XCOM 2’s story begins with rescuing the ‘Commander’, the player avatar from the first game, who has been abducted by the aliens and manipulated for their nefarious and mysterious purposes. The way the game starts gives grounds for resentment, as it completely dispenses with your victorious efforts in the first game. Even if you saved the world and managed a perfect run through each and every mission, the writers decided to make Earth lose anyway. It’s one thing doing this when you know there’s a long-term narrative in play, but to undermine the ending of a classic game for the sake of a sequel feels like a cheap and dirty trick.
Given that the developers seem to have basically wanted to make Enemy Unknown all over again, I understand why they did this. XCOM 2 sees your small, elite team fighting guerrilla missions against a global threat, much in the same way as the first game saw you firefighting against UFOs and a global invasion. The game’s pacing has the same satisfying rhythm, as you balance the needs of weapons and armour research against other forms of tech and the need to expand your base. It’s a proven formula for success, and this base-building side of the game is fun and addictive. That said, I wish it had been a bit more original: you level up your weapons and grenades in exactly the same way as in the first game, and your new research staff often say almost identical lines when describing the improvements that lead to plasma rifles or whatever. This familiarity is characteristic of XCOM 2 and conservatism is ultimately one of its main drawbacks.
Combat missions will also be familiar to anyone who played Enemy Unknown, as they play out in much the same way. One of the new mechanics is the Overwatch Ambush, where you can set up your team in Overwatch before startling an enemy and launching a potentially awesome attack on your turn. Of course, it can all go wrong if everyone misses, or if the enemies are all left on 1 HP and free to attack you on their turn; but that’s part and parcel of XCOM. Otherwise battles play out in much the same way as before, but with new or revised enemies to contend against.
As for your squad, the same classes return but with different names and a few new abilities. The strongest class are the Assault-style Rangers, who can use devastating energy sword attacks in addition to shotguns and stealth. Rangers are by far the most reliable and appealing class, often doing guaranteed damage, able to kill several enemies on one turn, and with guaranteed dodging abilities. Heavies and Specialists (Supports) are useful due to guaranteed AOE damage, armour shredding, tech damage against robots, and healing; but Snipers are practically useless. Although Snipers have a potentially high damage threshold, XCOM’s mechanics mean that you almost always have a chance to miss, and your Snipers will always seem to miss the easiest of shots. Snipers can’t buff anyone or de-buff enemies, and often can’t move and shoot on the same turn, meaning that they often feel like a wasted roster slot. For a game where building a team of badass alien hunters is a major selling point, the uselessness of Snipers is a big disappointment.
One new mechanic is dodging. Both your characters and the aliens will often dodge attacks, resulting in a significant damage reduction. Unfortunately, the chance to dodge is not given in the UI, meaning you can be regularly frustrated when enemies dodge 90%+ chance-to-hit attacks and receive 2 or 3 damage instead of 9 or 10. This just means that guaranteed damage (like explosives or drone attacks) ends up feeling overpowered. The terror of the missed shot is a big part of XCOM, but even so, there’s something wrong if you dread having to actually take a shot with your main firearm.
Combat is still good overall, though, and one area where XCOM 2 improves upon its predecessor is in the look and feel of your soldiers. Your squaddies have much more appeal and personality this time around, in large part due to the much wider customization options. Sunglasses, headgear, facial hair, piercings, tattoos, tobacco… All of your soldiers can end up looking like 80s action heroes. As ever, the game features a roughly 50/50 balance between men and women soldiers and an international crew, and this is another thing that gives the game broader appeal. For a game which is literally about xenophobia, it has an inclusive and communitarian feel.
In my First Impressions post on XCOM 2 I described my dissatisfaction with the technical problems that detracted from my initial enjoyment of the game. Firaxis/2K eventually shipped a patch that fixed some of the problems, but this was nevertheless a major failing and I don’t think they have been contrite enough about this. It’s probably foolish to expect humility or openness from major corporations, but I can’t help wanting more from the people responsible for the video games I love. Those who purchase the game now should largely avoid the issues that plagued early adopters, but XCOM 2 still has more than its fair share of bugs and glitches.
Despite all my complaining, XCOM 2 is an enjoyable and satisfying game for the most part, and at its best an almost euphoric experience. That it can be so despite its problems reveals this as a missed opportunity to make a truly great game. As it is, I will probably go back and play it again at some point, perhaps once all the DLC is released. Enemy Within was a brilliant enhancement of Enemy Unknown, and perhaps a console version of XCOM 2 could deliver the experience that this should have been.