XCOM 2 Review: Deep Strategy Meets Alien-Blasting Action

XCOM games have never been easy to beat. In fact, 2012’s Enemy Unknown was so challenging that its follow-up, XCOM 2, starts on the assumption that players actually failed to stop the alien invasion last time around.

This is a brave set-up, considering that such stories generally see courageous humans repelling waves of technologically-superior civilizations again and again.

So, rather than pitting players against an invading force as before, XCOM 2 is based around an underground resistance fighting to depose Earth’s new alien rulers.

As seasoned fans of the series will expect, XCOM 2 isn’t a game you can polish off within a few hours – it offers plenty of challenge, deep gameplay, and a real sense of ongoing achievement.

Fighting on All Fronts

In true XCOM fashion, XCOM 2 switches between ferocious turn-based combat and complex strategic management. Without doubt, the action-based shenanigans are sure to be the main appeal, and with good reason: fighting the alien hordes is intense, demanding smart tactics and perseverance. Considering the invaders have actually conquered Earth, making them too easy to take down would be unrealistic … and have no fear: it’s anything but.

xcom2For each battle, you’re given a team of up to six resistance-fighters, picked from various classes. Some of these are similar to those featured in Enemy Unknown, but Firaxis has improved them with a few upgrades and tweaks. For example, XCOM 2’s Sharpshooters are an updated version of the previous game’s Snipers, and the Grenadiers are an evolved form of the Heavy type.

Winning battles allows you to upgrade your fighters’ abilities and weapons, building a bigger selection of actions as you advance – the more victories you achieve, the more options you’ll have to overcome enemies. It’s a nice progression system that helps to cultivate a real feeling of reward and success.

Customization extends to your characters’ names, with an option to re-title them as you see fit. Want to pay homage to other alien-based stories by naming your heroes after those from Aliens or Independence Day? Want to borrow names from your family and friends? This is a small touch, but helps to make your own playthrough feel unique.

Psionic soldiers reappear following their debut in the Enemy Within expansion pack, and any rookie warrior can be built into a psychically-equipped badass. The diversity and variation amongst classes works beautifully, creating a huge range of tactical approaches to use in battle. Unlike in some other games, XCOM 2’s classes all feel useful, without a ‘filler’ type.

xcombgameEnemies are brilliantly designed and, frankly, pant-wettingly freaky. Beserkers are wild, brutal fighters (as the name suggests) prone to charging at your squad, while Archons only become tougher as you land hits on them. Mutons are nine feet tall, able to slay humans with a single strike, and Vipers are humanoid snakes with tongues strong enough to pull enemies across battlefields.

As with your own hardy band of soldiers, the aliens’ squads are made up of distinctive classes, and learning which tactics prove most effective against each is crucial to surviving combat.

Some missions up the ante with specific objectives: you may need to complete the scenario within a brutal time limit; hack a terminal; or complete another task within a set number of turns. This prevents you from simply relying on the same tactics again and again, and keeps the action unpredictable.

Running a Tight Ship

So, what of the management side of XCOM 2? Between trips into the field to fight alien scumbags, you’re based aboard a mobile airship dubbed the Avenger (surely a cheeky nod to the flying base featured in Marvel’s Avengers stories). This is where engineers and scientists conduct research on alien objects, building new technology as and when you order it.

Throughout your campaign to oust the alien overlords, the Avenger changes: you can gradually create new facilities to boost equipment, enhance weapons, and evolve your fighters’ range of abilities. Soldiers wounded in combat can also be healed before being sent out again.

Still, all of this takes resources – so you should think carefully about what you need right now and what can wait a while.

Evolution and advancing technology isn’t a luxury reserved just for humans, though: the alien forces are hard at work on the Avatar Project, a mysterious scheme. To get to the bottom of this, you can direct the Avenger to various locations around the world, building bridges with leaders in other areas, as well as buying and selling gear on the black market.

Overall, XCOM 2 is a worthy sequel to Enemy Unknown, building on the progress made with plenty of improvements, creating a fun, immersive game that throws you right into a complex, dark world. The blend of turn-based tactical combat and deep management is as well-balanced as fans would expect, and the entire experience provides real value for money.