Hello, Commander. Welcome to Gamer’s Advisory: XCOM 2 Edition!
**BEWARE: GAME SPOILERS BELOW**
For those of you that haven’t been playing turn-based strategy games on PC since the mid 90’s like I have, XCOM is a staple in this game genre. The original X-COM: UFO Defense (also known as UFO: Enemy Unknown) came out in 1994 and was followed by a series of sequels due to its popularity. The series was rebooted in 2012 with the game XCOM: Enemy Unknown and was developed by Firaxis Games (the developer of the critically acclaimed Civilization series, also turn-based strategy games and one of my favorite series of all time). XCOM 2 is the sequel to the reboot from 2012 and was released on February 5th, 2016 as a PC exclusive title, meaning it is not available on consoles like the XBox One or the Playstation 4. This may make it less accessible to libraries and some teens, but you can get this game if you or your teens have a PC that utilizes Steam (the online gaming platform).
So, that’s enough history, right? Let’s get into the game. In XCOM 2, 20 years have passed since the alien invasion of Earth. The original XCOM squad and commander (which was you) failed to repel them and the aliens have taken over the entire world. Way to go, buddy – you let down the entire planet. The aliens have now created their own ‘peacekeeping’ organization (the Advent Administration), complete with a worldwide news station that promotes gene therapy clinics that are supposed to help the populace. These aliens are real peaceful guys, and they never meant harm to anyone. The XCOM organization attacked them first, the aliens cry, despite all of their good intentions! The news station also reports on occasional outbreaks of violence by violent extremists, also known as the remains of the XCOM organization, which is now a resistance force against the alien occupation. This is where you start the XCOM 2 campaign. Central Officer Bradford (also the C.O. in XCOM: Enemy Unknown) leads a small group to rescue you, the Commander, from alien stasis imprisonment where you were linked to the alien psionic net via an implant and were used to run strategic plans.
If you haven’t played the first game in the reboot, it may not be as mind-shattering as it was to me, but this means that all of the events after the aliens attempted to invade your base in XCOM: Enemy Unknown were actually strategy simulations you ran for the aliens. In reality, ‘winning’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown meant you were just helping the aliens develop better strategies, as you’d actually been captured in the base defense you’d thought you’d won. When I figured this out in XCOM 2, I put the game down and just marvelled at the twist that’s revealed in the first mission of the game. There’s a lot more plot, but I’d rather not reveal the ending. Just trust me – it’s good, and it sets the stage for XCOM 3.
If you’ve never played a turn-based strategy game before, here’s how it works. You take your turn (moving squad members one at a time, firing weapons, hunkering behind cover, etc.), and then the computer (the aliens) takes their turn. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, this led to the player slowly creeping their squad across the area, placing their soldiers on Overwatch (reaction fire if aliens came into line of sight), and generally led to slow, methodical playthroughs. Firaxis wisely changed how this works in the sequel, and now most missions have turn timers or some sort of clock you’re racing against before you need to complete an objective. Additionally, most missions start the squad out in Stealth mode, which allows you to creep up on an enemy ‘pod’ (group of enemies that get activated once they see you) and ambush them before they get a chance to find cover or retaliate. Squad members have different classes such as Ranger, Specialist, Sharpshooter, and Grenadier, which also afford them different skills that you can choose between to customize your squad and make them fit your playstyle. Your soldiers gain experience from combat and rank up, and eventually unlock customization options so you can make them look however you want (which can get pretty hilarious). Once you unlock and build the Psi Lab, Rookie soldiers can be placed in it to train them to be Psi operatives, giving them unique abilities including Mind Control. One of the most fun parts of the game, in my opinion, is mind controlling an enemy and sending them in to get annihilated by their own forces. Thanks for helping me out, guys!
While that’s most of the tactical part of the game, there is a bit of base building built in as well. You run this guerilla organization from a former alien supply ship called the Avenger and build rooms to further your research, engineering, and weapons/squad development after clearing the rooms of alien debris. This takes days in-game, and you pass those days by hanging out on the bridge and looking at a Geoscape. The Geoscape shows where on Earth your Avenger is currently landed and displays available missions, places to make contacts with resistance forces to increase your supply (your main resource for building items and rooms), and the like. Some missions are time sensitive, meaning you need to do them ASAP, while others can hang around for awhile.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve been playing turn-based strategies since the early to mid 90’s. My three favorite series are XCOM, Civilization, and Masters of Orion, in that order, and this sequel to an amazing reboot was thoroughly impressive and worthy of the genre. It’s still got a few bugs, sure, but that’ll get worked out soon enough. Downloadable content, or small expansions to the base game, are promised to be on the way, and fan-created mods (optional customizations to the game) are already plentiful. I beat this game over the course of a week (20ish hours played), but I went fairly slow and methodical. Faster games are definitely possible, as well as harder modes and other options for a playthrough. While the plot is phenomenal, this is the type of game you play multiple times due to the mechanics and strategy of it, so one playthrough never feels like enough. Maybe you want to go for a campaign where you only ever use 4 soldiers, or never lose a soldier, or you only use Rangers that can only use their swords (yep – there are sword-wielding stealth-based soldiers, also known as ninjas in our time).
The game can be incredibly infuriating when you miss five 75% chances to hit shots in a row, and then an enemy lands a 50% chance to hit, critically hitting and killing your star soldier. However, the community has a saying for this: “That’s XCOM, baby!” While frustrating, it’s also hilarious in a way, and epic re-tellings of missions gone wrong are a pastime of the XCOM community. You can also rename your randomly generated soldiers and give them nicknames, so all of a sudden your best friend Frank “Hammertime” Jones gets gunned down running across the map like a crazy lunatic, thinking he’s not going to get hit by the 5 aliens with reaction fire, and you get to tell your friend in real life all about it. They may look at you like you’re crazy until you explain that it was in a game, but probably still will after you explain why you named your whole squad after your closest friends. Whatever – it’s fun, and teens will probably love that aspect.
Give this game a try and help free the Earth from the shackles of alien oppression. Good luck, Commander. You’re going to need it.