XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a pleasant surprise when it launched back in 2012. After years of protesting that a triple-A tactics game simply wouldn't work, 2K finally relented and handed off the series to Firaxis, who in turn inaugurated a new tactics boom. As good as Enemy Unknown was though, there was something missing.
Though it did a good job of mixing randomized elements with more straightforward progression, it lost the sense of dynamic danger inherent to the original. Without a true win condition of their own, the aliens lacked a sense of agency, being unable to establish secret bases or invade the player's headquarters when they got too close to victory. It was still a great game in its own right, especially on the tactical level, but the strategy layer always felt a tad too simple and linear.
In that regard, XCOM 2 feels like a step forward despite sacrificing a few familiar elements, which I'll get to in a moment. In the scenario put forward by the sequel, the aliens were victorious in the original game, creating a new world order while forcing the resistance underground. Their occupation brings with it massive advances in technology, but at the expense of humanity being subject to horrifying human-alien hybrid experiments. This effectively flips the script - you are now in the role of invader.
Flying around in a captured alien supply ship, your goal is to rescue captured sympathizers, sabotage alien efforts, and find out what exactly the invaders are doing behind closed doors. The Interceptors are gone; but with your own mobile command outpost, you can contact rebel cells and sabotage alien bases to keep them from researching new technology. And you'll want to, because the aliens have their own win condition now. As the game progresses, your intelligence services will warn you of "Dark Events" that will occur if you don't locate and sabotage an alien research base. In one such event, the aliens will send a UFO to hunt down your ship, the Avenger. If they succeed, you have to fight off a ground attack, with the price of failure being that the aliens win. It's reminiscent of a similar scenario in Enemy Unknown, where you could shoot down UFOs and raid them for alien corpses and technology, but also of the base invasions from UFO Defense.
With luck, the sequel will take this dynamic in some interesting directions. I'm especially interested to know what the alien win condition is, and what the aliens will do to pursue it. After being relatively passive in Enemy Unknown, it seems like the invaders are a much more dynamic threat this time around.
The Next Step
Of course, it won't be exactly the same as Julian Gollop's classic, nor does it need to be. After playing it relatively safe with Enemy Unknown, Firaxis seems ready to stretch out, layer on a few more systems, and play around with the formula a bit.
I joked that I was glad that they weren't going to remake Terror from the Deep, but the shadow of UFO Defense's disappointing sequel must have loomed large over XCOM 2. Strong as the original game was, Gollop always seemed to be at a bit of loss on where to take the concept next. His best effort was X-COM: Apocalypse - a sprawling, free-form strategy game that ultimately failed at the tactical level because it couldn't decide whether it wanted to be turn-based or real-time. With XCOM 2, Firaxis faced much the same problem.
By turning the original concept on its head, though, Firaxis seems to have found a satisfactory solution. Fighting the aliens as a resistance force brings with it all sorts of interesting possibilities. Moreover, XCOM 2 seems to be closer in spirit to UFO Defense in giving the aliens some agency and making things more dynamic.
Slowly but surely, Firaxis is making the series their own by dispensing with the elements they don't like (Interceptors), giving players a mobile HQ, and generally playing around with the original formula. The success of the original have given a lot of leeway to explore the concepts established by UFO Defense, and they seem to be taking full advantage. But I'm glad they haven't forgotten the game's roots.
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