XCOM 2 prepares you for failure early. The tutorial battle starts killing off soldiers suddenly and without ceremony. It's important to know that a poor move on the game's gridded battlefields will get your small squads wiped out faster than you can say “take me to your leader.” For the first half of a campaign at least, this is a strategy game about ragged survival against punishing odds, and it's one of the best strategy games of the sort ever made.
At the start of the game humanity has lost the war for Earth you fought in Firaxis' first XCOM. You guide your rag tag bunch of resistance fighters around the world aboard a huge ship called The Avenger, on a mission to make contact with resistance groups, steal alien technology, and find a way to undo the alien regime that now rules under the guise of a sinister regime called Advent. The game beats you up repeatedly across two strata – a world map that lets you position the Avenger over objectives to activate missions and gather resources, and battlefields where your squad of four-to-six warriors snatch objectives in turn-based encounters.
The beauty of XCOM 2 is the way these layers feed into each other. Weapon and alien corpses in the battle layer can be researched in the overarching strategy layer, giving you the opportunity to build better weapons and kill more effectively in the battle layer. Your soldiers earn veterancy in battle for killing aliens, and that enables further expansion of the Avenger's facilities, which in turn lets you field more soldiers in battle with cooler equipment. Think laser gatling guns, and swords that can chop down an alien in one swipe.
The game is constantly trying to disrupt this progression loop with sudden sharp shocks. Emergency missions, which announce themselves out of the blue with a blaring alarm, force your squad into uncomfortably difficult situations. Here XCOM 2 plays its cruellest tricks – such as civilians that suddenly transform into 12-foot tall blob monsters, and enemies so tough that they're effectively boss fights. You will lose people. You might lose entire squads. That's why XCOM 2 is such a powerful strategy game, because your decisions matter, and victory in such gruelling circumstances is glorious.
It wouldn't work if your soldiers didn't have the potential to become awesome. Combat is a ruthless Darwinian hero generator that rewards survivors with extraordinary powers, turning rookies with a gun and a scared smile into a hardened member of one of XCOM 2's five classes. Rangers, often short-lived, are good at running miles and killing isolated enemies with a machete. Sharpshooters are masters of the powerful 'overwatch' command that lets you get free reactive shots against enemies in the alien turn. Grenadiers can shred walls and other cover with miniguns and grenade launchers. The Specialist – the least interesting of the bunch – has pet drones that can hack enemy devices and heal teammates. A fifth class becomes available during the campaign, but I'll leave that for you to discover.
Every squad member can be thoroughly customised, down to their voices, haircuts, armour and the colour and texture of their gun. The whole setup invites you become invested in your people. Getting attached isn't necessarily wise, but a few stalwarts always emerge – the go-to guys who can cut down entire squad while the rookies around them cower in panic. It hurts to lose these the most. I have, on several occasions, said “nyooooo” like a sad Darth Vader, having lost a vital soldier to a critical hit in the depths of an alien base.
XCOM 2 still produces these moments of drama, but it's disappointing to see the game make the hop from PC to Playstation 4 and XBOX one in imperfect condition. Controls work well. Face button shortcuts make navigating the Avenger nice and quick. In battle the cursor feels a little heavy, but the ability to use the up and down commands on the D-pad to select the vertical plane you want to move on is an improvement on the PC version. However, on the Playstation 4 version tested, XCOM 2 suffered consistent performance problems including stuttering, sudden framerate drops and long loading periods.
The problems vary in severity depending on the map. Rain effects, explosions, crumbling scenery (XCOM 2's levels are wonderfully destructible) can combine to slow down the action. XCOM 2 is great at using dynamic camera angles to show your soldiers taking out enemies, but these scenes are often worst hit by stuttering motion. It's a fine moment when your shotgunner elbows out a window to take aim at a well-flanked alien goon, but not so much if the move unfolds fractionally in uneven stop-motion form. The problems don't break the game, but they are a recurring annoyance. It's frustrating to see a game that has ably been built with console control in mind fail to deliver consistent performance.
That said, the consoles deserve more great strategy games. Even with its issues, XCOM 2 is one of the best around, a game about troop tactics wrapped up in the veneer of an action game, that delivers moments of victory that feel as good as a headshot. It's worth grabbing XCOM 2 just to experience ambushes. Using overwatch and careful positioning you can break stealth and perform an all-squad attack. The camera swoops from soldier to soldier as they let rip with their enormous futuristic weapons. Aliens are splattered and walls pop and flare around the enemy as stray bullets massacre the scenery. Even in this slightly slow, occasionally stuttering incarnation, it's glorious.
XCOM 2 was reviewed on PS4. GR+ previously reviewed it on PC, too – you can read that verdict by clicking here.