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Over the past few years of game releases, turn-based tactics have seen a resurgence in popularity. Games such as the recent Fire Emblem releases for the 3DS and the PC port of Valkyria Chronicles have carved out a nice little niche for themselves, and have received both commercial and critical success. While the genre has always been around in some form or another, dating back to non-video games like chess, it went through a sort of lull in major new releases for a period of time, especially in the US. This recent wave of successful games in the genre can be traced back to the 2012 surprise-hit that was Firaxis‘ first game to be released without Sid Meier’s name in the title – XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Being a reboot of the 1990s X-COM games created by Julian and Nick Gollop, Enemy Unknown successfully streamlined their gameplay in a way that got rid of the at-times tedious micromanagement, while retaining the tremendous level of challenge that the series was praised for in the past. Considering how great both it and its later expansion Enemy Within turned out, it’s little surprise that Firaxis would go forth with creating a sequel.

XCOM 2 wisely keeps much of what worked in the 2012 game the same. Much like previous games in the series, XCOM 2 is made up of both a tactical layer (the main part of the game) where you wage turn-based battles with a small squad of soldiers facing up against aliens, and a strategic layer where you manage your base, including its research projects, what items/buildings you currently have under construction, and keeping an eye out for new tactical missions to undertake. For fans of the series, this will be a familiar gameplay design. What makes XCOM 2 worth playing, then? With this newest entry to the series, it is clear that Firaxis took a good, long look at their 2012 game, and thought to themselves “What went right? What went wrong? And how can we improve on this as much as possible?” A good place to start looking at this, would be with the game’s premise.

First off, I have to praise the premise behind this game. After Firaxis made their reboot of the series, which was patterned off the original game’s story in many ways, that left the question of where to take the series from there. Many fans speculated that Firaxis might simply take the same direction the original series took, by having an underwater/Lovecraftian-themed sequel like Terror From The Deep was, or that the series would go far into the future with another alien invasion-type premise, like Apocalypse.

However, XCOM 2 ends up taking an entirely new direction. It assumes that the player lost the war against the aliens during the events of the first game, and jumps ahead twenty years into a future where Earth is ruled by a totalitarian regime instilled upon the planet by the aliens themselves. XCOM as a concept is still around, though in a fledgling state compared to the multinationally-backed organization they were in the first game.

Now, they’re reduced to making small covert ops/guerrilla warfare missions in secret against the ADVENT Coalition (the name of the front organization that the aliens collaborate with). After certain circumstances, you take upon the role of XCOM’s commander once again, after a twenty-year absence, and you are tasked with bringing XCOM back into capable shape, as well as doing what you can to overtake and reclaim Earth from the aliens.

This premise is great in so many ways. Certain design contrivances that the 2012 game had, such as limiting the player to one Skyranger (troop transport) ship and one base, are more believable when you consider that XCOM is on its last legs, and literally doesn’t have the manpower or funding to expand around the globe anymore. Instead, XCOM’s base is now situated aboard a gigantic alien ship that has been captured and repurposed for human needs, known as the Avenger. Flying around the world map with the Avenger, gathering time-limited resource drops while avoiding alien ships and the like, brings new purpose to the strategic layer of the game, as there’s now a real reason to view and observe the world map besides using it when you want to advance time from where you currently are.

The strategy layer in the 2012 XCOM appeared on the surface to present several paths to victory, but in practice, most any overall plan that didn’t start with a focus on rushing satellite development and recruiting as many engineers as possible led to a much less manageable experience. Thankfully, this is not the case in XCOM 2. I welcome the absence of the satellite mechanic, as I felt it hamstrung the game, and not having to deal with it presents several new, totally viable ways to plan out a good long-term strategy for your campaign.

XCOM 2

In particular, managing panic in the 2012 game’s strategy layer was a big pain, and if a country’s panic rose high enough to cause them to cease funding you, there was no way to get them back, ever. Losing 8 out of 16 countries would result in an automatic game-over, and you were reminded of this by looking at the bar at the top of the funding screen fill up as you lost more and more countries to the aliens. While there aren’t countries this time around, it’s possible to make contact with a local resistance in XCOM 2, then perhaps lose contact with them due to performing poorly in a mission or few, but then also potentially have the ability to re-establish contact, should you start doing better again. The fact you don’t permanently lose support from each resistance group is a welcome change in my eyes.

Another example of unfair permanence being stripped, is shown in how panic (with regard to individual soldiers, not your funding countries) and willpower are handled. In the 2012 game, if a soldier got severely wounded, but survived due to being stabilized before they bled out, they could have a chance to physically recover… but their Will stat would be permanently reduced. There was no way to make up for the Will they had lost, ever.

Granted, if this happened while they were still fairly low-level, you could eventually start having them build themselves up to a halfway decent Will by letting them level up and not letting them get severely wounded again… but this is XCOM. It’s very difficult to guarantee that you won’t mess up in that way, and as far as I’m concerned, having a soldier permanently suffer a Will penalty is too strong a punishment, and usually resulted in my having to let go of all of my older high-level soldiers after a certain point, because they’d keep panicking while my newer soldiers (thanks to their having better-quality weapons and armor in the late-game) would handle a mistake or two just fine.

This issue is also thankfully taken care of in XCOM 2. If a soldier is gravely wounded in XCOM 2, they’ll receive the “Shaken” status, which reduces their Will to 0, temporarily. While this lowers their effectiveness for a time, if you still choose to take them on a mission, have them successfully kill an enemy during said mission, and avoid letting them take damage, then not only will they get over their “Shaken” status, but their Will will also see a permanent stat increase. I like this, as you don’t get to let soldiers take damage with no real consequence, yet you still have a chance of potentially turning the situation around by playing better in the future.

Going back to the strategy layer for a moment… in XCOM 2, instead of having a country-wide Panic meter that fills up as countries drop support of you, you now have an ever-increasing meter that represents ADVENT’s progress with developing the “Avatar Project” (the details of which are spoilerish, but will essentially give you a game-over, so this is not something you want to see come to fruition). It can fill up surprisingly quickly if you aren’t diligent with sabotaging ADVENT’s plans, but as you successfully complete certain missions, you can actually knock ADVENT’s progress on the Avatar Project down, sometimes several spaces at a time. Again, this is another example of Firaxis wisely removing long-term permanence from the player’s mistakes, ensuring that campaigns are not harshly lost based on one single mistake.

So, it is clear that much has been changed about the strategy layer in XCOM 2. However, that’s only half the game; when it comes to the turn-based battles, there have been comparatively fewer changes made to the game’s formula. By and large, combat works the same here as it did in the 2012 game; you’ve got the two-move system for managing each of your soldiers in battle, and the emphasis in battle is on staying mobile and finding the right spots to take out what enemies you may encounter, swiftly and yet without unnecessarily putting your soldiers at risk of being killed.

XCOM 2

What has changed with the turn-based combat? To start, there is more emphasis on keeping the player moving forward, and not taking their time to be overly cautious at any given point. The inclusion of missions that only give you a fixed amount of turns to win, contributes to this. These timed missions were in the 2012 game in certain points, but they’re more ubiquitous to the XCOM 2 experience.

Many players found the best tactic in the 2012 XCOM, as least prior to the Enemy Within expansion, was to slowly move through each map, never letting one soldier move past another who had already made the first move that turn, lest you risk alerting a traveling group of aliens to your presence. To combat that, Enemy Within did introduce the “Meld” resource that is time-sensitive, in an attempt to get players to play less slowly and cautiously. XCOM 2 builds on that by having most missions place the player under a strict time limit, as well by having certain enemies drop time-sensitive weapon upgrades, that should probably be avoided if one can’t safely reach them in time, yet provide a significant advantage if you can get a hold of them.

Aside from timed missions, there have been multiple other improvements and refinements to the design, both minor and major. One major annoyance in Enemy Unknown involved line-of-sight, or more specifically, the means of determining if a specific soldier will actually have line-of-sight on an enemy when you move them to a specific square on the map. Too often in Enemy Unknown, I’d try to move a soldier to a piece of cover that’s closer to a certain enemy, with the intent to flank them, only to find out the hard way that I did not have line-of-sight anymore, and I had already used up one of my soldier’s previous two actions for that turn, throwing a wrench into my plans.

This is an unfortunate flaw that’s inherent to Firaxis‘ simplified take on the series… or, I once thought it was. Thankfully, XCOM 2 has found a wonderful workaround to this problem; when you have a soldier selected, you can mouse over any specific square, and immediately be able to tell if you will or won’t have line-of-sight on a specific enemy, as indicated by an eye-shaped icon that appears next to that enemy’s health bar. If you don’t see that eye pop up, then you know to move your soldier elsewhere, without wasting an action. This is a simple, yet elegant fix to such a notorious problem that the 2012 game had.

XCOM 2
Each time one of your soldiers levels-up, you are given the choice of assigning one of two distinct abilities to them. These are some of the toughest decisions to make in XCOM 2.

This may be a controversial opinion to have, but I feel that the 2012 XCOM reboot, as good as it was, was also unfairly punishing in ways that the original X-COM series never was. A lot of this was due to various types of streamlining that the reboot undertook, such as restricting you to only having a squad of 4-6 soldiers per battle, as compared to how the original games let you have 10+ soldiers in battle, even from the start.

If you lost a soldier or few in the original games, it sucked of course, but you could always replace them, and it was never quite the potentially game-ending blow that losing a single veteran soldier in the 2012 game could be. One wrong move, or one missed shot, could lead to a soldier in the 2012 game dying, which could set off a chain-reaction of more missed opportunities that come about as a result of no longer having that veteran soldier (and their special abilities) available to use. Especially on higher difficulties like Impossible, this could very well mean that your playthrough’s sad end is inevitable.

While XCOM 2 still restricts you to 4-6 soldiers in most missions, rookies are still able to hold their own late in the game, provided you have the tech to back them up. (Firaxis themselves acknowledge this, as one possible achievement in XCOM 2, “Beginner’s Luck”, requires the player to win a mission in June or later using only Rookies.)

Speaking of achievements, XCOM 2 continues in the 2012 game’s footsteps of having a variety of interesting achievements to shoot for. A good deal are rewarded just for finishing missions in the main campaign, but one also has the opportunity to try and aim for various optional goals, that one otherwise might not have attempted were there not an achievement for doing so. These include unconventional requirements like beating a mission with only soldiers of one class (such as a team of all Rangers), or killing a Berzerker in melee combat. They can totally be ignored if you feel like they’re a pain to deal with, but I appreciate their presence, and feel they help add to the game’s replay value in a good way.

Perhaps the biggest improvement of all, for the sake of XCOM 2‘s replay value, is that the maps you explore are now randomly-generated! Randomly-generated maps were one of the biggest draws to the original X-COM games, and added tremendously to the replay value they had to offer. The 2012 game was sorely lacking in this regard, as there were maybe 40-ish pre-made unique maps to explore, and when you finished them all, they would repeat. Eventually, you could begin to memorize exactly where each group of enemies was scripted to appear, which takes a lot of improvisation out of the game. By successfully incorporating randomized maps into XCOM 2, however, Firaxis has helped ensure that XCOM 2 will be a much more imminently replayable game, for fans who enjoy playing through each game over and over to practice their skills.

XCOM 2
You can put yourself into the game via the custom soldier editor… though I wouldn’t recommend it!

As good as this all sounds… there had to be a catch. At launch, XCOM 2 was kind of a technically messy game. It was not unplayable, but the framerate was very poor, with noticeable drops and stuttering in places, and certain bugs negatively impacted the gameplay for some players. Firaxis have put forth an effort to help patch up and fix these issues with the game, and to their credit, it does run significantly more smoothly than it used to. As of this writing though, I still experience the occasional drop in framerate during loading screens, or when there is a lot of action being rendered on-screen.

In summary, this game’s technical optimization could be better. Beyond that however, I feel like almost every change that has been made to the series formula has improved XCOM 2 for the better, and that the developers wisely kept what worked in the 2012 game intact for its sequel. It’s not a revolutionary experience, but it’s a definite improvement on the 2012 XCOM in virtually every way, and if you have any interest in challenging turn-based tactical gameplay, I highly recommend giving it a shot.