The X-COM games have always been terrifying, the turn-based story of scared troops up against the darkness and a brutal enemy. If this was all humans could muster, we were doomed. But hope prevails. Over time you turn the enemy's technology against them and save the human race.
This has been the story of every game in the X-COM universe, right up to 2012's critically acclaimed franchise reboot, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Unreasonably macho soldiers engaging in battle after horrific battle to fight off the alien invasion and somehow managing to push back the untold horrors of other worlds.
This makes sequels difficult. Defeated alien invasion armies very rarely decide to "just have another go." MicroProse got around this by setting Terror from the Deep underwater and making most of your tech useless in the new environment. But it was still just a retreading.
With the just-announced XCOM 2, developers Firaxis are asking us a different question: What if the resistance of XCOM: Enemy Unknown had failed? I don't just mean accidentally throwing handfuls of under-equipped rookies at the alien menace and going back to the main menu—what if humans had failed to develop alien(-beating) technology, and had actually lost the war? What if we saw the world overrun, leading to armistice and capitulation, with the alien menace a presence on every street corner?
Sounds bad, but that's the premise for XCOM 2. And it's the best news for fans of the series, because it's going to force palpable progress into the gameplay equation.
Prior games' tendency to make each country cut your funding as the alien invasion escalated around them was always jarring. This idea of being underfunded and overstretched fits better in a world where XCOM (the Earth's Extra-terrestrial Combat Unit) lost and has just broken cover to fight the occupation like a black ops version of the Wolverines.
'XCOM 2' announcement trailer.
Waging guerrilla warfare against the aliens has much more potential as a storyline mechanic then being thrust, again, into the role of the first, last, and only defense against the scum of the universe. It's a total change in the status quo. XCOM is outnumbered, the aliens have seized control, and civilians are getting security screened by other humans? Fighting an occupying force has never happened in the series before. It's a brave new world and it has the remnants of humanity living as second-class citizens on their own planet.
Considering the civilians have previously functioned as nothing more than objectives to play for, the moral ambiguity here is massive. The soldiers gunned down by XCOM in the announcement trailer: Did they deserve it? How do the civilians feel about a mob of gunmen showing up outside their workplace and firing wildly? It's annoying to have to go through an extended security check every time you get to work, but maybe that's better than a horde of Chryssalids being unleashed inside the local shopping center.
With XCOM now operating as a tough band of revolutionaries instead of a multi-national force, I guess the question you have to ask is: are XCOM the bad guys, now? Perhaps more importantly: do XCOM look like the bad guys? Going underground after the last war, the unit's return may not actually represent the salvation people need. The trailer is keeping it ambiguous about how benevolent the aliens and their puppet government actually are at this stage, but even if they were eating babies from time to time, would the everyday person on the street be up in arms about it, if the "greater good" is being taken care of? Do the bin men ever strike under alien rule? Do the trains run on time? Babies are everywhere, anyway.
This would back the claims that XCOM 2 will involve stealthier play in its tactical stages. If everyone thinks you're a hostile presence, you're going to be feeling the pressure a lot more often, and rather than charging around to take down enemies like a SWAT team, missions may well be more nuanced.
Of course, it's entirely possible that Firaxis will skip this approach to its "good" and "bad" sides and simply present the aliens as straight-up enemies, there to be driven off Earth and nothing more. But I hope not, because the trope of the slow erosion of human rights by a secret (or not-so-secret) controlling minority is good for mechanical changes, but pretty plain for story resolution.
This could mean we'll see a big change in direction from a gameplay perspective, too. That hulking sky-base we see ascending from the canyon in the trailer could be indicative of hit-and-run tactics. Could this mean we'll see a less-reactionary XCOM experience, with players free to take more initiative? That'd be welcomed, as where's the fun in acting like the leader of a group of freedom fighters if you don't get to stir up some trouble for the (maybe) evil overlords?
The freedom to pick your own targets and instigate your own missions brings us to the most appealing facet of what the next XCOM promises: We're going to see its formula completely change. You won't be touching down at a crash site or terror mission and setting up a perimeter, as you've done in hundreds of times over hundreds of hours before now. Instead, you'll be playing "the other side"—the predatory force scouting out the hostile positions and trying to remain hidden until you're ready to strike. When you choose to fight, you're going to be facing down not only alien ranks, but also human soldiers made to stand beside them. How is that going to make you feel? What is too great a cost to rid Earth of its invaders? Just how late is too late before you demand a refund from your regional train operator?
This kind of change should bring an end to an often-maligned area of the reboot. Being able to strike first lets you fire off a couple of shots before the incredibly annoying "reaction move," that all aliens receive when you first spot them, kicks in. These could trigger a chain reaction that might see you end your turn with a horde of angry enemies heading your way. With a bit of luck we'll also see an end to those damned satellites, too.
It's too early to make a definitive statement on whether or not XCOM 2 will live up to the family name, but by making a bold move and shredding the preconceptions associated with the series, it's moving in a new direction, and it seems like the right one.
XCOM 2 will be released in November.
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