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Exactly what fans expected: a fantastic strategy game that’s worthy of the XCOM name.

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Life is all about choices. Decisions that you make one day might affect how things go months later. This is a great concept for video games, since they offer you the chance to go back and make different decisions to see their eventual outcome. Until Dawn was a horror take on the concept, but I think XCOM is a great example as well: your decisions, both strategically and in combat, will shape how the world fares.

Turns out the decision was made to release a sequel to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which was a very good decision, so today we’re looking at XCOM 2.

XCOM 2 owes a lot to its predecessor, of course. Gameplay is similar: lead a squad of up to six soldiers against the alien menace in turn-based fashion on procedurally generated battlefields around the world. Gameplay overall feels much like the previous game, with a couple additions here and there like the ability to hack alien structures. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable gameplay change is the concealment bonus at the start of most missions. This allows you to set up your forces and ambush some baddies before the battle begins in earnest.

As always, your soldiers are your eyes and ears on the field, and at first you’re going to absolutely hate them. Thrill as they get shot in the face despite being in cover. Marvel as they fail 90% accurate shots. Rookie soldiers are the bane of any XCOM player’s existence, but early on they’re all you’ve got. Like any soldier, if they die, they’re dead. People don’t come back to life in XCOM…well, with some exceptions, which I’ll mention in a bit.

With persistence, though, they’ll survive and graduate to one of four classes. These are all new to XCOM 2, though some hearken back to the previous game. You’ve got your Sharpshooters, who are mean with a sniper rifle but can also branch into pistol-packing gunslingers; your Rangers, who use a shotgun like the classic Assault but also carry a sword for powerful melee attacks; your Engineers, who carry assault rifles and can also manipulate a drone for attack and defense and your Grenadiers, who use powerful cannons and are uniquely capable at lobbing grenades around the battlefield.

As a soldier racks up kills, they’ll increase in rank and can proceed through a skill tree collecting upgrades. They’ll also eventually earn advanced customization options as well as a unique nickname; this is so you’ll feel extra bad then they inevitably die from a lucky critical hit. Later on you’re even able to hook your soldiers up with exo suits that offer more advanced weapons and capabilities.

Aliens, represented by the ADVENT organization, will be your executioners this time, as always, and this time around you’re fighting to reclaim Earth after they’ve successfully taken over. Your organization is a little more rag-tag than previous games; rather than earning support from various nations, you’re now hooking up with branches of the anti-alien resistance movement and pooling your resources together to grow stronger. The time-management and decision-making aspects of the game are changed up a bit thanks to this; generally you’ve got more options for how to spend your time, but less time to actually spend on them. Do you want more supplies? Would additional engineers to build gear help? And what about actually bringing down alien strongholds and disrupting their projects? Every choice carries a benefit and a consequence.

The aliens themselves have stepped up their game as well. They don’t really have to worry about being discreet anymore – Earth belongs to them now, after all. This means they can bring out the big guns. Even the modest Sectoid has gone from a traditional gray alien to a lanky, shark-mawed horror, to say nothing of its new ability to mind-control corpses and send them on the attack – people do come back from the dead in XCOM, they’re just not friendly!

New aliens are a shock as well; without saying too much to preserve the surprise, just know that civilian defense missions are a little more exciting in XCOM 2. You’ll have to formulate new strategies to deal with your upgraded foes. What’s more, XCOM 2 is terribly fond of timing your missions. If your plan is to slowly and carefully sweep through missions, you’re going to have to reconsider, since the vast majority of missions must be completed in a given number of turns.

The best word to describe XCOM 2 overall is “stressful.” There’s never enough of anything. You need more money to produce gear. You’re short on scientists, so research is taking longer than it needs to. There’s no more space left in the base for new structures. Your veteran soldiers were all wounded in the last mission, so you’ll need to take on the next with some rookies and hope for the best. This is the kind of environment some gamers flourish in, but others should be warned that XCOM 2 doesn’t pull any punches. There’s no “right” answer to a situation that gives you all the benefits and none of the accompanying pain.

The most important skill you’ll learn as you play is the ability to adapt to consistently unfavorable situations – this is key to success in any XCOM title, perhaps here moreso than any other. Finally, if all this isn’t enough for you, XCOM 2 boasts a multiplayer mode, allowing you to face off with friends using a Warhammer-style point buy system to create armies.

XCOM 2’s presentation is gorgeous, of course. The game retains the stylized aesthetic we saw in the first XCOM, coming off a bit like a comic book at times. Animations are great; watching a soldier take their shot is thrilling as you pray for them to take down a troublesome foe, and likewise enemy shots are just as thrilling when your heroes’ lives are on the line. One highlight is the multi-cultural voice acting; there’s an option that makes your non-English speaking soldiers cry out in their home languages in battle. It’s a nice touch that highlights the attention to detail in XCOM 2. As for performance, it helps to have a decent GPU to run XCOM 2, but it’s not required as the game will run relatively well on an Nvidia GTX 770 or so.

In conclusion, XCOM 2 is exactly what fans expected: more XCOM. If the first game was your space jam, the sequel is going to share its place in your heart. If you didn’t care much for the first, this one’s not going to change your mind. Overall, it’s a fantastic strategy game that’s worthy of the XCOM name. For a game about hard choices, at least the decision to check it out is easy.

About the Author: Cory Galliher