XCOM 2 is something of an evolution for the legendary sci-fi franchise, building on the foundations laid by Firaxis Games’ Enemy Unknown back in 2012. Set in 2015, Enemy Unknown saw you face off against an alien invasion, but XCOM 2 takes a very different turn. It assumes you lost the first game very early on.
The reason for this, as stated by Art Director Greg Foertsch, is that everyone had that experience early on in Enemy Unknown. A battle went south or you were poorly equipped and pretty quickly found yourself starting a new campaign. By starting here it didn’t matter if you’d played Enemy Unknown over and over or for only a few hours – you could jump into XCOM 2 all the same.
So now, twenty years in the future, the aliens have taken control of earth. The have their own mysterious peacekeeping force, but welcome humans into their futuristic megacities on the promise of lavish lives and advanced medical care, but as always, something sinister lurks below the surface.
During my preview session I was able to play the opening two missions of the game. They didn’t give a huge amount away about the game’s overarching story, but were definitely an engaging entry to the new world. After these I was given a save a few hours into the game where things had really opened up – able to explore my base of operations, customise soldiers and venture out on missions.
It’s an exciting twist to play as the resistance in XCOM 2. I’m so used to being the Government sanctioned operatives that this felt like a really fresh way to approach the series, extending to the way you operate and actually play the game.
At the start of each encounter your whole squad is cloaked, able to move about the map undetected so long as they don’t run into enemy detection squares. A little caution at first is often rewarded as you scout and scope the action, able to easily set up guerrilla like ambushes by setting squad mates to overwatch mode –they’ll fire at anything that moves into their range, but won’t attack till concealment has been broken. As you can imagine, this way of doing things allows you to quickly decimate the enemy front lines with the element of surprise, but it can be quite tricky to pull off.
Anyone familiar with Enemy Unknown will feel at home in XCOM 2, as the base strategy aspects are the same. You’ll move your squadmates one by one, decide if they’ll attack, defend or use an ability, and probably restart a few times after losing a squadmate due to a poor decision. It’s infamously difficult, as previous games have been, reliant on you thinking a few steps ahead of your foes. New hacking and class abilities certainly help in confrontations, such as the ability to hack and control enemy mechs, but the risks are always there.
While it may be strategy as usual on the conflict front, the environments you’ll experience in XCOM 2 are as varied and distinct as the aliens. In my play session I only got to try maps in the futuristic city centres and icy tundras, but even in the same biomes the maps felt unique, all thanks to brilliant art direction and procedural generation.
Environments on scripted story missions, like the introductory sections, are hand built like in previous games. The blacksite missions, those that populates the world outside of the core narrative, are all procedurally generated, giving them a unique feel no matter how many times you play them.
I was given the chance to play one blacksite mission twice to experience how different the environments were, and was quite impressed with the results. In a semi simple mission I was asked to hack an alien terminal to gain intel on their next move – avoiding a big danger in the enemy’s ‘turn’ – guarded by a host of vipers and archon. The first time I booted it up I was greeted by a small gas station near a military checkpoint, with plenty of cover and a dense population of aliens. The second time it was an open road alongside a series of small houses, causing me to cautiously cover a lot of ground for my approach.
It’s these touches that make the XCOM games near infinitely replayable – even with such a simple objective I suffered a few losses and learnt new ways to approach combat. It’s quite a rewarding experience, even on such a small scale, and I’m excited to do more of these with my own squad.
Outside of missions you’ll be in command of your own resistance base, the hub for your missions, squad and rebellion. Much like in previous entries you’ll build a network of interconnected rooms to research and build from, all extending from your world map at the centre. This is where you select missions, gain intel and view the enemy’s potential next step, able to be countered through the blacksite missions I mentioned earlier.
Aside from going out on missions, you’ll spend a lot of your time at your base building your squad and customising them. As you recruit, level and upgrade your soldiers you’ll be able to give them specialist classes and gain customisation items that make them feel distinctly yours – there’s almost a whole game here alone. From the hat they wear to arm tattoos and the pattern on their boots, you can customise it to build your very own resistance. I found it a lot of fun to mess around in, but I found myself itching to get back in the field and test the new loadouts out, whereas some of my preview counterparts spent hours fine tuning the look of their squad.
Upgrades and research are always key, enhancing the way you fight as well as how your abilities work, and even how many soldiers you can take in to battle. A lot of the research tree was still in development at preview stage but it already seems to be pretty extensive, perfect to complement a squad already loaded to the teeth with guns and gear.
The preview build was running on a fairly high end PC and seemed to perform pretty well, especially considering the fact that it’s very early code. While there was a few occasional hick ups with animations or the camera for the most part everything worked great, with graphics, gunfire and the dramatic camera angles when shooting all looking great.
XCOM 2 is a game that at this stage really seems to deliver quality and fun at very least on par with the bar set by its predecessor. Even from the early missions the story seems to be engaging and interesting, with plenty of gorgeous locations to shoot aliens in. With deep customisation and plenty of opportunities to play for hours on end, I very much look forward to diving in and leading a resistance when the game launches next year.
XCOM launches February 5th, 2016, for PC. For more info on the game, its art and aliens, you can check out our interview with Greg Foertsch, the Art Director, right here.