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XCOM 2: How to lose a war (hands-on)

The sequel to 2012's beloved XCOM: Enemy Unknown deals in staple sci-fi storytelling and an excellent refinement of the series' turn-based combat.

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The war is over. You lost. XCOM 2 picks up 20 years after the events of the 2012 strategy hit XCOM: Enemy Unknown, following on from the alternate ending where players failed to defend Earth from the rapacious invading aliens.

Now, rather than an international, fully equipped paramilitary force, the XCOM organisation is little more than a guerrilla group striking back at the alien occupiers. It might seem unusual to continue the story on from defeat, but it was by far the most common ending for players in the challenging XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

It's a bold move, but even from my all-too-brief hands-on time with the game, it's clear developer Firaxis has brought XCOM back with its constituent elements intact. Take charge of the dogged resistance against alien oppressors (a sci-fi staple), leading your rag-tag squad on do-or-die missions. XCOM 2 feels like a distillation of the formula. It feels like XCOM as it's meant to be played.

2K/Firaxis

Much like its predecessor, XCOM 2 is split between two game modes. During missions, you'll take control of small squads in tactical, turn-based combat, picking off a variety of new and returning enemies in various settings, urban and rural. In between missions, you'll return to the Avenger, XCOM's mobile base of operations. There, you can level up and customise soldiers, build new facilities, research tech and plan your next attack.

You'll never have more than half a dozen troops on any given mission, so staying ahead of the aliens that have you wildly outnumbered and outgunned is a necessity. It's the same conceit as previous XCOM games, dating back to the 1994 original, but knowing your rebels are launching guerrilla attacks makes this seem far more fitting.

Combat is turn-based, but clever use of dynamic camera angles and the overwatch mechanic means it never feels slow. Overwatch, a classic feature of the XCOM series, allows you to order your troops to lie in wait, popping up to blast an enemy if it crosses your line of fire on its turn. Coupled with a slow-motion scene of your soldiers lining up shots against panicked aliens, missions are a cinematic affair.

The one big overhaul to combat is the new "concealment" feature. Because your rebels are making hit-and-run strikes, your squad starts every mission hidden from the enemy. This lets you carefully sneak everyone into position before launching an incredibly satisfying attack on multiple targets before they even know you're there.

2K/Firaxis

The Avenger itself is a repurposed alien UFO, and serves as the base of operations for your troops. You can upgrade this with new equipment and staff. More equipment, it's important to add, than can actually fit inside, so you won't be seeing everything the first time you play through the game. The Avenger moves around a map of the globe, above, where you can select combat missions for your squad to fight back against the alien forces.

Missions themselves are largely procedurally generated, offering random rewards, map layouts and objectives. When selecting missions, you'll choose from one of two options. The other is lost forever, and you'll face the consequences of not completing it.

But the aliens are also playing for victory, and will have a random objective that they work towards. You can gather intel to scupper their plans and keep your mobile base one step ahead, but it's not enough for you to be on the defensive. You'll be playing against an opponent with their own secret goals.

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2K/Firaxis

The frankly obscene level of character customisation lets you get your ragged band of rebels looking just right. There were simple customisation options in Enemy Unknown, but your troops always felt like fairly interchangeable generic space marines. When they went to that great big base in the sky (permanently, as is the case in XCOM), the loss was not always keenly felt.

XCOM 2's bevy of customisation options and expanded skill trees mean the stakes feel that much higher. Little touches like the detailed memorial wall for soldiers killed in action, and having to drag bodies back to the evac point to salvage weapons, really help you invest in your team.

2K/Firaxis

Everything comes back to the idea you're leading a rebellion against an inscrutable alien enemy. You're outmanned, outgunned and increasingly running out of time. If you were a fan of Enemy Unknown (and if, like most players, you suffered defeat at the hands of the alien invaders) XCOM 2 looks like it's shaping up to be the perfect chance to strike back.

XCOM 2 is slated for release on February 5, 2016 for PC and Mac. Stay tuned for the full review.

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