XCOM 2 Extended Hands-On Impressions

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Over the holidays, I was granted access to the XCOM 2 build by the folks at Firaxis and 2K… so while the rest of you were enjoying time with family and friends, I was fighting a repressive alien occupation force. I had some time with a similar build a couple of weeks ago, I’ve now had the chance to more thoroughly explore the mechanics and processes in play. I’ve spoken about the tactical changes in a previous preview of the game (in that it’s largely remained the same), so in this preview I will be focusing on the strategic play.

Big changes (which I’ve finally gotten a chance to examine) were done to the strategic gameplay and little of the original design from Enemy Unknown remains. Instead of building satellites and working to retain as many funding nations as possible (while they slowly panic and back away…), XCOM 2 goes the other direction and has you building up resistance forces around the map. You make contact with these forces around the map and unlock their precincts from there, which gives you access to more zones, missions, and a greater income. So instead of panic slowly rising and having countries leave the XCOM initiative, you are working the other way to bring more and more of them into the fold. It’s an interesting twist which completely reverses one of the central mechanics of the XCOM series, but I feel that it is a very interesting (and fun) shake up.

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This effectively means that for the early game, you have a limited scope to work within as missions only appear in the areas which you have developed contact with. This might sound like it makes the game easier and less frantic than previous XCOM titles, but I assure you that this is not the case. Instead, the player engages in a race with the aliens themselves who are trying to push nefarious agendas as well as complete their masterplan which is code named: “The Avatar Project”. Each month, the player is made aware of the various agendas which the aliens will be pushing forward with during that month such as bonuses to Advent troops and increased enemy numbers during missions. The aliens might also decide back at the resistance in which case a terror mission is launched wherein XCOM has to go in and once again rescue civilians from rampaging alien forces. If XCOM is successful, the resistance will be greatful and the region will offer an increased contribution of supplies to the project permanently. Alongside all this, the aliens also add progress to the “Avatar Project” and if too much progress is made, it’s game over for XCOM as the aliens complete their master plan and humanity is doomed.

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Luckily, the player can undertake missions to counter the various alien agendas as well as hindering progress on the “Avatar Project”. Each month the player receives a selection of guerrilla ops, similar to the choices you get in Enemy Unknown, where you can choose to attempt to counter one of the three alien agendas for that month. Alongside this, the player can also choose to sabotage secret alien facilities in any of the territories they’ve established contact with. This provides impetus to the player to expand quickly and take the fight to the alien forces and discourages the more conservative approach which some players favoured in Enemy Unknown at certain mission bottlenecks.

Alongside guerrilla ops, players will also be given the opportunity to go on council missions. Given by the same mysterious former councilman from Enemy Unknown, they’re generally a good way to get some resources and experience for soldiers. The missions themselves fall into a number of categories including hacking/destroying/defending a transmitter, escorting/kidnapping a VIP, or looting a supply train… amongst other variations. They’re varied enough that you won’t get bored and thanks to quasi-procedural map generation, there’s enough variety on the maps to keep you on your toes. There are still a number of buildings or terrain layouts which become recognisable over multiple playthroughs but it is still an improvement on the repeating selection of maps from Enemy Unknown.

After completing a mission successfully, the map receives a new scanning opportunity for the player to investigate. Rather than simply having the player passively scan the map for alien threats, as was the case with Enemy Unknown, the player actively selects targets to scan and provide them with a number of rewards after they’ve scanned the listed number of days. These rewards include extra resources such as supplies or intel as well as other bonuses such as increased power supply for the base or new recruits. Your monthly income from the resistance groups you’ve made contact with similarly requires collection via scanning as they’re given as a supply drop on the map… which can prove a nuisance to collect if an alien interceptor is deployed to the same area. Accessing the Black Market (formerly the “Grey Market” in Enemy Unknown) similarly requires targeted scanning to unlock.

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The interceptor gameplay of previous XCOM entries has largely been completely down away with this time around. Thematically, it makes sense as XCOM cannot maintain a fleet of interceptors covertly and instead are now the ones being intercepted by the alien occupation forces. It’s a shame that interceptor combat won’t be a feature in this game, but its previous iteration in Enemy Unknown didn’t really feel all that fleshed out to begin with so I doubt it will be missed by many. Occasionally alien interceptors will be deployed to a region and if you proceed to move to said region, they will engage you. When this happens, the Avenger is disabled and a mission triggers as Advent ground forces come to capture the ship.

This event basically leads to the game’s ‘base-defence’ mission as was present in previous XCOM titles. However, rather than taking place on the Avenger proper, the mission largely centres around the defence of the Avenger landing bay in a fortified position against waves of enemies. This doesn’t sound so bad, except for the fact that you have to leave the safety of the fortified position in order to destroy an EMP emitter array across the map from your position. This would be a tough hand to play but luckily, the game does make it significantly easier for you by slowly giving you all your recruits to play with in the mission. I ended up with a small horde of recruits who farmed xp from the enemy units as they deployed by catching them in a hail of bullets in their overwatch attacks. This mission design definitely wasn’t the best I’ve encountered and I hope a bit more work is added to this aspect of the game before its full release.

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Base management is largely the same as you choose what rooms to build, technology to research, and equipment to manufacture… much as in (almost) every other XCOM game. Although the base building is largely unchanged mechanically (you still have a honeycomb-type structure which you hollow-out), thematically it’s quite different as your base is now essentially a mobile carrier, built in the remains of a captured alien transport ship. There are some minor thematic changes here such as; instead of magma vents there are unshielded conduit areas which give a bonus to power generation/use for any room built on them. Another mechanical difference here is that instead of excavating dirt to free up space, you clear out wreckage within the ship which actually gives you resources instead of costing you. The drawback here is that to clear out wreckage you need to assign an engineer to the task and, in the early game, your staff are limited in number. It also works to give these engineers something to do on the ship when you acquire them but don’t have the resources to build new rooms for them to staff.

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Another feature which I actually found quite refreshing was the overhaul of the weapons, armour, and inventory management system before each mission. Rather than researching new weapons and then building a weapon for each soldier individually. In this version, once you research and upgrade your arsenal by paying for it in your workshop; all soldiers who can wield that weapon get access to it. So if you researched and payed for a shiny new sniper rifle, all your snipers are now automatically equipped with the better variant. It’s pretty nifty and helps to streamline inventory management somewhat as you don’t need to worry about equipping each soldier with newest gear as it comes out. Luckily, the weapon mods you installed on a lower level weapon are carried over to the upgraded version so the game doesn’t take away your modifications for a particular soldier’s build.

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So there you have it. My extended impressions of the strategic gameplay (and a bit of the tactical) of the upcoming XCOM 2. There are a lot of thematic and gameplay changes to the strategic map which force the player to be a lot more active in their choices in the campaign. Base management has largely been kept the same from the previous game while small but significant tweaks have been made to alter the gameplay in this area change things. There are still some aspects which could have used a bit more work, but the game is largely polished and stable (save for a few hard crashes here and there). I am very looking forward to the game’s full release next month and I hope that the rest of the game’s campaign measures up to the benchmark that I’ve experienced thus far.

XCOM 2 is available for pre-order on steam here. The full game will be released February 5th.

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