XCOM 2 review: Sci-fi strategy that’s deeper and more daunting

Neil deGrasse Tyson strides across a gas station forecourt clad in a mechanized blue-and-neon-pink exoskeleton. He stops, raises his arm, and launches a wrist-mounted rocket at a building across the street. The warhead slams into the side of a wall, tearing a fiery hole in the brickwork, and shredding the alien standing on the other side. Neil deGrasse Tyson laughs. “Did you see that?” he says to the corpse.

The last time I played XCOM 2, the sequel to superb turn-based strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I decided to build a crack team of alien-killing pop stars. This time, playing a finished version of the game, I decided that I might need some sharper minds.

I was, after all, tasked with saving humanity from the tyranny of a world government run by evil aliens. Players of XCOM 2 will benefit from knowledge of its two most recent predecessors, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM: Enemy Within, but no matter how well you defended the planet against invasion in those games, XCOM 2 assumes you failed. It’s now 2035 and monsters from beyond the stars are in charge, to the severe detriment of Earth’s native residents.

With that in mind, as the commander of a ragtag bunch of guerrilla fighters, I chose to rename my troops after scientists. Neil deGrasse Tyson quickly became my best soldier, a chaingun-wielding maniac whose specialty was destroying bits of scenery, flushing his alien opponents out of XCOM’s all-important cover.

Carl Sagan, on the other hand, was a ruthless killer who preferred to get up in the mandibles of the aliens he murdered, slicing up anyone that came close with a glowing electric machete, and blasting away anything else with a souped-up shotgun. Stephen Hawking and Marie Curie became my tech experts, utilizing small hovering drones called "Gremlins" to provide support in the game's turn-based fights. Hawking specializing in healing wounded soldiers on the procedurally generated battlefield, while Curie used her UAV for offensive duties, hacking gun emplacements and electrocuting enemies.

As my guerilla campaign against Earth's new alien government went on, I handed each of them bigger and better toys. Neil deGrasse Tyson got his exoskeleton. Michio Kaku got a psychic shield to protect against mind control attacks. Ada Lovelace got a brace of grenades, happily lobbing canisters filled with gas, needles, and alien goo at her opponents. I developed each of these items in the lab aboard the Avenger, XCOM 2's hovering home base, and built them in the engineering bay. As commander, players can dictate which items they'd like to prioritize, meaning over time, you can turn your team members into specialists, outfitting them with increasingly powerful items.

But no matter how powerful your squad gets, as the underdog in the fight for Earth, you never feel like you're on top of things. Campaigns of XCOM: Enemy Unknown always seemed to have a turning point, a time by which you'd either been mercilessly slaughtered by the invading aliens, or you'd turned your ragged group of soldiers into an elite fighting force. This gave the game a strange difficulty curve, where surviving the first few months was a nightmare, but the final stages of an operation became something of a victory lap, your veteran squad's inch-thick armor, futuristic plasma cannons, and mind-shattering psychic powers making short work of the aliens' biggest and baddest.

You're controlling a guerrilla force now

XCOM 2 still gives access to similarly enjoyable toys, but the aliens now keep pace with the rate of your advance. Squads begin facing off against regular troops, genetically modified humans with standard rifles and the right number of arms and legs, but they're soon joined by Mutons — 9-foot-tall alien ogres that can kill one of your soldiers in one punch — and worse: Vipers are humanoid snakes with prehensile tongues that can drag your team members out into the open. Codexes are more like computer programs given life than aliens, flickering beings of orange light that emanate from a hovering metal brain, able to teleport around the game's levels, split themselves into two, and call down clouds of explosive purple miasma on your forces. Even basic Sectoids — taller and toothier versions of the "Gray" alien archetype — can seriously mess up your plans by using psychic powers to disorient, panic, or flat-out take control of your soldiers. Each is wildly different in presentation and personality, and each forces you to adapt to take them out.

That adaptation makes XCOM 2 feel more fluid — and fun — than its predecessor. A slow and steady advance across the map was a tactic that made sense for Enemy Unknown's defensive force, but one that wouldn't make sense for XCOM 2's quick-striking guerrilla army — now you're the underdog, and you need to get in and get out before you're cornered by the superior force. This necessity for speed is hard-coded into the new game's mechanics — several missions give you strict time limits, forcing you to hack a terminal, or rescue a prisoner, or secure cargo within a certain number of turns. Others have only a short window for extraction, forcing you to plan ahead to get everyone out alive. This forces flexibility, and tactics worked out on the fly, rather than letting you settle into well-worn battle plans and with them, boredom.

In Enemy Unknown, for example, I treated my sharpshooter as an immobile turret, rushing them into a high-up vantage point on the first turn of the battle and leaving them there, free to survey — and shoot — from a safe distance. But when I tried the same trick with my first sharpshooter in XCOM 2, she was quickly cut off from her squadmates as they surged forward. With reinforcements holding the ground between the extraction point, and no way to cover the distance in between in just three turns, I had to leave her on the ground as the rest of my squad took a somber ride back to base in the extraction chopper.

I had to alter my tactics further to adapt to XCOM 2's new "dark events," a selection of nasty bonuses the aliens roll out every month that include things like better armor, more reinforcements, or a UFO that will chase your movable base around the world. Commanders can choose to stop some of these events before they happen by striking out at an alien position, but the missions are difficult, and you can only choose to counter one of the three on the table, meaning you regularly need to choose the lesser of three evils and adapt your tactics accordingly, hurrying your operations to avoid incoming reinforcements, or treating human hostages as potential monsters in disguise.

While the sheer array of variables makes XCOM 2 more tactically interesting than Enemy Unknown and its follow-up, Enemy Within, it also makes it a more daunting experience. This is especially apparent back at base, on the game's world map, where aspirant commanders are presented with limited resources and a seemingly endless array of things to spend them on, but given little guidance about what to do.

Only through trial-and-error does it become clear what you should be prioritizing, and it's galling to get 10 hours into a campaign that you hamstrung at the beginning by wasting all of your supplies on single-use items like grenades and medkits, rather than building up the infrastructure on board the Avenger, or training solid replacement soldiers.

But this array of options is also the beauty of XCOM 2. Where Enemy Unknown gave you the world's best, its sequel gives you whatever's left, and when you do succeed — you and your scientists, or pop stars, or family pets — against 9-foot-tall aliens and all the odds, success is all the sweeter.

XCOM 2 is out on PC on February 5th.