Like the hair on my scalp due to almost 40 hours with XCOM 2, I’m torn. Colonel Rose West’s valiant onslaught against the otherworldly threat has been rewarded with incremental unlocking of powerful battle quirks that’ll allow her to run across the isometric top-down map and slice up a bunch of oozing alien pricks all in the space of one valuable turn. But, on the other hand, she’s called Rose West and it’s her own fault (see: my fault) for choosing to break cover when these same alien shit-boxes have started flanking her.
She’s going down, isn’t she? As time stalls during her dash to allow my opponents to take responsive action, her health tanks and she crumples to the floor. She’s not even bleeding out, there’s no chance Annie Lennox’s health drone can revive her. Do I do it? Do I commit the cardinal sin in tactical action games like XCOM? Do I reload so she’s still alive and effectively erase my turn? Fuck it, I’m reloading. Might even load way back to when Andi Peters was still alive, god rest his soul.
So, there’s your XCOM 2. There’s your XCOM 2 in a nutshell.
Set 20 years after Firaxis’ UFO: Enemy Unknown reboot, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, still not a lot is known about the enemy as they continue to lurk in the fog of familiar, but still frighteningly dangerous maps. These alien enemies now operate a global one-world government that toys with gene therapy, Big Brother-style propaganda and have managed to convince a vast portion of the planet of their brilliance. It’s basically America when Trump becomes President.
Luckily for the future of the United States, and the rest of the world, the XCOM project is still operational. Planet Earth’s rebellion against the alien scum is now an underground sect and the switch from corporate-funded military operation to hastily assembled renegades allows XCOM 2 a more personable touch. While a lot hasn’t changed since 2012’s Enemy Unknown, character customisation has had an overhaul, doubling up the affinity you feel for your ragtag solider pals, allowing far more tweaking of your troops which, in the case of our own Rose West, makes it all the more difficult when they inevitably sacrifice themselves for the cause.
This aside, the turn-based tactical action gameplay is essentially the same as its predecessor, with each of your gang of troops given a couple of limited options each turn, including restricted movement across the map, taking offensive and defensive shots against opponents, reloading, abusing a special ability, etc. There are a good few noticeable and welcomed refinements including a new cover system that allows your team to start missions with an unseen presence. The bulk of missions this time round also have some sort of time restraint, forcing more careful players to rethink their strategy when objectives are required to be completed within a certain number of move, lest the battle be lost and some of your valuable fighters, like Paul Zenon and Shia LaBeouf, end up on the deck or, worse still, captured.
Veterans of the series should settle in easily, and newcomers can be walked through quite simply via the Rookie mode, which can be quickly switched to Oh Christ mode whenever you’re feeling like you’d like to be kicked in the guts.
These refinements, though, add a new strategic element that requires adequate pacing and planning that will essentially change the way you approach it. Enemy Unknown could be eked out with, at best, careful planning and, at worst, shitty cowardice. But XCOM 2 has a more pressing edge that requires big moves and, ultimately, big sacrifices.
Combined with the story’s AVATAR Project, a sinister and clandestine event that’s implied will be Armageddon for the human race, there’s a constant feeing of dread that the end is looming which forces you to keep pushing forward. XCOM 2 could be a game that enjoyably eats time as you slowly venture out across the globe in your Avenger craft, becoming caught up in global skirmishes and rescue missions that crop up, or scouring countries for supplies to ensure you’re building the best equipment for the battle. Instead, XCOM 2 refuses to allow you that leisure and it constantly feels like you’re winging it where you really want to be prepared, echoing the DIY nature of this new XCOM retaliation itself.
There’s give and take at every avenue – clearing out rooms and salvaging junk for currency are necessary, but take time. The one thing XCOM 2 denies you most. Concentrating on building up your barracks to enlist more soldiers will ultimately reduce the time and resources you can put into advancing Psi abilities or connecting with other rebel factions across the globe. And there’s no clear cut way to go about it, and no hand-holding either - if you’re too slow, you’re all going to die.
Engaging in pop-up battles and concentrating on allocated story missions will delay the aliens’ progress on the AVATAR Project, but as the red bar to signify its commencement keeps creeping up, and you’ll be scrambling to reduce it.
Time, then, is the most fearsome enemy XCOM 2 delivers and, with the sigh of relief and joy that accompanies completing a mission with minimal damage, comes the feeling of dread about the next. Knowing you’re constantly the underdog is bolstered by clever unveiling of new enemy types and their ability to completely massacre your otherwise tooled-up and experienced squad.
Despite similarities to its predecessor, XCOM 2 is a vast improvement. From the more panicked civilian rescue missions to the impressive and terrifying new aliens, like the self-cloning codex and a bank of new weaponry, experimental ammo and soldier perks, there’s plenty of new stuff to dig into. While some seem superfluous additions, others, like a new ninja-style ability that can see your troops remain in cover while slaughtering enemies in furious melee chops, perfectly join up the dots you didn’t know were missing.
That said, XCOM 2 is an insanely buggy game. While it should run decently on even budget car park PCs like mine, it won’t stop random crashing to desktop, frame-rates dropping achingly slow and unnecessarily lengthy pauses after turns. Sometimes its confusing AI or odd quirks act to your advantage – at one point Captain Lenny Henry absolutely obliterated a multi-shielded latter-game enemy with a single, normal bullet from an Overwatch pistol. Did I relent and reload back to undo the positive effect of this bug in support of fairness? Did I fuck.
Thing is though, that’s the big question – to load or not to reload. However you view it, XCOM 2’s fiendishly difficult gameplay can’t always be combatted through trial and error or praying for a bug, it’s by design. You’ll inevitably lose some of your best troops via ‘unfair’ alien reveals, like the first time you encounter the creepy, bulky but nimble Faceless creature crashing through the rafters like the worst BFG ever.
It’s not enough to tarnish what XCOM 2 is – fucking brilliant. It can be incredibly difficult and, if you’re a reloader, you’ll spend hours on missions, hours in character customisation, hours trawling across the world, and every single one of those hours will feel worth it. Except when it’s all done and you realise you have PTSD. Technical difficulties may hamper the enjoyment of those who don’t want to take advantage of its quirks, for those who want a true, hardcore experience. But, in terms of genuine entertainment and excitement and suspense, XCOM 2 has invaded Earth and taken over.
XCOM 2 is available now for PC.