XCOM 2 is amazing. The end.
Oh, right, that’s too short. Okay, let’s start from the beginning. In 2012, Firaxis released XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a reboot of the XCOM series from 1994. It was a great game, with a few missing features that the fans were clamoring for. So, in 2013, Firaxis released a full expansion called Enemy Within. It did much to improve the game for the first 1/2 to 2/3 of it, but the fans still grumbled because they felt the game was still missing something.
In came a group of modders who completely turned the game on its ear with Long War. They did such an amazing job that the developers of XCOM even assisted the modders in the later stages when they needed help. This mod not only showed what some of the gamers wanted to see and play, but also that there was so much more that could be achieved with the franchise. Slowly, word began to circulate of XCOM 2. It would be more than the original, much more. And here we are. XCOM 2 is amazing. There are a few misses, but more on that later.
2015 was the year that the aliens invaded our homeworld. The secretive XCOM initiative was activated and set to defend the planet. They failed. What? WHAT?!?! Yup, that’s the story of XCOM 2. Did you really think that a single tiny organization with one base and a single transport ship would be able to stop a global invasion from an alien species? Yeah, exactly.
When XCOM failed, the governments of the Earth capitulated to their new overlords. The ADVENT Coalition was born. A hybrid human-alien organization set to better the world and fix all that XCOM represented. War, hunger, disease, poverty and chaos have been conquered a mere 20 years after this new alliance was founded. New gene therapy centers help keep everyone healthy and happy, so long as they are willing to surrender their freedom. City centers across the planet have been rebuilt with the help of your friendly neighborhood ADVENT office. Life is grand.
Unfortunately, all is not well on an ADVENT-controlled Earth. People are still disappearing from the large cities, and the small outer towns are nothing more than prison camps. The hovels that free humanity calls home are under constant siege, and no one seems to be able to do anything… or so the ADVENT would like us all to believe.
If you’d like to know more about what happened during that 20 year period, a prequel book (XCOM 2 Resurrection) was released, and it explains much of what is going on.
Central Agent Bradford
The resistance is alive and well, and led by locals that aren’t buying what the ADVENT is selling. Small remnants and survivors of the original invasion are maintaining guerilla groups with the hopes that one day they will join up to fight back.
This, however, is a hard task. The Earth is fractured into controlled zones, and travel is restricted. Without giving the plot of the book away, or the game itself, Bradford is back with friends in their new ship, the Avenger. A rebuilt and retooled alien transport now serves as their main base. Some players think the Avenger is paying homage to the Marvel universe because they have a helicarrier and they are out to seek justice for the common man. In truth, it’s paying homage to the previous XCOM titles.
Anyway, we have an older and wiser Bradford taking up his roll of Central again, as well as Shen Jr. (the chief engineer) and a new head scientist named Tygan – a convert from the ADVENT. Not everyone in the big cities is drinking the kool-aid. There is a bit of a surprise in the tutorial, so I highly recommend you play through it at least once. Now that the band is back together, it’s time to rock n’ roll.
Much has changed from the old XCOM. You no longer have countries that support you with local air force bases and a council of world leaders hidden in the shadows. Um, okay, that’s still sort of there, but now you are actually setting up networks with local resistance cells, and not actual countries. You don’t have a trained army at your beck and call with legions of scientists and engineers. No, now you fight for each scrap because you have limited resources and even less time to stop the alien advance.
That completely changes the strategy metagame. It’s a lot more fluid now. While you are gathering intel from the resistance and other sources, you are tasked with doing research and and building up your ragtag force. Every engineer matters because they have to play a lot of roles. The scientists? They don’t count for nearly as much, because they aid with research and manning the labs, but not the medical bay or similar facilities. I hope that changes in future content patches or DLC.
The aliens have evolved with the times, as well. Human DNA is very flexible, and a lot of the aliens have benefited from it. They also have some new mechanized units and a couple of other nasty surprises. What I like best here is that many of the alien units now work in tandem – as small groups will hang out for a “smoke break” (still kind of bugs me) or they will actively patrol the map looking for you (much better). The aliens now fight back with their own agenda, and each event within is called a “dark event.” If you do not counteract the events, you might meet some unpleasant aliens, buffed up enemies or other exciting surprises on your missions.
Gone are the terror missions, alien abductions, and UFO crashes (after being shot down, that is). They are replaced with retaliations, guerilla ops and lots of raids. You have some new council missions, but the two most exciting and difficult of the bunch are the black site raids and (spoiler warning) Avenger defense missions. Since the ADVENT is the established force on Earth, they have a central mission. You are out to disrupt and hopefully stop it from coming to fruition. The black site raids are a way for you to turn back the “doom clock.” You have many mission types that are familiar from Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, as well as a few new ones, but one can’t help but wonder if a few more diverse types could have been introduced.
The aliens also have a goal in mind, too. This goal is called the Avatar Project, and it drives the narrative. You need to discover all the occupied zones as fast as possible because the Avatar project grows, and in turn, the ADVENT gains strength from it. Your missions will seldom be easy, especially late game. You can counteract this project with guerilla ops, blacksite raids and special council missions, too.
Your troops have also changed. The Long War mod showed Firaxis what many players wanted, and Firaxis has stepped it up. You have 5 classes with two columns of specializations each. Gone are the MECH troopers and the SHIVs, but new power armor does a great job of bringing back their spirit. There’s a new class called Specialist that uses a drone for some hands-off action. They can be your long distance ad-hoc medic or system hacker (part of a new hacking mini-game) with a very interesting set of skills that has pulled me out of the fire on more than one occasion. Your former Assault trooper is now a Ranger, capable of hand to hand combat with a sword. The Sniper can be spec’d out like a regular ‘death from above” type or as a Gunslinger for a “Dirty Harry” brand of justice. Gone are the missile launching Heavies, though their Grenadier replacements are even more versatile since they never misfire. The Psi units have evolved, too. In the XCOM reboot, you could take any unit and test it for psionic sensitivity and off you went to try and create OP beasts. In XCOM 2, any unit can be a psi soldier. All you need is a rookie willing to undergo some strenuous testing (they sit in a room bored out of their minds while exposed to “something”) and lots of time. Building a Psi unit is really time intensive but it’s a worthwhile investment.
To add more flavor to this tasty experience, you can now customize your weapons with dropped goods. Remember how in XCOM: EU you couldn’t pick up dropped weapons unless you disabled the aliens? Well, now you can, as long as you don’t kill them with explosives. Gone is the meld hunt, and in it’s place you have a few turns to try and recover the dropped gear. You can even name your weapons if you want. You have so many new ways to customize your troops that it would need its own write up to just go over all the details.
Another highly requested addition was procedurally generated maps with even more destructible terrain. Firaxis delivered. You now have several different terrain types, city types, weather patterns, seasons, and various combinations of all of them. That makes for a lot of replayability. You can also bring a building down on someone. But do the cities look the same in all the regions? Sort of, but it’s explained in the lore. After the war in ‘15, the new ADVENT coalition homogenized and fixed the world to look the same. It makes it easier to move the people all over the place since it all comes from the same blueprint.
A controversial turn timer was also introduced. It’s not present on each mission type, but its presence is certainly felt. Depending on the mission, you’ll have between 8 to 12 turns to complete the main objective. Many players have complained, but I think it adds a lot of the urgency of the situation. You are, after all, the underdog and you better hurry up or you might get captured or killed. This is a great place to mention the newly introduced stealth mechanic. In many missions you start out hidden and this gives you some time to set up for your optimal ambush. I love this mechanic and I think it’s also the solution for the timer conundrum. If you could start the timer once you lose your stealth through detection by a tower, citizen, alien patrol party or opening fire on a hapless ADVENT trooper, the complaining players might be appeased.
What, you thought I was going to forget the modding tools? No way. Firaxis released the full Software Development Kit as well as all of the assets too. It’s absolutely amazing. The Long War team (now Long War Studios) really had an impact on them. LW Studios even released three day one mods to go along with the game. These mods bring some of the features from the Long War to XCOM 2. People are already modding in new outfits, face paint, gameplay changes to the timers, the Avatar Project, and much more.
What remained the same?
So what haven’t they changed? The RNG results. You know the ones. You have a 90% chance to hit, and that’ll probably result in a miss. But that’s not so bad – some upgraded equipment, holo-targeting, a good vantage point, and maybe a flank could fix it all up. The new dodge ability and armor sure makes hitting and hurting the aliens much harder, but that’s XCOM for you.
In XCOM: EU, you had pressure from terror missions, Exalt (EW collaborator faction) sabotage, abductions and various other alien activity. In XCOM 2, it’s a completely different type of pressure. Like I mentioned previously, you have the Avatar Project and mission timers, but there are also various activities that the aliens do to keep adapting to you. This was introduced in LW, but Firaxis ran with it, and ramped it up further.
The ant hill base is also unchanged. Even though it’s now on a flying fortress, you still have to excavate the spaces and build stuff inside. Various other chambers are there for mandatory structures like the labs, engineering workshops, armory, and command center. I really like how they improved upon the base from the previous XCOM title, but I still feel like they could have done a bit more. Some different animations or maybe a bit more customization would have helped.
XCOM has always been a difficult game and the difficulty has been ratcheted up even more in this latest installment. Until you re-learn how to play, you’ll feel that it’s unfair. The aliens are too powerful, and you can’t keep up. This is true for 1/3 of the game, but then the tables turn, and it gets much easier. Though, please, don’t save-scum. You will lose important soldiers throughout the campaign. Accept it. This is an attempt to remove the yoke from your neck after all.
The overall goal of the game hasn’t changed much either. Defeat the alien invaders, or in this case, the alien occupiers. Though now, you also need to figure out who and what the ADVENT is and what their alien leadership is up to.
What should have changed?
Unfortunately, the game has had issues from release. For some people, the frame rate drops on their video cards. For others, the game suffers from crashes. Then the familiar ‘shooting through walls’ returns, and other such flaws. Though I haven’t experienced most of these, I have experienced some. For me, the line-of-sight bugs are the worst, but it’s something that I’ve come to expect. I assume it has to do with combining destructible terrain with procedurally generated maps. I can’t even begin to suggest fixes, but I can certainly hope they come. Bug squashing and optimization is a must.
The scale of the game is also somewhat of an issue. Initially, you play in a small region, but you must quickly spread your influence and contact the resistance heads by building up your communications network. Does this sound similar to the satellite network? It should. So, as you increase your network of contacts, you hit a dead wall. The alien Avatar Project will outpace you and put undue pressure on you, which is fine for a time. This creates a lot of urgency in the early game as you try and figure out what is going on and slow down the Avatar project. But by the mid game, the only real pressure is to keep the Avatar Project from completing which is too easy to counteract. That leads us to the next point:
The length of the game is an issue. As you power up, the aliens don’t advance as much or as fast as you do. Should they be further powered up in the last third of the game? Probably. You have surpassed the aliens and it can be a cakewalk at this point (though not so much on the highest difficulties). The legend difficulty was really increased because of the community feedback. I’m not sure they are so happy-go-lucky now.
The end game is great. You get to figure out the story as to why the aliens are here and what they’ve been up to. But now, the game feels kind of short. Gone is the back and forth that was introduced in the Long War mod, and I personally miss that. I wish there was more. A lot more.
Encounter at Farpoint
As a way of tying up my thoughts on XCOM 2, let me tell you about this late game mission I had that really showed how the sequel has grown. We got intel on a local resistance cell having somehow disabled a landed alien craft. The squad chosen for this mission was assembled. My maxed out sniper will be accompanied by his favorite grenadier who acts as a heavily armed scout because of his ability to mark potential targets. To lead the excursion I chose a stealthy ranger and a hacking specialist. A second grenadier was also needed to lay down withering covering fire, pin down nasty aliens and destroy cover. Somehow, my newly trained psi operative named Jake “Tear Drinker” Solomon had convinced another ranger that she wasn’t “ready” for the mission. This Jake fellow sure has a way with his salty Scottish accent.
The mission started off quickly when my stealthy scout noticed an ADVENT pod just hanging around telling jokes or playing cards or whatever they do. The Shield bearer never got a chance to raise their personal shields because a plasma blast to the side of the head hurt it enough for my long range sniper to finish the job. The rest of the squad was taken out by a plasma grenade.
Not long after, a second squad was found just patrolling the perimeter and they were dealt with thanks to another round of sniping, ambushing fire from a hill above and a nice little present from the psi operative when he panicked one of the troopers, causing him to open fire on his commander. Good times.
This went on for a while, until a Codex (one of the new aliens) hit my forward members with an EMP pulse disabling all of their weapons and forcing them to move or take damage. Each time the Codex get shot, they split into two units and teleport somewhere else. It’s a nasty surprise the first time it happens. Thankfully, I had a flashbang grenade at the ready which disoriented the Codex, as well as preventing its teleportation, and made quick work of them.
Unfortunately, I tried to get creative and meet a main story objective which I will not spoil for anyone, but that misstep put me in the line of fire for two hidden Archon (a much nastier replacement for the Floater aliens) units. It also revealed another late game beast which shall remain nameless for this writing. The rest is spoiler material, but I will say this – this mission and many like it, start with you playing it one way, and quickly turn on a dime.
I had to call for evac and quickly get my troopers out of there because they all took a lot of damage and this landed craft wasn’t worth killing off my veteran units for. Jake really did an amazing job as they all retreated because those psi operatives have some beastly powers if given enough time to develop. XCOM 2 can be really amazing with its developing narrative and emergent gameplay.
TL;DR: XCOM 2 is a true sequel in every sense of the word. Firaxis took what worked and mostly threw away what didn’t. Each mission can be different and each playthrough should be unique. Now all they need to do is fix the bugs and add more content for this game to be a classic.
You might like this game if:
- You enjoy deep, tactical, squad-based combat
- You enjoy customizing your soldiers
- You wanted to spend more time in the XCOM universe
- You loved the Long War mod and wanted to see Firaxis’ take on it
- You love mods and you’ve wanted to try your hand at modding with a professional SDK
You might NOT like this game if:
- You thought XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within was too hard
- You want troops that will never get hurt
- You want a completely bug-free experience
- You are trying to play it on an older machine
Nate played 80+ hours using a purchased copy on his PC laptop, an Intel Core i7-3770K 3.5 GHz with 8 GB of DDR5 RAM and a GTX 770 running win 10.