Here’s a logic problem for you, XCOM style: Imagine a rural village that’s been transformed into a body-strewn battlefield, with a squad of wounded soldiers spread out behind half-destroyed fences and a collapsing house. On their left, in the shadow of a burning barn, there’s a humanoid snake, waiting to snatch one of them with its tongue and slowly crush them to death while their friends watch. Ahead, a crystalline spider beast is itching for the chance to inject a trooper with poison that will turn them into an incubator for more of its gruesome kin. And on the right, crouched in a doorway, there’s a quivering electronic humanoid that just magically unloaded half of the squad’s guns and is set to detonate an explosion over their heads for lethal damage. If they fire at it, it’ll split in two, and both halves will teleport away to set up another ambush halfway across the map. You’ve got four half-trained soldiers, a handful of grenades, and guns that return a “45 percent chance to shoot” when you bother trying to aim.
Now: Work out a way to get out of this with at least part of your squad alive and unharmed, using a combination of terrain, special powers, explosives, and blind luck. If you want to add in a math challenge, too, you can solve for X, where X is the number of resets it’ll take you to figure out a way to get through this with everyone still alive. That’s the mental calculus you have to run while playing XCOM 2, Firaxis Games’ vicious sequel to its 2012 revival of the long-dormant alien-hunting series. Like the hijacked UFO that now serves as the player’s home base, the new game is quicker, more flexible, and more aggressive than its predecessor, a development that is almost always to the game’s benefit.
The recurring elements fall into the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought. Your war against the alien menace is still fought on an alternating macro and micro level. You switch between managing a base and the Geoscape—a map that you fly your mobile headquarters around, dodging UFOs and hunting out opportunities for guerrilla mischief—and leading troops in turn-based battles against alien forces. Capturing and researching enemy technology is still key to coming out on top in an ongoing sci-fi arms race, and finding and utilizing cover is still the difference between a Skyranger coming home from a mission full of happy soldiers or empty seats.
And yet everywhere you look, the differences mount. They range from the basics of combat—added twists like hackable objectives, player-deployed EVAC zones, and near-constant ticking clocks—to the entire premise of the game, which transforms XCOM’s agents from defensive government reactionaries into an insurgent force launching guerrilla missions against an oppressive regime of alien overlords. Taking on the alien’s old roles of infiltrating cities and conducting raids and abductions, the underdog conceit makes the story feel fresh, even if it’s still mostly relayed via a small handful of bland talking heads. To get through that story, though, players are going to have to toughen up for some serious ordeals, because even on the default difficulty setting, XCOM 2 can be a mean-spirited bastard of a game.
Difficulty mostly manifests on the micro level. XCOM 2’s Geoscape is kinder than what came before. The dozen or so panic meters that could kick the last XCOM into an unwinnable state have been replaced with the Avatar Project tracker, which fills and empties as you and the aliens complete your military and research objectives. Those moments when it drops after a big mission, bringing to mind Stacker Pentecost’s “Canceling The Apocalypse” speech from Pacific Rim, give the game some of its biggest emotional thrills. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have hard choices to make on the macro level. Research feels slower and more meaningful. Wounded soldiers stay down for a month at a time. The cash to unlock new regions or tiers of weaponry is always in short supply. And random negative events pop up every few weeks, forcing you to choose between a handful of bad options.
Still, the challenges of managing your organization feel merciful compared to the pounding brutality of the game’s combat missions, which can turn into bloody meat grinders at the merest misstep. As hinted above, XCOM 2 has assembled a nasty crew of alien enemies to bedevil would-be world savers, from toxin-infused environmental suits to jittering psychic assassins. Meanwhile, all of the series’ returning enemies have been tweaked to give them new abilities and distinguish them from each other, with even the Sectoid—normally the goomba of the XCOM universe—becoming a daunting threat.
The focus on time-sensitive missions only enhances the pressure, forcing you to forego cautious movement to stay ahead of the ticking clock. Fail to get a soldier evacuated before time runs out, and you can consider them M.I.A. Maybe you’ll get to rescue them someday; maybe you won’t. The game tries to mitigate this with the new Concealment system, where the squad often starts missions unseen and ready to set up an ambush, but its benefits almost never last past the initial firefight. Instead, players have to learn how to counter each disparate threat, whether that means prioritizing hacking mechanical enemies from afar, putting down Sectoids before they have a chance to resurrect the dead, or concentrating all fire on one of the game’s many melee-focused enemies.
The difficulty can be thrilling, as you overcome challenges and move up the slow but steady power curve, but it can also be deeply discouraging in a way that exposes some of the worst flaws in the game’s design. The major problem comes from the imbalance between the player’s forces and the enemy’s: Seasoned XCOM soldiers are harder to replace than enemy grunts. Thus, avoiding damage to experienced troops becomes a higher priority than racking up kills, a consideration that constantly forces you into a meta-gaming choice that threatens to leech away XCOM 2’s many joys: Do you allow your soldiers to die or be wounded on a mission, potentially wasting all their experience and extra skills? Or do you hit the tempting reload button, and roll the dice again?
You can opt out of this reset-dependent mentality with the game’sIronman mode, but it’s a brutal proposition that guarantees at least a few complete restarts. Most people will likely opt to reload, at least occasionally, subjecting themselves to load screen after load screen as they search for a perfect (or good enough) outcome for every single turn. This constant trial and error threatens to transform the game from one of strategy into a sort of unsatisfying tactical puzzle: What complicated steps do I have to perform to get everyone through this moment alive? And the next one? And the one after that?
The problem is compounded by the fact that those aforementioned load screens will eat up a healthy portion of any cautious player’s time. Heavy loadtimes are just one of the technical problems that have troubled the game’s PC-exclusive release, with crash bugs and framerate issues reportedly showing up to kill the fun faster than a Muton berserker at melee range. Firaxis has already released one fix for some of these errors, but players will have to keep their fingers crossed that more are on the way. Also, it would be nice if controller support, which was implemented with elegance in XCOM 2’s multi-platform predecessor, could find its way back into the game for players who prefer not to hunch over their keyboards for hours at a time.
Because the game will happily devour those hours. For all the complaints, it’s impossible to deny XCOM 2’s compulsive joys. The basic loop between thoughtful, progress-earning base management and brutal-but-satisfying combat has never been tighter, prompting the “Just one more mission” moments that are the hallmark of a new turn-based obsession. Each of the new classes (all tweaks on those from the previous game) offers deep, meaningful customization options, which can allow the Sharpshooter, for instance, to play as either a long-range expert or a pistol-wielding powerhouse, or Specialists to play the role of either medic or master of drone warfare.
Even more important are the smaller touches, which add up to a smoother, deeper whole. Cosmetic customization has been decked out, allowing players to put together unique squaddies of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. (Seeing the hand-crafted face of one your top commandos on a wanted poster always gives a little thrill.) The procedural level generation is damn-near seamless, churning out endless new maps and mission objectives without things getting stale. And the thought put into the new enemies, with each new monster having some smart way to trip you up and force you to adapt, gives constant examples of a development team that thought deeply about what each hideous creature could bring to the alien bench.
And through it all, XCOM 2 never loses sight of the basic thrills that made its predecessor such a welcome surprise. The feeling of holding the line against seemingly impossible odds, of pulling a mission from the jaws of death with a timely rescue and a wounded comrade on your back, of watching an experienced squad slice its way through pod after pod of once-formidable foes—they’re all still here, as satisfying as ever. And if XCOM 2 leans too heavily at times on its ferocious difficulty to produce those moments, forcing players to find their happy medium between the brutality of Ironman and neurotically saving at every turn, it at least manages to do so in a way that makes your victory feel all the sweeter when it comes.