I’m in trouble. I need to put a soldier on the back of a flatbed truck, so I can hack the device it’s carrying and abscond with the alien secrets inside. As it happens, the truck is on fire. It shouldn’t be, but I used a grenade to take out the Advent trooper standing next to it and things sort of got out of hand. I’ve got three soldiers left—the fourth having died earlier—and I don’t want to lose another to a fire I’ve made them stand in. Sadly, I can’t see an alternative, so I pick the XCOM agent with the most health and tell them to burn themselves alive. That’s when the Sectoid shows up.
“The aliens are brutal in XCOM 2,” says lead producer Garth DeAngelis. “I’m really proud of that. If you look at the Sectoid, for instance, of Enemy Unknown versus XCOM 2, the Sectoid in Enemy Unknown could mind-merge and they could shoot their gun. They can shoot their gun in XCOM 2 as well, but they can also do an attack called ‘mind spin’, which will panic or disorient you. Or mind control you. That can happen as well. The first alien in the game can mind control you.”
That isn’t what happens in my playthrough. It’s the second mission, and, after battling through Advent troops, I’m now experiencing my first alien encounter. One of my soldiers is now on fire. The Sectoid waves a hand, and a psionic purple tendril reaches out to a dead Advent soldier. He gets up. It turns out Sectoids can reanimate people, too. This is bad. The zombie has the drop on my burning soldier. I have been outflanked by a corpse. My soldier is able to take down the reanimated agent, but not before he removes a significant chunk of her health. A turn later, uniform aflame, she succumbs to the fire.
DeAngelis smiles as I recount my experience. “That’s great to hear,” he says. “You have the Advent administration on the front lines. They’re tactically interesting to fight, but we want the surprise—the really cool stuff—to come from these aliens that are emerging from the shadows as the XCOM resistance grows stronger. In this world they’ve always been behind the scenes. Humanity doesn’t really know if the aliens are there or not. They just know there’s this Advent administration that are their saviours. And now XCOM is pulling these more sinister aliens to the front, and you have to fight and face them.”
Two of my soldiers are dead. The remaining two are critically injured. The Sectoid could finish me off here, but I have a secret weapon: a Ranger. His sword attack is a guaranteed hit, and does huge damage. In any other situation it would be a risk—leaving me out of position, and vulnerable to assault. Here, there are no other enemies. I’m clear to take down my troublesome foe and leave with the remnants of my team. I remember XCOM: Enemy Unknown as a game about caution, about sticking to good cover and using overwatch to punish aggressors. In XCOM 2, DeAngelis explains, encounters more resemble combat puzzles.
“The battlefield is your playground,” he says, “so where do you move? How do you take advantage of cover and flanking? That’s the puzzle aspect. Also, predicting what the aliens want to take advantage of. You learn that as you go. You might need to get tongue-pulled a few times before you get the hang of it, but eventually you’ll know how to counter that and get in front of it.” In short, the aliens are Firaxis’s attempt to counter the go-to strategies of Enemy Unknown players. Or, to put it another way, to fuck with their fans.
Overwatch still has its place, and has been significantly improved. In the four missions I played, it once again functioned as the cautiously sensible default action—now with the added bonus that the second soldier in an overwatch chain will no longer attempt to fire on an enemy killed by the first. But the new classes offer a more interesting selection of abilities and upgrades. Better opportunities exist aside from just moving and shooting. Right now, my favourite new class is the Specialist, whose Gremlin drone can hack objects at range and be further upgraded with new assault or defensive options.