Courtesy of Firaxis Games
Courtesy of Firaxis Games

Despite my deep-seated loathing of the “hype train” that is inevitable with a new installment of a popular franchise, I have to admit that I was unabashedly excited for “XCOM 2.” Bucking my typical strategy of waiting a year or so until games I’m interested in finally come down in price, I decided to skip the waiting period and pay full price. And what a great decision this was, as “XCOM 2” offers a unique experience in that your reward for spending $60 for the full game is repaid by the game repeatedly kicking you in the stomach until you’re crying angry, frustrated tears.

Based off the cult hit “XCOM: UFO Defense” from the early ‘90s era of PC gaming, concerns the titular paramilitary agency serving as Earth’s first and last line of defense against an invading force of aliens. Gameplay-wise, “XCOM 2” has the same isometric, turn-based combat of its predecessor, with the key difference being a new slew of soldier classes and abilities, as well as taking the story in an alternate direction wherein the alien invaders succeeded and you serve as the commander of a ragtag resistance. This adds an element of exploration to the game, as you slowly uncover more of the map as you expand outward, reminiscent of the board game “Risk.” Another addition is the inclusion of stealth in certain guerrilla missions, and the third-person viewpoint and open-ended maps give certain levels a “Metal Gear Solid” vibe.

“XCOM 2” has improved upon its predecessor in ways beyond overall feel, as your soldiers and the enemy forces have a greater degree of customization and utility. The “Assault” class from “XCOM: Enemy Unknown,” a close combat unit, has been re-christened as the “Ranger.” While I initially thought the only change was in name alone, you can choose to either use them as close-combat brawlers, armed with a shotgun and a sword, or turn them into invisible angels of death, striking fear into the hearts of enemies before vanishing once more into the shadows. The difficulty curve has also been ramped up, with strict turn timers making it impossible to cheese the game while you wait for aliens to come to you.

What makes “XCOM 2” a standout for me compared to the plethora of other new games, however, is the fact that “XCOM 2” has some actual chutzpah. While other games have hand-holding tutorials or no way to actually lose, “XCOM 2” features a punishing opening mission, party permadeath and a “doom counter” constantly hanging on the top of the screen, serving as a countdown until the alien overlords initiate doomsday. If you have a run of bad luck or take too long on story missions, then congratulations, the aliens win and you get to restart. While other games like “Dark Souls” are also known for being difficult, they often rely on precise gameplay and split-second reflexes. “XCOM 2’s” turn-based style makes it a much more thoughtful experience without sacrificing difficulty. After making a bad move or failing a critical shot, you’ll have plenty of time to mull over your mistake while the alien forces turn your best squad into a fine, red mist.

Aside from minor minutiae, there isn’t much more I can say about “XCOM 2” except that it is a game filled with cathartic moments of minor success in between a slew of hilarious, major failures that offers a gameplay experience unlike any other. After a night of play, I dreamt that the aforementioned “doom counter” filled up completely. Awaking in a cold sweat, I had to load the game to make sure it wasn’t real. I then figured that since I was awake anyway, I might as well play some more “XCOM 2.”

Rating: 5/5 Stars