Strategy games are, at their roots, just logic puzzles. It doesn’t matter how much story or graphics or complexity you throw on top. All that does is disguise the puzzle and make it harder and more interesting to crack. So, like all puzzles, they have solutions. Certain ways of doing things that are more effective than others. Once that’s figured out, the game loses much of its pleasure, especially as a solo activity.
The original XCOM had such solutions. There were certain soldier upgrades, certain base plans, certain research paths that were unequivocally better than others. Most came to grips with them over the course of one play. After that, you could up the difficulty level and enjoy the challenge but it was very much a case of doing the same things better.
On the surface, XCOM 2 looks a lot like its predecessor. It’s still primarily a turn based tactics game with a strategic resource management layer. Many of the underlying mechanics are the same. There’s been a lot of expansion, a lot of edge-straightening but, as the old adage goes, it wasn’t broke, so why fix it? Instead what Firaxis have tried to do is break the mould. They’ve tried to make a strategy game puzzle without a solution. One that will make you think differently every time you play.
The first I noticed of this was the vast pile of disposable items I left behind on the early battlefields. In the original game, I rarely used one-shot items like grenades and medkits. When I did, it was often as much for novelty value as need. In XCOM 2 I found myself tossing explosives around with gay abandon. I kept burning through medical supplies like plasma was going out of fashion.
Partly that’s because this is a harder game. The AI seems smarter and enemies seem to have more hit points. A lot of missions also have explicit or implicit timers which force you to rush headlong into action. It’s relentless, difficult and thrilling. No sitting back and sniping here: either you flank, or you get flanked.
The other side of the equation, though, is that this is also a far less predictable game. Real procedural generation on the battlefield and a large roster of mission templates see to that, as do a slew of new systems and choices. Hacking into terminals for extra data, or the chance to take control of enemy units, for example. I also had a lot more dead and wounded soldiers , so I couldn’t always field the optimal mix of equipment and skills. Instead, I had to think on my feet and use whatever was at my disposal to get the job done. Which often, it turns out, meant a lot of high explosives.
There lots of tiny design improvements that feed into this. Almost everything you can field has a foil, so you can’t rely on any one approach. You get access to powerful psionics earlier in this game, but there are a lot of robotic foes which are immune to it. A new and better armour system which blocks damage rather than increasing hit points blunts the effectiveness of snipers. Whatever you plan for, the game will try and thwart you.
Your toolbox has expanded to deal with this range of new threats. Scenery is now destroyable, so you can literally blow the cover away from your enemies to line up a killing shot. Some of it, like vehicles, is actually explosive, so a cunning commander can kill or flush out a well-hidden foe by targeting nearby objects. Melee combat is even a viable option in some situations. Best of all is the new concealed mode, where most missions see your squad start out invisible until they blunder into someone’s line of site. At its most extreme, this offers the possibility of finishing some battles without firing a shot.
Multiple victory paths are often feted in video games, but I could rarely see the point. Dishonoured, for instance, got acclaim because of the many different ways you could stealth or stab through each level. But what’s the point of offering so many options when they all work? XCOM 2 solves that problem via the effective route of offering so much variety, so much challenge that you have to improvise. You have to try different things as the situation demands, or face defeat.
All that variety spreads out from the tactical layer and into the strategic one. Soldier builds are less obvious and more specialised. The items and equipment you can loot and buy almost all have an application somewhere. Gone is the most of the dead scanning time in favour of moving round the globe, collecting intelligence, recruiting soldiers and looting supplies. This overhaul transforms the comparatively lacklustre strategic layer of the original into something special. There’s lots more to plan and consider. At times, I actually found the tactical missions to be a distraction from the serious business of base management.
There’s a timer on the strategy too, a literal doomsday clock that counts up in bright red, like a vial filling with blood. I suspect you’d have to seriously screw up the strategy to actually flip it, but the pressure is there like a Muton squatting on your chest. It feels like there’s a real weight to your decisions, and there’s never enough of anything to manage all your goals. So you scrape by, desperately trying to eke out what you have, hoping your choices are the right ones. Notifications of possible upcoming events, some of which you have the opportunity to thwart, adds to both the sense that you’re making informed picks and the narrative.
Speaking of which, the story is built on a much firmer framework than the previous sprawling efforts to thwart an alien invasion. In this game, the aliens have conquered earth and you’re leading a band of rebels to liberate humanity. This setting makes a lot more sense within the game’s mechanics of limited scarcity. The original always felt a little false in its depiction of earth defending itself against annihilation with a rag-tag band of mercenaries. It also allows a more structured story with some real shocks and surprises along the way.
In some ways that detracts a bit from the heroic narratives that play out in every single tactical battle. These tiny epics are part of what makes the XCOM franchise special. They’re still here, of course, but it feels like their thunder is stolen a little by too many talking heads in the corner of your screen.
A bigger issue is that the random maps can lead to very uneven enemy placement. Dealing with one squad of aliens at a time is often difficult enough as the ammunition runs down and the timers run up. If you stumble on another waiting in the fog of war that obscures most maps at the beginning of each mission, it can be fatal. Choosing a movement path that’s different by one square is all it takes to condemn your squad to firey laser death. It’s particularly unfortunate because this was a bit of an issue in the first game, but the procedural generation seems to have made it worse. I can’t imagine playing this on ironman, where you can never reload your old saves.
It’s a small black mark in a bright sea of neon brilliance. Everything else exceeds expectations by building on what was so great about XCOM and making it better. It’s not transformative, genre shattering like its predecessor, but then again it didn’t need to be. That game was, by head and shoulders, the best tactical squad game available at the time. This, by head and shoulders, in the best one you can play now. And you should.
XCOM 2 is currently available for PC/Mac.