Firaxis continues its excellent work on the XCOM franchise with XCOM 2, a game that improves upon all the elements of its predecessor and delivers a phenomenal strategic experience from start to finish.
Three years after XCOM: Enemy Unknown took the strategy world by storm and proved that turn-based titles could still shake up the industry, Firaxis has followed up with a successor that is certainly capable of carrying on the name. Within XCOM 2, players will find a challenging title that not only improves on the core gameplay experience from the original game, but adds plenty of new elements to keep die-hard fans on their toes.
XCOM 2 is based twenty years after the reboot, long after the world has seceded control to the alien menace. Despite what players may have done in the original game, the in-canon story is that XCOM lost the fight after losing council support in 2015, and has been relegated to a resistance force operating with guerrilla tactics ever since. This means players will face many timed operations and will find themselves orchestrating ambushes, rather than coming in to combat zones guns blazing. Unlike the last game, players won't have to worry about repetitive maps either, thanks to the title's new procedural generation system.
XCOM 2 introduces plenty of new gameplay elements that fit this new style, like player-placed extraction zones, the aforementioned ambushes, and a complete restructuring of character classes to reflect the focus on guerrilla combat. Players will find themselves thinking hard about which classes to bring into a particular firefight, and finding the right combination of soldier types will be a hard-fought trial-and-error process. Likewise, when players start in concealment - a new stealth aspect that is brand new to the franchise - they'll find themselves tediously organizing ambushes to maximize their overwatch impact, and we found the new gameplay complimented XCOM 2 quite nicely.
The AI has evidently gone through a large improvement as well, and we found that the ADVENT opposition (that is, the controlling alien power) were often searching for flanking opportunities and ways to maximize their damage output. The faceless oppressors do tend to go on suicide runs more often than one would expect, but we found that the AI performed with pure brutality across all difficulties, and fans accustomed to the high standard of challenge that XCOM is known for won't be disappointed here. Players will find themselves having to readjust strategies on the fly mid-mission more often than not, and that's part of the beauty of XCOM.
Of course, the battle on the field is just one aspect of management that players will face. The base management has gone through an overhaul as well, and Firaxis has done well to get rid of the UFO hunting minigame that felt out of place and awkward in the first title. The game puts a much higher importance on individual scientists and engineers, which makes rescuing them in optional timed missions an important judgement call for players. One rescued, the scientists provide research bonuses so players can unlock gear faster, and engineers can be placed in varying rooms to provide a wide aspect of bonuses, from increasing the resistance's communication network to helping troops recover from wounds faster.
The world map also gets a facelift, and players will now find themselves flying their mobile base to different destinations. Everything takes time in XCOM 2, including traveling to and setting up before missions. As a result, players will need to analyze which missions are worth doing and keep a constant eye on the clock. This is true in more than a sense of foreboding, as the game suggests that if a certain doomsday clock reaches zero, it's game over for XCOM.
Story-wise, we found the strings that weaved the plot together were a little far-fetched, but then again the series was never based on a completely believable storyline. As is always the case in an XCOM title, humanity is forced to adopt alien technology and use it against the occupying force, eventually leading to a one-chance strike that can bring the aliens to their knees.
Players once again resume the roll of The Commander, who has been kept on ice by aliens for the last twenty years. Recovered after a desperate gamble by the sweater-loving Bradford, the linear plot then guides players to a climactic and intense final mission, with random events occurring all across the board as players race to beat the clock against a mysterious alien project.
In what has to be one of the greatest examples of fan service in the history of games, Firaxis has drastically expanded the customization options for soldiers within XCOM. Whether it's changing their nationality, gender, or even giving them a custom backstory, there isn't much players aren't able to do to model their soldiers exactly how they want to. As these soldiers rank up, more cosmetic apparel options will become unlocked, and players will soon find themselves buried in items like baseball hats, monocles, and even a Duke Nukem-esque cigar. That's XCOM, baby!
Firaxis has created a great environment for modders, too. The studio worked hand-in-hand with some of the original game's best modders to ensure a selection of optional mods would be available at launch, and it didn't take long for other intrepid modders to ply their trade once the game was out. With over 200 mods released in the game's first week on the market, it looks like gamers will have plenty to look forward to. Players also have the option to purchase downloadable content called the Reinforcement Pack, which will provide twists to the core gameplay in the coming months, much like Enemy Within did.
While we ran into a few sporadic graphical and gameplay glitches, the game is a very polished title that should entertain fans new and old. At the end of the day, XCOM 2 is the poster boy of the modern turn-based strategy game. The game can feel unfair at times, but Firaxis has crafted a dynamic experience with virtually limitless replay value and a constant level of challenge. Fans of the series will find plenty of enjoyment watching the XCOM troops struggle to protect mankind once again, and Firaxis can pat themselves on the back for making one of the most addictive and rewarding strategy games of all time.
XCOM 2 is currently available on PC, Mac, and Linux, with no plans of coming to consoles. Game Rant reviewed the PC version.