XCOM 2 wants you to be the underdog.
Firaxis Games' turn-based tactical series XCOM has been a hallmark of strategic gamers' collections for years, ever since the original game, UFO: Enemy Unknown, debuted in stores in 1994. Following an elite organization tasked with defending Earth from alien invasions, UFO and its subsequent installments offered meaty, cerebral gameplay with a popcorn action plot that consistently delivered all the way up through 2012's reboot of the series.
But don't confuse XCOM 2 for a mere sequel. In past installments of the series, players have been tasked with protecting the nations of the world in the role of the nameless, faceless “Commander," but this time around things are very, very different. Instead, XCOM 2 takes us down a different path than the one laid down by the events in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM: Enemy Within. In this case, the hunter has become the hunted — the predator has become the prey.
XCOM 2 begins by turning the world on its head. The alien forces players spent hours demolishing in the previous games have completely taken over the Earth. Instead of playing as the lean, mean, alien-killing machine you were in Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, you command and XCOM defense organization that fizzled out relatively early in the alien invasion; with Earth’s governments falling under the alien’s sway one by one, XCOM operatives have been either outright captured and killed or forced into hiding. As the game begins, the resistance is undertaking a rescue mission to save someone who may change the balance of power on Earth.
Call it an alternate reality: everything is the same, but also different. Instead of an underground base, players command a captured alien supply barge, the Avenger. The Avenger is functionally the same ship as it was in past games, but instead of serving as a weapons platform to shoot down UFOs and deploy troops, the base itself is the game's primary form of transportation. Although this aspect of the game doesn’t offer many new features, it does condense and streamline the base building experience in a refreshing way, freeing up players to focus on the true challenge of XCOM 2: strategy.
The tactical elements of in-game combat are just as easy to pick up as in previous games. XCOM 2 keeps the same movement and action processes as the previous games, but some of the more specialized units such as the sniper must use their full turn to fire their primary weapon, adding another wrinkle of strategic planning to combat. However, these units are equipped with secondary weapons (pistols) they can still use if they move during their turn.
These tweaks are all fine and good, but what really spices up XCOM 2 is the addition of secondary objectives. A mission that would otherwise be a cakewalk can become a Herculean task when players attempt to complete both the primary and secondary objectives. It adds a strategic depth unseen in past games, forcing players to choose to either skip the secondary objective, split a team and attempt to accomplish both goals independently, or divert to the secondary objective first before attempting to complete the primary objective in their remaining time. The addition of more risk-reward tradeoffs to gameplay makes XCOM 2 even more exciting than its predecessors.
The only real issue with XCOM 2 is, ironically, originality: there aren't many areas or features that stuck out as being unique to this entry other than the addition of secondary objectives. There's still a timer you’re racing against, although it’s in the form of the alien’s Advent Project as opposed to UFO crashes and landings. The Avenger still holds the same laboratory and engineering system, and players still level up troops and equipment in the same way. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though, and there’s even more to love here for those who already enjoyed the XCOM formula. But anyone looking for a revolutionary jump in gameplay compared to Enemy Unknown or Enemy Within isn't going to find it here.
The preview build that I played through was limited to six months, so there’s plenty of the game I haven’t seen yet, but I can say that in the eight hours I played I was just scratching the surface of what this strange new alternate story had to offer. This parallel distillation of the XCOM formula was a delight to play, especially since I've followed the series since the first entry. I can’t wait to get my hands on the final build and see just how hard I can fight to save Earth.