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XCOM 2's utilitarian strategy is how I'm coping with lockdown

(Image credit: Firaxis Games)

XCOM 2 couldn't be heading to the Switch at a better time. There's no arguing games have been an escape from the well-documented horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic, but whereas millions have turned to breezy beaches and warming embrace of being indebted to Tom Nook in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I've grabbed my E.X.O suit, fired up the Avenger, and plunged into guerrilla warfare against the earth's Alien overlords. Who knew that all it would take to soothe my anxiety was an unexpected critical shot against an Avatar? 

Commanding Presence 

(Image credit: 2K Games)

Why XCOM 2 and why now? Well, the news of the Switch re-release (opens in new tab) reminded me that I've been waiting for the right time to tackle XCOM 2 properly, and well, we all know that we've had a bit more spare time on our hands recently. Not that I'd imagine most are heading to a game which involves making constant decisions that could directly lead to the end of humanity. At least the threat in XCOM is extra-terrestrial, rather than a pandemic. 

If you've been holding off on trying XCOM 2, the set-up is simple. Earth has been colonised by an alien force known as Advent, who present themselves as a benevolent force looking to usher in a new era for humanity, rather than the malevolent occupier who are abducting humans en masse for various nefarious reasons. As the commander, your job is to guide your team in missions, slowly building a resistance across the globe, all while racing against the alien's 'Avatar Project', which you slowly learn more about as you play. 

(Image credit: 2K Games)

The not-so-secret to the series' success is the permadeath for the hardy soldiers who make up your guerrilla unit. It's easy to send wave after wave of anonymous grunts into certain death in some strategy games, knowing the cost is having a less experienced unit in your next mission. It's much harder to make that choice when you're sending in Major. Agatha "Crispy" Blitz, who has got 74 kills in her 25 missions, into a situation that can be charitably described as proper grim. That's as true now as it was back in 2016 and will be for the players picking up the Nintendo Switch version.  

But what makes XCOM 2 even more excruciatingly exhilarating is the Avatar Project. Progress made on it ticks away in the background, putting you under a constant time pressure. Tackle main missions quickly and you could be underpowered, losing soldiers and risking failure, Try to gather resources to gain better equipment for your squad and you could end up running out of time. The game puts a mountain of pressure on you from minute one and keeps piling on from there. 

Critical hit

(Image credit: 2K Games)

I realise that doesn't make this sound soothing or relaxing in the way other games people are turning to at the moment are. But, for me at least, a huge part of the reason why XCOM 2 is a perfect game for this moment in time (outside of the fact that it is very good) is because XCOM 2 is a utilitarian dream. Every choice you make will have a consequence, no matter what, so the game becomes a minor reflection of our current stay-at-home state. The difference is that the chaos of real life can't be managed, whereas the chaos in XCOM can. 

For instance, having managed to drag myself to the endgame, my options were various shades of bad. I was taking on the aliens at the heart of the Avatar Project with a battered and bruised squad who were outnumbered and significantly outgunned. For every squad member, there were at least another three aliens. At that point, my sole focus was on taking out the Avatars who kept spawning into the fray, whose high hitpoints and range of abilities meant the longer they stood, the less likely my chances of survival. 

What tipped the tide of that battle was an unexpected critical shot. The moment where my sniper (who got the nickname Top Shelf) took out half an Avatar's HP in a single shot on a 64% chance was a weird mix of elation and heightened tension. The dice had landed in my favour on this shot, but would the rest? Those moments, fleeting relief for a second, feel all the more hardly won for how rare they are. 

Save (scumming) the world

(Image credit: 2K Games)

Of course, there's one key difference between real life and XCOM. Save scumming. The process of an attack, move, or decision failing and rebooting an old save file to do things differently.  And friends, I save scummed the hell out of XCOM 2. Whether that's right or wrong is an argument for a different time, but controlling an element of the chaos that I can't in real life meant that things never got too frustrating. I can only apologise to the soldiers who died because I felt like I was save scumming too much in the early game.

Like many of you, this period in time will have been marked by periods of tough choices. How can we be safe when we leave the house to pick up supplies or exercise? How can we keep those who are less fortunate than us safe. Some of you will have had much harder choices to make, such as how we might be able to comfort ill family and friends without being by their side. By turning to a game that turns this tough mindset onto something similar but distinctly fantastical, I found it easier to put reality aside for a few hours. XCOM 2 shows that those hard choices may have consequences, but they also have endings. The chaos eventually calms. That's a perfect thing to think about when you're in the middle of it. 

Ben Tyrer
Ben Tyrer

Hello, I'm GamesRadar's News Editor. I've been working in the games industry since 2013, after graduating from Bournemouth University with a degree in multimedia journalism. Since then I've worked for Official PlayStation Magazine as a staff writer and games editor, as well as writing for Official Xbox Magazine, Edge, PC Gamer, GamesMaster, PC Games N, and more. When I'm not moaning about being beaten on FIFA and Warzone, I'm writing news, features, and reviews for this wonderful site.