XCOM 2's turned tides make humanity feel like a desperate underdog

The aliens have occupied earth in XCOM 2—but are the splintered XCOM forces freedom fighters or terrorists?

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It’s really no surprise the aliens won. I mean, I don’t know the exact ratio of “Number of XCOM: Enemy Unknown games begun” versus “Number of XCOM: Enemy Unknown games won,” but I can guess it’s not great.

The idea that the alien invasion succeeded? The idea that a critical squad member died at a critical moment, or that the world’s greatest superpowers pulled out of XCOM and doomed the world to dominion? That was the ending, as far as the vast majority of my campaigns are concerned.

Thus opens XCOM 2: Aliens have already invaded, XCOM has turned from global enterprise into a scattered network of resistance fighters, and humanity is subjugated. Muzzled.

What I didn’t expect was how damn happy humanity seems. Or—well, not happy, per se. But quiet. Maybe even content. Certainly alive.

Keep in mind everything in this article is made up of surface details I’ve gleaned from a single trailer and a fifteen-minute demo. There’s plenty we’ve yet to learn about XCOM 2. Perhaps the main game will portray your guerrilla tactics in a much stronger “Rah-rah save the day!” light.

But so far, what I find most interesting about XCOM 2 is that humanity seems totally fine. You’ve got people hanging out, talking on the sidewalks. You’ve got people gathering to watch the aliens unveil a statue commemorating “Unification Day” a.k.a. the day the aliens took over. You’ve got media types spreading the Good Word—The Aliens Are Our Friends And You Should All Love Them.

There’s definitely a They Live vibe to the proceedings—and for a story-light strategy game, that’s a surprisingly complex theme to explore. The mission we were shown at E3 involved a team of XCOM guerrillas quickly infiltrating the aforementioned statue unveiling, with the goal of blowing it to pieces. In other words, terrorism.

And while “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is cliché, there’s no denying it makes for an interesting setup. How does humanity perceive XCOM? Do they have support? Why are they fighting? Is it out of habit? Out of fear? Or to combat legitimate injustices?

Whatever the case, it’s clear the ensuing two decades post-invasion have wreaked havoc on XCOM. These are the lean years. From the minute our demo started it was clear this was not about killing every alien as much as it was about staying alive long enough to complete your objective. You’re outnumbered, outgunned, and in danger of being overrun—so move fast, complete your task, and get the hell out.

Some of that is almost certainly a by-product of the “E3 Sizzle Reel.” It’s much more interesting to watch a soldier sprint across the map and unload a shotgun into an alien’s face than it is to watch two snipers take pot-shots while the rest of your squad hangs out in Overwatch. Shots that, at least half the time, are going to go wide. Because it’s XCOM.

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But viscera aside, I think XCOM 2 looks speedy. During our demo, the squad was constantly pushing forward, constantly advancing towards the objective. Now the question is whether, like Enemy Within, there will be some sort of mechanic (a la Meld) further reinforcing the need for mobility or whether it’s just tacit pressure from incoming troops. And even more important: If you’re the type of person who likes to take things slow, is that still a valid way to play?

After all, this is XCOM and when things change they change quickly—an enormous snake-alien thing erupted from a box, lassoed one of our agents a few squares away, and murdered her immediately. And then there were three.

Another new addition: Ultra-powerful melee attacks. One of our agents leapt out of cover, sprinting towards the snake-alien in what was either the bravest or stupidest move of the day. Closing in, she swept at the snake-alien with a knife and killed it in one hit. High-risk, high-reward.

From there, the demo pretty much played out as expected—people moved forward, aliens pushed back, both sides got some lucky shots in, the statue exploded, and it was time for evac.

One side note about the statue exploding: Firaxis seems to have put a larger emphasis on conveying story in XCOM 2, dropping in a number of short cutscene-esque asides during our demo. I sort of enjoyed this aspect, as it gave previously unremarkable actions a more cinematic feel—XCOM might at its heart be a dry tactics game, but XCOM 2 looks like an action movie.

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Right down to the “GET TO DA CHOPPAH” ending. After blowing up the Unification statue we came under attack from two more humanoid robots and a massive muscle-monster gorilla-alien which appeared to have no skin. Again, we’re talking outnumbered, outgunned, and about to be overrun. The three swept in from a helicopter and started sprinting towards our poor agents, as Mission Command yelled about how we “couldn’t take them on.”

A nearby turret sat idle though, and one of our agents quickly hacked it to direct fire at the oncoming enemies (yet another new feature). And then, with time running short, he grabbed one of our downed agents, threw her over his shoulder, and ran towards the evac zone—seemingly indicating that we can now rescue “killed” personnel from the battle as long as we have enough agents alive. And that is a huge change.

It’s XCOM, though. Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within were both great, so there’s little reason for Firaxis to reinvent—and they haven’t. Like Enemy Within, this looks like an evolution, albeit one with a vastly different setting and feel to your agents. But again, it’s sort of difficult to tell. XCOM is so built on subtleties, it’s hard to pick up on the more nuanced changes in a video.

The game comes out in November, so I expect we’ll (at the very least) start getting hands-on impressions around PAX. Until then: Good luck, Commander.

This story, "XCOM 2's turned tides make humanity feel like a desperate underdog" was originally published by PCWorld.