While it's been a decent year for video games -- perhaps the best since the launch of the new consoles -- there have been more than a few disappointments as the months have rolled on. And by far and away one of those was the news that Firaxis wouldn't be launching XCOM 2 this year, but in February.
The reboot of XCOM still stands alone as one of the best reuses of an IP in recent memory. Sure, there are a few who prefer the much harder Xenonauts, or had gripes at Firaxis's redesign. But the broader population was thrilled with the studio's efforts, and the Enemy Within expansion and various mods that launched afterwards fleshed out a world that gamers had been missing for far too long.
It's a world I've been wanting to return to recently -- and it's all because of XCOM 2.
Get ready to lose your loved ones all over again
My memories of XCOM: Enemy Unknown are very specific. I was the quintessential turtle, the person who would find the highest ground possible for my snipers and then very, very slowly edge the rest of my squad forward so I could mercilessly abuse Squadsight. You have to be slow and deliberate when it comes to XCOM, after all: you can't afford to lose all that accrued experience, equipment and skills.
But in my first experience of XCOM 2, the fascist-esque reign of the Advent and the new enemy types, mission objectives and maps throughout, it's clear that Firaxis doesn't want you to do that.
The Advent and the aliens have you on the run -- and you'd better get moving.
Vipers are Thin Men in their original form, but their ability to pull units out of position is the real surprise
Most XCOM fans would have played through Enemy Unknown, and the expansion, until the alien invasion was successfully repelled. Firaxis already announced that they're not going in that direction with the story -- in case you've been in the dark, XCOM 2 proceeds as if the aliens won and formed a one-world, fascist government -- and they've already spoken about how concealment works.
Playing with the mechanic for the first time, however, is an entirely different proposition.
It's less daunting in the first two tutorial missions, although the second -- a race to defuse an alien power converter for use back in the Avenger, the airplane that fulfills the role of a mobile HQ -- is considerably more fraught given you only have several turns before things turn permanently sour.
The idea is that your units are hidden, allowing you to set up an elaborate ambush to thin out the enemy's numbers at a time of your choosing. In principle it sounds ridiculously overpowered, but in practice it's an entirely different prospect considering the lack of information you start with.
It's especially nightmarish for sniper-reliant strategists such as myself, who eschew movement for guaranteed safety. The increased destructibility of walls, objects and cover makes agility even more paramount, especially if you're facing enemies with the capacity to obliterate your carefully planned formation in a heartbeat.
There's a lot more explosions, and they look a lot better too
Firaxis has publicly shown some of the customisations you can make to your soldiers, weaponry, and the changes to the way recruitment works. A lot of that was discussed at the XCOM 2 panel at Firaxicon, where the devs also spoke about the partial procedural generation of maps -- having everything procedurally generated, as it turns out, wasn't much fun -- the board game-esque dark events, the introduction of a win condition for the aliens and opportunities for hacking.
What they hadn't shown off, however, was two new missions: an Advent Blacksite investigation and Operation War Hand. The first tasks you with investigating an alien base for information, while the latter is a guerilla operation offering several turns to hack an exposed computer before access is denied.
Since it's lacking a time limit, the Blacksite mission can be played with the same level of patience you would ordinarily display. But even with the added time to establish the best possible ambush for Advent patrols, the way cover, entrances, enemy positions and more change from level to level keeps proceedings incredibly tricky.
The introduction of new enemies, and the beefing up of old ones, complicates matters further. The Vipers in XCOM 2 are the Thin Men from Enemy Unknown, but before their appearance was genetically engineered to look like humans. But since the aliens have taken over the world, there's no requirement to adopt a humanoid appearance.
In practice, that means Vipers can use their tongues to pull enemies towards them and their bodies to keep opponents bound. I discovered this the hard way when I tried to venture my sniper behind a car, only to have her dragged into the open and strangled to within an inch of her life. Having already failed to hack a nearby tower for vision, I was already on the backfoot.
Being forced to double-time to rescue my sniper turned the situation from "this is bad" to "well, shit".
It was exactly the kind of instant crises that the original XCOM used to throw up so well, and it reminded me precisely of what I loved about Enemy Unknown.
It's been more than three years since the release of Enemy Unknown (above), something XCOM 2's visuals make abundantly clear
Perhaps the biggest change I noticed in my session with the game, which ran a couple of hours, was the increased visual fidelity. XCOM 2 is running on a modified version of Unreal Engine 3. The game's art director, Greg Foertsch, told me the engine Firaxis was using was halfway between UE3 and UE4. That's the same as what was used in Enemy Unknown, but the environment is far livelier and more vibrant than ever.
Put simply: the maps in XCOM 2 look more like genuine locations, and less like maps. You've always been able to see this online, of course. But appreciating finer details, such as the smoke trails on weapons, the debris that scatters after an explosion, the added texturing on floor tiles, the added animations and transitions, is much easier when an insurgency is failing right in front of your eyes.
The settings of the preview machines helped play their part, running at 1440p at the highest settings. That in and of itself was quaint -- playing a 2K game at 2K -- even if the frame rate was a little chuggy. That's entirely forgivable though, since it's something any fan can correct in a matter of seconds.
Foertsch added that XCOM 2 was also making heavy use of physics-based rendering, which is appropriate given the constant lighting changes your soldiers will be fighting in and out of. The lighting is far more noticeable across the board, whether its from the railgun-esque, multi-coloured trails of turret fire, the occasional swaying of a torchlight at the end of a rifle, the oscillating beams of a sentry post or even just the simple smoke trails emitting out of a chain gun.
Soldiers can gain permanent bonuses from hacking, provided you're fortunate enough
Looking back at Enemy Unknown is a great way to appreciate other things that have improved too. Perhaps it's a legacy of not having to design around a console, but the UI has been shrunk down to accommodate the increased amount of abilities and information.
That's not to say everything is ideal. The camera, for instance, still has some weird quirks. Like Enemy Unknown, the camera's rotation is fixed and you're not able to lock the camera's height -- every time I zoomed out for a better tactical view, it would always zoom back in upon changing to a new unit or performing an action.
There's still some clipping issues whenever soldiers perform an action in close proximity to a wall that's taller than them (like the corner of a building). And while the developers at Firaxicon were proud to introduce hacking into XCOM without a supplementary mini-game, that's not likely to cheer anyone up who finds themselves failing to shut down a turret despite being told they have a 90% or greater chance to do so.
But XCOM 2 has a lot more going on than the reboot ever did, and from a much earlier state. Despite only being a couple of hours in, the specialist had enough active abilities to fill up almost the entirety of the number bar. And that's not even accounting for the possible permutations in one turn: should you double-time to safety, run around the side for a shot to the back, stand and deliver from your current position, dodge slightly out of range, hunker down, use a grenade to open up a better angle for another soldier ... the list goes on.
The colour red has always been a running theme in XCOM, and that shines through in the sequel
I'm not griping, though. Hardcore fans -- the types to explore the Impossible and Iron Man difficulties, alternatives like the Long War mod or the many assets Firaxis expects to appear courtesy of XCOM 2's Steam Workshop support -- will be thrilled at the prospect of having more things to manage. It certainly never felt like I was being bogged down for choice either. The increased destructibility -- whether it's a grenadier targeting a petrol tank, or a soldier blowing a hole in a roof with a grenade -- is just one small, but potentially tactically vital, example of that.
Otherwise, XCOM forces your hand a lot sooner than you'd otherwise like. The prospect of the Advent Project, the win condition for the aliens, forces players to act more rapidly on a macro level. The guerilla operations and their time limits prevent the ultra-cautious from turning the game into a grind. And the partial procedural generation affects the gameplay enough that it changes your decision making without turning maps into a lottery (a problem that badly impacted the release of Frozen Cortex earlier this year).
But it's still XCOM. It's just a fresh take on proceedings, and that in and of itself makes me want to play Enemy Unknown more than anything else -- because I know I'll never be able to play an XCOM game quite the same way again.
XCOM 2 launches globally on February 5 for PC.