XCOM: Enemy Unknown won our Game of the Year Award way back in 2012, and I’m one of the few people to really enjoy The Bureau: XCOM Declassified despite only giving it a 7.0, so suffice to say both GameWatcher and myself are massively looking forward to XCOM 2. It’s due out this February and we’ve been playing the latest build over the Christmas break, so here: have some of our preview impressions you lucky people.
If there’s one thing me and 2K’s PR department agree on, it’s that we don’t want to spoil anything story-wise for XCOM 2. Therefore we’ll keep things oblique and confined to what 2K themselves have shown. It’s 20 years after the events of Enemy Unknown, although in an interesting and confusing twist that game didn’t actually happen. Well, most of it. The alien invasion was successful, Earth is subjugated under the Star Wars Empire-like forces of ADVENT, and XCOM has been turned from a United Nations-like organization to an underground resistance movement. A “Rebel Alliance”, if you will.
Yes, I know you’re all disappointed that the sequel isn’t Terror From The Deep but what we’ve got is probably more exciting. I mean, it may come as a shock but the story is actually important this time around. Firaxis (and, er, 2K Marin) may have tried to craft a compelling plot previously but it was pretty much just window dressing for the battles and base management. In XCOM 2 the story seems central to the experience, and your character the Commander is an important player in the events despite still not having a voice or face. It’s rather cool and makes most of the missions feel important rather than just “hunt and kill all aliens”.
Quick, hunt and kill that alien!
Nevertheless it’s the missions that are the gameplay heart of XCOM 2 as usual. One of my biggest worries with sequels in this day and age is that they’ll feel too similar to the previous game, with Fallout 4 and Far Cry 4 being two recent examples that played far too much like their predecessors. Fortunately Firaxis and XCOM 2 don’t seem to be falling into that trap despite having basically the same turn-based and base-based style of gameplay, and this is mostly down to one reason: Concealment. As XCOM is now a resistance force the tables have been turned, so while ADVENT have superior forces XCOM troops now start most matches in stealth. This lasts until an enemy is attacked or one of your soldiers is spotted, denoted by vision spots on the map. Until then your squad can move about freely and you can plan your initial attack to be as devastating as possible. No enemy encounter cutscenes before you get to attack here.
Otherwise though at least in the first few missions encounters play out exactly as XCOM fans would expect. Turn-based, with the same kind of smooth movement and tactical encounters that made Enemy Unknown such a hit even in console-land. XCOM 2 however is PC-only so far, which therefore makes me sad that the UI doesn’t seem to have taken much of a step forward. This could get tweaked in the final release but the gamepad-friendly slightly-unhelpful setup seems to be much the same as Enemy Unknown in the version I played. Nevertheless the general entertaining flow of combat is also the same, including silly 87% Hit Chance At Point-Blank Range With Flanking Bonus misses, although there are cool additions for classes such as a devastating sword attack and a customisable Gremlin drone.
Oh COME ON!
The enemies and their methods seem to have almost completely changed however. Sectoids are now seven-foot-tall monsters and the primary cannon fodder foot-soldiers are basically Stormtroopers. Then there are the hideous shape-changing Faceless bastards, but the less said about them the better for now. The rest you can find out for yourself, but don’t be surprised if variations on the hulking Mutons appear. Enemy AI has definitely got an upgrade - I don’t remember being challenged quite so hard with such simple enemies in Enemy Unknown, and I’m only a few hours in. In XCOM 2 soldiers will take the fight to you, always seek out the best chance to murder one of your folks, keep moving, spread out, call for reinforcements, and never ever be predictable. Every mission from the first onwards is hugely satisfying just because ADVENT is so ferocious.
I’ve encountered several mission types, such as rescuing civilians, hacking into systems, timed assaults, and hostage extractions. Most start concealed and with a set number of rounds before mission failure, making each match more fast-paced than you’d think a turn-based strategy could be. Furthermore I’m currently hugely impressed by the randomized map generator. Each map has felt as professionally designed as the non-randomized ones in Enemy Unknown, and upon reloading literally the entire map will change, setting and all. Firaxis seem to have guaranteed that XCOM 2 will never get boring in New Game Plus or just straight replays, and I’m looking forward to seeing how complicated these “random” maps will get.
Of course XCOM 2 isn’t just the combat encounters: the XCOM base is the other half of the game. Much like the combat things are mostly the same and yet have some massive deviations. You still assign research and engineering projects, excavate locations to build new rooms, visit the Geoscape to move forward time and set missions, so far so 1994. The changes once again come with the plot choice to make XCOM a lowly resistance force. The main base is now mobile. XCOM is no longer global, at least not at first: you have to build the organization back up and slowly and surely make contact with resistance groups around the world. You often don’t have long to complete many projects as ADVENT are always pressing their advantage, bringing in such threats as resistance camp attacks and the mysterious Avatar Project. Oh, and finally the fact that XCOM is so cripplingly under-funded actually makes sense now the group isn’t a World Protection Agency supported by every country on Earth.
Anyone else think it's too quiet?
We’ll have more on XCOM 2 soon including at least one livestream of the preview build, but of course the final game comes out in ¬just one month on February 5th 2016 so as you can imagine we’re wetting ourselves with excitement. I’ve played just a few short hours of the preview build and I’m salivating for more, and from what I’ve played this could be one of those rare sequels that not only meets the hype but also exceeds it. There will be a few players who won’t like the move from a Men In Black-style organization to a scrappy little Rebel Alliance, but if that’s you then just go play Enemy Unknown again. Me, I like something familiar but different with my sequels, and XCOM 2 looks like it will fit the bill nicely.
Most Anticipated Feature: Getting control of Psionics and turning the tables against those Sectoid bastards.