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XCOM 2 hands-on – the next encounter with aliens introduces many innovations

XCOM 2 Preview

Game PreviewDec 15, 2015 at 6:45a PSTby Luc

XCOM 2 hands-on – the next encounter with aliens introduces many innovations

The huge success of Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within ensured a continuation of the XCOM series. We had a chance to check out the latest installment, together with a number of improvements and unexpected innovations that go with it.

  • Turn-based tactical game focused on the fight against aliens;
  • The player becomes the head of XCOM, an organization created by leading soldiers and specialists;
  • Big changes in the mechanics as compared to the previous installments: hiding, transporting companions, hacking;
  • Four new classes with varied specializations;
  • Official support for mods on release;
  • Map scenery randomly generated for each mission;
  • Enhanced customization options for characters and equipment;
  • New tasks on the world map – we don't just fight anymore!

The XCOM – or X-COM – series has over two decades of history under its belt. The graphical progress it has made is undeniable, even though the core gameplay remains virtually the same from the beginning. The emphasis put on the tactical and strategic aspect, in a turn-based version to boot, was once nothing out of the ordinary, but today it is a rarity... What’s more, XCOM revamped in 2012 is currently second to none in this field. And this isn't due to sparse competition! To put it simply, Enemy Unknown hit all the right notes, appealing to the feeling of nostalgia as well as offering a variety of new solutions within a proven formula. Enemy Within, an expansion set released shortly thereafter, confirmed that Firaxis Games was in great shape. It also proved that in the times of dynamic, non-stop action there is still room for demanding, well laid-out gameplay. XCOM 2, announced a few months ago, is looking to continue this tradition. Although there is still some time until the premiere, I recently had the chance to see for myself if the production was moving in the right direction.

Aliens with a plan

Although shooting aliens is fun in itself, no game from the XCOM series can do without a sensible plot. What we will see in XCOM 2 continues the story presented in the previous installment to a large extent... but the events unfold in a direction that hardly any of the fans expected. The action takes place twenty years after the events of the saga’s first installment, wherein we were desperately trying to repel an alien invasion. In the new production the invaders have succeeded in their efforts to conquer Earth.

Those who didn't enjoy the new situation and the alien “rule” began to organize rebel cells, which are regularly fought by an organization named ADVENT. Comprised of the most faithful servants of the new regime, it was initially formed by people, but at the beginning of the game each one of its members had already undergone far-reaching mutations, which made them into hybrids of sorts. Of course, their status, history, as well as the general mood prevailing in the society will be revealed in a separate prologue, in which we also learn that XCOM, though heavily weakened, has survived. Despite the disarray it found itself in, the organization has no intention to give up the fight. In order to “take back” the world, it needs a fearless and experienced leader. The player learns which character he or she is going to assume during the first mission. As much as I am tempted to reveal who becomes the head of the organization, I'll keep this information to myself. Let me just say that we've already been acquainted with this person...

As long as we stay out of enemy’s sight, we can freely deploy our team.

Controlled extermination

XCOM 2 introduces a change in the evacuation system. From now on, once we find ourselves in a designated area, we can request a shuttle. If we do this, a selected character is taken from the battlefield. We can use this solution to transport characters one by one, each one in a separate turn.

The tutorial itself is more than just a story-driven introduction; it explains all the innovations that appear in this installment. And these are surprisingly numerous, so even assuming that we had spent hundreds of hours with the previous part, it's best if we complete it anyway. Once I did, I received a choice of two missions... and opted for the one that was theoretically more difficult – Blacksite. Without going into details about the specific goals I was given, let's focus on what has changed. The first, extremely important modification of the game, is the fact that our team starts its adventure in hiding. That's right, we are invisible to our opponents, at least to a certain extent. As long as we manage to stay out of their sight, there won’t be any fight – even if our soldiers have already spotted the opponent! The mechanism is based on the field of view of each enemy – in XCOM 2 it is marked on the map with characteristic red squares. If we avoid them, we can freely deploy our team, setting up the perfect ambush. The solution itself may not sound game-changing, but trust me – in terms of tactics, it completely changes the nature of the first skirmish. The moment we initiate the fight or the opponent notices us the hiding ends and we switch to "regular" gameplay.

Evacuation is different than before.

“Regular” doesn't mean “the same as before”. The way we fight has undergone a visible evolution and although everyone who had fun with Enemy Unknown will feel at home, many additional options were introduced as well. Particular attention should be paid to at least several of them – transporting bodies of wounded/unconscious companions, a new set of classes, different version of overwatch, and aiming weapons at exploding objects (e.g. gasoline containers). The option of throwing our companions over our shoulder greatly expands the range of available actions and no longer compels us to expose the medic – usually lightly armored – to enemy fire. Overwatch aimed many times at the same opponent switches automatically to a nearby enemy if the original target died, whereas shooting at flammable containers helps eliminate many targets clustered in their vicinity. The changes in the class system are a much more complex issue, so I will address them in a separate paragraph.

Our team is in great shape, ready to annihilate alien troops.

Reporting for duty

Same as before, there’s a total of four classes available, but the options we’ve had so far were replaced by modified soldiers belonging to the following categories: specialist, grenadier, ranger, and sharpshooter. It would seem that each of these classes corresponds with the well-known archetypes, but the developers distinguished the individual professions within the trees. We still have two ways of development, but they differ from each other much more than they did in Enemy Unknown. For instance, the sharpshooter chooses between becoming a classic sniper and... a master of pistols. In turn, the specialist can invest points in a medical or hacking specialization; this choice entails completely different roles on the battlefield. General specializations are generally so opposed to each other that instead of the four basic classes we actually have a total of eight.

Depending on our choices, the drone specialist can become a medic or a hacker.

Wait a minute... Did I Just use the term “hacking”? Indeed, this ability will appear in XCOM 2, and although it is not overly complicated, it allows for slight changes in the course of a skirmish. If we have a character that's trained well enough, we will be able to take over enemy robots or disrupt enemy communications. However, if our cyberspecialist fails... the opponents will gain, e.g., greater resistance to our attacks. Another interesting addition consists in collecting stuff from the battlefield – defeated opponents sometimes drop weapon or armor elements, which can later be used during research. Part of the “loot” we get automatically at the end of the mission, but the remaining items we must acquire ourselves.

Managing the base looks familiar, but there’s a couple of new elements.

Theater of our operations

Due to the fact that we get much more extensive character customization, the creators will make available the option of saving characters and transferring them between friends. This means that after selecting an appropriate option, a soldier once created will become a part of a pool of shared heroes, and others will be able to use him or her during their missions.

As you can clearly see, XCOM 2 has undergone quite a development on the tactical side, but what about the strategic aspect, which allows us to look at the war we wage from a broader perspective? Here, we also received major changes that should appeal to those in favor of diversity. Managing our base looks familiar, but the pool of known premises is joined by new ones: Proving Grounds, where we can develop, among others, new types of ammunition and grenades, and Guerrila Tactics School, where we train our recruits in such a way that upon reaching the next level their class is not assigned automatically but chosen by the player. Of course, if we prefer to rely on fate, we can leave the newbie soldiers to their own devices in hopes that they will be assigned to the category we need. From the base level we can also modify existing troops and weapons. The number of customizing options is really impresive, including a very detailed face design, tattoos, as well as skins and names for weapons. If we spend enough time with these options, we will create an entire team of unique soldiers with whom we'll quickly form a bond.

The word map includes a variety of newly introduced activities.

Sooner or later we'll have to leave our HQ, and the moment we move to the world map we'll notice further progress made by Firaxis Games. What’s visible at first glance is that the map is much more detailed. I didn’t have an opportunity to check out the entire globe, but the part I saw clearly showed that in some cases we are dealing with the division not only into regions and countries, but also components within them (e.g. Russia will not be one, coherent entity, but a group of smaller “provinces”). Taking back a single continent therefore seems to be a much more complicated process, especially now that there’s more than only combat-related places appearing on the map. We will also find tasks such as establishing communication with rebel units or detecting a black market where, for a specified period, we will be able to sell items that we don't need anymore for a good price.

Not only do the members of ADVENT look dangerous – they ARE dangerous.

Two elements appearing at the top of the screen – the so-called AVATAR PROJECT and Dark Events – look quite interesting, too. The former is represented by a growing bar symbolizing the progress of aliens in their deadly experiment. If we allow it to be filled completely, we need to start the campaign from scratch. The second element is also associated with the activity of aliens. Each month we receive special assignments from the Council. How we deal with them affects the opponents we'll encounter. If we ignore additional tasks, opponents will, e.g. deal increased damage or get more hit points. It's an interesting concept, thanks to which the gameplay is no longer seen in a one-dimensional perspective – now we have to worry about much more than just winning on the battlefield!

New opponents mean new dangers and attacks.

Long live the randomness

In terms of graphics, XCOM 2 should be a surprise to most fans. While the game doesn't look spectacular, the progress in comparison to the previous installments is instantly noticeable. The colors seem more vivid, animations are improved, and although there are still occasional bizarre situations or cases of shooting at an unnatural angle, the rest completely makes up for these errors. The maps look fantastic, but – what is perhaps the most important new addition – they aren't permanently assigned to specific missions. What does it entail? If we decide to complete the campaign once again, each new mission will take place on a different map than before. Although the distribution of key elements will remain the same, the rest, along with the “main theme”, will be drawn from the available pool. To put it simply, a skirmish that first takes place in a snowy setting will be set in a tropical area the next time. I don’t have to say how much such a change will affect the repetitiveness of gameplay (which had already been huge).

Who needs additional cover with such an amount of armor?

Even those who feel that a randomly chosen backdrop for a mission is not enough to satisfy them will certainly not be bored. Firaxis Games and 2K announced that the game will receive the full official support for mods on release. The creators will make available a total of 50 GB used during asset production, and this means that thanks to the fan community the vitality and diversity of XCOM 2 will be virtually unlimited. Given what modders did with Enemy Unknown without the support from the devs, I cannot even start to imagine what they will accomplish now.

It looks like the crouching position is a sensible approach against automated opponents.

All the power in commander's hands

If all the above mentioned information doesn’t make you feel optimistic about the upcoming XCOM 2 then... frankly, I don't know what would do the trick. I spent enough time in front of the monitor to get to know all the important innovations introduced in the sequel, as well as find out that these changes were made to streamline that which had already worked great rather than forcibly modify the game in the name of unnecessary, artificial, game-changing innovations. If, like me, you spent at least several dozen hours with Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, there’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll like XCOM 2. It's more of the same, but in a broader, richer and better designed version that has already won the hearts of strategy fans worldwide. Everything seems to indicate that this combination will succeed for the third time.