XCOM 2 is a faster, more urgent sequel
And all the better for it.
I didn't expect XCOM 2 to demo particularly well. I fell in love with its predecessor because it gave me the time to grow fond of the soldiers I was commanding and I couldn't see that happening within the confines of a brief preview. The concern seemed a valid one too, as my first mission came in the form of a restrictive tutorial (which can be skipped, thankfully) that had already decided who would live and who would die. I can't even remember their names...
This wasn't how an XCOM game should be played. I needed to see the numbers and make my own mistakes. I needed to rename my soldiers, give them different hats, and carefully fret over each decision I'd make on their behalf. Happily, this is exactly what the next two hours would look like.
And I enjoyed it. The game may be set 20 years after we lost the war in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but mechanically it all feels pretty familiar. You'll still be playing a game of two halves: either controlling a small squad of troops on the ground, or managing a base (albeit one that now exists within a repurposed alien supply craft). If you didn't enjoy what Firaxis accomplished with their 2012 reboot, don't expect this to be the game that changes your mind. But if you did, XCOM 2 offers the kind of improvements that make the game feel fresh, without losing what I enjoyed about the previous title.
For example, missions now kick off with something called the 'concealment phase', which gives your team the opportunity to scout their surrounding area and set up an ambush upon finding an unsuspecting patrol. This addresses two complaints I had with both Enemy Unknown and Within. First, it means that enemy patrols have to follow an actual patrol route, rather than teleporting around the map haphazardly (an issue that became more apparent in the previous games when a group of aliens could suddenly materialise behind you, despite you having very carefully cleared the area in question).
More importantly, concealment encourages you to be more interesting as a player. Instead of carefully tiptoeing forwards, waiting to trigger that first group of enemies, you can move around the map with some degree of confidence. By clearly highlighting the tiles that are within the enemy's line of sight, XCOM 2 gives you the chance to position your troops in just the right locations to take full advantage of your opening gambit. It's immensely satisfying when it works, but there's still a clever risk involved, as you don't know exactly how your targets intend to move each turn. Your carefully laid plan could be scuppered by a patrol unexpectedly changing direction and discovering your squad cowering behind half cover, just a few feet away.
This is what I like to see in a sequel: ideas that try to resolve issues found in the previous game, whilst also offering something new and worthwhile in their own right. The same can perhaps be said for the inclusion of enemy reinforcements, which can seemingly be triggered at any point during a mission. You'll receive fair warning, with a flare appearing on the map in the preceding turn, and then you'll need to rush to prepare yourself for their arrival. If your squad is in good shape and not otherwise engaged, this shouldn't be a problem, but that won't always be the case. It feels very XCOM and provides another important incentive to play a little more adventurously, as the longer you dawdle in a mission, the more likely you are to run into extra enemies. This does present one potential problem though, that I'm hoping will be addressed in the final game. At this stage I'm not sure what stops me from, in certain situations, wanting to farm multiple sets of these reinforcements to rack up kills and acquire additional loot in the form of weapons add-ons.
The add-ons! I think they're a really smart move, actually. Weapon add-ons, which can occasionally be recovered from enemy corpses tie into a new system called 'Legacy weapons', allowing you to customise individual guns with all sorts of bits and pieces - scopes, hair tiggers, extended magazines. It all feels a bit Call of Duty, really, particularly when you see the range of weapon skins on offer, but they're an interesting addition. These weapons can potentially outlive their owners, as you hand them over to the next recruit, providing a more tangible reminder of those that have fallen along the way. But more importantly, I really like how you acquire these weapon addons. As far as I can tell, they're dropped randomly by most enemies, and when that happens a countdown is triggered. Grab that loot within three turns and it's all yours, but if you wait too long, it self-destructs. Similar to the Meld resource in Enemy Within, this encourages you to be just a little more reckless in the way you move around the map.
This is another way of addressing a problem that would eventually crop up in XCOM: Enemy Unknown - players want to play cautiously and sometimes require that extra incentive to take risks. I also found that the missions in XCOM 2 asked me to play more aggressively than I would have typically chosen to. The four missions I played all had different objectives to consider, which proved a refreshing change (Enemy Unknown didn't always offer the most variety here), and I think at some point they all included a countdown. One of the developers was keen to point out that this wouldn't always be the case, some missions can be played out at your own pace, but in these examples I welcomed the change in tempo. XCOM players need that extra push to play with a sense of urgency. Countdowns, whether they're for loot drops or vital objectives, are a straightforward way of addressing that.
So there we are. Of course I'm pleased to see the soldier classes being reworked (one of them has a sword, I know!) and it's exciting to encounter an entirely new roster of enemy types. It's great that the game looks prettier and I'm delighted to see even more in the way of customisation options.
But without sounding too dismissive of all the work and craftsmanship involved, those are all exactly the things I expected from XCOM 2. It's the more fundamental changes that have me excited about this sequel. Concealment, Legacy weapons, enemy reinforcements and more focused mission objectives. These improvements come from a clear understanding of how people play XCOM games. Enemy Unknown was a fantastic experience, but was too often an overly cautious one. The sequel looks to address that problem head on, and I think it will be a better game as a result.