When XCOM 2 was announced earlier this month, it wasn't quite the sequel I was expecting. I had always assumed the follow up to XCOM: Enemy Unknown would simply be more of the same, with alien forces launching a new invasion after recovering their strength in the far reaches of space. Instead, we glimpsed a future in which man and alien share an integrated society filled with guarded checkpoints, propaganda films and nods toward strange eugenics initiatives. The XCOM project has been pushed further to the fringe, continuing as a guerrilla unit trying to upheave this ordered society in any way they can. Hang on! Did we lose the war?
Indeed we did. Sorry, commander. The good news is that XCOM 2 is a very different game for our collective failure: seeing the impact of this shiny new premise in a behind-closed-doors demo instantly made XCOM 2 one of my most anticipated games of the year.
For the sake of context, think back to when Bloodborne arrived on PS4, taking away the beloved shield that was such an essential part of Dark Souls and its sequel. This small subtraction carried massive gameplay implications - the tried and tested dodge-shield-strike style of turtling gameplay, embedded so firmly in our muscle memory, was no longer viable. Aggression became the new law, turning Bloodborne - and you as a player - into an entirely different beast altogether.
Setting the campaign behind enemy lines has given XCOM 2 an equally marked shift in tone, doing for XCOM what Bloodborne did for Dark Souls. Don't worry, though; the gameplay is largely the same turn-based, percentage-obsessed fare you remember. Rather, it's the approach to the action that's changed. The XCOM project is now on the back foot: its soldiers are the subversive 'other' threatening to shatter the peace. They're facing a greater more organised force with fewer resources at their disposal. They're taking greater risks and, most interestingly, they're really pissed off.
The slice of gameplay I saw, a hands-off demo of the new Sabotage mission type, followed a surprisingly grumpy XCOM squad preparing to blow up a massive Advent statue (Advent being the occupying force) on the 20th anniversary of Unification Day - i.e. the day humanity surrendered. The first part of this mission involved getting into position and springing an ambush on Advent forces, making use of the impressive new Ranger class (a riff on the Assault soldiers from Enemy Unknown). Rangers can sneak into position without triggering enemies, allowing them to get the drop on their foe and spring an ambush, denying them the opportunity to 'scamper'. This mechanic quickly establishes a new approach to positioning in XCOM that's less about not being caught off guard when the enemies start rushing in and more about taking out a group of unsuspecting rivals before they even have a chance to get a shot off.
After sparking an intense firefight, our demo squad planted the charge and blew the target, at which point the mission quickly descended into a mad scramble to the evac point before everybody died. It was a close-run thing and, while the intensity (and body count) had almost certainly been exaggerated for the demo, it gave me a whole new perspective on XCOM 2. The bare bones of the game are reassuringly intact, but I'm already preparing myself for a far more intense campaign.
If we do manage to win in XCOM 2 (lest we forget, we lost last time round), it's not going to be a walk in the park - it's going to be tooth and nail all the way. After the demo, I sat down with Lead Producer Garth DeAngelis to talk more about XCOM 2's premise and gameplay. Watch the video below for more!