We were surrounded. My squad of six was overwhelmed by hostile ADVENT forces during Operation Ghost Strike in Kansas. The job was supposed to be simple: fly in, grab the enemy VIP, and slide out just as fast as we arrived. Things started out fine. Three of my soldiers were specialists, hacking the ADVENT mech and causing one hell of a distraction made the first leg of this race pretty easy. After acquiring one unwilling passenger by force, the EVAC zone was in sight. But I got too cocky. A deadly trio of reinforcements were flown in by airship, and two more aliens were hiding out on a nearby roof. One of them? An Andromedon. I thought I could take them, of course. But that’s when the Andromedon unleashed a storm of acid. I was running out of time.
That’s when it hit me. I could just run. So I did. The dude that had the unconscious VIP hoisted over his shoulder made a mad dash for the EVAC, and hoisted himself to safety with ease. Two other members of the crew made it out in haste shortly after that. But that left half of my squad still stuck in this war-zone. To my surprise the enemy wisened up to my strategy. They knew what I was trying to do. So they positioned themselves in Overwatch mode and waited it out. The minute any of my soldiers start to dash to the EVAC, these baddies were going to open fire.
Worth the risk. My boys gunned it toward the exit and never looked back. I tensed up as the ADVENT pulled the trigger and shot at my men, but they gracefully dodged projectile after projectile and pulled it off. Mission accomplished. Make no mistake either. I felt like I accomplished something in that escape. My squad completed the objective and were going to live another day to fight again. Sure. It wasn’t glamorous. But neither is XCOM 2. War is ugly, but as a video game XCOM 2 makes impact with such encounters.
The story of this game takes place 20 years after the events of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and assumes the outcome that the Commander and humanity failed to stop the alien advance. The ADVENT organization is created as a means of suppressing the population from rebellion, acting as a “peacekeeping”force collaboration between mankind and the aliens. Their propaganda attempts to alter history retroactively and paints the rebel forces as brutes attacking benevolent overlords that apparently came in peace.
You take on the role of the Commander again. But not immediately. The resistance has to fish you out of a containment cell in an ADVENT compound and rescue you first. An aged and grizzly Central Officer Bradford from the first game makes his return, leading the effort to recover you from a experimentation lab. After you escape to Northern Africa and get yourself cleaned up you embark on a quest to take back the Earth. You’re a mobile strike-force now. The ragtag crew you accompany has Dr. Richard Tygan (rogue ADVENT scientist) and Engineer Lily Shen (whose father was an ally of the Commander in earlier games). Traveling in a powerful ship called the Avenger, you circle the globe unifying groups of human resistance forces and break them free from isolation. But you can’t just do this at your leisure. It’s a race against time as the aliens are working on something called Project AVATAR – a superweapon capable of squashing any dissent on Earth permanently. As you complete missions and gather more intel and supplies, you’ll be notified of how far along the alien’s efforts are. The Avenger HQ is all about multitasking. Clear out debris ASAP. Build new rooms sooner rather than later. Develop new advancements for your new equipment as soon as you can. Don’t let anything go to waste. While it would be nice to grind resources at your own pace and spend time researching new weapons and upgrades, building up the Avenger’s capacity and staying out of trouble…. you can’t. AVATAR prods you along and pressures you to man up and go into action instead.
That balance of tension is the heart of why the game is exciting and compelling. I didn’t expect to have this much fun. Your soldiers gain experience with every alien they kill and mission they complete. Each of them evolves into a certain class of tactics, honing their specialized battle craft the stronger they become.
- Ranger: The quiet killer. One of the aspects of XCOM 2 battles is steathily positioning your forces before the enemy is aware you’re even there in the first place. The Ranger is the game’s expert on monopolizing the potential of this maneuver. The skills this class learns give them the chance to go into stealth at a moment’s notice, and reap the benefits of being in the shadows. While everyone else might be taking on enemy fire? The Ranger is tip-toeing behind the opposition and slicing them down with their blade.
- Gernadier: The champions of tearing sh*t up. XCOM 2 has a host of alien enemy types and mechanized terrors ready to slaughter you, but the Gernadier is ready to answer the call with their cannon and explosives. The higher they level up, the more proficient these kings and queens of BOOM are. Most of the skills deal with exploring the number of tactful ways you can unleash a hellstorm of bullets on your adversaries: in number, size, and frequency of attacks. What matters at the end of the day is a competent enough Gernadier is capable of shredding through a Sectopod’s armor and taking it down a peg.
- Sharpshooter: This is your sniper class. XCOM 2 conflicts are focused on making every shot count, and the Sharpshooter accents that dynamic with a degree of distinction. Best strategy is placing them in high areas overlooking the battle zone at a distance. However, the potential for this class opens up for more close quarters possibilities as they level up. Alongside the ability to further develop their sniping skill comes the opportunity for pistol proficiency. While the idea may seem underwhelming at first, the higher ranks you unlock allow special moves like Lightning Hands (giving you a free shot without using an action points) and Faceoff (taking a pot-shot at all visible enemies in the Sharpshooter’s view).
- Specialist: These folks have robotic assistants called Gremlins, hovering by their side in battle. As the Specialist levels up they choose skills that make the Gremlin more capable in an offensive or defensive capacity. In addition to that they can also hack into certain places and robotic enemy characters. The hacking system was more elaborately fleshed out than I first anticipated, with your character having a skill level specifically for the task. Every time you try and brainjack someone, or hijack a robot to your command, there’s a realistic chance of failure you have to consider. But the variety of potential rewards and benefits you can acquire makes it a hard thing to deny trying.
- Psi Operative: This branch isn’t available immediately. You discover it after studying the corpses of certain alien forces. The Psi Operative deals with the more mystical elements of the XCOM universe. Being adept at telekinetic combat means they can unleash beams of energy and control enemy minds. Higher up the skill ladder, the Psi Operative learns how to dodge death and protect themselves from elemental damage. Most badass of them all though is the ability to detonate enemy explosives remotely. Hands down.
The build-up of prepping for a mission is carefully orchestrated for self-reflection. The first menu gives you a chance to pick who exactly you want to go into battle for you, and the opportunity to sort out any last minute weapon and armor upgrades that you deem necessary for the occasion. But after that there’s a second loading menu, seating you in the airship that’s taking your crew to war. One last chance to look at everyone’s faces before they go to fight. No matter what the task at hand is: be it protecting or destroying a critical information relay, capturing a VIP, or rescuing civilians from an ADVENT attack – brawling with aliens is undeniably entertaining.
Personal all-time favorite moment of mine is when the ADVENT UFO hunts down the Avenger and causes you to crash land in the middle of nowhere. Despite being a completely optional mission that happens as a result of one of the game’s Dark Events, the scenario has an epic cutscene that really sells the situation. Setting up such a high stakes do-or-die standoff is something XCOM 2 excels at.
Death closes all. When a squad mate dies, it hits everyone hard. From the dying person themselves, grasping for their final breaths before succumbing to their wounds. To the surviving members of the squad, whose morale and sanity is shaken up and a panic is stirred. But you as the player and Commander feel it too. All that experience and time you put into this squadmate is gone. The potential for them to contribute to victory vanishes. That feeling of despair is intense if everyone in your squad dies on a mission. As that doesn’t mean a total game over. Rather, you’re forced to sit in an empty carrier all by yourself as you return to base. The deaths are recorded in a memorial on the Avenger ship itself.
The overall point of this blog was just me rambling about the captivating experiences of XCOM 2. While the story of taking back the Earth from aliens who took over might seem cliche, the developers were able to convey a sense of authenticity with the amount of customization detail and authenticity to the finer details. Meticulously placing gameplay elements in a fashion that absorbs the player in.
A game does its job when it leaves you truly satisfied with every victory. But likewise, it also does its job when you’re feel the need to try again with every defeat.
The game is normally $59.99 on Steam even still, despite being released last year. But until March 20th you can get it at a 60% discount. Better late than never. I can confirm that.