In the first XCOM game (released in 2012), the situation was: Enemy Unknown. Now, in XCOM 2, it’s 20 years later and our extraterrestrial adversaries are very familiar indeed. The alien invaders came, they conquered and they’re now our, uh, friends—working side by side with us in an effort to create a peaceful, coexistent world.
At least that’s what the government-approved video feeds say.
The truth of things is far different than the smiling, hopeful computer and TV images might suggest. Soylent Green? Nah, that ain’t the half of it. These aliens have oodles of complicated, nasty plans in mind for their docile human “partners.”
Fortunately, mankind isn’t totally herd-like and hopeless. There’s still a ragtag underground force of resistance fighters out there, led by … you. You’re the commander of an undermanned, undersupplied group of men and women who must gather what they can, develop new skills and weapons, and somehow take the fight to those unveracious UFO uglies. To help in that quest you’ve got a cool alien-designed airborne base that can keep you flying just out of the invader’s gunsights and take you to any earthly place of interest.
As with the original XCOM game, this is a strategy title that asks players to manage their ticking clock and dwindling assets while researching alien tech, building new facilities on a hovering fortress, coming up with new tools and weapons, and opening communication lines with other groups of human holdouts. You also must micromanage a series of earthbound battle missions.
Each 3/4 bird’s-eye view mission consists of sending recruits to the surface to explore a given map, revealing and eliminating alien enemies. While doing that, they gather intelligence, rescue innocent civilians or sabotage enemy installations. And with success comes advancement: The rookie recruits get tougher, smarter and more well-armed. And the missions become more challenging, too. At the same time, the rescued scientists and engineers throw their skill sets into your save-the-world effort.
Frankly, this game’s action and challenges are all really fun, not to mention ever-changing. Unlike the original game, XCOM 2 throws in some replay curveballs with a new layer of mission randomness built into each level. So if you think you can go back and ace a quest with a memorized list of physical structures to hide behind or enemy locations to spy out, you’ll soon find that things have been dematerialized and transported to new areas since your last go-round. (Those sneaky aliens!)
What the game thankfully doesn’t include this time is an M rating. This entry’s blood-spray quotient is reduced considerably, while the blade- or bullet-derived destruction of aliens is limited to pools of yellow goop. Even the game’s campy alien autopsies aren’t so splash-about messy, kept largely out of the camera’s direct view. The ear-burning foul language has been all but eradicated as well. Your erstwhile troopers are hard-edged, but now they keep their hard language to themselves.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t any pain of war to be felt here. The yellow goop is still yellow goop. The blades and bullets are still lethal. You don’t aim down a gun sight and squeeze a trigger, but there’s still lots of battlefield deadliness in play. You spend time with your human soldiers, too, getting to know their names and personalities. So if you accidentally mishandle a move and leave some squad mate vulnerable, you feel the sting of your soldier’s death, certainly.
Now, that’s not always a bad thing, of course. Humanizing the realities of war is needful. And, true to life, there are no one-more-time do-overs here. Like an ongoing game of Russian Roulette, once your trooper goes down, he or she is gone for good.
The question, then, is whether needfulness is good enough for a game.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.