The lies they speak have fooled the world, and the truth they hide is almost too horrific to fathom. We fight for a freedom that the world doesn’t realise it has lost. Its human population can’t see the inhuman monsters that are slowly devouring us. The nightmares our parents spoke of when they first arrived are merely children’s stories compared to the terrors only a few of us know we face. I’ve seen good men and women torn apart, shattered in body and mind. They were the lucky ones, because their war is over. Ours has just begun.

So begins XCOM 2, and anyone who’s played Firaxis’s XCOM Enemy Within will find this sequel very familiar. Despite noticeable improvements in models, geometry, animation, and texture quality, the core game remains pretty much intact.

XCOM 2 review

It’s been 20 years since the aliens defeated XCOM, and they’ve spent those years taking control of the entire planet. Through propaganda disseminated via their ADVENT administration, they have convinced the world that peace, prosperity, and technical advancement was all they brought with them. But no matter how hard they try, some invasion scars can’t be covered up, and those wounds are still sorely felt by a few.

XCOM is defeated, fragmented, and ill-equipped to face ADVENT or its alien masters head on, but a recent discovery might just be the spark needed to ignite a revolution and maybe take back the planet. Just as with the previous entries, the majority of the game is played out on the ground with your squad of soldiers in direct conflict with the aliens and their allies. Combat is turn-based, and rewards a methodical and tactical approach, – that is, when such tactics are allowed.

XCOM 2 review
XCOM is defeated, fragmented, and ill-equipped to face ADVENT or its alien masters

While many missions can be played at your own pace with careful and cautious probing to minimise your inevitable loses, there are a number of time sensitive missions that must be completed in a set number of turns. Failure to do so can cause a loss of resources, or even leave squad members stranded and left to die on the battlefield. This drive to force the player in to a more aggressive playstyle is a welcome addition, and helps to provide a wider range of challenges that need to be overcome as you attempt to take back the planet.

Combat works fundamentally as it did with XCOM Enemy Unknown. Each soldier has two actions that can be taken each turn, including but are not limited to moving, reloading, using an item, taking cover, and attacking. There are also a number of new options thanks to new character classes.

Sharpshooters are a new sniper class that can take a shot at every enemy that passes within their cone of fire, while Rangers possess impressive reflex and stealth abilities as well as a devastating sword melee attack. The Specialist uses a combat drone for either support or offence, and can remotely hack data points and robotic enemies, while the Grenadier is the new heavy weapons expert who can focus on demolitions or maximising damage from their massive autocannon. Finally, the Psi Operative is a psionic focused unit that can alter the temperament of foes, or even cause devastating damage to organic units.

Using each to their full potential, both individually and in unison with the rest of the squad, is vital if you hope to bring any of them home. Every fight is challenging and every new location offers up new challenges, and ways to die. One of the ways this state of peril has been achieved is through the improved reactivity of the battlefield. Terrain and buildings are far more destructible. There is a wider range of environments and topography, and even computers or other electronics that can be hacked that can improve your chances of success or lead to a more certain death if that hack fails.

XCOM 2 review
XCOM 2 review
XCOM 2 review
XCOM 2 does an exceptional job of making you feel like you’re fighting a guerrilla war

Some enemies will drop weapon mods or soldier enhancing combat sims that need to be picked up before they self-destruct, so you will need to decide if the potential for some much needed enhancement is worth the potential death of a squad member. In any given conflict there is usually multiple factors that need to be taken in to account, making combat in XCOM 2 far more satisfying.

The only real disappointment is the return of the “free move” that alien forces get when first sighted. Firaxis has obviously been listening to feedback regarding this mechanic, and has introduced a concealment mechanic that can allow your squad to sight enemy units without triggering them. On top of that, there are amble opportunites to set up ambushes.

This may not be the solution players wanted, but it strikes a good balance between keeping the vision of the first game while removing some of the more egregious unfairness. Frankly, I love the ability to ambush the aliens. It has been the deciding factor in many encounters, and this is mainly because Firaxis held nothing back when it came to the new alien designs.

Many of the previous game’s enemy type’s return, but each one has seen some significant upgrades, and every one is far more dangerous than before. There are also a slew of new aliens, each more terrifying and deadly than the last. The serpentine Viper and hulking Faceless are just the beginning. The horrors that follow are the stuff of nightmares.

Of course, combat is only a part of the equation. Research, squad management, equipment improvement, and managing the safety of the globe are just as important to the success of XCOM. With its home based destroyed, the XCOM remnants have commandeered an alien craft dubbed the Avenger, which operates as a mobile base of operation. From here, you will travel the world and attempt to recruit the various resistance groups in hiding across the planet, while also collecting intel and resources.

Gathering intel unlocks new missions and opens up more of the map, thus increasing your income and ability to recruit not only soldiers, but also engineers and scientists who research advanced tech and upgrade your equipment. All the while, you will need to attend to any emergency or high priority mission that threatens to destroy all the hard work you’ve put in.

XCOM 2 does an exceptional job of making you feel like you’re fighting a guerrilla war that could at any time completely devour you. You’ll never feel as well-equipped as you would like, and when you finally are able to attain that piece of kit you’ve been waiting for, no doubt a new threat will be introduced to once again knock the scales back to the aliens’ favour.

It’s always challenging but never frustrating, and even after more than 60 hours, I am still completely engrossed. The only complaints I have are with the various glitches and bugs I have encountered, which include the camera getting stuck, long animation pauses while multiple events are triggered, and animations triggering out of sequence. I’ve also experienced a couple of freezes, along with a hard crash to desktop. Still, none of these have dented my enthusiasm for what is already looking to be a Game of the Year contender.