Time is our most precious commodity. We are handed our allocation of it and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. In XCOM 2 it never feels like time is on your side. Instead it seems that it, along with the lives entrusted to your command, is forever fading. In the grand scheme of things, XCOM 2 tasks you with fighting for humanity’s survival, but most of the time you’ll find yourself fighting for the individual. And most of the time, you’re going to fail.
It’s perhaps only developer Firaxis that would have the cojones to set up such a perilous game scenario, but then the studio had no choice. XCOM has always been celebrated as a difficult franchise, but how do you challenge a player base that has relished the opportunity to pump hundreds of hours attempting Impossible Ironman mode runs (where the difficulty is not only set to soul-destroying, but the ability to create multiple save files is torn away from players)? Well, you just make it soul-destroying from the off. Set 20 years after the events of original game, Firaxis makes the assumption that you probably failed to save humanity first time around and so that’s where XCOM 2 kicks off. That’s right, this is a sequel that begins rooted in the fail state of its predecessor – like we said, serious cojones.
The invaders have won and an alien-led dictatorship known as the Advent is ruling the Earth with an iron fist. The remnants of the human resistance are scattered, attempting to rally against the Advent from the shadows. No longer are you sat defending locations and responding to threats one at a time – you’re on the offensive now.
The shift from tactical defensive strategies to guerrilla force tactics has had some radical implications for the traditional XCOM formula. Sure, you’ll still be building an army of ragtag soldiers (foolishly imbuing each of them with the identity and look of your closest friends), researching new technologies, acquiring resources, and putting it all to use in strategic, turn-based battles. But with the tide turned against you, the focus is on sabotaging alien operations across the globe and making small dents in the enemy’s war machine. Firaxis has woven the narrative and gameplay together more tightly this time around; every tactical decision and shot fired can have grave implications for your team and overall progress.
Your soldiers now drop into combat concealed, a new mechanic in XCOM 2 that gives you the freedom to move around the procedurally generated scenarios and get a feel for the action and enemy placement before engagement. Sneaking through the fog of war past enemies and coordinating complex ambushes on unsuspecting patrols is exhilarating every time. It captures the idea of guerrilla warfare more than anything we’ve experienced before, though a tactical manoeuvre has a tendency to go to hell just as often as it succeeds. Putting the pieces in place before a firefight takes as much consideration as finishing one does. Seeing your troops fall one by one after a seemingly great plan unravels in front of your eyes can be truly heartbreaking.
The focus on stealth and swift hit-and-run tactics brings a dynamism to XCOM that we never realised it was missing to begin with. Still, while you might feel like you have the time to consider every possibility, XCOM 2 has tendency to put you up against the clock: recover this loot in five turns, defend this station in six, get to this scientist defector in nine otherwise it’s game over on a small mission-to-mission scale. It’s here where adrenaline can get the better of your tactical brain, forcing commanders to make rash plays and power grabs in a desperate rush to recover resources you require to halt the steady stream of shit coming your way. But XCOM 2 has a tendency to unfold in original and striking ways every time you play.
There’s always something to worry about here. With the pressure constantly piling on XCOM 2 has a tendency to get a little exhausting, especially when things don’t go your way (which is most of the time), but there’s something about the slickness of the systems and breadth of options available to you that keeps you engaged with the action. Keeping your squad alive is a constant struggle; getting them back to your flying base – dubbed the Avenger – without critical wounds taking them out of the fight for weeks is, at times, seemingly impossible. This is part of the wonderful XCOM cycle though, wherein you find your best soldiers sat in the med bay while you desperately, helplessly feed rookies to the slaughterhouse.
It’s the sheer depth of options, array of tactical decisions available, the endless considerations to be made, and overall unpredictability of enemy movements and tactics that combines to make XCOM 2 so damned playable though. Storming through a scenario unscathed is captivating, struggling through a fraught engagement is fist-clenching, and, ultimately, watching your annoying friend’s avatar get mercilessly gunned down by a group of Sectoids proves to be a bittersweet moment; sure they have been asking for it, but lord knows they were the best damned sharpshooter in the squad. Humanity is clearly doomed. But our time with XCOM 2 is not.
The thrill of the action also has a way of following you back to base. Like its predecessors, XCOM 2 has an overarching layer of tactical consideration that forces you into desperate win or lose scenarios. The rebellion is set up in the roaming Avenger base, and it’s here that you get an overview of a world in crisis. Establishing links with rogue survivor cells, scooping up resources and widening your influence into new nations is always done with an eye on the progress bar towards failure that beams unwaveringly at the top of the world map. XCOM 2 ensures that its out-of-combat considerations are powered by a constant state of motion and tension; once you reach the late game you quickly get the sense that one wrong tactical deployment or decision could spell the end of your entire campaign.
Managing resources, expanding the facilities of the Avenger base, building tactical upgrades and enhancing your troops is common practice in XCOM, though there’s one location that represents the game better than all else – the bar. It acts as a memorial of sorts to your fallen squad brethren, displaying an ever-expanding list that represents your surmounting failures in combat. Looking over the names of the departed recalls a vivid memory of the time, place and scenario that led to their place on the list. Firaxis has designed its game in such a way that you build relationships with the characters you create and, on many occasions, it’s the fallen stars that you’ll remember once the gunfire subsides.
It’s a shame then, that XCOM 2 is lacking the polish that would truly reflect its status as one of the all-time greats. There are times where its difficulty swings from challenging to outright unfair. Games like this live and die by their rule-sets, but the sense that enemies are restricted, largely, by the same rules of logic and chance that we are comes crumbling down when they blast through walls, dodge shotgun blasts from point-blank range, and generally defy the laws of XCOM to survive. Your fun is constantly hanging on the game communicating fairly, and when the AI circumvents its own rules it can ruin some of the appeal. Couple this with technical glitches that see the camera drift away from combat, the action halt altogether and enemy reactions playing out in a jumbled tandem of gunfire and noise, and you’ll wonder whether publisher 2K Games should have delayed the game for a little longer instead of relying on the inevitable post-launch patches to rectify these inaccuracies.
These problems are but a blip in an otherwise stunning strategy experience though. Clever design runs through nearly every aspect of XCOM 2. It forces you to think on different levels for every operation, play with tactics and experiment with daring manoeuvres at every opportunity. Every level of the game’s design has not only been refined, but seamlessly interwoven to interact without you being any the wiser. It ensures that XCOM 2 always feels like it’s pushing you to try, to succeed in the face of what looks to be certain failure. The looming presence of dread is constant, and that makes your victories all the sweeter. With time always against you, every minute spent in the company of your squad becomes a blessing – even as you come to realise you’ll likely be toasting their virtual victories in the bar by the time the evening is out. In the end, time has a way of sneaking up and murdering even the best of us; never has that been more crushingly documented than in XCOM 2.