XCOM 2 has a lot in common with its predecessor. It’s still the gritty turn-based strategy game that we know and love, though this time humanity has been put on its heels and fights back as the revolutionaries of an alien occupation. What's striking about its similarities is how much Firaxis has taken feedback to heart. The improvements are targeted directly at increasing the amount of content and replayability to please its voracious fanbase, though some of the sheer mass of it is dizzying.
As one of the first interactions with the game, the character customization has improved massively. Character names, looks, and even the notes and information on their death murals can be altered to fit your own personal tastes, and it’s extremely easy to dive in and get lost in creating that perfect character that fits your needs. The customization still isn’t as deep as you’ll get in a game like Fallout 4 or other “create-a-character RPGs”, but XCOM was never really meant to fill in that gap in the first place.
I wasted no time making a group of squad members who resemble (to the best of the system's capabilities) my co-workers. For me this made the journey extremely personal. After all, these were my friends on the line. Add the procedurally generated maps, and each and every journey through the game can be completely different for every player. That opens the game up to massive amounts of replayability. One of the most astounding features is how seamlessly the pieces of each map fit together.
Many games that sport a procedurally generated map system often find themselves plagued by bad set pieces. This usually leaves players running into buildings which have spawned inside of each other, cutting off hallways and doorways that are vital to the player experience. Firaxis paid attention to the details when adding in this feature and it shows. Every part, down to the smallest window and staircase feels as if it was hand-crafted. It's a huge accomplishment and helps to set XCOM 2 apart.
The new Psi-Ops soldiers are a game changer of their own, allowing players to fight fire with fire, or in this case, mind control with mind control. They open up completely new avenues for players to explore, and in later missions of the game, can mean the difference between life and death. On the other side of things, the alien's strength has only increased, as many of humanity's enemies return with new changes and advancements. New enemies like the Viper add a fresh element of danger and unfamiliarity. Others, like the Sectoid and Muton, are XCOM staples revised for this iteration to be all the more threatening.
Verge of Extinction
XCOM 2’s story focuses around the human resistance and the XCOM team trying to stop the ADVENT and their mysterious “Avatar Project." The Avatar Project works well as the centerpiece, always driving the action and story forward by making the opposition a ticking time-bomb. This urgency, and the decisions you have to make to combat the Avatar Project, help to strengthen the game’s tension and help to keep you moving forward, non-complacent. This is extremely important in a game that spans the length of XCOM 2, and even more important when you’re looking to offer fans multiple playthroughs.
To put it mildly, XCOM 2 is massive. I’ve logged in almost 80 hours in the game so far, and I had to skip out on several of the side missions just to finish it for review. There is a lot to do, which is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes the sheer number of tasks feel like too much, and deciding just what missions to prioritize can become overwhelming. Being forced to choose between multiple time-constrained missions can lead to analysis paralysis. It’s nice to have a lot of content, but after a while it really begins to feel like you’ve bit off more than you can chew.
(Minor story spoilers follow.)
Twenty years have passed since the events of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. Central, your right-hand man in Enemy Unknown has been on the lookout for you, the Commander, since you went missing twenty years ago. He finds you, tagged and bagged in an alien tank with a chip in your head--a chip that is similar to the same chips in all the human ADVENT soldiers. They recover your body, remove the chip, and you take over the command of the XCOM group from there on in.
The new story direction kept me connected to the people we knew and grew to trust in the previous XCOM games, and heightened the feeling of anomisity toward the alien invaders. After all, they kept us locked in a tube with a chip in our head, using us without our permission for all those years! If that isn’t a reason for revenge, then I don’t know what is.
The council has also made a return, though it has shrunk considerably. In fact, it's a council of one. But it’s still nice to have that familiar power backing up your actions as you fight to save humanity from its own complacency. Overall it’s almost like we’ve jumped forward in time but we’re still the same as we were back then. Sure, everyone has aged a bit. But deep down our mission is still the same as it has always been. Push back the invaders and take back our world.
Winning the Battle
In many ways, XCOM 2 is more of what we already enjoyed in the recent reboot, with a few considerable improvements. The new units liven up the experience and add much more variety, while the procedurally generated maps help to customize every player’s experience into a one of a kind novelty. If you’re a newcomer to the resistance or an old veteran, XCOM 2 is a smartly designed action-strategy game with a staggering amount of content and replayability.
This review is based on a download code provided by the publisher. XCOM 2 will be available in retail stores and on Steam on February 5, for $59.99. The game is rated T.