XCOM 2 hands-on preview: Earth is doomed if you leave me in command

Sorry, everyone. I tried. But the aliens are in charge now.

Here’s what my XCOM 2 experience was like: I spent half an hour in the character customization screen creating my best faux-Snake/Big Boss. I couldn’t find a Kurt Russell mullet but I got the eye patch, the dangling cigarette, the scraggly facial hair. It was great.

Then I sent him into battle and of course he was the first damn character to die.

I mean, all five members of my squad died. But Snake’s death hurt the most, you know? And that’s, I guess, the masochistic charm of XCOM—a game I love even when I want to dropkick my monitor and flip my desk and throw my mouse through a window. Figuratively, I think.

Rage against the machine

I got about two and a half hours of hands-on time with XCOM 2 last week, spread across three missions: The tutorial, an “easy” side mission, and a might-as-well-staple-my-hand-to-my-face difficult main story mission (which is chronicled, albeit in abbreviated form, in the video above).

XCOM 2

The world has ostensibly changed a lot between XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2. Humanity, fending off an alien invasion in the previous game, is now subjugated. XCOM, once a globe-spanning defense network, has been reduced to small pockets of resistance fighters.

It’s a compelling setup, but don’t expect to see much evidence of this leaner, meaner XCOM. Even in the tutorial XCOM seems remarkably well-armed and well-funded for a guerrilla operation. Scientists are still doing research. You’ve got assault rifles and shotguns and sniper rifles galore. It plays...pretty much the same.

That’s not a bad thing, mechanically. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic tactics game, and there are plenty of background features that should make XCOM 2 a worthy sequel—namely, procedurally generated maps. A lot of these “complaints” are merely observations that Firaxis has, perhaps, taken an ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach to XCOM 2.

But from a thematic standpoint, it struck me as a bit odd. From what I played, there wasn’t a strong sense of the XCOM organization as an underground band of freedom fighters/terrorists. You’re just...XCOM. The game even makes a big point of saying that your base is now a flying fortress inside a captured alien ship, but it looks pretty much identical to your underground lair in Enemy Unknown:

XCOM 2

Keep in mind, these are just rapid-fire impressions. Part of the problem evaluating XCOM 2 versus its predecessor is that a lot of the changes are couched in nuance and only become apparent over the course of a longer session. Our three missions, divorced from any real sense of progression, were more focused on the tactical side of things.

In that sense, XCOM 2 feels pretty familiar. The main change is that many maps now open with your squad “Undetected.” You can move about the map unharried until you either stumble into range of an enemy or open fire on them. This is essentially the “guerrilla” aspect of the game—aliens don’t consider you one of the bad guys until you suddenly are.

But Firaxis made it clear it’s unlikely you’ll play entire missions Undetected. Combat is still the core conceit, and it feels like that aspect’s been carried over practically wholesale. Some of Enemy Unknown’s baddies take different form—the Thin Men are now those crazy snake-alien things, for instance—and the classes tweaked, but this is otherwise more of the same. Move your people slowly forward, put them in Overwatch whenever possible, hope you don’t get picked off one by one and then...get picked off one by one. Or limp back to base.

XCOM 2

Maybe that’s why there’s not much sense of XCOM being the underdog this time—because XCOM’s always been the underdog. Enemy Unknown already had humanity up against impossible odds. Every single mission was a longshot. Every single mission was do or die.

Hell, it’s the entire setup for XCOM 2, with aliens taking over Earth because you failed in your duties. Going from a perpetually-in-crisis military defense force to a perpetually-in-crisis band of guerrillas? You’re still doomed either way.

You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll throw up your hands and hiss obscenities under your breath. You’ll (maybe) slam a fist into your desk when Sgt. John Lennon shoots at an alien from ten feet away and somehow misses every damn shot, then panics and takes a bullet in the head on the next turn.

XCOM 2

Death is quick and omnipresent, your veteran soldiers stolen away from you with one unlucky roll of the dice. And XCOM 2’s expanded customization options makes it a real nightmare. Characters still earn more traits as they’re promoted, but now they also unlock more customization items— for themselves. New props, new hairstyles, new “attitudes” which change a soldier’s stance and voice acting, new hats. Not only does this give you a reason to dip back into customization late in the game, it also means the loss of a high-level soldier is doubly upsetting.

Like Snake.

XCOM 2 releases February 5, 2016. I hope you’re ready, commander.

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