XCOM 2 isn’t any more forgiving than its precursor, but it does give you more opportunities to defy RNGesus.
Metrics show a surprisingly low number of players finish games, but even allowing for that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game very few people won.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game very few people won. XCOM 2 is a game you are definitely invited to win.
This was by design, despite a few post-launch balances passes making it easier for determined players to succeed. Like a rogue-like, XCOM is a game you’re meant to lose over and over again. XCOM 2 acknowledges this by building it into the story, which is set years after the alien’s successful invasion of earth and the failure of the XCOM project.
Nevertheless, XCOM 2 is a game you are definitely invited to win. We can probably expect the top-level strategy game to be less random than Enemy Unknown’s, given that Firaxis rebalanced it in response to complaints, but a couple of small, important changes have been introduced to tactical play and RPG progression, too.
It’s easier than ever to build out your squad for battle thanks to more control over load-outs and abilities. Players can upgrade weapons with scavenged or researched tech, giving them names and passing them on from soldier to soldier provided they’re recovered after battles, giving you a chance to grow even if you lose a character. These upgrades vary from reliable but small improvements to rare but game-changing boosts to accuracy, damage and other parameters.
Characters themselves can equip an upgrade, and can also be trained in the class of your choice rather than being randomly sorted. This provides you with a better chance of fronting a balanced squad, and doubling down on certain key roles. You can even equip experimental power armour; check out some of these options in the character progression and loadout video below.
Once you’re in battle, the new Concealment mechanic opens up some amazing tactical opportunities. It seems like a subtle change at first – the enemy no longer gets a free attack round when you discover them – but it lends itself to devastating ambushes. By positioning the squad and activating Overwatch, the player can trigger an alert and watch enemy units scatter into a field of crossfire.
Those EXO suits? They have built-in power weapons.
I didn’t manage to pull one of these off, but I did see another player do so, utterly destroying the enemy. It might seem cheap if it were not balanced against turn limit objectives and patrolling enemies; you only have so long to get in place and do your thing.
As you’ll see from my battle footage, which goes up in a separate article later today, I did reasonably well – a lot of preview players wipe in this mission, apparently. What made it fun for me was that I actually found it pretty difficult. I had some very bad luck with hacking, ending up with an unscripted reinforcements wave, and it was only thanks to my build choices and cautious approach that I was able to recover from these setbacks.
Then: tragedy. My namesake custom character died, one shot by a newly-arrived Viper. Although it was tempting to rail against the game, I knew it was my fault: I left a soldier open to flanking from an un-scouted area of the map.
You can learn from this kind of shit, or you can walk away forever. This is a phenomenon Firaxis is familiar with, and I’m sure I filled 2K’s heart with horror by immediately slinking right down in my chair, adopting a richter-scale frown and muttering “zero out of ten”.
A lot of people hate to lose, but its that moment-to-moment tension – the fact that it can all go to shit any second – that makes this style of tactical game so much fun. What sets XCOM 2 apart is its unforgiving learning curve; although the basic rules are easy to learn, there’s no tutorial that can teach you how to play.
Some games get around this by leading you slowly through a series of set battles, but XCOM 2 throws that out the door after the scripted tutorial. Randomly generated battlegrounds could throw anything at you, and it’s only by losing over and over again that you gradually learn good habits and reactive tactics.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t get enough credit for how well its level generation works, and XCOM 2 only builds on that. There are more kind of environment to explore, with a greater variety of assets.
I have no idea what rules Firaxis leverages to ensure these assets go together to make logical structures and compelling tactical terrain, but it’s very clever. The two other players sharing my preview session saw completely different environments than I did, despite firing up the same missions.
Although XCOM: Enemy Unknown wasn’t ugly, everything is much prettier this time around, to the point where I’m eyeing off my gaming rig and wondering whether it’s not time to upgrade so as to enjoy the benefits of Ultra settings.
After nine years, Firaxis has gotten very good at XCOM’s stylised approach, which lends itself to clearly readable zoomed-out tactical views and yet scales beautifully for more cinematic, close-up moments that make it all feel much more immediate and real.
XCOM 2 hits Linux, Mac and PC on February 5.