XCOM 2 Hands-On Preview

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If you’ll allow me a moment get my fanboy credentials out of the way, I’m going to tell you straight up that I am a huge fan of the XCOM series. I love playing as a paramilitary organisation trying to defend the Earth from aliens. The love the interplay of tactical and strategic choices with soldiers gaining experience and dying in the course of duty. I love managing funding and research into the unknown alien forces assaulting humanity. It was to my great delight that I was invited to preview the new XCOM 2, developed by Firaxis Games, at the 2K Games branch office in Sydney. Does the new game bear the torch of its successful predecessor or has the old formula been altered too much? Read on, dear reader.

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The biggest alteration that immediately comes to view is that the nature of the XCOM organisation has changed from paramilitary organisation to guerrilla resistance group. From my limited time with the hands on, this impacts on the tactical and strategic gameplay to a significant extent. On a strategic sense, XCOM is now based on a mobile alien carrier that travels around the world evading the alien forces. Missions are now given to you via resistance groups fighting the Alien administration rather than through funding nations. The aliens themselves also have their own agenda that they’re pushing with a related countdown indicating how long it will take to complete as well as a related mission option you can undertake to disrupt it. There is an overall countdown as well which indicates how long it will take before the aliens complete their final objective (game over).

I can’t talk too much about research, as the devs didn’t want any spoilers to come out in regards to the plot but mechanically it appears to be unchanged. You still need to collect bodies and equipment from the field to research back at the home base. I noticed that there also appeared to be a possibility for research to become instantaneous when you’ve received enough research credits but I’ve received conflicting responses to that question so I’m not entirely sure myself what’s going on there…

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The base building itself retains its ‘honeycomb’ structure from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but is now based inside of a hollowed out alien carrier rather than a volcano. The big change here is that freeing up space via excavation actually involves clearing out the wreckage of the alien carrier (which actually GIVES you resources). The limitation is that you need to assign an engineer to clear out the wreckage and you have a limited staff to begin with you so you need to make choices between expanding the base in the long run or creating items in the present for immediate use. Workshops and laboratories now require staff to function (rather than providing staff) and can be upgraded to increase their capacity. A nice touch which I noticed was that the facilities show the staff working in them when they are manned, which is a nice addition from the last game.

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Tactical gameplay is largely kept the same from Enemy Unknown with your team and the enemy taking turns one after the other. Each unit generally has two action points which they can use to move, shoot and activate abilities. Each soldier generally has their own set abilities they can activate such as use of a grenade launcher or combat drone. These abilities are earned when levelling up the soldier and generally fall into two specialised categories, as was the case in the previous game. The classes which I was able to play with so far are the grenadier (specialised for heavy weapons/explosives), sharpshooter (specialised for Sniping/Pistols), ranger (specialised for stealth and melee), and specialist (specialised for hacking/support) with the last one; a psyionic operative of some sort, not being available. The classes are distinct from their predecessors but one can see similarities between the old and new variants.

The enemy units are now markedly different from the enemy units you encountered in Enemy Unknown. For a start most of them are genetically altered humans who are working for the alien administration called ‘Advent’. These guys act as your basic grunts who run around and largely have the same capabilities as your soldiers. The alien units themselves become akin to mini-bosses in each level as they generally come with powerful capabilities that will be difficult to counter in the early game (such as when a viper pulled my sniper out of their rooftop nest from half the map away). Even the once humble Sectoid is now a force to be reckoned with due to his ability to psychically bring a dead soldier back to life as a zombie under their control. It’s an interesting change which I think suits the game thematically as well as changing things mechanically from the previous game.

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Two completely new mechanics are the ‘concealment’ and ‘hacking’ concepts. At the start of most missions, XCOM units start ‘concealed’ as enemy units are not aware of their presence and will not actively fight against them unless they spot them by being too close or flanking them. If they are not spotted, soldiers can generally fire upon enemy units in a surprise attack with overwatch shots being used to help create an ambush. Hacking as another feature involves a ‘push your luck’ mechanic wherein when activating certain objects in the environment, you can hack them to try and disable them or give yourself a bonus of some sort. The hacking minigame generally gives you an option between two benefits (with one being more difficult) with a penalty for a failure before it randomly rolls a number. If your number exceeds the threshold, which is determined by the difficulty you chose, then you’ve succeeded!

One addition to the loadout options of troops is the addition of new mods to be applied to specific weapons. These can alter certain capabilities such as giving a greater ammo capacity or giving a percentage chance for a weapon to not use an action point when fired. Some of these upgrades are permanent and cannot be swapped out while others can be changed at will without destroying the mod. These add interesting new additions to the micro-management of your forces and I for one always welcome anything which might give an advantage.

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The game code I was able to play is largely finished with most of the design elements in place and ready to play. Unfortunately there were still a number of bugs which need to be sorted as there were a number of rather annoying instances where soldiers could either not hack the objective or didn’t move to the right square. It was particularly annoying when my ranger got mauled to death by a zombie who attacked her through a wall… but hey, I’m sure they’ll get these kinks sorted out by the time the game releases in February next year.

Overall, I’m optimistic and looking forward to seeing more of the game as more comes out on February 5th in 2016. You can pre-order the game on steam here.

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