Alien invasion stories always end one of two ways: humans on the bottom or humans on the top. The Martians’ tripods trip and fall from the skies. MacReady and Childs sit under the chilled Antarctic sky. Either way, we’re entertained by the story of human supremacy or the shock of hubris that prevented us from overcoming anything at all. Alien invasions are stand-ins for anxieties about the world outside of human knowledge, and the outcome is less important than the moment in which humans are tested against the unknowable beings from the great beyond. Alien invasions are the ultimate crucible for testing humanity. Sometimes Randy Quaid and a computer virus saves us. Sometimes the monsters sing their whale songs to each other as humanity wanes.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was the heroic story of humanity on the return swing of an aggressive alien invasion. It played into the tropes of humanity aligned against the invaders from beyond the pale of understanding, and we took on the role of commanding the shield arm of a shadowy Illuminati making sure that the world stayed safe. Bulky heroic soldiers in special forces teams went around the world hunting downed UFOs and saving the civilians of capital cities. We used our science and technology to make the best choices to combat each threat. We crawled slowly, painfully, across each map in constant anticipation of our best counterattack options. It was a slow game that rewarded patience, taking time and simulating the most middling of structural bureaucracies. Most XCOM programs failed
XCOM 2 pulls us a couple decades into the future. The aliens won. They took over everything, concentrated everyone into megacity population centers, and began integrating humanity into their genetically-modified space army. Worse, it is all done under the guise of a human face, a smarmy almost-hippie who just wants everyone to get along with the program of being used as weird cattle for aliens.
If the watch phrase of Enemy Unknown was “protect the world” then XCOM 2’s is “take it back.” Still the commander (but now rescued from years of captivity), you now control a ragtag group of scientists, engineers and commandos that must travel the world to create a global resistance. That resistance ultimately feeds into guerilla tactics that prevents the alien overseers from completing their own massive, unknowable project that will finally subjugate humans once and for all. As a note, you do all of this via airship as if you are a cool person on the last disc of a Final Fantasy game.
The guerilla tactics of XCOM 2 are usually represented in timed missions. You must infiltrate an area, complete a goal and then exfiltrate while preventing casualties and eliminating as many enemies as possible. These time limits, as contrived as they might be, are the major leap forward in design for this franchise, and they communicate that the XCOM program is no longer a structural establishment that can plod turn by turn through tactical combat. Instead, one has to strike as quickly and efficiently as possible—supplies are burning, and the aliens are always on your tail.
Beyond the tactical time limits, XCOM 2 mostly offers more of the same without some of the more stressful micromanagement structures of its predecessor. You no longer have to manage what interceptor planes are stationed where, nor do you need to bother with aligning your satellite communications arrays with one another in a giant organizational grid of rooms that you need to purchase to make your way through the game. Enemy Unknown understood itself to be a tactical experience from top to bottom, and that meant that every single part of the game had to be planned in advance. You needed to understand what your next move was when it came to planning, researching or building, but it was best to know what your next five moves were.
XCOM 2 drops that long-term strategic planning for short-term tactical decisions. You research what you have time to research before your next major mission. You delay a mission to travel across the world to get a critical scientist who might speed up that research. You build a communications array in the block of space you cleared out in your mobile base not because it’s the best thing to go there but because you need it ASAP and you can always upgrade it later.
Enemy Unknown is a boring game in the sense that to solve it means to operate it like the most undependable machine. XCOM 2 is the most extreme opposite from base management to isometric choice, requiring that you take risks, move quickly and generally understand that you’re always going to be between a rock and a hard place when it comes to making decisions that get the job done and minimize risk to your soldiers.
That final factor, I think, is the core strength of XCOM 2, and it is what elevates it beyond yet another tactical game in an ever-growing genre. If the alien invasion genre is really all about humanity and how it gets tested, then this game mobilizes that genre in order to frame the individual player being put to the test at all times. There’s been quite a bit written about games like Dark Souls and the disciplinary apparatus that comprises how those games “train” you to interact with them, but XCOM 2 actually delivers on that promise through both its content and the way that content is expressed. You are put under the pressure of making decisions in the face of an overwhelming force. You have to be Bill Pullman, thinking positive about celebrating our worldwide independence day while fielding a team that is one soldier short against overwhelming odds. The low-to-the-ground guerilla tactics, always hedging against how well you manage time, holds you personally responsible if this whole operation goes down in flames. It’s all about you, Commander.
A week of XCOM 2 feels like six months of any other game. I would play a mission and turn the game off for a few hours, hoping to dissipate some of the stress that would build up over the play sessions. I always hoped that my decisions wouldn’t come back and bite me. I always hoped that the tactics would lead into some kind of grand strategy in the long run.
It sort of did, but the stress never dissipated.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.