Once the trap is set, I tell my final soldier to attack. This reveals the squad, triggering their overwatch. The entire attack plays as one continuous scene—the camera tracking from soldier to soldier as they take their shot and wipe out the enemy. Concealment only works for the first encounter of each mission, and even then it’s easy to mess up. My first ambush failed when I positioned a soldier near some civilians.
“They’re scared that there are these humans running around with guns, because they think they’re in a utopia,” DeAngelis explains to me. “They think they’re safe.”
The sense I get of XCOM 2 is that it’s more open to experimentation. Its difficulty feels designed to punish ill-judged plans, rather than penalising the player for not following a specific, linear solution. The meta-strategy of the Geoscape is the perfect example of this, in that you can no longer lose the campaign purely based on specific factors. Building a resistance is a very different prospect to stopping an alien vanguard, and that’s had a pronounced effect on how you interact with the world. For one thing, there are no longer any satellites to screw you over.
“I think that’s why I lost my first playthrough of Enemy Unknown,” DeAngelis says. “I still remember it vividly. There were other ways you could lose, of course, like if you tried the alien base a bit too early, but satellites were something you had to prioritise early. The beautiful thing with XCOM 2 is I’ve played through multiple times and it’s always like, what do I want to do first? There seem to be a lot of options that could potentially work, or ways I have to adjust based on how the game’s panning out.”
Failure in XCOM 2 is tied to something called the Avatar Project. It’s represented by a bar at the top of the Geoscape that tracks progress towards something incredibly bad that the aliens are planning. Your strategy lies in balancing the need to grow the resistance against the requirement to stop the aliens from completing their evil masterplan.
“If I prioritise trying to get to tier two armour first,” DeAngelis says, “I’m forgoing building the resistance and finding a new region. That could end up biting me in the ass because I don’t have time to get to a facility, and the Avatar progress rose. It’s constantly a balance of how do you pull that off, and it feels different every game because the rate of Avatar progress being filled changes every game.”
Dark Events similarly mix things up, and feel like an attempt to level the power curve as your squad becomes more effective through research, abilities and new gear. Dark Events function as alien research, and will enhance your foe in a variety of ways. Examples include improved Advent armour and additional reinforcements during missions. Counter-ops will be available to prevent the enemy gaining these upgrades, but again, it ties into the overall Geoscape balance. Preventing an enemy advantage may come at the cost of completing some equally important project.
It’s clear that Firaxis has thought carefully about the particulars of Enemy Unknown. Every aspect of XCOM 2 feels like a response, from the procedural maps that provide longevity over multiple campaigns, to the shifting, broad and open-ended strategy layer, and the opportunity of experimentation that it provides. This isn’t a sequel that only offers more of everything that made its predecessor so enjoyable. It’s a total rehaul, and an opportunity to take the basic formula and recontextualise it in a way that’s well suited to XCOM’s punishing difficulty. It’s a sequel designed for its fans, and, based on what I’ve seen, next year’s most promising strategy game.