"It has been 20 years since our last meeting, Commander. Much has changed during your... unexpected absence. After you have been abducted and put in stasis by the enemy, XCOM forces were almost completely decimated. Without your guidance or the support of the Council Nations, your unit has been reduced to what amounts to a small resistance cell under Central Officer Bradford's command. At present, the world is controlled by ADVENT - a puppet government created by the aliens. Propaganda about their benevolence is, slowly but surely, eroding humanity's will to fight, garnering them public support. People now believe they've come in peace and it was the world's governments who acted too hastily and aggressively. The true events of the war have been struck from public record, but some remember and resist the occupation - it is your duty to find those resistance cells and integrate them into your forces. The alien's real agenda still remains unknown, but with you at the reins, XCOM can once again be recovered to its former glory. I will support you in your on-going efforts to the best of my abilities. Welcome back, Commander."
War of the Worlds
It's hard not to love the premise of alien invasion, even if it's a little cliché. Full-scale wars between humanity and alien threats have been a major subject of science fiction for decades now, but few video games capture the spirit of fighting against overwhelming and unknown forces better than the XCOM series, currently under the patronage of Firaxis Games. XCOM 2 starts where Enemy Within left off, and in this reality, the aliens were successful in overtaking the planet. Betrayed by all but one Council member and with its command chain broken, XCOM forces proved to be insufficient in alleviating the alien threat. The fight has changed, dramatically so. Your return to the seat of XCOM Commander is a ray of sunshine at the end of the tunnel, however you will need to quickly adapt to the new circumstances and make amends with the idea that you are no longer fighting a war on all fronts. Humanity's efforts against the alien invasion have been reduced to guerilla warfare, and that idea is central not just to the story of XCOM 2, but also the gameplay. You are far from having an equal footing with the aliens - the aliens are stronger in numbers and superior in technology while your unit is severely underfunded, under-equipped and understaffed. Now, more than ever, clever strategy is the only thing you have against the alien oppression, and that's not a comfortable position to be in. Every single soldier and every single piece of technology counts, and XCOM 2 will make you feel it even more so than the previous installment.
Doctor Tygen, Engineer Shen and Officer Bradford are your key personnel, they're essential to the operation of the Avenger.
You'll be interacting with them and get to know them throughout the campaign
After watching the initial cutscenes and finishing the tutorial, you find out that you've spent the better part of the last two decades in the hands of the aliens. During your stasis imprisonment XCOM forces, along with the underground base you so carefully built in the last game, have been almost completely decimated and the only remaining vestiges of your unit's former glory are the few survivors aboard the Avenger, a converted alien supply ship which now serves as your current base of operation. Central Officer Bradford, a familiar face, took command in your absence, but without your tactical cunning, he was unable to mount a proper offensive for all these years and focused his efforts on recovering you from the clutches of the invaders. Upon your recovery he introduces you to the rest of the Avenger's core staff. Unfortunately, the war took its toll on the XCOM ranks - other than Officer Bradford, the rest of your former cabinet are missing or deceased. Dr. Raymond Shen, your Chief Engineer, was replaced by Lily Shen, his daughter, who walked in his footsteps and turns out to be no less ingenious than her late father. Lily's in charge of all of XCOM's engineers, her job is developing and manufacturing new equipment to aide you in the fight against the alien scourge as well as building new facilities aboard the Avenger - keep her supplied with resources and tasks and she will keep you supplied with new and shiny tools to dispatch aliens with. Dr.Vahlen, your Lead Scientist, is missing, and has been replaced by Chief Science Officer Dr. Tygan, who shared a similar fate to yourself and was an alien POW until recently. He's in charge of XCOM's science department, and will happily research new technologies as long as you procure a steady supply of alien cadavers for him to slice up and analyze. Working together with your staff and making sure that they have everything they need aboard the Avenger is key to keeping your troops well-equipped and trained to face your enemies.
The tone of the whole introduction, although hopeful due to your return, is somber and further drives the point that you are no longer in charge of an organization with international support - you're on the defensive, fighting for survival. It is made clear that the unit suffered many losses, and you yourself didn't come out of the conflict unscathed - you've been implanted with some bizarre alien contraption which had to be removed from your brain as soon as you were taken aboard. Its purpose is currently unknown, however the prevailing theory among your staff is that the implant is of utmost importance to the aliens. Researching this artifact is the cue for the game's storyline and it's just one of many mysteries you'll encounter in the XCOM 2 campaign.
XCOM 2 keeps you on the edge of the seat constantly as you're almost always on the clock - most missions need to be completed in a certain amount of turns, or can only be completed by saving a certain amount of hostages, so you don't get the privilege of taking your sweet time - you have to make tough decisions, often at the cost of your squad mates. Even on the World Map you're still pressed to act. Firstly, the aliens are constantly working towards an initiative only known to you as the Avatar Project, which is said to cause a cataclysmic event if completed. Secondly, the aliens are constantly trying to wipe out resistance cells, forcing you to engage in retaliation missions in order to save them - failing to do so lowers your standing with the resistance, so those assaults cannot be ignored. Thirdly, the enemy consistently launches operations against your forces, each of which has specific global effects if successful, and you only have enough manpower to address one at a time. Lastly, the support of your wealthy, anonymous backers is heavily reliant on completing Council missions - failing to meet your targets greatly reduces the amount of support you get each turn. The Avenger offers you increased mobility, but even with the ability to travel across the globe in mere hours, you never have enough time to complete all of the missions available. This is naturally a deliberate move by the developers - every single turn, your every move on the map is a choice with gameplay-changing consequences, making the normally "slow" genre of turn-based strategy extremely exciting. Nobody said that the fight for Earth's independence will be easy, right?
If matters weren't dire enough, you are also occasionally in danger of losing the Avenger itself. Failing to complete or having to skip some of the missions sometimes allows the enemy to launch UFO's which will intercept the Avenger and shoot it down, forcing you to land. If such an event occurs, all of your soldiers, regardless of their state of health, need to be immediately dispatched to defend the mobile base. Losing the Avenger means losing the last hope for humanity - you can't let that happen.
Your Sky Ranger and the Avenger give you enhanced mobility, but it comes at a price - the Avenger can be shot down by enemy UFO's
as it traverses the globe, which will force you to defend it. Losing your base means losing the war, failure is not an option
The missions themselves play out similarly to how they worked in the previous game, with a few differences. Once your troops are equipped and deployed via Sky Ranger, you take control of them on the 3D isometric playing field. Each unit has a specific amount of spaces it can move and can perform two actions - move within its blue radius and shoot, use an item or an ability. Alternatively, your secondary action can be used to rush instead, significantly increasing your range. The most important difference between XCOM 1 and XCOM 2 is the fact that in the sequel you're fighting according to guerilla warfare rules, which introduces a new element into combat - stealth. Almost every mission starts with a brief period of stealth, which allows you to position your units and create killzones before you begin the proper assault. Being discovered by the enemy during this period reveals the location of your units, so extreme care is required in traversing the map in this new stage of combat. XCOM 2 puts a lot of focus on creating and executing ambushes, which makes sense as the enemy forces are overwhelming in number and, throughout most of the game, better-equipped than your own. Much like in the first game, XCOM 2 provides you with plenty of opportunities to do so - there's plenty of cover, divided into half and full categories, the maps feature various terminals and even some enemies which can be hacked by the newly-introduced drone-wielding Specialist class to cause some havoc, not to mention that a large portion of the environment is destructible. If you find the possibility of setting up sniping nests and blowing up a convoy in just the right moment, XCOM 2 will not disapoint you, as you'll spend most of your time creating such scenarios in order to get the upper hand.
Naturally the enemy is equipped to oppose your forces effectively, and since you're dealing with aliens, they have more than just bullets at their disposal. Some species of aliens possess special abilities which have a chance of inflicting lethal status effects on your forces - often times getting unexpectedly poisoned, stepping in a pool of acid or catching fire can spell certain death to a soldier, and with limited resources at your disposal, every soldier counts. Those who played XCOM are familiar with the fact that death in XCOM is permanent - once a unit is dead, he or she cannot be revived. Just this fact alone creates an interesting connection between yourself and your squad - if a particular squad member whom you've trained extensively and grew attached to dies, you feel an overwhelming sense of loss, not to mention that it lowers your combat capacity for all the missions that will follow. You will learn very quickly that squad mates in need of help need to be tended to, and you'll think twice before sending an elite soldier right into the bee's nest. In fact... you might even start taking advantage of the constant stream of Rookies, using them as cannon fodder while the Aces stay at a safe distance, ready to ambush the enemy. War truly is a cruel mistress.
XCOM 2 gives you a lot of opportunities to try alternative approaches towards a mission. Sometimes hacking, taking control over an enemy with psionics or using stealth works
better than a head-on approach, and blasting a hole through a wall to create a new escape route might be a better idea than ploughing through a horde of enemies
Aside from Single Player, the game also features a Multiplayer mode which allows you to play as either side of the conflict and fight your friends in skirmishes. I won't spend much time describing it as it's not the focus of the game, however I will give you forward warning. Due to the nature of the game, multiplayer is necessarily slow - both players need time to finish their turns, and as you can imagine, it takes forever. Most players would consider this a huge con, but I personally don't mind it - I wouldn't blame chess matches for being slow either, that's how the game is played. To be fair though, you might want to grab headsets and limit yourself to playing Multiplayer with your friends, and be sure to prepare a list of topics to discuss during the match, as you'll have plenty of spare time on your hands.
Conclusion - A Rough Diamond
Picking this game apart was particularly difficult to me as it improves on every aspect of the original and manages to introduce new and exciting gameplay elements without spoiling the broth. In all honesty, I think every single strategy fan should pick this title up - it's mandatory, especially considering how few turn-based strategies make their way to consoles these days. That's not to say that the game is perfect - it has its fair share of problems. For starters, it suffers from the "Bethesda Problem" - loading times of save files are incredibly long and frustrating, and since the stakes are high, you will find yourself reloading pretty often if you want to keep your favourite units alive and well. Worse yet, they seem to increase in length as the campaign goes on, very quickly becoming so long that reloading the game gives you enough time to brew yourself a cup of tea - chances are that the save state will not load by the time you finish. The physics can also be spotty at times, but I could forgive the game for those - they're quite humorous at times. What I can't forgive is wasting my time. As a completionist, I reloaded the game several times each level as I wanted my ambushes to be "perfect", and needless to say, I estimate that I've spent more time looking at the loading screens than at the battlefield, which is unacceptable. I can only hope that future patches will improve load times, or at least introduce some form of a quick save and quick load functionality. Yes, I know that goes against the idea of XCOM, but I just can't help myself - I feel the overwhelming need to keep all of my units alive, no matter the cost... and in this case the cost was losing a little bit of my sanity each time I clicked the Load button.
With all that said, I still think that you'd be missing out if you didn't pick this game up. I was enthralled by it, I enjoyed every single moment of it, and out of all the cons this game has only one was on my mind at all times... what took you so long, Firaxis? XCOM 2 was initially announced as a PC exclusive, and as a primarily console gamer, that was a big let down to me. I'm glad to see that the game finally found its way onto consoles, I'm even happier to see that it seamlessly integrates console-style controls and completing the campaign was an adventure - one that you definitely don't want to miss out on. As for myself, I have a shopping list for Christmas ready - there's DLC to be had, and I can never have enough XCOM in my life.