XCOM 2’s greatest strength is how it takes the foundations of its predecessor and refines them into a sequel that is so much better than it ever needed to be. Developer Firaxis manages to do all of this while simultaneously building enough new strategic and mechanical layers on top of its existing formula. As a result, this already fantastic strategy game feels fresher, deeper, and consistently daunting for even the most experienced of players.
Set 20 years after the alien invasion from 2012’s Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 assumes a canon where the alien forces won, defeated humanity’s resistance, and took over the world. Now, two decades later, you command a rag-tag resistance force that’s the last hope for mankind to take back the world it lost, and its last opportunity to defeat the alien rulers that call themselves The Advent.
It’s a solid setup, and XCOM 2’s story is delivered with far more cinematic gravitas than anything Firaxis has achieved previously. This time, characters that inhabit your mobile airbase feel more intertwined with the story itself, and this lends itself to a much more personal experience. Decisions still carry an amount of weight; ramifications can sometimes rear their heads hours later, and XCOM 2 makes all of this feel more impactful because of how it presents your relationships with individuals.
Much of your time is still split between two distinct modes of play – isometric turn-based missions with squad of soldiers leading assaults on enemy bases, rescue missions and more; and a base management system that has you expanding the base’s forces and facilities, researching upgrades and making vital decisions that will greatly impact the success or failure of the resistance. With a reliance on well-executed procedural generation, XCOM 2’s squad based combat objectives feel far less repetitive than in its predecessor and there’s a constant slew of surprises and horrors that come from going into new mission types and discovering all of what XCOM 2 has hidden up its sleeve.
The fact that you’re a guerrilla force on the back foot makes for a much more desperate affair, too, the game seesawing between giving you that feeling that you’re doing well, before quickly pulling the rug from underneath you without warning. So much of the game is based on time – individual missions will have countdown timers before particular objectives fail, or your dropship has to evacuate, leaving any soldiers not in the immediate vicinity behind. You’ll then need to lead daring rescue missions to save them from capture. The overarching progression of the Advent’s secret operations appears as an ascending bar at the top of your base management screen. It’s a constant reminder that time is running out to save the world, and it really ups the ante on how you prioritise your next step, but without feeling cheap.
An incredible level of customisation that seeps its way into every part of the game and serves only to make it more intimate. You can still create a squad made up of your family, friends and colleagues, change their look, attitude and loadouts, but the complete overhaul of the loot and upgrade systems now mean a much higher level of variety. Whereas previous XCOM games could be replayed and you would notice the same patterns throughout, XCOM 2 changes on the fly. You might have a squad member captured, and your loyalties become tested when you find yourself deciding between a rescue mission to get them back, or defending a vital settlement that’s being attacked by Advent forces.
Other great new additions like Concealment, which essentially gives your soldiers the opportunity to sneak around the map and set up ambushes against the Advent forces at the start of every mission, make your excursions feel far more interactive and open-ended than they ever felt previously. Add in new squad abilities and brand new enemies to contend with, and you have a remarkably broad strategy game that never lets up and is never scared to give you a beating when you let your guard down.
Only a small list of technical issues stop XCOM 2 becoming truly flawless, but overall this sequel is so well-rounded and refined in almost all aspects of its design that it’s hard to second guess where Firaxis can take the series from here. Never has saving the world felt so consistently tense, stressful and outright fun.