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Is XCOM 2 as difficult as its predecessor?

With XCOM 2, Firaxis hoped to continue the legacy of brutal, turn-based combat with an overarching strategy layer.

I failed XCOM 2's tutorial mission. In a level meant to teach me the game's mechanics and intricacies, Firaxis' upcoming sequel killed off my four-person squad before I had time to start the actual campaign. During the 12 hours I recently played of a near-complete XCOM 2, the game was brutal, and rarely gave me space to breathe. However, Firaxis gave me just enough new tools to fight my through seemingly impossible odds.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of 2012's most challenging games. Its turn-based squad tactics left little room for error, while high-level strategy elements demanded careful consideration from the commander's chair. XCOM 2 presents the same multilayered structure of Enemy Unknown, except with tougher obstacles, harder objectives, and a new storyline steeped in despair.

This narrative is XCOM 2's biggest change. In Enemy Unknown, we battled an alien invasion force as it arrived to conquer Earth. But in the sequel, the aliens have won, established a totalitarian government, and prospered on our planet for 20 years.

This dynamic permeated every mission during my time with the demo, tying the story and the gameplay into one cohesive knot. Even later in the campaign, when my troops donned alien armor and wielded high-powered weapons, I never felt safe. It wasn't victory I was pursuing, so much as a means to disrupt the alien force, and prolong my survival as a rebel threat.

Because of the way Firaxis flipped the script, XCOM 2 opens itself to more mission variety than Enemy Unknown. Some required the extraction of alien artifacts, the destruction of communications relays, or data hacks on enemy computers. I may have made progress, but only in small increments, as the alien overlords continued their reign.

The increased number of possibilities on the humans' side, however, helped me in my fight. The Specialist class has the ability to hack alien alien networks, augmenting the Resistance soldiers with increased critical hit chance, or increased armor for the mission. The Ranger, the more mobile class, has a blade for close-quarters combat and high-damage kills.

XCOM 2's newest class, the Psi Operative, however, is also the game's most unique. While other soldiers level up through combat, the Psi Operative does so through studying. Its abilities also unlock at random--lucky players may even unlock the best of the 14 options right off the bat, granting their operative an energy beam that travels through cover, the ability to remotely detonate enemy explosives, or a stasis shield that renders enemies temporarily helpless.

This new character class is only one of the changes I witnessed during my time with XCOM 2, and led to a variety of emergent scenarios in the squad-based skirmishes.

In another twist on the XCOM formula, the sequel's missions often began in stealth mode. The new stealth mechanic removes the boring leapfrog sequences of Enemy Unknown's missions, as you inch your way into the fog, waiting for the enemy to strike. But stealth also leads to new tactical possibilities.

While the aliens patrolled for signs of Resistance activity during my demo, I positioned my troops along narrow chokepoints, coordinated sight lines, and awaited the perfect moment to strike. If all went according to plan, I could launch a grenade into alien clusters, stun the survivors, and snipe any stragglers who survived the onslaught.

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The Psi Operative utilizes some of the humans' most unique abilities.

But this is XCOM, and seasoned players know how rarely a plan falls into place. Much of the time, inaccurate shots and agile enemies necessitated a Plan B, or C, or even D on my part. It went from careful planning to split-second reaction, and try as I might to keep moving toward the objective, the opponent often had a plan of its own.

The new enemy types made things even harder. Sectoids, which played the part of the pawn in Enemy Unknown, now utilize telekinetic abilities in some of the earliest missions, turning my soldiers against each other and reanimating dead corpses to fight on the aliens' side. It's one thing to lose a soldier--it's another to look her in the eye as she shambles toward you with her fists swinging.

Then there's the Viper, one of XCOM 2's brand new enemy types. The name says it all--when attacking, these giant, serpentine creatures reach out their tongue to pull Resistance fighters into their grasp. This not only exposed my soldier, but also dealt consistent damage until I could send another trooper to the rescue, often in the middle of a heated firefight. XCOM 2 rarely let me feel safe.

And when I lost one of my soldiers, to a Viper, or mind control, or an errant explosion from a nearby blazing car, that feeling of loss filled my stomach just like it used to. The knowledge that my favorite sniper, or best medic, or most reliable grenadier was gone forever lent further despair to an already grim game. During my time with it, XCOM 2 was every bit as difficult as Enemy Unknown, and in some places, even more so.

Despite how difficult this all sounds, though, I had fun. A lot of it. I'm still thinking about the last campaign I failed, and the current one I'm fighting through, and how I might help the Resistance survive, if only for a little longer. I haven't played a full version of the sequel, but I can say I'm eager for more. I may have hours of failure ahead of me when that February 5 release date rolls around--but I'm ready to jump back into the fray.