US: 4 Feb 2016
Here’s the story of lanky, ponytailed Karl Muller, at the time a fresh recruit for the XCOM resistance: it’s his first mission and all is going smoothly, Karl and his three more experienced squadmates having methodically wiped out the alien opposition from a downtown area. There’s one last group to take care of, two grunts and a sectoid—fish in a barrel—and it’s off to headquarters for some R&R.
Only, at first contact, the sectoid performs a psionic attack terrifying Karl, who in his confusion hides behind a wall and blindly launches a grenade incapacitating an ally. This creates a disastrous domino effect as the rest of the team panics and the aliens get free attacks while the humans wildly scamper for position. A teammate death and a couple of rounds later, it’s two against one, Karl, the sniper leading the now-decimated squad, and a lowly alien foot soldier cowering behind a rock.
The sniper shoots: a hit, a powerful one, but still allowing the opponent to survive with a single bar of health. Karl needs only to graze it with a shotgun blast, and it’s over. He maneuvers himself into point-blank range to ensure a hit, and.. he misses. With its next move, the alien kills the squad leader as well before finally being put down by Karl. His ineptitude has turned an uncomplicated mission into disaster. Yet he, is the sole survivor returning to base, in line for a promotion.
Save, perhaps, Football Manager, there is no other series that can elicit powerful, complex narratives from simple number crunching the way that XCOM does. The heart of the game seems a cold, mechanical place of percentile calculations and map grids, of the immediate practicalities of turn-based tactics and the long-term demands of strategic resource management.
Yet, through some strange alchemy, its numbers sing. They create stories alternately inspiring and infuriating, and they endow your randomly generated conscripts with personalities that unfold over the course of the missions: the one that always botches the vital shot, the trusty veteran, the fearless shotgunner spending half the war in the infirmary.
XCOM 2, the sequel to the excellent 2012 remake Enemy Unknown, is aware of this and an effort is made—uncharacteristically for the genre—to retain some narrative continuity. Earth has failed to resist the invasion, despite our best efforts in its predecessor, and humankind suffers under a global dictatorship imposed by our alien overlords. Pockets of resistance are scattered, and those participating in them labeled as terrorists. As the commander of Earth’s last line of defense, the XCOM project, we have to organize these forces, utilize support to research vital new technologies, expand our base of operations, and ultimately build an army capable of sabotaging the ominously named Avatar project before its completion.
Along with the familiar faces and voices of Enemy Unknown‘s returning officials, it’s the mechanics of XCOM 2 that will feel like home to veterans of the series. Each turn-based infiltration into alien-controlled territory still requires painstaking coordination (as well as the help of the roll) to escape with all personnel intact.
The aftermath of each mission still finds you licking your wounds and ogling the precious loot that will allow for further research and the purchase of powerful equipment to assist your efforts. The slow loop between the two modes, the down-and-dirty guerrilla skirmishes and the excruciating choices necessary for optimal resource management and expansion in between missions, still form the backbone of a game that is still as extraordinarily addictive as it is frustratingly difficult.
Firaxis has opted for subtle tweaks to the sequel rather than an overhaul of the game and wisely so. There are more levels and skills for your recruits, a significantly wider variety of non-mission events, and steps have been taken to encourage riskier approaches to combat, including a turn-timer for certain assignments and a mechanical drone to provide remote defensive backup for advancing scouts.
Also, there are “dark events” punctuating the passing weeks with missions that have to be completed successfully in order to prevent a penalty for your handful of next ones (such as introducing shapeshifters among the human population). In general, there are more things to do and more ways of doing them, though, at times, the range of options may feel overwhelming. The voice of your faceless leader will notify you of yet another mission that just became available ringing like that of an abusive, insatiable employer.
If too much variety is a debatable flaw, then there are other less ambiguous ones. The interface feels cluttered, and quite often, you seem to be a couple of unnecessary clicks away from the screen that you need. Worse, the rather crooked viewing angle during missions makes it easy to misjudge where your grenade will fall or where the boundaries of an area covered by toxic gas lie exactly. These can be serious nuisances in a game where a single misstep can make the difference between success and failure.
However, this stops being an issue after a few hours, once players have become reacquainted to the idiosyncrasies of the game, but it shouldn’t really be one in the first place. Elsewhere, aliens still huddle in the remote corners of the mission area like a bunch of back-alley dice players, springing to life only after they enter your field of vision—a peculiar concession to your squad’s survivability in a game as uncompromisingly hard as this.
None of which manages to put a dent in the experience. XCOM 2 hits a sweet spot by retaining a formula that has made the series a strategy legend since the 1994 original and altering just enough to justify a separate release and keep longtime fans guessing. Its success can be attributed to that rare combination of clinical decision making and emergent human drama that results with every mission, whether it is a triumph or a disgrace. The magic of its numbers even allows for character development.
Karl Muller eventually rose through the ranks to become one of the most valuable members of the resistance, a decorated Ranger, the most aggressive of the classes, typically taking risks with close-range combat. While there’s no doubt that he’s just a collection of random numbers, one can almost swear that he’s still compensating for that first mission.