XCOM 2 let me create a crack team of alien-killing popstars

Taylor Swift died four weeks into the operation against the aliens.

She was in West Africa, part of a five-person team making a raid on an enemy convoy containing valuable supplies. She'd sprinted ahead of her squad, shotgun on her back, machete in her hand, when the snake-woman-thing came out of nowhere. As Taylor rounded a corner, the alien flicked its impossibly long forked tongue toward her, wrapping it around her armored body like a fleshy cable. Despite her training, she couldn't shake it off, and she was pulled backwards into the darkness. The alien coiled around her in one motion and choked the life out of her.

I regretted her loss, but I had no time to mourn. Taylor Swift was dead, but the rest of my squad — and the world — lived on. I had to save them both.

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XCOM 2 is a sequel to 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which itself was a reboot of the classic strategy series of the same name from 1994. As the commander of the shadowy XCOM project, XCOM asked you to use the world's resources to fend off an alien invasion — but XCOM 2 assumes you failed. It's now 2035, and aliens are in charge of governments, police forces, militaries, and the media. They stand in the streets and subjugate the human race, and only the XCOM project — now an underground resistance — can deliver humanity from oppression. That was why Taylor was in West Africa in the first place.

Taylor Swift wasn't born Taylor Swift. She came to me as Alice Cook. Alice was from Ireland, born in 2003, and grew up only knowing a world ruled by aliens. But as commander of the project, I could mold her, change her skills, her armor, her name, and even her face. With a shock of blonde hair, a tall frame, and a personality the game described as "happy-go-lucky," I decided Alice was now Taylor — and Taylor was going to fight.

Aliens have ruled the Earth for 15 years, you know?

XCOM 2's core game takes place on small maps split into grid spaces. As commander, you take small squads of soldiers — first four, then five, then six — into these areas to do turn-based battle against an array of alien forces. Your soldiers execute the orders you've given them one by one — moving, reloading, shooting, or setting up special attacks — before the aliens get to have their go.

Taylor had started the mission in West Africa by slamming her back against the nearest wall. Cover is vital to keeping your soldiers alive on the field: hiding behind solid objects reduces the chance that your enemy's bullets, blobs, and tongues will connect with your handpicked troops. The brick wall Taylor was ducked behind offered full cover — represented by a full blue shield on the game's UI — but even half cover, like a tree stump or a wooden fence, is better than nothing. Further back, I moved my sniper — Rihanna — onto a ridge. She clambered over the rock, unable to shoot this turn, but readying her rifle for her next command.

Clever commanders will flank their enemies, pin them down with long-range fire while other soldiers move around the outside for the killing blow. As Rihanna watched down the scope, I moved the rest of my soldiers. Beyoncé covered the west approach, her minigun ready to hurl hot lead at any oncoming aliens, while Adele stood in the middle, controlling a drone that could hack enemy machinery or heal friendly troops.

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But it was Taylor that was the thin end of my wedge. As soldiers complete more missions, they unlock specializations. Other classes included sharpshooters and a new psi-ops type that can shred aliens with their minds, but Taylor was a ranger, a shotgun-toting class designed for close-range combat. Classes can be upgraded in a variety of ways: I could've made her a figurative ghost, almost invisible to the enemy until she was close enough to press the muzzle of her shotgun against their back, but I chose to go for a more frontal approach. I gave her the "blademaster" skill, handing her a three-foot machete and the chance to perform a running slash attack. The move often left her exposed, out of vital cover, but it also reliably skimmed huge chunks of health off any enemies unlucky enough to get in her way.

On the map I saw two enemies. Both were standard grunts, human / alien hybrids that dressed like Judge Dredd and spoke like a 56K modem trying to connect to the internet. Adele and Beyoncé were too far away to make accurate shots, but the aliens wouldn't be a challenge for my crack team. With a loud boom, Rihanna lanced a sniper shot through one helmeted head, while Taylor pulled out her blade. Sprinting to the edge of her movement range, she brought it down on her target, spilling a shower of bad blood. And then the tongue grabbed her.

Alien hybrids that dressed like Judge Dredd and spoke like a 56K modem trying to connect to the internet

In addition to the snake aliens — known as "vipers" — XCOM's alien ranks are filled with other horrors from beyond the stars. Hulks of dripping matter spring from inside human beings, betraying their shapeshifting form; over-muscled space-ogres smash through walls and hurl green grenades at your forces, destroying cover and health bars in the process. More insidious still are the Sectoids, long-time series adversaries given a toothier makeover since they were last seen in 2012. These spindly irritants can use their psychic powers to mess with your soldiers, taking control of their minds to cause panic, disorientation, or even force them to fire on their friends.

By the time the others had advanced close enough to shoot the viper, Taylor's body lay limp on the floor. Only Rihanna could see the beast as it grabbed Taylor and squeezed around her body. She'd tried to shoot back but with only a 50 percent chance to hit her target behind cover, had missed both shots. Adele finished it off with a close range assault rifle salvo instead, and my remaining soldiers cleaned up the last few aliens before flying home. When I arrived, I was told that Rihanna had been "shaken" by the experience — she would be more susceptible to psychic attacks in the future.

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"Home" in XCOM 2 is the Avenger, a giant hovering facility with an accurate name — it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Avengers' helicarrier. In addition to your soldiers, XCOM 2's Avenger is home to scientists, engineers, and other support staff, and chambers filled with alien debris that can be excavated and filled with useful new facilities. Another screen gives you a view of the planet, cordoned off into sections like classic board game Risk. Missions appear in various corners of the world, but it's up to you how you split your time, and whether you can really afford to answer every distress call.

It's almost the same set-up as 2012's XCOM — except that base was underground — but life in the skies is more complicated. Commanders have a slew of research and engineering options, with only limited resources to go around. Do I want to dig into a dead alien with the hope of finding tech that'll help me research new guns now, when I might not have the materials to build them? Or should I save my corpses to sell on the black market for short-term gain? As XCOM 2's ground battles are more stressful than XCOM's, so too is its management side of the game more overwhelming, tasking you with overturning the world's evil governments, rather than simply repelling an alien assault.

But despite this scope, XCOM 2 is still fantastically good at fostering personal relationships with your soldiers. I've sent thousands of nameless grunts to their doom in hundreds of strategy games, but I've cared about few of them as much as I've cared about Taylor Swift. Of course, I could simply reload a saved game, but the gut-punch I felt when she died is one of the reasons I play these kind of games, to really care whether I win or lose. No, I just have to accept it — Taylor's gone, and we are never ever getting back together.

XCOM 2 is out on PC on February 5th.

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