You spread your team of 5 wide across the initially visible map, the long-ranged Sharpshooter staying behind, the Specialist lurking in the shadows with his/her ever-trusty drone.
The Rangers serve as the spearhead of your guerilla infiltration, and the grenadier stays close; launcher polished, Gatling gun loaded and ready.
You decide your final move of the turn, pushing the ranger ever-closer to your objective, flirting with the enemy’s line of sight.
Suddenly, your ranger’s movement unveils an unanticipated foe; a deathly turret hidden in the Fog of War spots your front-man, readying its laser cannon. With the Ranger in only half cover, you pray it misses. It doesn’t.
XCOM 2 isn’t a forgiving experience, and it makes it known to you earlier than you’d expect. Much like it’s fantastic 2012 predecessor XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it keeps the margin for error at a minimum.
One wrong move such as exposing your ranger prematurely, or undermining the rather verisimilar likelihood of a nearby turret can cost the life of a veteran soldier who you spent hours editing and had grown fond of.
It’s a feasible difficulty that only goes on to extrapolate the game’s core plot. XCOM 2 canonically puts you as the leader of a rebel XCOM unit 20 years after the events of Enemy Unknown.
Mankind’s attempt at preventing the alien colonization has failed, irrespective of your experience in Enemy Unknown, and as a result our Pale Blue Dot is now occupied.
The aliens rule urban centers with an iron fist, implementing martial law-like order through a military known as the ADVENT, which retaliates mercilessly against anyone who dares oppose them. Outside these urban metropolises mankind suffers, without water, power, or security of any kind.
With limited resources and a largely forgotten existence, the XCOM project has retreated to an alien spaceship, constantly moving around and conducting guerilla-warfare styled missions to oppose the alien subjugation.
The setting merely acts as a canvas for the parameters attached to the real-time strategy part of the game and the mission structures observed in the turned-based gameplay.
An ever-lingering doom-counter permanently occupies the top portion of the world map after the tutorial mission, foretelling the inevitable annihilation of the human species as a result of an enigmatic project being carried out by the ADVENT.
This way, XCOM 2 not only demands intelligent decisions on and off the field, but demands them with swiftness.
That’s not to say the game forces you into haste – far from it, as multiple ‘optional’ missions constantly stain the map, aiding in your overall progress as an organization by offering rewards in the form of materials, non-combative personnel, information, supplies, and also established soldiers.
However, the constant presence of the ADVENT counter demands intricate time management, ensuring players are constantly progressing the story as they carry out multiple operations to reach out to other parts of the world.
This setting projects itself in everything you do in the game. When not in missions, a familiar Enemy Within-styled view of your base presents you the opportunity to micromanage various parts the XCOM initiative.
Research and engineering is done in a similar manner to the game’s predecessor, but with added depth.
Soldiers can be recruited, trained in Training Facilities, and also customized in a much more detailed manner than before, ranging from cosmetic customization to weapon modifications that serve tangible purpose on the battlefield.
This is the game’s real-time strategy side, and it is polished and presented with perfection. While possessing seemingly overwhelming complexity for newcomers, the game does well in guiding your hand initially, giving good, relevant overviews of where to do what, whenever necessary.
Within a few hours, you’ll find yourself expertly going through menus within the multiple partitions that the XCOM headquarters.
The decisions you make and the time, resources, and effort you spend on your facility between missions directly contributes to how well you progress in the game.
Delay the opportunity to research advanced weapons and you may find on-field battles becoming increasingly difficult. Ignore certain upgrades and you’ll eventually be chasing the game.
Overlook the importance of relations with other parts of the world and you’ll be financially crippled. Every facility, every research, every upgrade, and every drop of resource matters in XCOM 2.
Things change drastically when you decide to take the field though. That’s when the turn-based aspect, and the true combative gameplay reveals itself.
At first you’re limited to deploying small set of soldiers, but can further unlock additional slots to have a larger squad to send on ground operations. As the commander, you control the movements and decisions of your squad on fantastically designed maps and chess-like grids.
The complexity of the maps and their variety have grown two-folds since Enemy Within. Your average map appears to be much larger – both in width and length.
Expertly designed height advantages can greatly aid you if you take the chances, though they are often occupied by deadly turrets and other unexpected foes.
Unlike Enemy Within, in XCOM 2 you are the one on the offensive. This gives a tactical edge at the start of every mission in which you are ‘undercover’ – a status that is displayed on-screen by a blue vignette effect around the screen.
Staying undercover gives you the necessary time to spread your squad out according to your needs. Enemy field of vision is shown as red tiles, and as long as no squad member has trespassed into one of these tiles, your team’s cover will not be compromised.
The application of this mechanic is obviously tactical, but XCOM 2 ensure it’s not a feature that can be abused and relied upon.
The game will often toss in mission with objectives that have turn limits. This means you’re only given a limited amount of turns before the objective terminates, which automatically leads to mission failure.
This is one of several ‘factors’ in the game that encourage a player to be tactically versatile and take every step with extra measure.
XCOM 2 is masterful in its ploy to force players out of their strategic shells, and prevent them from forming routine tactics. This not only makes the game extremely unpredictable, but also consistently fresh; even after having played 20 odd missions, you’ll come across a situation that will test your mettle and your ability to work under pressure.
The pressure and situations largely come from environments and enemy types. The game features a large variety of maps that mix urban region with fantastically designed natural landscapes. This variety combines wonderfully well with the vast amount of different alien races in the game, ranging from simple ADVENT soldiers to complex, eldritch entities that pose threats never-before observed in the franchise.
The evolved Sectoids will look to use their Psyonics to resurrect downed ADVENT soldiers, while also attempting to mind-control the XCOM personnel. Vipers will look to aggressively move in and poison, while Berserkers rush in as Mutons provide covering fire.
These are just a handful of the large variety of enemies a player will come across in XCOM 2. If the map acts as a complex chess board, the enemies behave as the opponent pieces. These pieces are gimbaled by an extremely intelligent underlying AI which is a vast improvement over Enemy Within.
Different alien races work in close collaboration together, conjuring tactical maneuvers that complement their strengths and inhibit the weaknesses, making it truly feel like a two-way battle.
Cornered enemies will opt to simply overwatch instead of brainlessly moving about, deliberately delaying your progress or forcing an error that could jeopardize one of your squad members.
Though this enhanced AI comes with an overall slowed down pace in-terms of decision-making (primarily by the player), it adds to the game’s charm of forcing one to come out of ‘autopilot thought process’ and apply active strategies.
And just as with the real-time strategy side of the coin, the on-field turn-based battles have minimal margin for error. This is where the probability-based mechanics play a huge role in the game.
One could breathe a sigh of relief when a 20% hit-chance shot manages a critical kill on an onrushing Berserker, or could hold their faces in disbelief when an 80% shot misses a completely exposed Gatekeeper.
The RNG gods indeed have a huge role to play in the game’s combat, but with a bit of intelligent decision-making, they can be bypassed securely or even be nullified.
The probability-based combat plays a much larger role at the start of the campaign then it does later on (though it still remains an extremely essential part of the game), and that’s primarily thanks to the excellent leveling system.
Like in Enemy Within, soldiers earn promotions by getting kills on the battlefield. The first promotion unveils a soldier’s class, of which there are five: Ranger, Grenadier, Sharpshooter, Specialist, and Psi Operative. Each class then branches off to two sub-trees, with every rank offering one of two possible ‘abilities’.
It’s a simple yet extremely effective leveling system that is retained from its prequel, but with added depth through Weapon Upgrades and Personal Combat Sims, which are applied between missions.
This adds depth that isn’t necessary instrumental to the game’s core concept, but it certainly does present a unique level of personalization. All that is finely buoyed by fantastic artwork and effects.
XCOM 2 adds glitter to the gold with stylistic animations and graphical details that make small subtleties pop out. Injured soldiers will limp and ultimately fall to the ground after being returned to base; every soldier will have his own stance and behavior that can be customized; kill animations are more dramatic, but also capture the moment perfectly.
Even on the battlefield, the visuals are upped a notch. The core engine (Unreal Engine 3) remains the same, but with heavy modification gives the game a fresh look without becoming a burden on your system.
The visual fidelity though is often hindered by bugs and glitches that occasionally disrupt what is otherwise an immersive experience.
Enemies sometimes tend to glitch within objects, and the game faces frequent bugs that makes precision movement of your soldiers (especially in multi-storied buildings) problematic. Choosing a grenade’s path is still a pain, with an occasionally jerking control that makes it difficult to land perfect hits.
These jagged, unfinished edges to the gameplay aren’t exactly game-breaking, but they are conspicuous enough to be a nuance occasionally. Nevertheless, it’s the only tangible flaw in an otherwise fantastic overall experience.
XCOM 2’s strengths don’t just lie in its presentation and execution though. The game has enough variety in it to encourage multiple playthroughs, with a large likelihood of finding plenty of new things on your second (and even third) attempt.
You’ll come across missions and settings you previously hadn’t season, and face challenges you’re not entirely accustomed to. The game’s depth is one of its key features that make it a truly worthwhile acquisition.
Few sequels manage to surpass their critically acclaimed predecessor by the kind of margin XCOM 2 has. If XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a fantastic game, XCOM 2 is simply exemplary. Enemy Unknown was indeed a remake of a classic, but XCOM 2 is a classic in its own right, and arguably the best strategy games released in the last 5 years.