I watched the memorial wall fill up with the names and pictures of fallen soldiers as I lost troops every mission. Rookies, experienced veterans, and all classes of soldier in between soon had their names immortalized as a memento of my failures, or sacrifices that I’d needed to make for my scant successes. I stopped customizing the names and appearances of my soldiers when they were still low rank, because I couldn’t face losing someone after spending that of time growing a bond and attachment to them. As I promoted each, I’d slowly make them my own soldiers. A custom name, a unique look, a special gun. Then I’d find myself on a mission, flanked with no way out, and I’d watch my team of veterans destroyed in a matter of two turns, leaving me with a cadre of broken willed rookies attempting to pick up the slack.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of my favorite games last generation, as a punishing strategy title where the odds are consistently stacked against you, and every choice made has dire consequences. Winning comes at the cost of many sacrifices and difficult decisions. XCOM 2 doubles down on this nature, creating a more tense feeling of balancing multiple spinning plates, deciding which ones are worth keeping, and which can be sacrificed, before adding even more plates to the balancing act. As a completionist who loves to finish everything, these choices are hard on me. Do I save the settlement under attack, risking my soldiers lives, or continue to scan the region to build up my ranks and supplies while letting that settlement fall? It’s rare that there is ever a “right” choice, there is only a choice that will mitigate your losses slightly more than the other. And every time you play, the experience will be a different one.
Building a revolution is hard, and I failed more than once, my tiny resistance withering and crumbling before my eyes until the aliens ultimately won. The fight is faced on two fronts. On one side, as the commander your task is to set up a global resistance, building your base, researching new technologies, and setting up a communication network with resistance fighters around the world. Everything has a time requirement, whether it’s doing an autopsy on that Muton corpse, or getting into contact with the local resistance front. During that countdown, time sensitive missions may come up, crucial for preventing the aliens from gaining the upper hand, but it may mean taking on these missions without valuable resources, perhaps before completing that weapon research, or finishing the facility that lets you take more soldiers into the field. And heading in unprepared can mean certain death for even the most veteran soldiers, watching your favorites become a customizable epitaph on your memorial wall.
On the other side is XCOM 2’s strategic turn based gameplay, a lethal board game where danger lurks in the fog of war, enemies waiting to flank and tear down your entire team. Early missions are easier, if you could call them that, facing down basic enemies with guns, but later missions start introducing advanced versions of the first game’s Sectoids who can mind control the dead and induce mental effects on your soldiers, snake-like creatures that can pull your soldiers across the battlefield and bind them in place, and more surprises that will make sure you never feel safe advancing too far forward in each mission. Often these missions have turn constraints placed on them, meaning that they need to be completed within a certain number of turns before a fail state kicks in. Running a VIP to an extraction point becomes infinitely more tense when placed under a 12 turn limit while trying to make sure that your entire team makes is out alive.
Playing it safe can be rewarding, but hanging back, hiding in the shadows and staying on the defensive can also allow the enemy to shore up, destroy valuable resources, and call in reinforcements. Things are rarely ever guaranteed in XCOM 2. Shots have a percentage chance to hit where they are being fired which can be increased or decreased based on the amount of cover you are in and flanking positions, though the deck often seems to be stacked against you. I found that when I would try to take chances, things would get messy rather quickly. Missing the kill shot from my sniper put my grenadier in a perfect position to be mind controlled, causing her to launch grenades at my two other soldiers hunkered down behind the wall. With more than half of my team incapacitated, it was easy for the Mutons to push forward and clean up, my sniper’s backup pistol not nearly enough to take them down.
It was almost disheartening in a way, watching my four strongest soldiers made into mincemeat, not only failing the mission that could have prevented a massive alien incursion, but also losing my strongest assets in the process. Death is permanent in XCOM 2, and it’s amazing how quickly you can lose something that you worked so hard to build up. That sniper that’s been with you since the first mission, outfitted with all of your high level gear, can be perforated by the alien menace, not only leaving your soldier lying on the cold concrete, but also saying goodbye to your gear. It’s the Dark Souls of strategy games, with each loss punishing the player more and more, but also making each victory feel like that much more of an accomplishment.
The only downside to XCOM 2 is some technical hiccups that make the presentation a little messy. With the game being turn based, the frame rate drops and screen tearing present in the in-game cutscenes don’t ever impact the ability to play the game, but they do make things less than pretty on occasion. It’s disappointing, considering the game does look much more impressive than the first. The cutaways to your soldiers cutting down enemies, or even to your own ranks falling to alien technology, are quite cinematic. It makes the battlefield feel incredibly epic despite this being a slow turn based strategy game. If these presentations were cleaner, it would make XCOM 2 a near perfect experience.
Great strategy games are few and far between, and XCOM 2 is an absolute treat for anyone craving a challenge on every level. Marred only be a few technical presentation hiccups and slow loading times, XCOM 2 is a deep mental and emotional experience that tests each player’s resolve to triumph against overwhelming odds and failure. While losing a top soldier can be a most devastating defeat, coming back from that loss and completing a mission with a group of rookies to honor that soldier’s sacrifice can be an incredible accomplishment. You may still lose the war, but each campaign’s small victories drive that feeling that success is possible, no matter the insurmountable odds placed before you.
XCOM 2 review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.