weapon classes have changed slightly and from what I have seen there are now your standard ballistic weapons, magnetic weapons and gauss weapons. During my first play through I was still viably using standard weapons at the 10 hour mark. Using brain power and the new classes you can fight back with limited resources much better than before. Admittedly the magnetic weapons are superior but the battle isn’t won or lost depending on what you’ve researched like Enemy Unknown often was. Besides which you’ll have so much to research it’ll be difficult to find the time, just like everything else in Xcom 2.
One of the coolest new features for me is the testing grounds building which allows engineers to experiment and develop new equipment. Getting the extra protection and heavy weapons that come with an E.X.O suit is more than useful but your development team will need to build them one at time, no instant build for that one. Some other projects are ‘experimental’ in that you won’t quite know what you’re going to get. Completing the experimental ammo project will give you an ammo upgrade but you won’t know what it is until it’s done. It’s fresh and exciting and offers a cool new risk/reward system.
Customization and weapon upgrades are both much bigger parts of Xcom 2 as well. If you spent a long time getting your squad looking badass before then this will be a dream come true. If there’s a style you want you can almost undoubtedly do it in Xcom 2. Cammo patterns are a particularly noticeable improvement in both quantity and quality but everything from armour options to helmets to character faces to the colour pallet are fully featured now. It’s somehow addictive and one of Xcom’s strangest appeals but again the developers have built on what Enemy Unknown has already done and come up with something better.
The weapon modification system is entirely new and allows you to attach various different mods to your weapons. You’ll need to pick these up from dead enemies in combat missions so don’t miss them because they are really effective. For example the ‘hair trigger’ gives your character a chance that shooting doesn’t cost an action, my best one was 10%. For Xcom that one free shot can turn the tide of an entire mission. The stock gives missed shots the ability to do 1 damage, unbelievably useful for that one thing that just won’t get out of full cover. There are loads more but it’s yet another subtle layer of strategy and planning that you’ll need to learn to master Xcom 2.
From what I’ve played Xcom 2 is exactly what I wanted. It takes a lot of the foundations from Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within and develops them into something new. There’s so much new to think about but it never feels muddled or confused. More than ever Xcom is fighting impossible odds – in fact this time you’re not so much fighting a losing battle as fighting one that is already lost. The new mechanics make you feel like you’re fighting as a resistance with limited resources and manpower who need to take the fight to the enemy rather than wait for it to arrive. At the same time the new customization options, abilities, classes, base building, the avatar project, enemies, mission objectives and largely procedural maps are making Xcom 2 feel like the sequel Enemy Unknown deserves.