I’ve just finished my first campaign on XCOM 2 and felt compelled to write my thoughts on a game that deserves plenty of love. Even as a relative newcomer to the franchise (2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown was my introduction), it really took me by surprise how quickly XCOM struck a chord with me. It’s worth bearing in mind that I’m not a big strategy guy, and my previous experience with turn-based games goes as far back as playing Pokémon at primary school.

What developer Firaxis did so well with XCOM: Enemy Unknown was create a game with on-the-surface simple mechanics and controls that still managed to feel ‘hardcore’ or ‘old school’ in some way. Gone were convoluted pages and pages of menus and thinly defined consequences with an emphasis on experimentation. There has to be genius at work when one of the tensest gaming experiences I’ve had in recent years is waiting for the Avenger (XCOM 2’s mobile base of operations) to scan an area, praying that it can get through three days without the horrifying sight of a red screen flash, screaming at you to do a retaliation mission. Retaliation missions (formerly and more aptly named Terror missions) involve rescuing civilians from a force of aliens. When you know your crack team are still gravely wounded from a previous mission (but probably only one day from being fine, because XCOM) and you’ll have to send a load of Rookies with Stormtrooper levels of accuracy to save the day, you know you’re in trouble.

1) ‘Voodoo’, Indian Psychic Badass

Voodoo XCOM

Playing XCOM 2 is always a stressful experience, which is pretty odd considering the fact it’s turn-based. Previously I’d consider something like Counter-Strike stressful; knowing that you can die instantly and have to sit out the round is a lot of pressure. But XCOM and its sequel have real stakes. The extensive character customisation builds a real sense of attachment to your squad of soldiers (evidenced here by a few images of my main heroes). There’s also a Saturday morning cartoon feel about XCOM; despite its dark tone and violence, it’s also got gruff advisors, soldiers with eyepatches and cigars, and snake aliens with boobs (seriously). The music is fantastic and further enriches the experience with bombastic heroic cheese that Alan Silvestri would be proud of.

Obviously, I want you play XCOM 2, but I will warn you, this game is hard and it will kick you while you’re down. You haven’t known true frustration until you’ve set up the perfect ambush shooting gallery of soldiers with a 75%+ chance of hitting, only for every single one to miss and then your best guy getting critically hit and killed by an alien on the other side of the map. Which leads me to a something crucial in XCOM (well, crucial if, like me, you’re not a tactical genius): save scumming. Save scumming is exactly what it sounds like, setting yourself up for the perfect move, only to realise that you’ve fucked up some positioning that will lead to everyone immediately dying, and so you reload the game and adjust accordingly. If this sounds like cheating, it’s probably because it basically is, but the thing is, if you lose an entire squad of high-ranked soldiers, the game becomes way, way harder. Suddenly you need to do what you couldn’t do with a squad of Arnold Schwarzeneggers with a squad of Owen Wilsons.

2) ‘Enforcer’, Irish-American Shotgun Specialist

before enforcer

Even if you save scum your way through the entire game, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun. The story is enjoyably cheesy in a way that I’m not completely convinced is self-aware, and once you get a grasp on your best squad and equipment loadout, you have a satisfying sense of having an overpowered team of badasses with varied and complex tactical approaches available for different situations. Also, let’s not forget the amazing mod support for the game so far. These range from small things that should’ve already been in the game (like full camera rotation and the option to evac all your soldiers simultaneously) to silly fun stuff (like the Deadpool voicepack).

If there’s one thing the XCOM franchise has really got me wanting, it’s more turn-based games. So many games these days are based on lightning fast reactions. XCOM 2 has so much more variety in its pacing. Most missions begin with your team in ‘concealment’, which allows you to move freely around the enemy to set up the perfect ambush. However, there is always a time trade-off in this situation because the majority of the missions also have a time-limit. You have eight turns to reach and hack the terminal; do you spend three turns setting up the perfect ambush or settle for a less effective attack and use your extra turns to move to the terminal without having to rush it (which costs you actions like shooting or healing)? The result of this is a game that is mentally challenging and more like chess than Gears of War, despite the presence of ‘roided out soldiers with guns the size of teenagers. Another positive of turn-based strategy is that you can introduce people with less experience of gaming because there is less reliance on your ability with a controller (try getting someone who’s never played games to play a first-person shooter).

3)  ‘Cobra’ Northern Irish Sword Maniac with 100+ kills, OP AF

before cobra

Ultimately, I think XCOM’s existence as a triple-A title is vital for gaming. It’s bringing back forgotten the old-school values of tactics, planning and brutal uncompromising difficulty.

If you want health regeneration look elsewhere (or just save scum to hell, like I do).

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