Platforms: PC (tested)
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: Out Now
Where To Buy
I'm not the best housemate in the world. I can be lax at washing up, forget to tell someone they've got post and, occasionally, steal milk. Recently though, I got my housemate captured by aliens.
One of the most expanded features in XCOM 2 – Firaxis's follow-up to its 2012 reboot of a strategy classic – is soldier customisation: there's a range of options that includes scarring, tattoos, prestige items and other fun bits and pieces. You can change names, nationalities, genders and write a fictional biography for each soldier. So, I made my housemate Kate a soldier... and then left her behind.
It wasn't strictly my fault, though. One of the game's new time-sensitive missions required me to capture a VIP and extract them in just a handful of turns. The alien menace was swarming the procedurally generated map and I needed someone to hold them off for just one turn more. I chose Kate.
I start with this story, because like all good XCOM tales, it's about sacrifice. Because it should allay your fears in just a few sentences. If you played 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown, its sequel will feel familiar, but ever so different. Despite changes to theme and a complete overhaul of the strategic layer, it still feels like the same game players know and love.
The downside of making your soldiers real people means that when they do get killed, you feel a twinge of sadness. Their names and photos are hung on a wall aboard the flying alien ship that houses your anti-alien resistance. You can see how they died, when they died and – even worse, –write their obituary.
Rather than retread a familiar premise, XCOM 2 throws out everything established in the series to date and asks: what if we lost? In this parallel universe the XCOM defence project was cut back before it really started, which made Earth easy pickings for invading alien forces. These extra-terrestrials now run Earth through the Advent administration, with patrols on every corner and propaganda blasted into the ears of every citizen.
It's a bold but a great shake-up, and it helps XCOM 2 feel fresh and exciting. Rather than trying to faff around with putting satellites into orbit and desperately trying to persuade India that they shouldn't pull their funding, XCOM 2 cuts the crap and lets you build a resistance. Instead of reacting to a superior alien force, you're playing by your own rules and striking them where it hurts.
The new strategy level is a great abstraction of the entire game's changed philosophy – there's less of the pointless micromanagement, and more choices that actually matter. Do you want to fly out to the Black Market to buy new weapons or should you build a radio tower that'll help you contact the rest of the resistance? XCOM 2 isn't about managing resources or working out how many suits of armour you need to create to keep your team kitted out: standardised gear is available to everyone as soon as you've unlocked it, and only the incredibly powerful grenades and exo-suit weapons are locked away. This means it's less about the minutiae and more about broad strokes on the strategy level. The staff on board your ship are more than capable of sweating the small stuff for you.
When thrust into a combat mission you act as the quarterback: calling every play and making every decision. On the ground you're given more abilities to play with as well. The introduction of the concealment mechanic means you can send soldiers ahead to scout and pick the perfect time to attack. With proper planning and a bit of luck you can ambush entire patrols, opening your mission with a brutal guerrilla ambush.
Firaxis has built on Enemy Unknown's combat and brought in several cool features from the Enemy Within expansion pack – there are melee attacks now, and stupendously effective heavy weapons, ranging from grenade launchers to wrist-mounted flamethrowers and rocket-propelled grenades.
If there's one problem with XCOM 2, it's that it runs like a pig on lower-end PCs. While I had no problems running the original and can run most other games at maximum settings, the high CPU load from XCOM 2 left my computer and those of most people I've spoken to without high-end PCs struggling to have an experience free of stuttering and hangs.
It's a testament to the quality of XCOM 2 that despite performance hiccups on a mid-range PC I have been unable to put it down. It's at once radically different and reassuringly familiar, improving what needed to be improved and refining what needed to be refined without losing the core appeal of the series. XCOM has once again proven itself to be the strategy king.