Our biggest issue with Xcom: Enemy Unknown was the jarring disconnect between the scenario it offered and the resources you had at your disposal. Seriously, if aliens were invading, there's no way you'd have to scrimp and save, train up noob officers, and build up your defences conservatively. We live in a world where the super powers are happy to spend billions on bombing smaller countries into oblivion in order to secure fossil fuel, and if there was an unknown alien enemy knocking on our door, the organisation tasked with dealing with it would be given everything they needed to repel the threat (or not, as the case may be).
Xcom 2 fixes our main issue with the first game (which really wasn't that big a problem in the grand scheme of things) by introducing a new scenario that fits the gameplay loop and premise perfectly. The alien invasion of the first game was not repelled, and we're living in a near-future world under the governance of the aliens. These same aliens are integrating humanity into their collective, both societally and genetically, and their vice like grip extends across the globe. That is, except for pockets of resistance dotted here and there. It's this defiant band that we take charge of as we look to turn the tide.
The new setting is brilliant, and it does a fantastic job of framing the action. It makes sense in a way that the first game didn't, and the lack of resources is totally justified given the scenario. Firaxis has also done away with much of the busywork that took up a lot of our time in the first game, making for a leaner, more immediate overarching real-time campaign. You start off in Mexico (at least, we did in our first play-through, in the second we started in Africa) and from this location you must expand your organisation as it teeters on the edge of extinction, lurching between disaster and minor victories. It might sound bleak - it is - but it works so, so well. Back in 2012 we said that Enemy Unknown had of one of the best strategy campaigns ever, but Xcom 2 has it beat in every conceivable way.
The player must build up their mobile base, grabbing resources and recruiting staff as they go. You spend these resources to unlock most of the items that appear in the game, but there's also an alternate currency called Intel that needs to be used just as carefully. Everything has a price, and it's a constant balancing act, because going in one direction means that you're going to have to neglect a different area. This is most obvious in certain key missions where you have to choose which one of three ways you will stifle your enemy. While you can, for example, recruit a new scientist and stop them from developing some dangerous new tech, you'll have to ignore other missions that might grant them more units in future missions. There are no easy decisions in Xcom 2.
The ferocious challenge manifests itself both in the macro and in the micro. From your main base you recruit soldiers, build additions to your stronghold, travel the world in search of new resources, and gather your strength as best you can in the face of fearsome odds. As you juggle all of these different elements you'll regularly be thrown into battle, and when it is time to fight you must utilise the resources you've managed to accrue up to that point by picking a balanced group of soldiers, then equipping them with the gear they need to survive.
When you're dropped into battle you're greeted with the first and perhaps most significant change to the turn-based formula, concealment. You start each mission invisible to enemy eyes, allowing you to initiate battle on your terms, springing traps from advantageous positions. A well-executed ambush can make all the difference to the overall mission, so it's important to get this initial phase right. Sometimes stealth isn't an option, and during certain missions there'll be a clock ticking, so from time to time you'll have to go hard and fast if you're to emerge victorious. There's also secondary objectives, which give certain missions an extra dimension, and enemies dropping loot can be another thing that forces you from the path of least resistance and tempts you into danger.
For the most part the combat and movement system remains intact from the first game. Each character has two actions and can move a set number of tiles, or you can reduce their movement and complete a secondary action (shooting, reloading, or using a special ability). Overwatch is once again a useful option, allowing the player to put a unit on alert, ready to attack should an enemy come within range during their turn. Each shot is governed by chance, and you can see the odds of each attack on-screen at all times, allowing the player to make informed decisions at every turn. It's a great tension builder, because you never know if a surefire hit will miss, or if a desperate last gasp against-all-odds shot will hit home and save the day.
What makes Xcom 2 utterly terrifying is the enemies that you'll meet along the way. We'll not spoil anything here (because discovering them for yourself is a masochistic pleasure) but there's a varied bunch, and some of them are obscenely powerful and take a concerted effort to take down. Each enemy requires a different tactical approach, and they're smart too, and will happily take your soldiers down en masse if you're foolish enough to group them too closely together (on the bright side, you'll only make that mistake once or twice). Some enemies come equipped with armour making them even harder to kill.
Well designed and varied enemies ensures that each mission feels fresh, but another big change that adds even more diversity is the addition of procedurally generated maps. While it won't make a huge difference on a singular play-through, for those who tackle the game multiple times it'll ensure longevity. The procedural generation appears to work really well, with well constructed settings that don't look too cluttered or implausible. There's also nice variety in terms of locations.
If we have one criticism of this game it's that it lacks one final layer of polish. It works great, but there is texture pop-in, and weapons will regularly disappear into walls and the like. Veterans of the original will be all too familiar with these issues, and Firaxis doesn't seemed to have been able to fix them, so they're probably here to stay, but they're not game breaking in the slightest, and with everything else being so good, we're prepared to forgive them for this one negative.
The multiplayer works really well, but like the single-player missions, it could do with further optimisation. Two players can pick the parameters for each match - length of turns, the amount of points to spend on units and gear, the location of the game - and then take their units into battle. The maps are surprisingly big, and there's plenty of room for tactical brilliance and brain-melting bad fortune. It's fun and tense, but sometimes the turns aren't in sync and you'll have to wait a while for the two games to line up. It's an inconvenience, but because it's turn-based they get away with it.
Perhaps the best thing about Xcom 2 is the extra layer of personalisation that it brings to the table. Soldiers are even more customisable than before, and you once again name them as you see fit, upgrade their weapons, and pick new abilities as they rise through the ranks. This is still a game defined by the moments that hurt the most, like when a high level soldier is taken down by an enemy because of a foolish decision or a freakishly accurate long-shot. There's new abilities that make levelling interesting, and old classes have been cleverly refreshed. There's the new sword-wielding Ranger class and a Specialist that heads into battle with an ever-so-helpful flying drone. There's so much room to personalise your troops, and permadeath returns once again to add drama to each and every move (although you can easily scum those saves should you want a more forgiving experience).
Simply put, Xcom 2 is a masterpiece. It improves on the original (Enemy Unknown) in every way. Firaxis has cut away the dead wood and replaced the outgoing features with game-enhancing additions that makes for a more exciting, more engrossing, and more rewarding experience. We've only scratched the surface of what this game has to offer, and we're looking forward to going back and playing it again and again, and the new features will ensure that when we do, it'll feel fresh for a long time. While it's true that it could have done with a touch more spit and polish, this isn't enough to dissuade us from our conclusion: as far as we're concerned this is the best turn-based strategy game we've ever played.