I'd like to introduce you to some of my closest, most loyal companions.
First up, circumlocutory Joe – a dear friend of mine, a sergeant, who died gracefully (legs blown off, screaming) after the cover he was hiding behind was hit by grenade fire. Then there's Captain not-James-T Kirk. Stupid, gentle Captain not-James-T Kirk: a buffoon who managed to get himself captured, and whom I never bothered to save from the clutches of the enemy, even though I probably could have.
Enter corporals Sean Bell and Andi Hamilton, a thunderous duo of barely-in-shape gung-ho hurricanes: now both dead, cut down mercilessly during Operation Seething Fork, or something like that. PJ "Warhorse" O'Reilly lost the will to live when an alien Sectoid took control of his mind. When he started firing on my other squad mates, we had to put him down like a dog. Luck of the Irish.
Tamoor "The Animal" Hussain, a bearded tank of a man I had recruited from Resistance HQ, had a lot promise. Yet despite his foreboding physical appearance, Tamoor was slaughtered during his first proper tour of duty. There have been others, too. Many more. Gary, Dan, Tom, Mum... life is fragile.
All of my friends – and mum – have something in common. They all ran out of time.
You see, with the freshly released XCOM 2, developer Firaxis has once again crafted a strategy game quite unlike any other, successfully refining practically everything that was so damn good about XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the studio's 2012 reboot of 1994's original UFO: Enemy Unknown. But they've also gone beyond expectations, over-delivering in almost every respect, adding significant strategic depth and building new features that consistently delight, surprise and genuinely terrify even the most experienced of XCOM players. Despite putting over 70 hours into Enemy Unknown, I still felt most comfortable nudging its sequel down to its easiest difficulty, until I had a firmer grasp of everything new that this game has hiding in its fog of war.
The game is at its most ruthless when it uses your own time against you, and in order to succeed you have to learn to be efficient. XCOM 2, which pits your human resistance force (namely XCOM) against the alien occupiers of Earth (read our interview from 2015 for more story background), communicates a feeling of brutal intelligence; it makes you feel clever and genuinely overwhelmed with relief for succeeding with each mission, but that success is never easily earned. It also never gives you the confidence to think you'll breeze through the next mission. There's nothing permanent here – make a bad decision, or even the right decision but at the wrong time, and your failure is always a turn or two away, be that the death of a squad mate, a devastating attack on your mobile command centre, or any other number of potentially game-changing threats that lie in wait throughout the game's lengthy campaign. The relief of getting home safe or successfully saving a settlement lingers briefly in the mind before you're firefighting your next emergency. Your eyes are always on a clock.
'XCOM 2', launch trailer
Most if not all of the game's missions require you to "get it done" within a certain number of turns. For example, head into battle and you'll need to complete your objective and get to the evacuation zone before the time runs out – anyone outside of that zone when the timer hits zero gets left behind, captured by enemy forces. In some missions, you'll need to kill all enemies in the vicinity, albeit in just five or so turns, otherwise a dropship will arrive with reinforcements, increasing the pressure on your troops who are already struggling against an enemy that greatly outnumbers them.
In the overarching strategic decisions that determine how you and your ragtag resistance buddies progress through the campaign, you'll find that the passage of time works against you there, too. Every day that goes by is another day closer to the aliens' completion of the Avatar Project, a mysterious program shrouded in secrecy but that definitely threatens to render all your resistance efforts futile. It's essentially the penultimate step before Game Over.
This could have been an incredibly annoying design decision – strategy games often give players the freedom to plan how they want to experiment with systems. But XCOM 2 constrains the boundaries and instead wants you to get things done on its terms. It works surprisingly well as a new tactical consideration, and instead of constricting your gameplay options it instead forces you to think differently, and more efficiently. There's a real sense of speed to everything you do. Additional objectives suddenly become something you need to fit into the current parameters of the mission, rather than just undertake at your leisure. And when you get down to two remaining turns and still need to get four of your six-person squad to evac, it becomes fucking tense.
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During a particularly tough mission, I had to not only take down a VIP target – my primary objective – but also use a piece of resistance-developed technology against a high-ranking enemy officer, to basically rip data from his alien brain. Doing this, I was told, would give the resistance an upper hand; but getting up close with alien forces on the battlefield poses obvious risks. As XCOM's enemies gets tougher and your soldiers rank up, it becomes a strategic decision as to who you take into the field. Take a squad full of your best troops and you're less likely to take casualties; but should you incur any losses, they're far more damaging to the overall strength of XCOM than if you'd lost a newly recruited rookie. But in order to try guarantee success, I took the risk and sent out my finest.
Five soldiers, all experienced, and all running out of time. I had 12 turns. Just a dozen moves to find the currently unidentified VIP, kill or capture them, deal with the fallout (capturing someone means one of your squad is out of action while they're carrying a target), then move into a strong enough strategic position to put one of my men at risk of death by sending him toe-to-toe with a big-ass bad guy. And only then, once all that was done, could I move to the evac point.
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Of course, I fucked it. Two of my guys got gravely wounded, so I was moving them with great care, wasting valuable turns making sure they were never out of full cover – XCOM 2's AI exploits squad vulnerabilities with ruthless precision. Getting the VIP captured went a bit wrong, too – I managed to subdue and carry them to relative safety, but when a nearby car exploded it killed them and halved my soldier's health. Two and a half men down, I was literally operating at half capacity – yet I somehow managed to mind-jack the enemy officer, keeping my eyes fixed on the clock at all times. But then came an unexpected blow: using mind control caused this weird living computer-thing mini-boss to appear, teleporting across the map and cloning itself at will. Pants.
I finally ended up killing it, but used up my last few precious turns doing so. I left that mission with one soldier so injured that he was out of action for over a dozen in-game days. XCOM being XCOM, this caused ramifications that stifled my progress for several hours. I had to waste time rescuing captured soldiers from enemy control, and what squad I had to play with was left severely impaired by the loss of such levelled-up comrades. And every day that I was patching XCOM up, the aliens were getting closer to activating the Avatar Project. The very real stress I'd felt before losing my best on the battlefield was only growing. And time was passing, inexorably, whatever my efforts to catch up to it.
XCOM 2 is a wonderful game, absolutely one of the best strategy titles you'll play this or any other year. It's unusually smart, ruthless and expects you to always be thinking ahead: to your next turn, to your next battle, to your next (possibly final) decision. But for me, its most cruelly unique feature is how all of its mechanics come together to create this constantly ticking bomb, that makes every minute of the game feel precious and important. No matter if you've an entire day to play, or just an hour one evening after you've finished all of your shitty real-life chores, XCOM 2 gives you time, and with it you'll make a real tangible difference to the future of its depiction of mankind – for better, or worse.
XCOM 2 is out now for PC and Mac
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