This review has been updated to reflect XCOM 2’s re-release on PS4 and Xbox One, which released on September 27, 2016:
Time is always fading in XCOM 2, and it’s never on our side. As we train our next soldier, drop them into battle, and fight for humanity’s survival, we can only make the best of the minutes we have left. We’ll probably fail. But we’ll move on anyway.
Following in the footsteps of 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, its sequel is a brutal, unforgiving turn-based strategy title played on a strategic world map and isometric battlefields. XCOM 2 places us in command of the human Resistance as they rise up against the Advent, an alien regime that has governed Earth for 20 years. As opposed to the soldiers of Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2’s rebellion is on the offensive. We’re no longer staunch defenders–we’re a desperate guerilla force.
This new script supports numerous tweaks to the XCOM formula, all for the better. We’re still building an army, researching new technologies, and putting them to use in squad-based strategy missions. But these missions are less about repelling the aliens, and more about sabotaging their global operations whenever we can. We loot supply trains and intercept communications signals to halt the Advent’s plan for human eradication. XCOM 2 ties its narrative and gameplay together in such a way that every mission feels critical, and every shot carries weight.
The mission objectives have changed, but so have the ways we approach them. XCOM 2 implements a new concealment mechanic, in which your soldiers drop into most missions unnoticed, allowing you to sneak past enemies or coordinate attacks on unsuspecting patrols.
This further elevates the idea of guerilla warfare, but also allows for exhilarating ambushes, as you lob grenades into groups, fire machine gun rounds as enemies scatter, and pick off stragglers before they have a chance to react. Initiating firefights takes just as much consideration as finishing them.
XCOM 2 also uses procedural map and objective generation to ensure a different mission each time your squad leaves the dropship. You’ll defend new rooftops and sneak through different alleyways in each campaign. This dynamism, coupled with the aforementioned stealth mechanics, extend XCOM 2’s longevity far past that of Enemy Unknown, in which missions grew boring several campaigns in.
In fact, the entirety of XCOM 2 unfolds in original ways each time you play. It’s a multilayered experience wherein each level displays nuance, but also contributes to an amorphous, ever-changing whole.
XCOM 2’s strategy layer imparts the same urgency as the tactical battles on the ground.
The squad firefights lay the foundation: there are tactical considerations, from the elevation of the battlefield to the sightlines of the map’s structures. Then there are the character classes, each with a world of possibilities to consider: the specialist can hack Advent security towers and buff your squad in the field. The grenadier’s carrying capacity makes him the pack mule of the group. The ranger’s blade makes her a lethal close-quarters force. The psi operative, on the other hand, uses the alien mind control powers against the Advent, turning firefights into psychological battlegrounds.
The sheer amount of factors affecting any firefight is staggering, raising numerous questions as I move across the map: how many aliens are there? Does my specialist have any medkits left? Who has the highest armor rating in my squad? Should I leave my sniper in overwatch, or move her forward with the rest of her crew? And how can I flank that Sectoid before it uses its mind control abilities to turn my ranger against me?
More often than not, there’s a timer pushing you forward, counting the turns until your target escapes, or the aliens extract their secret data. There’s always something to worry about, something to consider, some way things could go wrong as you fight to keep your squad alive. In many cases, I opted for retreat: by throwing down flares I could extract my remaining soldiers back to base. If objectives became impossible to reach, saving my valuable fighters became paramount in the grand scheme of things.
XCOM 2’s overarching strategy layer imparts the same sense of urgency, and a similar bevy of obstacles. As we move the humans’ mobile Avenger base across the globe, establishing links with other rebel cells, we also fight the aliens’ plan to erase humanity, indicated by a crimson progress bar at the top of the world map. A real sense of tension forces us to maintain a constant state of motion, whether by freeing a waylaid country, researching new alien weaponry, or rushing production on a crucial new structure.
Underlying all of this is a more personal current. We grow attached to individual soldiers as they perform spectacular feats and rise in the ranks. We get to know their loadouts and what equipment they carry. We rely on our best leaders to stay composed, and root for rookies to prove themselves. XCOM 2 may be a war game, but it doesn’t ignore the boots on the ground–strategy plans are only as good as the soldiers putting them into action.
Take Lieutenant Micky Taylor, for instance. He died in the snow at 6:53 p.m. outside of my disabled helibase, just outside of Kansas City. The mission was to destroy an EMP device that was preventing us from taking off, while also keeping the Advent away from our landing pad. With enemy Vipers poisoning my rangers, hulking Mutons wounding my grenadiers, and mechanical Sectopod mechs bombarding my medics, I balanced offense and defense, accounting for every eventuality as the mission unfolded. Things went well. But then I sent Taylor into cover as the rest of his squad rushed to the evac zone. He was the only one who didn’t make it. It was his 23rd mission.
I remember that scenario because of its clever design, but also because it’s where I lost my best soldier. In the end, XCOM 2 is fantastic not just because of its refined individual layers, but how seamlessly they interact. We think on different levels during playthroughs, bouncing between the commander’s chair, the scientist’s lab, and the sergeant’s eyes. If Enemy Unknown was a chess game, the sequel adds more pieces–and more spaces–to the board.
We think on multiple levels in XCOM 2, bouncing between the commander’s chair, the scientist’s lab, and the sergeant’s eyes.
Every once in a while, however, XCOM 2’s difficulty surpasses challenging, and becomes unfair. For the most part, enemies abide by the same restrictions we do. But sometimes, they shoot through walls and dodge point-blank shotgun bursts. The cards are already stacked against us in most campaigns, and part of the fun is overcoming those odds–but when the enemy AI ignores the rules, the game loses its appeal. Furthermore, XCOM suffers from certain technical glitches: the action halted during action-camera sequences, and in certain cases, I felt as if the game was overwhelmed. My soldiers’ reaction shots didn’t trigger when they should have, and enemies’ attacks happened all at once, or weren’t shown at all.
But the vast majority of the time XCOM 2 performs well and the difficulty is fair. We will make mistakes–but that’s the point. Failure is not just a possibility in XCOM 2, it’s a necessary presence. This is the rare game that’s less about choices, and more about the consequences thereafter: we play, we learn, we strive to get better. The entire process is a stunning display of meaningful failure.
So time keeps ticking in XCOM 2, and the best we can do is make the right choices when we have the chance. XCOM 2 imparts the weight of those decisions, and that’s what makes it extraordinary. It’s mathematical, emotional, and thoughtful all at once. It’s exhilarating, even in the face of failure. It’s compelling, even though we often lose. Victory is the goal, but that’s just an afterthought here–it’s the complex journey that counts.
Now that XCOM 2 has made its way to consoles, these sentiments remain the same. Some technical issues have migrated from this year’s PC release: characters sometimes freeze in place while the turn progresses; soldiers can take almost 10 seconds to execute commands; and cutscenes have a tendency to drop frame rates throughout campaigns. But the layered tactics, impactful meta-game, and deep character-building are all intact on PS4 and Xbox One. XCOM 2 remains a superb strategy title.