XCOM 2 is at its best when it's pulling you in ten different directions at once. On any given turn, I may be juggling research assignments, weapon upgrades, and wounded troops - each one clawing at the last few coins in my meager piggy bank. Managing XCOM is an ever-evolving challenge that demands you carefully weigh every opportunity that crosses your path. Plan poorly - as I did in my first campaign - and you'll see XCOM reduced to a militaristic Toys"R"Us: a flying warehouse filled with gimmicky gadgets and understaffed by untrained soldiers.
Planning well means finding that sweet spot between all the shiny new toys XCOM 2 throws your way and making sure the basics of research and cash flow are covered. This is harder than it sounds because XCOM 2 has more of everything - from horrible aliens all the way down to different flavors of ammo. And when you're finally in a position to put all this newness to work, it propells the series' signature turn-based combat to new heights.
XCOM 2 lifts the same sort of multiplayer structure as Enemy Unknown. You're given a fixed amount of points to build out a team of humans and aliens that do battle against an opposing team. It's a simple setup that gives you an opportunity to finally take control of the enemy units you've been shooting at the entire game. Just don't be the person who fields an entire team of Chrysalids.
XCOM 2 begins at the end. Earth has fallen, humanity bends a knee to its "benevolent" overlords, and the aliens have some Howard Stern look-alike as their spokesperson - it's bad times all around. XCOM is a rogue nation - outmanned and outgunned - and you're the proverbial Tom Cruise who must piece it back together. You spend your days aboard The Avenger airship leading soldiers in battle and traveling the world collecting supplies and uniting the resistance. Naturally, the aliens hound you every step of the way.
The aliens' final bid for world domination is their mysterious Avatar project, the progress of which is tracked by a panic-inducing red meter on the world map. This meter signals your imminent doom, and increases at erratic intervals month after month. Not knowing when the aliens will make a major breakthrough adds some needed tension to the day-to-day business of running XCOM, and makes every opportunity to undermine them all the more valuable.
These opportunities play out in turn-based battles. Cover is still your best friend as you take turns scrambling troops between trees and buildings while gunning down your alien foes. Each soldier class in XCOM 2 has been overhauled, with the new drone-operating Specialist and sword-wielding Hunter being unrecognizable from the Support and Assault classes, respectively. These revamped classes provide tons of new tactical options to discover, but the most comedic one has to be the Specialist's hacking ability. Taking command of an enemy Sectopod, and using it to rampage through buildings unabated, is very cathartic.
You'll need every advantage you can get, as the tempo of any battle can take wild, exciting shifts from turn to turn. One turn your squad may be concealed - a new mechanic that lets them sneak up on enemies - and the next they're "Going loud!" as you execute the perfect ambush. But, even as the last alien falls, the imminent arrival of reinforcements or the constant ticking of your objective's timer will keep tensions running high. These surprises, and plenty others, keep firefights engaging well into your second playthrough and beyond.
The alien lineup has received a complete overhaul as well, with plenty of new faces ready to pump you full of white-hot plasma. Instead of progressing from Muton to Muton Elite or Floater to Heavy Floater, every alien has its own unique design and abilities that require you to switch up your strategy on the fly if you don't want to end up six-feet under. At first this stream of new enemies can feel overwhelming, but after a dozen encounters or so you learn how certain enemies think and can quickly deduce the highest threats from any lineup.
Unfortunately, while the aliens really bear their fangs on the battlefield, their presence is missed on the world map. As the days scroll by, the aliens will deploy various 'Dark Events' which can grant them special bonuses and add progress to the Avatar project. You counter these events by going on missions, creating a sort of tug of war between advancing XCOM's objectives and undermining the aliens.
But this conflict feels passive and indirect. The aliens may have taken over the planet, but it sure doesn't feel that way when you can hop in your airship and cruise around Earth whenever you feel like it. One standout exception is when a UFO is sent to hunt The Avenger, culminating in a desperate encounter reminiscent of Enemy Within's base assault mission. The fact that you can see the enemy UFO zipping around the map - and must actively avoid it - makes the alien's presence known.
At first not having to deal with the aliens on the world map is a blessing, as you have about three-too-many things on your plate at a time. Gradually, however, these various assignments narrow down to a fine point, at which time you can comfortably ignore certain requests because, hey, you already have plenty of supplies thank you very much. Without an active threat on the world map, that sense of urgency that is so sharp on the battlefield feels dulled.
XCOM 2 gives you a ton of choices right up front. Here are a few tips for making the most of your first campaign - or at least surviving your first month.
Engineers are you lifeblood in XCOM 2. They can add power to your ship, speed up construction times, help train soldiers, and more. Recruit them quickly.
You're going to want a laboratory, power generator, and resistance radio station online fast. Hold off on the specialized structures until these are finished.
Between the different weapon attachments, stat boosters, and other upgrades, it's very tempting to create one or two super soldiers. Fight this urge.
Very rarely, the game's pathfinding will route your soldier through fire or other hazards. Hold down the CTRL key to set waypoints around these hazards.
If you're not sure whether a soldier will be able to see their target after moving, mouse over their destination and see if a crosshair icon appears on the target.
Enemies that are currently on overwatch have a little eyeball icon under the health bar, always double check for that before you move.
I should also warn you that, during my time with the game, I ran into some minor bugs and glitches. Thankfully, they all turned out to be very mundane - animations that didn't load, weird camera movements, endlessly looping gun noises - so they didn't amount to more than a minor annoyance. The best was the Sectopod whose walking animation didn't load, meaning it would snap suddenly around the battlefield, instantly flattening anything in its path. Hopefully these lesser issues will be patched out by the time you're reading this.
Foibles aside, XCOM 2 is still a wonderfully engrossing strategy game that can very easily leave you spellbound throughout 2016 and beyond. The myriad of tactical options at your disposal - from new soldier classes to the various weapon upgrades - is delicately balanced against the ever-changing extraterrestrial monstrosities. You'll constantly discover new, better ways of honing your craft, and XCOM 2 will happily meet your challenge in kind.
This game was reviewed on PC.