Rebel Yell: XCOM 2 Impressions
It only took a few minutes from XCOM 2's announcment before somebody uttered the fateful words in the RPG Site staff channels: "Should we cover it?" For me, the answer was immediately yes - I always felt our decision to skip coverage of the original XCOM reboot was a mistake - and now we can right that.
But why? Well - when you actually look at it, XCOM's turn-based, grid-driven gameplay featuring permanent death, statistics, hidden dice rolls and skill trees at the forefront isn't that dissimilar to the greats of the Strategy RPG genre - and so here we are.
What a time to start coverage, too - XCOM 2 looks more than a little brilliant.
Faster, more dramatic and more immediately involving than its predecessor, our XCOM 2 demo kicks off with a solid amount of cinematic flair, the story so far delivered through snippets from news bulletins that eventually pulls out to a shadowy briefing room and then back in to the mission at hand once more.
The story is a complete tonal flip on the XCOM people know and love - this time the alien-fighting organization is on the back foot having been defeated in the last game. On the true, harder difficulties most players failed, a Firaxis Games representative later tells me - and so their sequel canon fits right with that.
Gone is the iconic sprawling underground base, replaced instead with a more ragtag operation - the Aliens are 'benevolent' dictators over humanity, and XCOM has tasked themselves with ending their reign through any and all necessary guerilla tactics.
During the opening of the mission the player's XCOM unit is concealed. A dull blue hue thrums around the outer edge of the screen to represent this, and the units are moved from cover to cover, staying out of sight of the guards - who are, it should be noted, human collaborators with the alien regime. When the team finally attacks and are revealed, that blue hue blares red to warn you that the alarm has now been sounded - reinforcements are coming.
The score here stands out - the soundtrack in this mission appeared dynamic, adjusting as small animation sequences pointed out important parts of the issue. When the time comes for the XCOM crew to 'go loud' with shotguns, blasting the enemy to reach the mission objective, the score crescendos before crashing down into a louder, more combat-appropriate tune - it was striking.
Most of the improvements in XCOM 2 appear to be evolution rather than revolution - the game looks and moves slicker, while small touches - such as what appears to be a lot more mission-relevant dynamic dialogue from squad members each recorded with the appropriate geographical accent for that character - make the game feel that much deeper.
As alarms blare, I catch a glimpse of a few new elements for this release. Panicked, the human guards unleash a dangerous new snake-like alien beast to help combat the team - and later, I see that same enemy taken down with the sword, a new and appropriately improvised weapon for the more budget-constrained XCOM soldiers.
As hefty new Alien heavies arrive alongside their human helpers in a fresh wave of reinforcements, the few surviving XCOM members beat a hasty retreat.
The last act of the demo is also new - the ability to pick up and carry a wounded team mate to safety - another way to hold on to more of your soldiers and keep them off the dreaded memorial wall. Soldiers can still of course be instantly killed on the battlefield - so it still pays to be careful.
What I see is a scripted mission - one that I'm later told is part of the more major story beats of the game and thus more defined than the randomly-generated missions that'll make up much of XCOM 2's bread-and-butter.
We also didn't get to see any of the mission preparation, some of where XCOM's larger RPG elements come in to play - but even with those facts noted, it was hard not to be impressed by XCOM's E3 demo. Where the previous game and its expansion played it relatively safe by recreating beloved elements from the classic, XCOM 2 seems to take the best of the series and twist it in an interesting new direction that leaves me excited to see more of what's new and different.
Seemingly slicker, smarter and cooler, XCOM 2 seems to be pressing all the right buttons. We'll be able to find out if it does so as well as its predecessor when it lands on PC - and PC only - come November.
XCOM 2 is coming for PC this November, and is available for pre-order now.