Sophie, Aaron, Milliner, Dominique – my four-person team is ready for deployment. Aaron and Milliner both receive promotions prior to boarding, and as I watch them board a ship to undertake a vital mission, anguish and doubt loom like distant steel-coloured clouds. Soon, the team makes contact with the traitorous Advent and the aliens they worship, and the storm hits full-force. My anxiety spikes, and one by one, death comes for my entire squad. Sophie, Aaron, Milliner, Dominique, RIP. Sinking back in my chair, I struggle to come to terms with my failure.

For me, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a major force in my resurgent interest in horrifyingly difficult games featuring perma-death. It made me care about my characters, their own personal stories, and the struggle they faced repelling a truly robust and intelligent alien threat. Humanity’s fate solely rested upon XCOM, their soldiers, and me – the commander of it all. And if I didn’t deftly play the cards I’d been dealt, it would all be lost. The game constructed a harsh reality, but one that appealed to many. Things don’t let up in XCOM 2. The highly-anticipated follow-up challenges you to think on your feet, and inevitably has you mourning your mistakes.

In XCOM 2, all is lost before you begin

A lot has changed since XCOM’s defense was broken and the aliens took over. A new world order has taken hold, and those of Earth not massacred in the invasion have grown accustomed to the presence of Advent – a human organisation collaborating with the aliens – and the aliens themselves. While the original XCOM games had you defending the last haunches of humanity – something evident in the environments you traversed – Earth feels very different now. There’s a real feeling of unfamiliarity in the way the world works and functions. Citizens are closely monitored, subjugated.

The alt-universe of XCOM 2 gives one an intriguing and fascinating look at a world that is fully at the mercy of a strong alien race, and the tone and aesthetic match full-blooded alternate history games like Wolfenstein: The New Order. There’s a sense of human existence here, but it’s very, very different to what we’ve become accustomed to, with XCOM falling back into the shadows and operating as a guerrilla force.

Firaxis has quite evidently taken fan feedback into account when creating XCOM 2. While the gameplay is very similar to what we’ve come to expect from recent entries in the series, it’s the tiny, subtle changes that make the game a better and more fluid experience both on and off the battlefield.

It all starts with customisation, which has seen a major facelift. Everything to do with options here has been tweaked, allowing for a particularly personal XCOM force to be sent to their deaths. There are detailed face customisation and voiceover options, and you can even change a soldier’s nationality this time around. There are a swathe of gun colours and camos available too, and favourite weapons can even be given nicknames should you so desire.

As always, loadout plays a pivotal role in the success of operations carried out in XCOM. Here are upgrades like new armour sets and weapon enhancements, and I found myself checking everything before and after every mission to evaluate stats and weapon effectiveness for the job at hand.

Battlefields are now procedurally-generated, making environments much more diverse and dynamic
In XCOM 2, all is lost before you begin
In XCOM 2, all is lost before you begin
In XCOM 2, all is lost before you begin

The Guerrilla Tactics School was also a place I regularly visited during my hands-on session. Functioning much like the Officer Training School in Enemy Within, this new section allows you to upgrade your squad size limit and tinker with the specifics of your squaddies. I didn’t get much of a chance to fully explore it, but it proved very helpful for assigning roles and working on the niches of my unit.

Battlefields are now procedurally-generated, making environments much more diverse and dynamic, and the game that much more unpredictable as a result. However, if you’re not a fan of procedurally-generated content, it’s possible to turn it off or dictate how much of the game you’d like to be created in this fashion, which is a nice touch but something I didn’t get to put to use during my hands-on session.

One of the other major additions to XCOM 2 are Dark Events, counter-operations undertaken by Advent that can alter your game in different ways. These begin when you start reclaiming territory, and if a Dark Event is successful, it can have major repercussions on your game, ranging from supply drop interference to having hidden enemies on the map during an operation.

Sinking back in my chair, I struggle to come to terms with my failure

To combat these events, you have to undertake various operations that will stem their progress (in a similar manner to the EXALT missions of Enemy Within), but this was something that I didn’t have a chance to fully experience. It is, however, quite an intense and foreboding feeling to have the enemy strategically going against you during your planning and operation phases of the game, and I’m really quite keen to see how it all plays out when the game launches in a few months.

Despite all the additions and improvements, XCOM 2 is still XCOM, and that’s exactly what it should be. Even in the few hours I played, I felt connected to the squaddies I’d crafted, and their fight for survival on a planet that had become foreign to the regularities of the human race. It certainly feels more personal than it did before, and it’s easy to imagine it spawning a plethora of stories and anecdotes that will be readily traded between those who dare dive in.

So I’m excited for what’s to come with XCOM 2, and the fact that modding has been a big focus for the team during development should make varied and exciting post-completion content easy to come by. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to mentally prepare myself for an inevitable deluge of soldier casualties come February.