XCOM has been a gaping hole in my strategy game experience for awhile. When you tell people that you like strategy games or tactical RPGs, that’s a big one that tends to come up. “Oh great, so you must really like XCOM!” This became particularly clear once I played (and loved) Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, a game which those familiar with XCOM stated had quite a bit in common with it. That information solidified for me that yes, at some point I would need to play this game that is supposedly such a staple of the strategy genre. My opportunity came in mid-August when my wife and I decided to brave the pandemic long enough to have a date for our anniversary. Masks on and six feet apart from all the other guests, we decided to treat ourselves with a bit of a shopping spree and I ended up finding the Switch version of XCOM2 on sale. Like many people, I prefer to buy my games on sale and so this seemed like as good an opportunity as I was going to get to jump into this lauded tactical RPG.
Now if you’re here with no knowledge of XCOM yourself, let’s talk about the basics. XCOM2 is a science fiction tactical RPG about earthlings rebelling against their alien overlords. You play as the “Commander,” a silent tactician whose job is to manage the operations of a highly-trained resistance force known as XCOM. From what I can tell having only played the second game, XCOM2 appears to be a direct sequel. You’ve been gone for awhile, a captive of the aliens as part of an experiment known as the “Avatar Project,” and the game begins with a rescue mission to return you to XCOM so you can help them strike back against an enemy that is now firmly grounded on the planet and is pretty well in control of the general populace.
If you’re concerned about story, that paragraph pretty much sums up everything you can expect from XCOM2. The story is nothing to write home about and the game is highly focused on its gameplay loop. There’s plenty of lore you can absorb from actually reading the large blocks of text you’ll get alongside new weapons and research projects, but this aspect of the game is as bog-standard as you can get. The narrative of XCOM2 doesn’t come from the scripted story you experience as you play – it comes from the way that you choose to engage its mechanisms. Your XCOM story will be different than mine on the basis of the types of soldiers that you train and their fate during the missions, and by what types of research you choose to prioritize or facilities you choose to build.
With that in mind, let’s talk about base management. XCOM operates out of a mobile base, an aircraft known as the AVENGER. This is where you will spend your time between missions and golly is the time between missions important in XCOM2. If in your mind strategy in tactical RPGs is just about positioning units on a board, this game will challenge that assumption. Base management is essential and involves a number of significant components: scientific research, weapons development, facility construction, soldier recruitment and training, expanding the resistance network, and selecting missions. Each of these systems is important and focusing too strongly on some to the detriment of others can be your undoing if you don’t play carefully.
Scientific research is necessary both to progress the game’s story and to develop new gear for your forces. There is generally a pretty clear distinction between research that just advances the plot and research that actually gives you access to new tools to make your soldiers better. Just researching a weapon or armor doesn’t give you immediate access, though – your engineers still need to build it, and that requires supplies as well as bits and pieces of alien technology. Certain upgrades apply to the whole squad while others give you one unit of the weapon or armor type in your inventory that you can then equip to a specific soldier.
Engineers also work on the facilities available in the AVENGER. There are 12 different rooms on the ship which at the beginning of the game are full of debris or need some kind of significant work done to make them usable. Once an engineer clears a room, they can build a facility in that room to further your efforts against the alien menace. Facility types vary in function; some simply expand existing resources like the number of resistance contacts you can make or how much energy your ship has for building additional rooms. Others add whole new functions such as training specialized soldiers or unlocking advanced abilities for your units. You’ll generally build facilities as they become necessary – “whoops, I can’t make any more contacts, better build a resistance comms” – but there are advantages to thinking about the location of the different facilities within your base rather than just tossing them in willy-nilly. Power relays are more effective when built onto rooms with energy cores, for example, and you benefit more from building a workshop in a position with as many adjacent rooms that need engineer staff as possible.
If all of that seems a little overwhelming, know that it isn’t tossed at you all at once. You don’t start out with enough scientists or engineers working for you to deal with all of this at one time. At first you might be undergoing a single, short research project and working towards saving up resources for a particular type of weapon or tool for your squads. The game also helps in the early hours by giving you story-motivated projects to get you moving; take care of those starting out and as you begin to make a bit of progress, what you want to develop will become more obvious to you. For me once I recognized that there were certain projects that could enhance my entire squad at once, I started making decisions specifically motivated to make those happen more quickly.
To get new scientists, engineers, and materials in order to make these projects a reality, you’ll have to undergo missions. From the bridge of the AVENGER you can view a map of the world which is broken into various regions, and from there you’ll be able to see the different types of missions available to you. A lot of what you’ll be able to see involves scanning – this is essentially an overworld activity where you fly the AVENGER to a specific location and then spend multiple days there watching a meter fill up, eliding time until you finish the scan and get the reward. These scans are also when most of your projects on the ship will get done, so if you’re like me and you get really into the base management aspect of the game, you’ll find yourself wanting to prioritize these so you can advance your squads and further your scientific research.
The aliens aren’t going to just stand by and let you fortify your army in peace, though, and you can’t afford to sit still fiddling with new weapon prototypes for too long. There are multiple countdowns taking place which show the operations of the enemy: a countdown to the building of their next research facility, a countdown to their next retaliation strike on a group of civilians, a countdown to penalties to your operations called “dark events,” and finally a countdown to the completion of their Avatar Project which causes a game over without interference. Focusing all of your time on scanning missions to gather resources for yourself without ever engaging in missions to counter the aliens’ operations will quickly result in failure, which means it is important to balance activities that will advance your own operations with ones which will interfere with your enemy’s plans.
This is where the next core piece of XCOM2 gameplay comes in: the missions. These are the more traditional tactical battles where you send a group of 4-6 soldiers to conduct an operation against enemy forces. Mission goals differ and can include activities such as eliminating a group of enemies while protecting a location or civilians, hacking or destroying a significant piece of alien technology, or capturing an enemy VIP or recovering a resistance VIP. Your objectives are always clearly outlined before a mission, although some story missions may have an objective that changes or becomes more complex as you finish steps.
Before a mission starts you choose which soldiers to bring into combat with you. At the beginning of the game your soldiers will be rookies who use the most basic equipment available to you, but as they complete missions and earn kills they will be promoted to more specialized roles. Each time a soldier receives a promotion beyond the first (which simply unlocks their specialization), they’ll get to choose one of two new skills to further refine their focus. Specialized soldiers also get access to more unique equipment that suits their role.
There are six unit types in all. Four are the standard soldier types you earn through the typical promotion process: rangers, sharpshooters, grenadiers, and specialists. There are also psi ops, which are advanced through training in a facility rather than through combat experience, as well as SPARKS, which are mechanical units exclusive to DLC (so if you are playing with DLC disabled, you won’t have these). Each type of unit has a defined role and equipment that supports that role. Rangers are close-range combatants with a preference for stealth; sharpshooters have the longest range; grenadiers specialize in explosives; specialists are support units with drones that allow for long-range hacking and healing; and psi-ops wield psionic abilities that inflict status problems against organic enemies. Until you expand your facilities most missions allow four soldiers, so you’ll generally have one of each standard class on the field.
Once you’ve chosen your soldiers and customized their gear, the mission begins (after a painfully slow loading process). Most missions begin with your soldiers in concealment, a state where they can move around with relative freedom and get bonuses to their first attack in combat. Units move on a grid in environments which have varying elevations, places to take cover, and sometimes even buildings with windows to maneuver around. Combat takes place in alternating phases – you move all your units, the enemy moves all their units, back and forth until someone wins. There are actions in the game which allow for reactions outside of your own phase, the most prominent of these being overwatch, where a unit will take shots at an enemy passing through their line of sight.
During your phase each unit under your control gets two action points. Action points can be used to move to a new position, fire your weapon, hunker down behind cover, hack a device, enter overwatch, or use a more specific ability based on the unit or mission type. In most cases firing your weapon drains all your action points, so shooting and then moving is generally not an option; however, moving to a new position and then taking shots is probably the most common way a turn will shake out. You can also use both action points on movement, an action called dashing, in order to cover a much larger amount of ground. Once all your soldiers have spent their action points, the phase ends and the enemies begin their phase. You can also end your phase manually with the minus (-) button if you’re playing on Switch as I did.
I want to take a moment here to talk about XCOM2’s technical performance. It’s…not good. Now I have only played the game on the Switch so I cannot speak to the experience on other platforms, but I have heard anecdotally that XCOM2 is buggy everywhere you can get it. As for my experience on the Switch specifically, the load times were terrible and there were quite a few graphical and audio bugs. The most noticeable issues that had the biggest impact on gameplay were moments when the game would kind of freeze as it struggled to show animations; I lost frames most frequently when enemies were moving or when my units were trying to select which enemy to target while firing their weapons. This would cause UI elements to disappear or even cause the video not to keep up with my inputs to the point where occasionally I’d be targeting a different enemy than I thought I was, or I couldn’t see if an enemy did damage to me until their phase was over and I got control over my units again. These issues weren’t game-breaking but they were definitely game-interrupting, and if you’re interested in the game and have access to other consoles I would encourage you to do some research on whether or not these bugs are as prevalent on other platforms.
XCOM2 is pretty lethal in terms of combat. Assuming you actually get hit by an attack, it’s generally going to do at least half of your health in damage. The game also features permadeath, which is to say that a soldier killed in battle is killed for good. This makes unit positioning very important and you’ll want to do your best to be behind cover as often as possible. Of course, this also means that most enemies who aren’t big bad guys can be taken out in one or two good shots. Most of your shots in XCOM will have a chance to miss the target, and the odds can seem real wonky at times. It’s frustrating when a shot that looks perfect visually just seems to whiff for no reason, but at least on rookie difficulty (the “so you’ve never played XCOM” mode) the accuracy percentages generally seem to favor the player. You want to position your units to mitigate that chance of missing as much as possible; getting around their cover, being at a higher elevation, and flanking them with the help of an ally are the best ways to make sure you are going to nail your shot. Damage too is a roll, so there can be an added layer of frustration when your shot hits but you get the smallest damage value possible. Since the UI shows the maximum damage you can deal rather than the minimum, a shot that looks like a kill may actually only have a 33% chance to kill (if you even hit the 72% accuracy). If random odds to land attacks and damage rolls are a thing that bothers you, XCOM may not be your speed, but generally if you’re coming in from any other strategy RPG these are mechanisms that will be familiar to you.
The feeling of tactical prowess in this game comes primarily from unit positioning and making your attacks in the right order. Maximizing the benefits of a particular unit type to bring down multiple foes or to take out a particularly dangerous enemy feels great too. Some of my favorites little moments of the game were finding hard counters to frustrating enemy types. When I first met mech units and struggled to overcome their armor, almost immediately after my grenadiers promoted to a level where they could learn a skill that shredded armor with cannon fire. Vipers are tricky enemies that bind up units in their coils to prevent them from taking actions, but a ranger with Bladestorm (a reaction ability that slashes any opponent entering melee) can easily cut them down as they try to bind the soldier. I also really enjoyed finding a good sniper nest for my sharpshooters – grappling up to the top of a building and then nailing shots across a huge distance is deeply satisfying. Another strategy the game teaches you early on is to set up ambushes with overwatch. When your units break concealment, the enemies who see them get a reaction to run from their current position to a point where they’ll have cover. If you’ve got your soldiers in overwatch when that happens, the enemies can get gunned down as they try to run for cover. Eliminating a small squad of enemies in this way feels great and gives you a big advantage right at the start of the mission.
Of course, those are just tactics for your missions. Base management strategy is key to this game too and the interplay between these activities is the core gameplay loop of XCOM2. Here’s an example: I have a research project that requires the autopsy of a specific enemy type. I take on a mission and make a point of taking out that enemy while on the job. Back at the base I can now research that enemy to unlock a new type of equipment to improve my soldiers, but in order to build that equipment I need more tech. I start scanning at a location that will get me the alloys I need, but during my scan I get a report from the resistance about an opportunity to execute an operation to prevent a dark event from reducing my next supply convoy. During that mission, I encounter a new enemy type and realize that I need some better weapons to take them on in the future. I can start a weapon research project, but that will take away focus from the previous research I was working on. And in the meantime, the counter on the Avatar Project ticks up by one, reminding me that soon I need to undergo a mission to bomb an alien research facility or I’m going to be cutting it close to a game over.
Once the game gets out of the tutorial portions and you begin to grasp both missions and base management, the action ramps up and you’ll be tasked with making these kinds of decisions on a regular basis. Which dark events am I willing to tolerate and which ones will I interfere with? How long can I afford to put off destroying the alien facility while I finish my psionics research? Oh shoot, before I can even attack that facility I need to make contact with the local resistance forces, but I need to build a resistance comms to even have enough contact slots to do that! Goodness, it would be nice to have another engineer…and this is how it goes. For me, that was the hook that kept me coming back to XCOM2 each time I got some free time. I wanted to make those choices and to seek out the opportunities to focus on the projects I wanted to finish, but each time I found a new goal to work towards there were steps to take along the way to make it happen. The payoff when I finally got all of the pieces in place and got to see the fruits of my labor – a cool facility, my squad kitted out in shiny new armor, interfering with an enemy operation that took a huge chunk off of the Avatar counter – that’s where XCOM2 shined brightest for me.
If you’re here wondering whether or not XCOM2 is the game for you, I think an important thing to think about is if what I described above sounds like a positive experience to you. You are going to want to do too many things and will have to make decisions about what to prioritize and what to let go of. You are going to get interrupted or face setbacks in the middle of a project you are motivated to accomplish. Understanding how to play the tactical battles well is only half of the game – you can make life much harder for yourself or even get a game over by not properly handling the base management aspect of the game. And all of that happens under time pressure: not real life time pressure as in “you only have twenty minutes to beat this mission,” but mechanical time pressure where every decision that you make is in the context of a looming disaster that you can literally see counting towards destruction as you decide to prioritize other things.
I enjoyed how these mechanisms worked together to keep me motivated and keep me busy. I liked seeing the payoff of successfully completed research or building projects on my soldiers during their missions, and I liked seeing the payoff of a mission well done in my research availability or as a reduction of the Avatar counter on the bridge map. The central pillars of the XCOM2 gameplay experiences were what made the game for me, and that’s a great thing to be able to say about a game. If you’re looking for a well-scripted story with a meaningful interactions between characters and a hero’s journey arc, you won’t get that sort of thing here. But the narrative of XCOM comes from your gameplay choices, and the experience of playing the game stands on its own without the set-dressing of a compelling story. There are certainly technical problems to overcome, but overall I found fighting those problems worth it to enjoy the strong points of XCOM2. As a strategy game fan, I’m glad I took the time to add this one to my collection.