XCOM 2 Hands-on: Tactical Strategy Refined

In 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, against long odds and a technologically superior foe, players triumphed against an alien invasion that threatened to erase humanity on Earth as we know it. But what if we had lost? What if the aliens had made Earth their own? In XCOM 2, you’re going to find out.

That’s because in XCOM 2 (available Feb. 5 for PC only), players start in an alternate universe set 20 years after the alien invasion where the inhabitants of Earth have surrendered unconditionally to our new alien overlords. Humans are still allowed to occupy cities, but authority and control belongs to the Advent, a new group of military police set up by the aliens. So even though things seem peaceful on the outside, there’s something much more sinister going on.

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Thankfully, a dedicated band of guerilla fighters, controlled by you, have no intention of letting the aliens stay in power. XCOM 2’s first big departure from the original is that instead of picking a continent to set up your base, central command is the Avenger, a floating HQ whose previously life was as an alien supply ship. This is where XCOM’s typical base management goes on such as building new facilities, recruiting and training soldiers and adding new weapons and artillery to your armory.

In a hands-on preview of XCOM 2, I got a chance to play through the first two missions of the campaign, along with a more advanced mission from the middle section of the game. The first two missions were simple and even allows people unfamiliar with the XCOM series to get a handle on its tactical turn-based combat. Squad members are capable of two actions per turn, and whether you want to move, take a shot or use commands like Overwatch to guard against advancing enemies is completely up to you.  Also, as in previous games, XCOM 2 factors in things like cover, height and weapon type when estimating your chance to hit, so you know how risky a move is before you roll the dice.

Then second mission introduced the new concealment mechanic,

which allows you to sneak up on enemy patrols. This is super useful because as soon as the first person on your team breaks stealth, everyone else that’s currently on Overwatch will fire at the nearest enemy. This gives you the chance to go on the offensive during the beginning of a mission, instead being in constant fear of stumbling upon an enemy pod like in XCOM 1.

When I got to play the advanced mission is when things got real. Most of the base was available to survey and customize. When I visited the barracks, one of the things that immediately jumped out what the vastly increased amount of customization you can do. You deck out each soldier in primary and secondary colors, add tattoos, insignias, armor styles and even a few oddball accessories such as a monocle.

Another change for XCOM 2 is that for new recruits, you can select their class when they join. This means that you no longer need to pray for RNGesus to deliver a sniper, instead of a much less useful third, fourth, or even fifth support soldier.

In battle during the Blacksite Mission, I got to try out some of the new classes such as the Ranger, which wields a machete for savage close range attacks, and the Specialist, which can be customized to control attack drones or serve as a field medic. Of course, with new classes come new enemies. The classic XCOM aliens such as the little gray sectoids and brutish Mutons are back, but many have also been given some new looks, because now that the aliens are in charge, there’s no reason for Thin Men to hide behind their usual three-piece suit disguise. And along with new looks come dangerous new enemy abilities, such as the Muton’s Suppression move, which can pin down and reduce the aim of your troops.

In the end, even if a specific battle results in victory, there’s still a good chance of losing the war. That’s because in XCOM 2, the aliens also have a win condition that’s independent of your own, meaning that you’re always on the clock while the aliens plot to tighten their grip on Earth.

If you’re looking for drastic changes to the XCOM formula, you won’t find many. Graphics are sharper and more detailed, and there’s almost twice the number of enemy units compared to XCOM 1. Developer Firaxis offers more choices when it comes to building your base and equipping your team, but at its core, XCOM remains a strategic alien-extermination game that hinges your abilities to capitalize on smart moves and maybe a little luck to avoid the most disastrous outcomes.

A lot of people were annoyed or frustrated when XCOM 2, which was originally slated for release this fall, got pushed back to February, but I’m not one of them. In my brief hands-on time with game, it’s clear that the extra time hasn’t gone to waste, and XCOM 2 looks to be a worthy sequel to the game that breathed life back into the turn-based strategy genre in 2012.

Sam is a Senior Writer at Engadget and previously worked at Gizmodo as a Senior Reporter. Before that, he worked at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer and Senior Product Review Analyst, overseeing benchmarks and testing for countless product reviews. He was also an archery instructor and a penguin trainer too (really).