So I've been wining and dining on news of XCOM 2 for a few days. You know the one - sequel to XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within. I shit on Enemy Unknown when it first came out 2012 (apparently talking some of you out of buying), and I stand by my criticisms. Enemy Within was a frikkin' mess lacking in content, marred by bad balance and mired in suspect decisions. It was a good core concept for a game, it just didn't have much meat attached to it. As we've all seen, Enemy Within - the "expansionalone" for Enemy Unknown - fixed a lot of that. With the introduction of genetics and cybernetics, secondary objectives, many more maps and a major rebalance and retooling of the entire system, Enemy Within finally put the meat on the bones that Enemy Unknown put together.
Don't get me wrong - Enemy Within wasn't perfect. While it fixed a lot of issues, it DIDN'T fix many others and created plenty of its own. I was able to fix most of what was left on my own through a mod I made myself. Mostly stats tweaks and gear rebalancing. However, the process was clumsy as hell - I had to hex-edit the executable, mess with ini files and generally do a lot of extra work just to bypass the game's own integrity protections which exist for... No real reason that I can determine. And even then you had issues of XCOM logic, such as why I'm defending the entire world with five guys and one jet. Oh, no! A city is being terrorised by 6 Sectoids and a Chrysalid, but our five guys with laser rifles are unavailable. Never fear, France. Here are 10 000 soldiers armed with M16s. I'm sure you can manage without us. Yes, the entire world's combined pool of budget is enough to buy me three sniper rifles. Stuff like that.
XCOM 2 appears to solve... Pretty much all of those issues, at least based on what we know about it so far. Narratively, it explains the small scale. Near as I can tell, this tells a parallel story where the aliens overwhelmed XCOM in the first few weeks after the invasion, forcing the Council to pull its support and sending XCOM itself into hiding. It's 20 years later now, the aliens control the world and XCOM consists of one refurbished alien transport ships, five soldiers two engineers, a scientist and the few "named" characters with speaking lines. You no longer gain "10 Engineers," you gain Joe Schmoe, the engineer whom you can set to work making you explosive ammo to speed up the process. You can't just call up the recruitment centre and order 10 soldiers - you have to go recruit them yourself. You have one jet, few people, few resources and little support because... That's all you have. You're the ragtag resistance and you have only what you can gather. You don't have the support of the whole world, you're on your own.
I've often said that XCOM would work better as a sort of adventure game, where a small party of fighters travel the land, living off of drops and managing their own inventory, rather than this feign at a grand strategy. That's what the gameplay makes sense for, and this is precisely what XCOM 2 appears to have embraced. Eveny Within and Enemy Unknown both suffered from ludonarrative discobiscuits in that they played like Baldur's Gate while pretending like you were playing a Civilisation game. Even back in the old days of XCOM where you could make a dozen bases and field 100 agents, you were still not actually behaving like a world-wide armed force. This is the gameplay we have and the gameplay we love. Now the story actually conforms to it, and I'm pretty happy about that.
Speaking of gameplay, a lot seems to have improved. I'll attach a metric crapton of reference videos at the end of the post, but let me explain what has improved for now. A major complaint with XCOM was that it had about 30 maps you'd cycle through endlessly, about 20 of them being "a forest." XCOM 2 has semi-random maps, instead, the so-called "procedurally generated" ones. Excellent! More varied environments is always good, just so long as the cover is decent. Another complaint was game's simplicity - you drop into an area, you run around until alien spawns trigger, they get a free move to go into cover and you plink away at each other until one side dies. Not any more. XCOM being a guerilla force, they get to fire the first shot, set up ambushes and get a limited degree of stealth. Maps don't revolve around killing all the things, but rather offer objectives. Enemies can be looted for supplies since - again - ragtag resistance.
It gets better - character customisation. Let's be charitable here and say that neither soldier appearance nor customisation in XCOM was very good. Not so any more. These aren't soldiers, but random individuals you pulled off the street, so you have a lot of opportunities to make them unique. Tattoos, scars, lots of colours and props, names, accents, even basic personality archetypes exist, determining how your character holds himself. Twitchy characters look around nervously, casual characters display a smile, brutish characters hunch over and so on. It's not quite City of Heroes (of course not), but it's a HELL of a lot better than the old XCOM. The classes are also expanded, relying more than ever on skills. There's melee combat with some weird skills like getting a free move on a melee kill (anyone remember "In The Zone" skill for snipers?), you can hack enemy machines, you have a ton of support and control skills...
If Enemy Within took the Skeleton of Enemy Unknown, all signs point XCOM 2 taking the idea of a game that XCOM presented us with and making it into an ACTUAL, legitimate game. Not that XCOM itself was bad, mind you - with the official tweaks and mine, it became pretty good. But it was - let's face it - a tech demo for the underlying game design ideology. Many games stole XCOM's turn-based combat system because it was so damn good, but yet so little was done with it. No games ever stole the strategic system from XCOM because it sucked. The XCOM 2 developers appear to realise this, and have tried to make every part of the game compelling... At least based on marketing material.
And, as a capstone, the game will have full mod support with Steam Workshop integration, if not at Launch then very soon thereafter... And with a free full suite of SDK tools. Oh, so you realised making your game a pain in the ass to mod was a bad thing? No shit! So the funny thing is that even if the game stumbles in design, people can fix it. Hell, I can fix it for myself. I learned this lesson well from playing Payday 2 - bugs, issues and bad design can often be solved by mods LOOONG before the developers ever get around to fixing them themselves. The other thing I picked up from Payday 2 is you want to support mods in such a way that players don't have to reinstall them after every patch.
I generally don't do hype, I generally don't buy into preorders. In this case, I'll make an exception. XCOM: Enemy Within showed me that Firaxis can look at their own prodcut, look at player feedback, stroke their chins and admit they fucked up. They fixed many, many of their mistakes and continue to do so. XCOM: Enemy Within was already a solid foundation. I can't wait to see what this sequel brings. But you shouldn't take my word on that. Instead, please peruse this mess of promo videos, interviews and discussions on the matter:
XCOM 2: Welcome to the Avenger (a look at the strategic layer)
XCOM 2: Strategy Layer Deep Dive (discussion on the above video)
XCOM 2: Why Impossible Ironman is canon (discussion on the broad-strokes storyline)
XCOM 2: Welcoming Our New Alien Overlords (more storyline stuff)
XCOM 2: Gameplay Footage discussion (discussion about the old E3 gameplay trailer)
XCOM 2: Angry Interview (Angry Joe's not-actually-angry interview with I believe the lead developer)
Never trust my word, draw your own conclusions, look for more videos on the matter in the related/recommended video links.