XCOM was a pretty great re-imagining of the 1994 classic. While it greatly simplified the formula, removing much of the simulation aspect of the game and instead reducing it to a long series of tactical decisions, it nonetheless preserved the core nature of balancing spinning plates, getting screwed quite often and occasionally finding miracles. This sequel doesn’t do anything to recapture what was lost from the classic, but it does reinforce its own core elements and thus defines itself more clearly, resulting in improved mechanics, if not necessarily a complete re-invention.
Having lost the first war against the aliens, XCOM 2 puts you in the shoes of the recently jailbroken commander put in charge of a fledgling resistance group of fighters. Functionally, this makes almost no difference in gameplay from the original. You will still clear out spaces in the ship to build new rooms, fly from mission to mission, research stuff, kill stuff etc. There is still the ‘ant farm’ aspect of the base, which is still supposed to be an interesting diorama but which is really just an elaborate menu, and you will still occasionally be forced to choose one of three missions to complete.
Where XCOM 2 starts differentiating itself is in the small details. Instead of building satellites, which required you be lucky enough to get an engineer and certain building configurations quickly, you ‘contact’ resistance groups along a network across the world. Instead of simply waiting at home, small events randomly pop up around the world granting various benefits. Instead of building individual items for all of your squad members, you build tiers of gear which are automatically equipped, and then given the option to build more specialized equipment which is both more powerful and potentially losable in combat.
The cumulative effect of these changes is that XCOM feels more choice-oriented. You’re less at the mercy of early game RNG, base composition and mission luck, and more able to devise an actual plan of progress based on the first few weeks of game time. On the strategic layer, you’ll be getting screwed over less, and potentially multiple ‘build orders’ are now feasible where before there was an ideal path. It does nothing to recapture the glory of the 1994 original, where you could build multiple bases, had a plethora of building options and choices to make, but it does strengthen and individualize the new mechanics.
The tactical phase is a similar story of small changes that lead to a significantly better experience. First and foremost, stages are now procedurally generated rather than pre-built. This alone would justify the sequel, as the battles in the original quickly became stale and predictable once you memorized all the possible level configurations. Height is also put into greater emphasis overall, with more multi-level buildings and natural hills littering the landscape. Also, enemy groups, which are still discovered in groups of two or three and allowed a free ‘scamper’ opportunity, now actually walk around the level in patrols instead of awkwardly teleporting between waypoints. While the ‘trap-card’ nature of the enemy groups is still annoying, tactics defying and, frankly, quite stupid, it nonetheless is an improvement over the first. And an increased diversity of mission objectives prevents the missions from getting stale as fast they did before, though there will still be quite a lot of search and destroy to do.
Character classes have been revised, though they are pretty similar to their original counterparts. I will say that many of them, particularly the sniper, have been significantly nerfed, with the exception of psionics, which are now easier to get and way stronger than before. But generally speaking, you’ll play out your battles largely the same. Overwatch has been significantly improved as well. Your units will no longer ‘overkill’ enemies and waste shots on clearly dead aliens, again opening up your tactical options for ambush.
Finally, the biggest change to the tactical phase is the ‘concealment’ mechanic. Now, for the majority of missions, your units will be able to move without being discovered as long as they avoid the sight radius of enemy units. This allows you to get the jump on the first group or two of enemies on any given level, thus allowing more aggressive starting tactics and preventing many of the bullshit deaths that would often occur in the first game. While it clearly makes the game easier, that ease is less a simplification of the game and more a removal of the crappy, early battle elements that greatly weakened the first game.
XCOM is not without its problems. I’m fairly certain some of the percentage indicators are lying to me, I’m fairly certain a handful of the skill descriptions are either wrong or lying to me, and I’m fairly certain the line of sight indicators are lying to me. Also, XCOM has way too many bugs. Though most are visual, I’ve locked up at least twice on almost every play session. And despite being made for PC only, there is still a massive problem when trying to move to certain squares, where you’ll have your destination selected only to move your mouse a millimeter and suddenly be moving a unit five squares away, in front of three aliens with no cover. That happened a lot in the first game, and ruined my best iron man runs. It’s clearly not going to be patched out and that blows.
But mechanically, I couldn’t be happier with XCOM. Certainly I’d prefer a return to the original, more simulation and less Oregon Trail, but in emphasizing rather than compromising on its core, XCOM 2 distances itself from its namesake and thus strengthens its argument for existing. It’s a must have for fans of the original, the original remake, and for those who haven’t played either, they might be better off just picking this up.