My best and worst Christmas gift this holiday season was a preview build of XCOM 2 - best because it immediately got its hooks in me, and worst because it was an incomplete build and I knew I shouldn't get too invested ahead of the review. I wound up playing about 10 hours anyway.
In that time, I managed to build multiple team members up to around Level 7 while making contact with various resistance cells, all the time watching nervously as the enemy Avatar Project ticked toward completion. It took me a bit to sort out what I needed to accomplish on the strategic level, but I was on the verge of a major breakthrough when I got a message informing me that I had completed the preview build.
Guess I'll have to wait a month to see what happens next.
In the meantime, here's what I learned from my first 10 hours or so with XCOM 2.
- XCOM 2's strategy component feels more robust: My biggest objection to the XCOM: Enemy Unknown was that the strategic component was overly passive, effectively requiring that you wait for the aliens to appear. It was thematically appropriate, but it didn't really elicit the feeling that you were fighting a shadow war. XCOM 2, on the other hand, allows you to move freely about the map to attack objectives and make contact with resistance cells, which feels much more proactive and in control of your own destiny. XCOM 2 director Jake Solomon has said that he basically wants to flip the original game on the head and make the humans into the aliens, and it feels like he's largely accomplished that goal.
- You don't want to procrastinate in completing your strategic objectives: One big reason the strategic component feels more robust is that it's a race against time. Early on, the aliens kick off the Avatar Project, the completion of which is their win condition. Soon after, they begin establishing bases to facilitate the completion of the Avatar Project; and if you let them establish too many bases, things can start to get a bit out of control. As such, it behooves you to contact the local resistance so that you can attack a regional base as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I procrastinated more than I should have on that front, and the result was that the aliens had three bases and a nearly completed Avatar Project by the time I was finally ready to attack. There's still time to build up your team by taking on repeated missions, but you definitely don't want to wait too long before tackling your win conditions.
- You need to save your Intel: On that note, you really don't want to waste your Intel - a pool of points needed to establish resistance cells across the globe. Intel points can be earned by completing certain Guerilla Ops - random missions that appear throughout the game - but aren't as reliable as Supplies, which serve as your other form of currency. As such, while it's tempting to spend Intel to get a leg up on research, you're much better served reserving it for making contact with resistance cells so you can attack an alien facility at your leisure. I learned this the hard way when I prepared to attack an alien base and suddenly realized I didn't have enough intel to actually find the resistance in their region. Oops.
- Abusing concealment is the key to success: On the ground, one of the first things I learned was how important it is to abuse concealment. On most missions, you will open in a kind of stealth mode that gives you the opportunity to set up a kill zone before the aliens realize you're there. This affords you the perfect opportunity to scout the field, figure out what you're up against, and prepare an ambush. Most of the time, I would put everyone into Overwatch, then have my last party member throw a grenade to break concealment, whereupon the aliens would move to cover and get mowed down by the rest of my team. I swear, taking down six or seven aliens in that fashion never got old; and with many of the missions being time sensitive in some regard, it's the most expedient way to dispense with enemies before they can get to cover.
- Hunter UFOs are less scary than I thought: Going back to the strategic component of XCOM 2 for a moment, one of the new features being introduced for the sequel are Dark Events - alien research projects that will make your life difficult in some way. Typically, you will get an opportunity to stop one by taking on a Guerilla Op, meaning that you have to pick your poison. One such event entails getting chased by a UFO that will try to shoot down your ship, at which point you have to defend it from alien attack on the ground. I initially avoided this event like the plague; but when it finally happened, I was surprised how easy it was to avoid the alien UFO. All I had to do was keep an eye on it as it scoured the map and bail whenever it got too close. Even when the aliens caught me on the ground, I was given an opportunity to escape. After that, I stopped worrying so much about the Hunter UFOs.
- But the Faceless? They're the worst: One of the other Dark Events hides one Faceless - Clayface-like monsters that can disguise their appearance - among the civilian population in every mission. If you're not careful, you will find a team member flanked by a very large, very powerful monster that you initially thought to be a random salaryman. If that happens, you're in a lot of trouble because the Faceless hit hard and have a ton of hitpoints, making them very dangerous foes in the early part of the game. Thankfully, they become easier to deal with once you upgrade your weapons, and dissecting their corpse gives you a rather useful new ability. When it comes to choosing which Dark Event I'd rather avoid, though, I always pick the Faceless.
- Specialists might be the game's best class: Most of the classes in XCOM 2 have strong abilities, but Specialists in particular have proven to be the backbone of my party. With their ability to hack various interfaces and heal allies from afar with their drones, they've proven indispensable. My party inevitably has two Specialists at any given time - one to heal and one to hack. And once alien battle droids and turrets start showing up, you'll really want that hacking ability. Trust me.
- But my poor Rangers have struggled: In the meantime, I really like my Ranger, but she never seems to make it through a mission without being grievously injured. The ability to cut down any alien within movement range with a machete is really neat, but it often leaves my Ranger dangerously exposed, and the shotgun isn't effective enough at long ranges. As in the first game, Rangers become more effective as they earn more abilities and unlock new weapons, but they can be tough to use effectively. That doesn't diminish how cool it is to run up and slice an alien in half, though.
- Troops are somewhat easier to replace now: XCOM 2 being what it is, you will probably be in a situation where some members of your main party are hurt or even killed (this goes double for Iron Man mode). Previously, losing a character for an extended period was a major blow because you would be forced to replace them with rookies. XCOM 2, however, is a bit more forgiving. Each month, you will have the opportunity to outright purchase upgraded soldiers, making it easier to build up reserves who can step in immediately and replace a wounded party member. You can also train up a rookie in the Proving Grounds, which enables you to choose which class you want for them. As a result, when your Ranger is inevitably flanked/mind-controlled/blown up, you will have a much easier time replacing them.
- Ultimately, XCOM 2 is closer to what I wanted from the original game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a very strong reboot, but it lacked the dynamism of the original PC game, and I thought its strategic component was a tad weak. Thankfully, XCOM 2 appears to be a big step in the right direction, building on the oustanding tactical design of Enemy Unknown while heightening the tension on the strategic level. In my opinion, it's already much better than Enemy Unknown - a major compliment given the praise heaped on that game.
Ultimately, it is similar in many respects to Enemy Unknown. You still have the random missions, the terror attacks, and the opportunity to ransack the odd UFOs. But with the initial reboot out of the way, Firaxis is clearly comfortable stretching out and taking some more risks, and the result is an elegant and addictive strategy game. In the time I had with it, I simply couldn't put it down. Next month can't arrive soon enough.