It saddened me that I had to buy the XCOM2 Collection digitally, as no physical version of the end-of-life complete edition was ever released.
After having completed it, I am doubly sad not to have a proper box, because it was really really good.
The ending of the first (reboot) XCOM was a little bit ambiguous, making the question of a sequel an interesting one. During the final battle, the narration of Boss Elder seems to indicate that the invasion force is some kind of break-away sect from the main alien race, a group of lone wolves outcast for being a bit crap. When they are soundly defeated, then, where do you go from there? Presumably mummy and daddy don’t care about their outcast kiddies?
Well, I’m not sure if I was reading it wrong or this is a straight-up retcon, but mummy and daddy did very much care. Were the original game’s Elders actually referring to their entire race when they talked about being cursed to wander the universe, feeding on lesser species? Either way, between games the aliens came in peace and settled down for 20 years.
Though I find the jumping-off point a little bit squeaky, it’s fairly necessary to avoid doing a straight retread of the first game. Instead of desperately playing catch-up with a vastly technologically superior enemy, this time you’re a fringe resistance group trying to remind the world that the aliens who seem to be happily rebuilding civilisation are actually harvesting civilians for diabolical experiments.
Although your secret bunker has been replaced with a mobile flying fortress, the rhythm of the strategic layer is mostly the same. Clean out the junk in your base’s cargo hold to build new facilities so you can conduct research and build cool stuff. Recruit soldiers and train them up so they don’t die in one hit. Cruise around the world getting everyone to give their resitance money to you. Send your squaddies out to disrupt alien operations and get the sheeple to wake up.
There overall swathe of tactical options for your little squaddies has increased, of course. My particular favourite is the addition of a melee weapon to the front-line Ranger class (who replaces the Assault trooper). There’s very little more satisfying than sending a soldier right up into an alien’s face and carving them a new one, especially when it doesn’t require ammunition and has a far greater chance of success than using a gun. At later levels, the Ranger can even interrupt nearby enemies with melee attacks, so you can simply stand them in the middle of a group and watch the bodies fall as each alien takes its turn.
The other classes are similarly enhanced. Grenadiers fire grenades rather than distinct rockets, which allows you to enhance all the fun grenade types with class-based improvements in blast radius and damage. Sharpshooters can still snipe enemies from across the map and can get a few extra pistol shots in for good measure. Specialists can now heal people remotely with a handy drone and hack robotic enemies into submission.
So while it’s mostly the same stuff as before, it’s much more convenient across the board — which means there’s fewer turns spent just moving people around and more spent laying the beatdown.
The heart of XCOM2‘s appeal for me is definitely in its characters. It’s odd because one would assume that it takes reams of conversation (á la Mass Effect and its ilk) to generate some kind of connection to virtual peeps. Instead, here that connection comes from deeds — which seems odd because all of their deeds are directed by you, the player. These are pure puppets, so how do they get under your skin?
I suppose it’s because they’re not pure puppets. Although you direct their actions, the random number generator (and their underlying stats) determine whether or not they succeed at them. I might have completely lined up Tayla “Hound Dog” Ballo to slice through five enemies in one turn, but it wasn’t me that actually performed the act; I watched it play out in glorious action-cam. There’s great satisfaction to be had in your little squaddies being successful in their lives, which of course generates tension when they are brought low by the nasty aliens.
And once you have established that initial connection after a successful mission or two, you will surely dive into the screeds of clothing options and colour schemes to give them a little more personality. After you’ve done some customisation, there really is no going back.
There’s always a dark side, though, and for all the love you can pour into your allies the general interest of the enemies is somewhat lacking. Rather than fighting purely alien forces, you spend most of the game fighting the genetically-engineered soldiers of the alien front organisation ADVENT — who look entirely like humans except for the bits conveniently covered by armoured faceplates. Some of them have melee weapons, some have bigger guns, some have psionic powers, but they’re still basically human.
That, however, is at least justified by the narrative, the aliens being Very Interested in human DNA for villainous reasons but it’s still a bit boring. It’s also less justifiable for some of the more outlandish creature concepts that are introduced — for example, the Codex, a flickering transdimensional creature that exists only partially in this universe, appears with the body of a sexy lady. Doesn’t the concept of a transdimensional creature inspire you just a tiny bit to come up with something more… well, alien?
Even old favourites the Sectoids have been spliced with human DNA so they look more boring. Sigh.
But the push and pull of battle is as compelling as ever, and the responsive destructible environments continue to be the star of the show. Even the upper floors of buildings are now destructible — so getting caught in an explosion might also come with some unhappy falling damage.
Additional objectives like assassinations and supply raids give you some more narrative interest than simply murdering everything in sight, and if everything falls apart, you can even call for evacuation — assuming you can get all your wounded troops to the evac zone. This is a fantastic addition because it means that a mission gone wrong is no longer an inevitable march to losing six soldiers. When you love your soldiers like I do, you can’t put a price on this feature.
As I bought the Complete Edition, I also have the War of the Chosen expansion. This brings the additional risk of one of three fiendish boss units teleporting in to interrupt almost any mission. Defeat them and they’ll go away for a bit (sometimes returning with a new ability to counter their previous mode of defeat, similar to the vaunted Shadow of Mordor “Nemesis System”), until you can track down their home bases and end them for good.
Though they immediately spike the difficulty of any given mission, summoning units or making off with your favourite soldiers (requiring them to be rescued in special missions later), they are welcome additions on the narrative front as their taunts and jeers spice up the standard battlefield action.
The doomsday clock that controls win and loss is also an interesting proposition. In XCOM your campaign loss condition is irreversible: once a council nation has pulled out, they’re gone for good. This time, ultimate defeat is dictated by the aliens’ progress towards The Avatar Project: as their progress ticks upwards every month, so you can make it tick back down again by raiding their facilities, or using Covert Actions that come with the expansion.
In this manner, you can quite easily sit the game in its middle stages indefinitely, hoovering up all the upgrades before tackling the final mission. Which I might have done, spending all the time and money moulding my favourite soldiers in an unbeatable dream team. (The final mission was, after all that fun, comparatively easy; a bit like an Elder Scrolls game, where after a certain point your character is basically invincible.)
It’s funny because if you put me in front of something more obviously about managing the virtual people, like The Sims, I can’t deal with it. Give those same sims a purpose, though, like saving the world by blowing up aliens in hella cool outfits, and suddenly I can’t tear myself away.
Obviously there’s a very distinct sequel hook at the end, so I’ll be watching out for XCOM3 in a few years…