XCOM 2: has Firaxis built the strategy sequel you deserve?

Xcom 2

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 282. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

In Enemy Unknown, the alien invaders were on your turf. In XCOM 2, you’re on theirs. That significantly changes the pace and dynamic of the game. In the demo Firaxis shows me, I see civilians crowded behind barriers, futuristic police cars right out of the Total Recall remake, armoured fascist twats known as Advent and floating holographic billboards. The aliens control everything. In XCOM 2’s world, you lost the war against the extraterrestrial invaders of Enemy Unknown, and this is not your planet any more. You must take it back.

“We began the process of defining XCOM 2 by looking at how players responded to XCOM: Enemy Unknown,” creative director Jake Solomon tells me. “By asking: what did they enjoy? What didn’t they like and how can we make it better? What was our community requesting? How do we renew and refresh that sense of struggle and triumph?”

This is not your planet any more. You must take it back.

Solomon and the team took inspiration for XCOM 2’s bleak premise from the way people actually played Enemy Unknown the first time through: badly, which I can empathise with. “We realised that most players lost their initial playthrough of Enemy Unknown, and we realised there was an interesting and unique opportunity to have XCOM 2 begin with XCOM losing the invasion.”

I think XCOM 2 is the Enemy Unknown sequel fans want. It’s been developed to expand your strategic arsenal and to mitigate the repetition of level design of the original, the latter being one of my few major issues with Firaxis’ first attempt at the series. After a while in EU, no matter where you were going in the world to fight the alien horde, you knew the layout. One of the biggest changes to XCOM 2 is that levels are now procedurally generated—but don’t confuse this with the levels being randomised. Firaxis tried that and it didn’t quite work. Instead, levels are procedurally generated in a way that is designed to feel somewhat handcrafted to the player.

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“We had to figure out a lot of new systems to make the procedural maps work,” senior producer Garth DeAngelis says. “It was actually a very different pipeline and system than we had in Enemy Unknown, because it was completely handcrafted. So we found best practices for how you make the number of buildings work relative to open spaces, relative to the number of height-based parcels we want to work on (parcels being an element of the procedural map system). So all of that we sort of had to build from the ground up. We could take elements from what we learned from Enemy Unknown because we didn’t want it to be completely procedural, because random turned out to be not too fun. So we still had hand-placed moments—it’s a great-looking map, but you get the value of: ‘I haven’t seen this before’, which is really, really powerful. Unlike EU, where we had a lot of maps but we started hearing feedback of ‘it’s the museum map again. I’ve done this before’. You’re not going to have that feeling on XCOM 2.”

Solomon sheds some light on how it works. “When you head into a mission, the game rolls the dice and places the appropriate modules on the parcel. You might be able to recognise something like an Advent checkpoint, but that won’t give you any insight into what lies beyond that.”


Most of the decisions made from the outset for XCOM 2 were intended to support a more replayable game—levels that are impossible to predict certainly encourage replays, and inspiration for that came from another part of the Firaxis office. “We wanted to refine that fundamental experience of Enemy Unknown, and give it the replayability of a game like Civilization,” Solomon explains. “Players told us they wanted more maps, and we wanted to provide a procedural map system this time around. We wanted higher-fidelity characters. We wanted better-looking destruction. And we really wanted to have better modding support for the game from the outset.”

Concealment is probably the biggest change—it puts the start of the fight in the player’s hands, letting you stealthily line up your squad’s positions at the beginning of each mission before pulling the trigger. You can quietly line up your characters in overwatch, so when the enemy prepares to retaliate, your whole team can open fire on any enemies in range.

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“Combat’s still turn based, move-and-action style like the Enemy Unknown,” says Solomon. “But now that the levels are built procedurally, you can’t predict where the enemies will appear. There are going to be patrols, and they’re going try and figure out the level, just like you are. But now we have concealment, which means until you enter into enemy visual range, or attack, the enemies aren’t going to know you’re there. This gives the player control over how the fight's going to start.”

“As soon as you load into that map, you see your guys are completely concealed,” says DeAngelis. “They’re speaking in hushed tones, there’s this really cool ambient music, and it allows the player mechanically to set up an ambush how they want to before they engage completely. Once you fire a shot it becomes classic XCOM combat.”

You have two new classes at your disposal: the ranger, an extension of the assault class from Enemy Unknown, and the specialist, both of which the demo does a good job of showing off. The former carries a blade that can be used to easily cut down the vipers, XCOM 2’s deadly snake-like alien enemies who can pull your guys out of cover with their tongues before constricting them to death. The specialist, meanwhile, has a drone-like device called the Gremlin that can be used to remotely hack turrets. Every soldier can hack, but the specialist is the only class that can improve their hacking ability. In the demo, there are three hacking options for the turret: disable, control and improved control, the latter two of which will make the gun open fire on nearby enemies. The Gremlin has its own ability tree, and while it’s treated as a separate flying unit, movement with it still uses up the specialist’s turn. “Those two classes are very innate with the resistance theme as well,” DeAngelis says.

But don’t expect any of your MECs from EU to carry across, either. In XCOM 2’s canon, that expansion simply didn’t happen, according to DeAngelis. “You lost within the first third of [Enemy Unknown]. So MECs, gene mods, all that stuff—we wanted a clean slate with that.”

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The aliens have certainly stepped up the threat level since EU. The viper is a giant python with seemingly human breasts—an image that, to be honest, I was happy to live my life without. Returning foes are nastier. XCOM’s melee heavies the berserkers are much closer to scary sci-fi trolls than the slightly Power Rangers-ish look they had in the first game. If they get close enough, you’re done for. I see the berserker in this demo smash a squad member out of the way and into a vehicle. “Super deadly, the deadliest melee move in the game—you want to stay away from them,” DeAngelis says.

It’s escorted by two tall white mechs that look similar to the geth in Mass Effect. “The berserker was accompanied by Advent MECs, which are also heavy firepower—they don’t need to take cover, they have a micromissile ability where they can take out any units that are clumped together in an area of effect.” Sectoids, XCOM’s greys, return in a more advanced form, too. “We wanted the aliens to feel deadly in XCOM 2—they’ve evolved in the 20 years and have put the Advent in place as cannon fodder, because they’re doing a lot of nefarious things behind the scenes. So when you come across them it’s very hard, and you need to use group tactics to take them down.”

"We wanted the aliens to feel deadly in XCOM 2."

More variety in enemy attacks makes combat less predictable, which forces you to react on the spot at a greater frequency than you did in EU. Presentation is generally more ambitious. The goal in the demo is to have one of your guys blow up a gold statue of an alien and human holding hands—a piece of Advent propaganda. When the explosive is detonated by your crew, a mini cutscene plays in-game where it crumbles dramatically before the action resumes. It feels a lot more considered than Enemy Unknown.

This effect is heightened by the back-and-forth dialogue between your player-created characters, where they now seem to chat during every move. In the demo it almost feels like traditionally scripted dialogue, but you can pick the nationalities and even the accents from a whole range. “There’s so much more you can do, there’s so many more knobs you can turn now that feed into the resistance theme,” says DeAngelis. “You can change their gender now if you want, set their nationality—all of that stuff that you couldn’t do in Enemy Unknown gives even more agency to the player.” When you pick a nationality, the game will autoselect a matching voice, but you can still change it if you want. That personalisation was fundamental to EU and remains so here. Your best friends, family members and pets will still die, only now they can perish with an accent of your choosing.

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“The most important aspect of XCOM is that it’s about playing catch-up, that it’s not a power fantasy, and that you’re always just ahead of disaster,” Solomon states. “XCOM’s a game about loss and managing that loss. So any story you build into XCOM has to have this as its basis. Given the arc of an XCOM game, it made perfect sense to have XCOM 2 have XCOM as a resistance movement.”

At the time of writing, Firaxis isn’t talking base management, which, fitting the resistance theme, sees XCOM on the run in a giant aircraft called the Avenger. I fear the studio is going to spend most of the next few months making it clear that this enormous airship is a reference to the troop transport from UFO: Enemy Unknown, as opposed to a ship in the sky where Nick Fury lives.

This change from EU’s underground base brings up a few questions. As PCG’s Tom Senior points out to me, it’s not like a skybase has hidden thermal vents or decks you didn’t know were there—so expect some changes to the way base management works, or at least in the way it’s presented. [Update: In the time since this story was first published in the magazine, Firaxis has revealed XCOM 2's base management.] “You can imagine, with the resistance theme, is that we want you to feel like you’re on the run,” says DeAngelis. “We really want you to feel like you’re sparking a resistance, so design has been hard at work thinking of ways to get the mechanics to support that.”


I think the PC exclusivity of XCOM 2 was necessary for this entry. In announcing it, Firaxis led with a pro-modding sentiment, while underlining the fact that it has always been synonymous with PC. I ask Solomon about why they went PC-only after EU arrived on consoles and even tablets in a respectable form. “PC gaming is in a golden age. It’s the tip of the spear in terms of innovation, in types of gameplay being explored, in relationships between developers and their audience, and for Firaxis, it’s our home. It’s where we want to be.”

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The modding potential of XCOM 2 is as rich as anyone could ask for. Again, Civ provided a point of inspiration to Solomon and his team. “We’re lucky that our studio has had a wonderful and long- standing mod community for Civilization, and even EU, which had limited modding support, got fantastic work from very dedicated guys like the Long War team. Modding is one of those elements that brings people together in the community through their own creative expression of the franchise, and this helps our game live on over time.”

The modding potential of XCOM 2 is as rich as anyone could ask for.

DeAngelis goes in depth on the tools that will be available to players. “I can tell you a lot of effort has gone in, across the engineering front, [to make sure] that everything can be modded. Obviously we have Unreal Engine 3. We have a modified version of that—so the editor is going to be released. You can either do total conversions, or partial gameplay edits with our gameplay source that we’re going to be providing as well. So if you just want to edit units and stats that’s going to be easy to do if you have the knowledge to do so in the scripts. It’s one of our core pillars in XCOM 2 that we felt like we were short on in Enemy Unknown—that we want to get right.”

It’s not like EU had a ton of room for improvement. My reaction, as DeAngelis explains how procedurally generated levels eliminate repetition, how mods can expand the life of XCOM 2 indefinitely, and how exciting the new tactical options are, is that Firaxis is making the XCOM sequel that fulfils every fan’s wishlist. I can’t think of anything else I’d ask for. In theory, Firaxis is making an XCOM game that we can play forever. “Between the procedural maps, between the procedural objectives, the way more enemies and abilities that you’re gonna see, I think that’s right,” DeAngelis agrees. “That’s ultimately what we want to accomplish. We want fans to play much, much longer.”

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.