Last week, I had the chance to spend a couple of hours playing Firaxis' follow up to 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown. While fans of the last outing will find familiar elements in the new game, XCOM 2 shakes up the experience by adding new features and a race against the clock.
XCOM 2 takes place 20 years after one possible conclusion to Enemy Unknown. The secretive military force has lost and Earth is now under the control of the alien forces. Rather than rule through might, the invaders have taken on the appearance of benefactors. They've built cities, cured disease, and eliminated most crime. Under the surface though, sinister experiments and disappearing people suggest a darker purpose.
The game's opening throws players into the tactical segment, commanding troops. One of the biggest changes is immediately front and center. Players begin each mission concealed. If handled properly, you can announce your presence with an overwhelming show of force. This is handled by carefully moving troops into position, setting most of them up in overwatch, and then taking your first shot. The result is a unified attack on enemy positions that can even the odds.
The stakes remain high, as soldiers will die and failures result in panicked troops. "They panic at a pretty good clip," says creative director Jake Solomon. "The rookies will definitely panic at a good clip. What I'm debating right now is whether or not to allow soldiers to shoot their squadmates. I did allow that in XCOM. Every time it happens to me, I get angry."
Thankfully, more tools are at your disposal. Hacking turrets and robotic enemies can buy you time and additional firepower. Rangers can stay concealed longer, and new melee attacks deal huge (satisfying damage) against Advent troops and aliens.
The Advent forces take the place of Sectoids as the basic enemies you encounter. Most aliens have been given additional skills, and are more threatening than last time out. Sectoids are back, but they're more dangerous since they have increased psychic abilities, and a new race, called Vipers, which you might have seen in past screenshots, are revealed to be Thin Men in their true form (and without their human-like infiltration disguises).
Firaxis' balancing act has yielded some additional flexibility when it comes to incapacitated soldiers. You can carry troops that are bleeding out to the evac zone and exfiltrate them, giving you a chance to get them back in the fight later. Exiting a mission zone has also been tweaked as some missions allow players to define the extraction location. However, players will want to be careful where they call in an evac, because the A.I. will shift to overwatch tactics and pick you off as you run to your extract. Squad members can rope out individually, so you can get troops clear of battle as you continue to manage the rest of the team.
Between missions, you spend time on the Avenger, XCOM's mobile base of operations. Here, you research new tech, built items, and put the loot you collect to good use. Weapons can be modified with different enhancements that can award free reloads, increase range, provide more ammunition, and more. You won't be upgrading soldiers with MEC suits or gene mods this time out, those features are being expressed through personal combat sims that increase stats, weapon enhancements, and items like the exo suit.
You also have a different path to building out your forces with the five different character classes. Thankfully, this time you can skip the Rookie rank and nudge a Squaddie into a specific class instead of relying on the random class generator. You might also find soldiers in missions, including squad members who were previously lost but not killed.
"When we were talking about this and first developing the game, I thought there was no way this was going to make it into the final game," Solomon says. "It has. If you lose a soldier in an earlier mission, they are marked as 'missing in action.' You can get a mission later on in the game to go and rescue the exact soldier that you left behind. You can go and bust him out of an Advent jail cell. I thought there was no way we were going to do all the work to make that happen, but it happened to me a couple of weeks ago."
The big change to the strategy layer is how the alien forces proceed through the game. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, players largely set the pace through the narrative arc. In XCOM 2, the aliens have their own win condition, and "dark events" that allow XCOM to sabotage and rob the aliens of upgrades and other benefits.
"We wanted to eliminate the late-game grind," Solomon says. "In XCOM it got to the point where it felt you were doing a victory lap. Instead, the game overall is a clear race condition. You can hold off the end for a little while, but you really can't hold it off that long. Toward the end of the game, we introduce a lot of aliens that are really gnarly. At the same time on the strategy layer, the aliens are coming close to the win condition. There's no way to permanently delay the end of the game. When you get to the end there's more of a sense of a race."
Part of those design decisions come from Firaxis' love of board games. Solomon tells me that on any given day at lunch, you'll find staff members playing a variety of games. Some of them are complex, multi-session affairs that take up tables for days at a time.
"I find board game designers to be very impressive," he says. "They work with completely different restrictions. The game has to be social."
Solomon tells me that the looming disaster found in some cooperative games are a good analog for what XCOM 2 is going for. He points to Pandemic, a cooperative board game that assigns players different roles fighting a global infectious disease, as a good comparison.
"Pandemic's a great example," Solomon says. "You're playing against the system. I love Pandemic. From a strategy design, it's a great, elegant design. Fighting against this system that's taking control and getting stronger is definitely the way that XCOM plays out."
Firaxis recently teamed up with Fantasy Flight to create an XCOM board game. "It isn't an exact translation of the digital game, but does manage to create the same high-stakes tension," Solomon says. "They've managed to recreate what feels like XCOM with a completely different mechanic. That is nuts to me."
As for the future of that partnership, there's no news yet. But if Solomon has his way, we'll see more XCOM from Fantasy Flight.
"I would love to see what XCOM 2 would look like as a board game," he says. "Here's hoping."