XCOM 2 is the latest installment of the classic turn-based tactics series that started with XCOM: UFO Defense. It’s a sequel to the 2012 reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown and is set 20 years after you lost the first game. That’s right: so many players lost their first playthrough of the game that the canon story of XCOM 2 is that Earth never stood a chance against the alien invaders. Instead of a top secret paramilitary defense force that is supplied and supported by the collective governments of the earth, you play a ragtag band of freedom fighters who can barely scrape together a full set of body armor – not that it would help much.
XCOM 2 is a wholesale improvement over its predecessor, XCOM: Enemy Within. The game is very similar to Enemy Within but is much more thematically engaging. You start with a squad of four soldiers, which can later be upgraded to six, and make your way across a semi-randomly generated map, stumbling upon enemies and desperately scoping out good cover. There are five character classes: Range, Grenadier, Sharpshooter, Specialist and Psi-Operative, the latter of which is unlocked later in the game.
The cautious crawl of the last game has been replaced with an ever-present sense of urgency that makes each mission feel like a desperate struggle to survive. Most missions have some sort of timed objective that incentivizes players to rush into the unknown and face whatever extra-terrestrial dangers lie within. To offset the need to move quickly, most missions will start with your soldiers concealed, meaning enemies will not immediately be on the lookout.
Instead of a secret underground base, XCOM operates out of a stolen alien hover-carrier called The Avenger. The game still has a base-building aspect like most of the previous titles though it is more consolidated. You will end up placing fewer facilities than in previous games, but deciding which facilities to build and where to put them is more important than ever.
An interesting addition to the game is the new loot drop system. Enemies will occasionally drop valuable items, which are usually enhancements for your soldiers’ weapons or components needed to make entirely new ones. Each of your individual soldiers can put a variety of different attachments on their weapons, such as a scope that will enhance the soldier’s aim or a repeater that has a small chance of instantly killing an enemy when hit.
Another highlight of the game is the new soldier customization options. Players can customize a soldier’s gender, appearance, country of origin, voice, demeanor, and even write a short bio about them. Randomly generated characters will now come with a small amount of personality as they each look unique and come with a basic backstory. Players can also import character packs made by others or export their own for others to use. There’s nothing quite like having the casts of your favorite television show team up to fight an alien invasion.
XCOM 2 keeps to its roots by remaining a real challenge. It captures the theme of desperately trying to win a war where you’re outnumbered, outgunned, and outmaneuvered at almost every instance. You’ll laugh, you’ll rage, you’ll miss point blank shots, you’ll hit when you know you didn’t deserve to. That’s XCOM, baby.