Republished on Wednesday 30th May 2018: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of June's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
When aliens landed on Earth in 2012 strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it was up to you to unite the people of our planet against the invading extraterrestrial force. Perhaps it's a commentary on the unforgiving difficulty of that game that XCOM 2 canonically assumes that you were unsuccessful in your bid to repel the alien invaders last time around. The game quickly establishes that two decades ago when XCOM fell, the aliens struck an accord with the human race and an alien/human coalition government was formed.
On the surface, humanity and alien-kind live side by side in a mutually prosperous coexistence, but the peace is just a veneer in order to hide the more sinister ulterior motives of our alien overlords. Some of humanity's brightest and best have seen through the facade and are working to bring about an end to the subjugation of the human race as part of an under-staffed and under-gunned resistance movement. After twenty years in an alien prison, you're broken out for one last job - to lead humanity into battle and kick the alien scourge off Earth for good.
The story might sound like it's laden with sci-fi clichés, but the formulaic opening belies the intriguing tale that XCOM 2 morphs into. It occasionally teeters perilously closely to the heroic bombast of something like Independence Day - backed by a salute-worthy soundtrack that wouldn't sound out of place in that movie - but the more personal moments of human triumph and failure keep the story grounded and compelling. The individual tales of the soldiers that you lead in each mission become even more important than the overarching one, which is quite an achievement given that your unit is made up of randomly generated characters.
As you control your soldiers mission after mission you'll grow fond of the ones that serve you well, and worry for their well being since they're always one wrong move away from ending up on the memorial wall. For us, Yukiko Yoshida was a rookie that instantly stood out because she shared her first name with popular Persona 4 character Yukiko Amagi, and her surname with that of PlayStation hero, Shuhei Yoshida. During her first mission as part of the XCOM squad she hid behind a car for cover which promptly exploded and cremated her on the spot. Meanwhile, Jane Kelly completed dozens of missions, frequently skirting death, and became the number one soldier we wanted on our squad whenever things got dicey. Whether soldiers live to be a legend or they're killed before they ever pull a trigger is largely up to you.
As your soldiers perform kills or complete objectives in battle they'll gain experience and eventually level up. Levelling up means assigning a class, and each class can then make use of two different skill trees in order to customise their abilities. The longer soldiers remain alive the stronger they'll become, and it's up to you whether or not to risk putting together a crack team of all your best troops, or use them sparingly alongside rookies to reduce the risk of a disastrous mission costing you all of your best fighters. You'll learn to rely on certain soldiers, while others you'll scarcely remember once their names are on the memorial wall, but the game does an excellent job of reminding you of the frailty of human life, and the need to carefully plan every move in battle.
Since XCOM is a guerrilla force in XCOM 2, the missions tend to take on the form of surprise attacks against alien bases or convoys in which subterfuge is an important part of gaining the upper hand in battle. Combat is turn based and often you can shrewdly use that to your advantage. Many missions start with your XCOM force being concealed in the shadows, and that allows you to position your soldiers cleverly in order to ambush your unsuspecting foes. Using concealment effectively can mean the difference between walking out of a mission without so much as a graze, or any number of your troops coming home in body bags.
Not all missions afford you the chance to surprise your enemies. Sometimes you'll be sucked into an all-out fire fight from the second the mission begins, and it's important to know when to change your tactics accordingly. Peppering the enemy with grenades to break their armour and cover might be a sound strategy when they're bunched together and unaware of your presence, but if they're expecting you it might be better to try to pick them off one at a time with concentrated fire.
Between battles it's your job to research new technologies and upgrades, build up a network of contacts by meeting different resistance groups, and recruit new soldiers and scientists. Like in combat, the decisions that you make during these moments can have huge ramifications for your chances of success going forward, with poor planning potentially leading to an under-powered military that will likely struggle against the alien threat.
Sadly, the game suffers from a few technical hiccups that may be fixed in time via patches, but at launch are too frequent to ignore. Cut-scenes will occasionally suffer from audio blips, frame rates can drop, and there are some utterly absurd load times once you've been playing the game for a significant amount of time. The load times seem to get longer the further you are into the game, with some of them clocking in a staggering two minutes late in the campaign, which is simply unacceptable.
While the occasional technical issues might hamper the experience somewhat, XCOM 2 remains a superb strategy game that expertly weaves stellar mechanics and emotional story-telling into an engrossing campaign in which every choice that you make feels genuinely important. It can be both brutally difficult and depressingly ruthless, but the scant moments of joy that you'll experience in your attempts to overthrow the alien regime should provide more than enough incentive to keep fighting the good fight.