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Hands-on Preview: This is XCOM 2

by William Schwartz

xcom-2-logo

XCOM 2 isn’t a traditional sequel.  It doesn’t pick up where the original left off.  It asks us a question.  What would happen if the XCOM team lost?  While any XCOM player has probably had their fair share of heart breaking defeats to go alongside their triumphs, this game takes players to a new Earth.  An Earth where the aliens have conquered the planet, establishing a new world order in the process.  On the surface, the aliens appear to be helping the citizens of Earth, giving them disease and crime free living.  It’s not a utopia, there are rumors of people going missing from these cities on a massive scale, and that’s where the new XCOM resistance comes in to battle a new force known as the Advent.  Along the way, your mission is to discover where these missing people have gone, and what the true intentions of this new enemy is.

Make a wrong move and the aliens will win

With all that said, XCOM 2 is a more narrative driven experience than the previous game.  That paragraph probably has more story to it than the previous game had in its entirety.  XCOM Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within were focused on the strategy elements of the game.  The tactical turn-based combat and the strategic management of your resources to bolster your army was what kept fans coming back for more.  We recently got a chance to play some XCOM 2 and while it was a brief hands-on preview with the game, what we found was a sequel that has a lot of new parts to it — meaningful changes to gameplay, progression, new characters, customization, weapons, and power-ups all seemingly designed to give the game even more replayability than the original by making it more open-ended and unpredictable by using things like randomness and procedurally generated environments.

This is XCOM 2 (New Gameplay & Commentary)

XCOM 2 still very much feels like its predecessors in the broadest sense. It’s a two part game.  You’ve got tactical, turn-based combat and you have the strategy layer in between combat missions where you build your army, outfit them with new tools to bring to the battle, train soldiers, do research, and manage your army as a whole. You still need to make decisions that contribute to the shape of the ongoing war.   While some things have changed, the underground base of the XCOM team has been traded for a stolen alien supply ship, where you’ll handle your management duties now.  Some of the mission structures feel similar, as they all have specific consequences attached to them.  Take this mission and you’ll earn a specific reward, take that one and the rewards/consequences will be different.  Aside from the rewards that you’ll get from completing a mission, you can also pick up random loot drops this time around, which again funnel back into progression by offering weapon upgrades, gun variants, and other buffs for your soldiers.

XCOM 2 still has you making important decisions, constantly

Like the previous games, you have to choose which missions to take, and which not to, and weigh the impact of  your decisions on a macro level.  There’s more story missions this time around, but there’s also a new structure to the game in which you’re not only trying to bolster and build your army, but also stopping the enemy from reaching their own win condition.  New missions types include players needing to sabotage alien facilities to thwart this progress.  The player really has to balance mission selection to prevent the aliens from progressing, while building their own resources. Both the player and the aliens have large and small objectives to complete.  The more progress the aliens make, the harder it will be for XCOM to push them back.  There’s apparently no way to stop the aliens from achieving at least some of their goals, you’ll have to pick and choose which objectives are most important.  It’s “Pick your poison,” according to Jake Solomon the Creative Director on XCOM 2.

xcom-geoscape

Despite these new challenges, you’re still building your own army, customizing them, and researching new technologies.  There are new facilities in this new game, and some familiar ones like the Research Lab and Armory.  One of the new mechanics in XCOM 2 is the ability to loot enemies during the turn-based combat.  Loot you collect in combat can be given to engineers at the base in a new facility called The Proving Grounds and it will be turned into things like new types of ammunition, grenades, armor, and other things that can help in battle.  There’s a random element to this.  So any playthrough could be very different.  Another new facility is called Guerrilla Tactics, a place where you can purchase powerful upgrades for your squad.  This could be things like a fifth slot for an extra soldier, or you could staff rookies in there and train them as a specific class, which is something that wasn’t in the original game as you would need to take rookies out into the field to level them.  A good part about this is that you can now say ‘I specifically want this type of character and I’m willing to spend the resources to train them.’  Things still work on time, missions will still pop up just before you get that powerful new piece of equipment, and soldiers will die in the process.

The overall structure wasn’t completely revealed to us, rather shown in bits and pieces, but we can see how it could come together incredibly.  If you were a fan of the original macro management tools in the previous games and were a fan of the micro level execution needed in the combat segments, XCOM 2’s new systems appear to be something that took the original games and fleshed them out to offer more diversity for any specific playthrough, while building on popular systems and tweaking others.

xcom-2-loadouts

We played with four of the classes in XCOM 2.  Just like the original, each class has two branches for customization where players can pick an either “this or that” ability for the character.

Grenadier – Carries a grenade launcher and their path branches down demolitions and heavy gunner.  Demolitions will give them powerful explosions with big AOE damage.  While the other route is a heavy gunner that allows them to do more damage with standard or buffed ammunition

Sharpshooter – Carries a pistol.  They can be specialized as a traditional sniper that can attack from long distance and do a ton of damage, or they can be more of a gunslinger.  Gunslingers can do a lot of damage in a turn.  They can do multiple attacks and can be really powerful by attacking multiple enemies.

Ranger – Carries a sword and a shotgun.  This is a close-ranged unit.  They can be both a concealment unit, who is more about sneaking around  and catching enemies off guard, or Rangers that excel at close quarters combat with their shotgun.

Specialist – Carries a Gremlin drone with multiple abilities.  The Gremlin is used remotely and can be used for both combat and healing depending on how you spec the character.  The drone can be sent around the battlefield to both attack enemies or help allies.  They can do things like converting robotic enemies to your squad, hacking systems, or dealing guaranteed damage to enemy units.  Again, it just depends on which skills you assign in the skill tree.

xcom-2-battleview

On the ground, this new squad make-up changes the game significantly from the previous games.  There’s just a lot of new abilities to learn, and ways to tweak your squad.  Add to that the fact that there’s also a new status for your team in terms of “Concealment” and the gameplay feels much more diverse than the previous entries.  While you’ll still want to carefully navigate maps to avoid exposure to too many enemies at once, concealment allows you to ambush enemies and catch them off guard.  Being a resistance group, this is how you’ll start out most missions.  You can move freely around the map and set-up an ambush attack.  It’s not a full-blown stealth system, XCOM is still definitely a combat game, but it just felt like an additional layer of strategy for the missions we played.  Interesting plans can be carried out when in concealment.  When you break it by shooting at an enemy or group in combination with having other units in overwatch the whole team can ambush in unison, it’s amazing when you get a perfect set-up.  It doesn’t always work, you’re still gonna have those hand wringing moments of missed shots, and missteps due to the random nature of it all.

You’re still gonna have those hand wringing moments of missed shots

Other new parts of the combat include hacking, which can be done by the specialist that can make things somewhat easier, but failed hacking attempts can cause penalities.  These penalities could immediately be something like enemy reinforcements deployed to your location.  If successful though, you could be gain control of an enemy for a couple of turns, or disorient enemies for a short time.  Again, another thing that could make any mission play out considerably differently.  All missions in XCOM 2 are built dynamically, with procedural parts.  This means different biomes, like desert, snow, or forests.  While Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within had some level of randomness, XCOM 2 feels like it takes this stuff to a different level entirely.

xcom2-grenadier

The original XCOM had some interesting features in the character/soldier creation process that allowed you to create an emotional attachment to them.  Getting attached to soldiers made it all the more difficult to deal with losing them in battle.  Character creation has been expanded in XCOM 2.  Customization has been increased significantly.  A lot of the customization options return, but things like colors and patterns for them, colors and patterns for weapons, male, female, names, a number of hats, helmets, as well as props like cigars, monicoles, sunglasses, and other cosmetic items.  The veteran soldiers get you can give them things like tatoos, custom scars, you can even give them different attitudes which are reflected back through their animations.  Characters do die in XCOM 2 and they don’t come back.  But there is a new feature in the game that allows you to re-generate a character that you may have grown particularly fond of.  Once you customize a soldier in a specific way, theres an option to save that soldier’s loadout or features, and they will be saved to a character pool that can be accessed later.  These characters will reappear in future games as recruits or people you can rescue on missions.

“We did a lot of work to make mods a really big part of XCOM 2.”

XCOM 2 is a PC only release (at this point at least).  So PC players will be happy to hear that there will be extensive mod support for the game via Steam Workshop.  Jake Solomon, Creative Director for the game tells us. ” We feel it’s an important part for a PC game, and so when we release the game we’re gonna be releasing all of the content that we used to make the game.  So, all of the art and animations, we’re just releasing it all.  All the script source we use to write the game, we’re releasing all of that as well.  It’s gonna be there for people to immediately, the day after release, they can see exactly how the game works and change it if they want.  We’re releasing an editor that we used to develop the game, and it’s all done through Steam Workshop so you can subscribe to mods, have them update — you choose which mods you want and have the ready when you fire up the game. We did a lot of work to make mods a really big part of XCOM 2.”

XCOM 2 Releases for PC on February 5th, 2015.

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