Back in 2012, Firaxis released XCOM: Enemy Unknown to widespread critical acclaim – and now its long-awaited sequel has arrived on PC.
The first XCOM was heavily inspired by the Gollop brothers’ UFO games of the early 1990s, but its slick blend of tactical turn-based combat and over-arching grand planning made it a crossover hit. Even with an audience who previously wouldn’t have touched a strategy game with a ten-foot pole.
We loved it so much that we awarded it a full five stars in our review, but can its sequel live up to that level of adulation? You betcha.
'I voted for Kodos'
As with 2012's XCOM, this sequel puts you in charge of a secretive organisation fighting against an alien menace, but this time the tables are turned.
Rather than being funded by the world’s governments, you’re now a rag-tag resistance group struggling to wrest the planet back piece by piece from an alien-infiltrated government. The premise here is that you failed to stop the invasion in the first game, and now 20 years on the aliens are running Earth in the guise of benevolent protectors.
But, of course, they’re not actually benevolent at all; they’re actually engaged in some nefarious, mystery-shrouded scheme known as the Avatar Project. The specific details are revealed over the course of the campaign but suffice to say, should it reach its intended goals, it’s curtains for humanity as we know it. So you need to take the fight to the aliens, disrupt their scheming and unite pockets of resistance around the globe.
With enough combat nous, you'll help humanity rise up and kick this extraterrestrial menace off the planet once and for all.
In true XCOM fashion, this struggle plays out in two distinct fashions.
First, there’s an overarching strategic layer in which you build and maintain a base (this time a giant repurposed alien battleship), recruit and train soldiers and other staff, research technologies and build better equipment. Because your base is now mobile, you can move it around the world map to perform time-based scanning missions that net you much-needed resources and staff, as well as make contact with resistance cells.
These cells are the key to winning the war, as you can only attack enemy bases in a part of the map with which you’ve already made contact. Firaxis has made this part of the game much more involved now, and you’re constantly presented with decisions that have a huge bearing on the war and how it plays out. For instance, you’re regularly forced to choose between several missions, each of which will stop a Dark Event (essentially a boost to the aliens’ strength).
You won’t be able to undertake all of them, so you need to carefully pick which option is the best – or more frequently, the least terrible. In this game you’re constantly made to feel like you’re on the back foot.
XCOM's difficulty curve has always been one of the series’ hallmarks, and it has been ramped up to a deviously challenging level here. In previous games, there was always a “tipping point” where you felt the strategic balance turn in your favour, giving you breathing room to build up before embarking on the tougher missions.
If such a point exists in XCOM 2, I haven’t found it – this time, you’re always feeling stretched and hounded by an implacable foe on the strategic level.
The game’s other layer is its turn-based mission mode, in which you control a squad of troops on a 3D map, completing objectives and fighting alien units. Likely to be viewed by most as the true meat of the game, this is incredibly involved, and will push your tactical thinking to its limits – not to mention your composure.
Over the few days it took me to finish the campaign, I suspect my neighbours have heard plenty of x-rated language as my troops missed easy shots, failed to reach an evac point by a single tile before the mission’s timer runs out, or perished in any other number of ways.