I never played the original X-COM games, beyond following LPs starring the likes of Otto Xander, so XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN was my first real brush with the series, and it was a revelation. I've always been a fan of turn-based tactics ever since the days back on the Spectrum, where I played Chaos and Rebelstar 2, early games by the original X-COM's lead designer Julian Gollop. Enemy Unknown's mix of base planning and tactical gunfights spoke to me immediately. It was a tense game full of hard decisions, careful planning, and sudden, uncompromising failure, but it was not without its flaws.
It did suffer from something of an inverted difficulty curve, with the aliens causing the majority of your soldiers deaths at the beginning when you're mainly staffed with incompetent rookies, and the much tougher enemies at the end of the game being snapped over the knees of your hypercompetent Colonels. Moving slowly and overwatching every turn was too powerful a tactic, and not an incredibly interesting one either. Maps quickly became predictable, with every UFO you encounter having the same basic layout, and significant repetition in cityscapes and farmhouses alike. But overall, it was a great game, and XCOM 2 had a lot to live up to.
It succeeds by turning everything on its head.
It's been twenty years since your first playthrough. Not the one where you had a dozen invincible colonels, not the one where you killed two Sectopods in one turn, not the one where 6 MECs swarmed over the battlefield punching every alien off buildings. Your first playthrough, where you picked Snap Shot instead of Squadsight, carried Medkits on every soldier instead of grenades, (because my weapon fragments!) got the VIPs sniped by overwatching Thin Men, and your ass was handed to you by Floaters. The one where the Council gave up before the end of May.
THAT one. Yes, I know you tried to forget. Yes, I know you did better. It's still canon.
So, it's been twenty years. The human governments have capitulated and formed the ADVENT Coalition, and under the guidance of their Alien Elders, have
- solved world hunger (ADVENT burgers are apparently delicious, but when was the last time you saw a cow?)
- cured all diseases short of death (the medical statistics are helped along by many patients inexplicably never returning)
- Promoted peace and civil harmony (by encouraging humans to report their non-compliant neighbors, parents and children)
- Developed a plan for the rapid processing of all non-essential human life (oops how did this get here)
... in short, XCOM 2 is XCOM inverted. Once, we were the defenders, reacting to alien attacks. Now we plan guerrilla ops to strike Alien targets from the shadows. Once we swept the world with satellites looking for UFOs, now it's us in the hidden spacecraft. And while once victory or defeat depended on managing the various Council member's willingness to fight, now... well, Alien victory is assured given enough time if we can't set it back.
XCOM 2 supports this in gameplay by both increasing the pace of missions and placing a greater emphasis on stealth.
Most missions start with your soldiers Concealed. At this point the Aliens are unaware of your presence, and you can move freely so long as you are not spotted. This is a perfect time to get to advantageous positions and set up an ambush that, hopefully, obliterates the first enemy group you encounter. Of course, Concealment can go very wrong should your soldier blunder into an Alien's point of view that they were not aware of, but them's the risks. Concealment is a fantastic gameplay addition that makes for some tense moments, especially since those Aliens you're trying to take out are still patrolling and will have the advantage if they spot you on their turn.
Concealment sounds like it should slow the game down, but in a significant break from XCOM 1 the majority of missions are timed. XCOM has no hope of providing air superiority, and the limited window they have before Alien interceptors arrive to blow the Skyranger out of the air means that most missions are timed, or have implied time limits. (Retaliation missions for example require XCOM to rescue civilians. There are about 14 on the map, you must rescue 6 to succeed, and the aliens will try to kill one each turn. The math is simple) These time limits, which are often quite strict (rescuing or escorting VIPs always seems to come down to the last turn for me!) really up the pace and require you to commit to less ideal moves. The pace has also been increased by both aliens and XCOM having access to more potent weapons and skills than before. For example, the XCOM 2 Sectoid is far more potent than its XCOM sibling despite being introduced at a similar section of the game. Mind Control is a dangerous enemy ability you wouldn't see until halfway through the game in XCOM 1, which is possible from the second mission in in XCOM 2. Everything feels higher risk and a faster pace is enforced but without being, IMO, obnoxious or too hard.
And then there's the tactical map, which is very well reworked with a new lose condition. Contacting resistance cells and building relay towers replaces launching satellites, and does a better job of not being the single overbearing focus of the first part of the game. Cells won't leave your side without failing a mission, and choosing not to help a cell when you're given a choice of many does not raise panic but instead puts you at risk of a variety of interesting disadvantages, such as additional enemies on missions, higher Intel costs, or being hunted by an enemy UFO. You can scan for hidden caches at various points on the map (when prompted...) in a way that reminds me a little of Civ's goodie huts. However there's always direction for which way you should expand on the world map, as the Avatar Project is constantly nearing completion, and reaching and destroying Alien facilities on the map is the only way to set it back and prevent Game Over.
The soldier classes have gone through an overhaul to tidy up overpowered abilities and provide new options.
Ranger - roughly analogous to the Assault from XCOM EU, this shotgun wielding class now carries a sword too. Unfortunately the sword is a little underpowered, but it's always welcome to have a weapon that requires no ammo and can even be used after dashing. It's skill tree is similar to the Assault's, though key abilities like Run and Gun and Double Tap come much later and Lightning Reflexes has been renamed Shadowstep and heavily nerfed.
Grenadier - like the Heavy, but fires Grenades from a grenade launcher instead of rockets. This makes it far more flexible, since it can carry a larger variety of grenades than the Heavy ever had rockets for, and they have a longer range and deal more damage than thrown grenades. Enemies also frequently have Armour now that provides a large amount of damage resistance, and the Grenadier is a key component of shredding that armour before your other characters attack.
Sharpshooter - like the Sniper, but Firaxis has given up and just given them Squadsight by default instead of making you choose between that and poor Snap Shot. They've also dramatically increased their aptitude with Pistols, giving Sharpshooters a wide variety of really good abilities with the sidearms.
Specialist - like the Support, but with a very useful drone called a Gremlin. It allows the Specialist to heal, taze and hack remotely - it's pretty great hacking an enemy MEC and taking it over temporarily.
... and the less said about PSI Specialists the better. They're a lot of fun.
Another very welcome change from XCOM EU is official support and tools for modding, which is bringing a lot of great stuff out. While some of it is obvious cheating, there are a plethora of useful interface tweaks, additional customisation options, new soldier classes, new alien types, new weapons... lots of good stuff. Including a Bob Ross voice pack.
While the game is great, there are a few things really bringing it down.
Performance is primary among them. The game really struggles, even on good hardware, and suffers from extremely long load times. Be sure to buy the game from a retailer that will give you a refund if it doesn't work. There's been a patch to improve mattes but I've not seen much difference on my PC. Be sure of have a meaty rig if you want this to look as good as it could.
Some problems still persist from XCOM EU. The camera in particular can really be a problem, especially since multi-level buildings are far more common in this game than in EU. There's always something a little terrifying about aiming grenades.
Line of Sight bugs still occur, and there are animation problems with some enemies. One in particular that grabs and constricts one of your soldiers moves forward a little when it does so, occasionally giving the impression that it's in front of a wall when it's actually behind it.
And the story is a little damp, lacking some of the really imposing moments from EU/EW, like the Alien Base Assault, or Ashes and Temples. For the most part the story missions look a lot like regular missions.
But still, I thoroughly enjoyed this in my first playthrough and are keen to go through again and again. If XCOM 2 seems like it may be your thing, definitely give it a shot.