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XCOM 2 is full of nasty, thrilling surprises

Illustration for article titled iXCOM 2/i is full of nasty, thrilling surprises

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My international squad of alien fighters died faster than the blink of a laser ray. Well, almost. I was only midway through XCOM 2’s first mission at a press preview last week when tragedy struck. Half of the team was busy exchanging gunfire with some enemies from behind a truck until the vehicle blew up in a ball of flame—killing both instantly. One rookie survived, but she panicked and quickly became fodder for an aggressive little grey man. Game over.

Saving humanity from extraterrestrial domination was tough stuff in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and even moreso in Enemy Within. Was my demo a stark sign that the difficulty level of the sequel to Firaxis’ turn-based strategy game might reach ridiculous heights? Not necessarily, Jake Solomon, XCOM 2’s creative director, told me. The action is just designed to be more unpredictable due to a greater emphasis on “procedurally generated” content, he explained. That’s a wonky term that means more elements of XCOM 2—the topography of the maps, secondary objectives, the toughness of your enemies, for example—are randomly determined by an algorithm.


In theory, it means you’ll never play the same mission twice. You could face opponents all packing poison rounds in one scenario and sickly weaklings in another. “There are going to be difficulty spikes,” said Solomon. “Some missions might be a cakewalk, while others might kick your ass. We don’t want it to be unpredictable enough where you can’t build a strategy, but we want something that knocks your strategy apart and you have to rebuild one on the fly.”

My strategy was certainly battered early on, but fortune shone upon me during the final mission I played. I escorted my Specialist (a new XCOM class who’s got a little healing buddy drone) to the roof of a building only to be surprised by an automated turret. I was out of rifle ammo, so I tossed a grenade at it. The resulting explosion wasn’t powerful enough to disable the turret but the roof suddenly collapsed under it—sending it tumbling to the second floor and out of my way. It was a thrilling moment, and it was one the game had generated on the fly, Solomon noted.

Even when Lady Luck isn’t on your side, the element of surprise is. Remember how the baddies always had the jump on you in previous XCOMs? This time you begin each mission in “concealment mode”—meaning that you won’t be spotted until you fire first or step into the aliens’ line of sight. That makes the first few rounds of each encounter feel like a tense chess match where you’re focused on putting your pieces in the right position to set up the perfect ambush. It pairs neatly with XCOM 2’s curveball of a story. Instead of a traditional sequel, you’re in an alternate timeline in which the invaders have beaten and subjugated humanity. It’s two decades later, and the XCOM have prepared to wage kick off guerilla war against their conquerors on “Unification Day”— the anniversary of humanity’s fall.

Will humanity have the moxie to overthrow the New World Order? Maybe, but if they’re forced to play in Ironman mode—I doubt it.


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