I used to be the slowest XCOM player on Earth. Then XCOM 2 happened.
You know the type. Hell, you probably are the type. I played previous XCOM games in inches, not miles. I’d move my characters forward a few spaces, hunker down behind cover and wait.
I played patiently because of how XCOM works. Like its predecessors, XCOM 2 is a turn-based strategy game about fighting a mysterious, ever-evolving alien force, but the real sun of its solar system is permadeath. If a member of your squad dies in the line of duty, they don’t spring back from the grave and say, “Hey guys, what’d I miss?” to the sounds of canned studio audience laughter. Their body just lays there, occasionally twitching, and the studio audience gets really uncomfortable. They are dead and gone.
The more you use and customise and rank up your individual squad members, the more you come to love them. The idea of letting them go toward the light (the one presumably made by God; not, you know, aliens) becomes heartbreaking. That, in a nutshell, is why I used to play XCOM like a turtle who was also somebody’s dangerously near-sighted grandparent attempting to drive in rush hour traffic. In my mind, there was no such thing as an acceptable loss. Firaxis’ first XCOM game, 2012’s XCOM Enemy Unknown (and, to a lesser extent, its expansion) enabled my hyper-cautious playstyle. My approach might not have always been glamorous, but my troops survived, damn it.
XCOM 2 changes all that. It makes me play like a cornered rat. I bite and scratch and claw my way forward, with no guarantee of safety or sustenance. And I love it.
That might sound like a big change, but it’s really not. XCOM 2‘s evolved mechanics mirror its story. It’s set 20 years after the first game. Earth’s been taken over by aliens, and everything’s evolved a bit: Aliens, technology, society and the “you” character, a faceless entity known as “The Commander”.
You and your private army are not part of The Establishment this time around. Rather, you’re heading up a ragtag resistance effort from inside the cold, glowing innards of a stolen alien megaship. You’re like a vulture, circling and swooping, picking over the remains of your own planet.
Evolution is funny in that it sometimes turns predators into prey. In XCOM 2, that dynamic flip-flops, oh, every few turns.
Every move you make in battle is one of calculated desperation. You’re almost always outnumbered and outgunned, and unlike in Enemy Unknown, many of the missions funnel you forward with various objectives: civilians that need rescuing, bombs wired to destroy important items and evac time limits. You can’t hunker down, you can’t hold back. You have to plunge on, albeit cautiously, into the shadowy unknown. In the process, you will frequently stumble upon new aliens that keep you on-edge. Most don’t come at you with overwhelming power, but rather with tricks that trip you up in the heat of battle. You never know what new terror is lurking just around the corner. Or even closer.
The underdog arrangement has its advantages, though. In many cases, XCOM 2‘s alien overlords aren’t expecting you to come a-knocking, let alone a-bulldozing their dystopic pain paradise to rubble. It’s understandable that they’d grow complacent given that they have achieved a victory on level with an extinction event. When your soldiers land in a new area, XCOM 2 recreates the dynamics of guerilla warfare with a clever (though fairly simplistic) stealth system. You start most levels with your squad “concealed”, which basically means that enemies aren’t actively looking out for you.
Many are on patrol, sometimes not even bothering to stay behind cover. As long as you keep out of their immediate line of sight, you can manoeuvre your squad as you please and plot ambushes. This is where you can get a lot of mileage out of Overwatch, an ability that allows squad members to fire during the enemy’s turn and not, in this case, a hot new team-based shooter from Blizzard. Lining up perfect shots with a couple squad members and then putting a few others on Overwatch to deal with aliens trying to dart for cover? Glorious. It’s one of the easier things to do in many levels, and taking out an entire alien squad before they have a chance to shoot back makes you feel like a goddamn tactical genius.
These systems enable fantastic micro-stories, and they’re successful on a level that makes Firaxis’ first XCOM feel ancient by comparison.
Like, OK so, here is this guy:
He’s a grenadier and his name is Kylo Gusev, but it wasn’t always. There was a time when he was named Viktor, and not an impossible Star Wars name (or a possible pop star name, depending on who you talk to). In the midst of one battle he was mind-controlled by a sectoid alien, and he went into a wild rage. Using his sedan-sized minigun, he mowed down the better part of a building’s first floor. Thankfully, he missed my Ranger, Jane “Ice” Kelly, a badass ninja lady and one of my favourite video game characters in years. I quickly had her slaughter the alien controlling my grenadier, because she is very good at slaughtering things. That’s when I realised what I wanted to name him: the tantrum, the flowing brown locks, the nasally voice, the significantly more capable woman next to him, wielding a cool sword — the game had randomly given me Kylo Ren for one of my heavy assault troopers. After that mission, I changed his name to make it official.
These are the sorts of stories that have given me an unusual bond with my soldiers. They start out as faceless drones — randos with a sliver of backstory — but soon they become yours. I remember Kylo for his tantrum, I remember Ice for the number of times she’s saved everybody else’s asses, I remember my best sharpshooter, Val Killer, for the time she took out a powerful teleporting alien and reinforcements after everyone else was rendered dead or unconscious.
When you’re not in battle, you’re struggling to forge relationships with other resistance groups, advance your own tech past the (relative) stone age, and stay one step ahead of an alien doomsday research project intended to, pardon the jargon, Fuck Humanity Into Quivering Oblivion. Everything you do takes time, and all the while aliens are making moves of their own, reacting to your victories and advancing their tech to keep those puny hyyyyyyuuuumans from getting a leg up. That last part is super cool, because the aliens react to the specific things you’re doing. In a way, it feels like being up against a live opponent, except they play by very different rules and want to cut you open and inseminate you with The Ultimate Lifeform or some shit.
The game’s interface is clean and fairly intuitive, considering how much information it has to convey at any given time. It keeps you up to date on the progress of your projects and what little you know of the aliens’ goals. In a change from Enemy Unknown, the aliens actually have specific short- and long-term goals that are shown to you in cards. It brings another element of tabletop gaming to a series that already borrowed liberally from the world of dice and pewter miniatures.
The whole setup looks like this:
Management is always a juggling act, and the majority of things you’re juggling are chainsaws. Consider the following situation: you’ve built out your base to include multiple types of research labs and a place to heal your troops, but now you need a structure that will let you communicate with a larger number of resistance groups in other countries. If you don’t build that soon, you won’t be able to make contact with the resistance in a nation where the aliens are hard at work on a portion of their mega-project that will — I can’t stress this enough — doom all of humanity.
You’ve already let it linger for too long, and the doomsday bar at the top of the screen is filling fast. However, you’re super low on supplies (currency, basically) because you recently researched armour that will hopefully keep your low level troops from getting one-shotted by The Big Shapeshifting Arseholes, The Robot Arseholes and The Arseholes Who Can Bloody Teleport Are You Kidding Me. Meanwhile, your strongest troops are in the infirmary after an especially gnarly mission, so all you have to go out on new missions are some spunky yet squishy B-teams led by a psychologically damaged A-teamer. You are not optimistic about your prospects.
You don’t have time for doubt, though; gotta keep moving. You can’t slow down and untangle the aforementioned world’s-largest-yarn-ball-from-Cawker-City-Kansas of problems. There are too many clocks ticking, too many people relying on you. In XCOM 2, you have to find creative new ways to keep pushing forward.
Limp to an evac point with barely breathing squadmates slung over your shoulders. Make peace with the fact that some won’t make it back at all. Accept that you might have to turn down a rescue mission in one country to pick up supplies and new troops in another. It might be frustrating in the moment, but when you get a chance to look back on it, you’ll find a personal story fraught with intrigue and drama. Twists and turns. Momentum shifts.
You can’t win ’em all, but you can win enough. You can make the aliens pay for the times they backed you into a corner, for the times you put yourself in that corner with dumb decisions, for the deaths of your best and brightest. Your big ship is called The Avenger. There’s a reason for that, I think, and it’s not just a Marvel reference (though I do think it is partially a Marvel reference). It’s thrilling when you succeed. It’s morale-pulverising when you fail. If you’re not playing on Ironman Mode, you will be tempted to load and re-load old saves to erase moments of loss and bring back fallen soldiers. Don’t.
OK, don’t do that most of the time. I have to admit, XCOM 2‘s aim percentage system can do some seriously wacky stuff, and on multiple occasions it got precious troops of mine slaughtered to pieces in dumb ways. I’ll take a miss on a tricky long shot, but are you telling me my expert marksman whiffed a point-blank shot to a whale of an alien’s horse-sized loaf of a cranium? I refuse to believe this. I REFUSE.
Moments like that made me curse up the kind of storm that would make a sailor blush and then drown. On multiple occasions, my girlfriend was like, “Do you actually like this game?” Absolutely, I would tell her, after taking a deep breath. It’s just bullshit sometimes.
What astounds me about XCOM 2 is how often it’s not bullshit. With such high stakes and so many intertwining systems constantly pushing the player forward, it could easily have devolved into a hair-trigger, save-scumming frustration fest. It doesn’t. XCOM 2 masterfully creates the illusion that the odds are completely against you, while giving you numerous opportunities to Rocky your way back to the top. You’ve just gotta stay nimble. You’ve just gotta think. Get your head on straight and watch your corners; those wily E.T. bastards are gonna pay.