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Three reasons XCOM 2 will make you cry, Commander

There's more heart than ever before, making your decisions all the more difficult

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The near-final version of XCOM 2, the sequel to 2012's hit reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown landed on my desk just as soon as I got back from my holiday vacation. Since then I've been putting more time into the game than is probably reasonable. That said, there are a lot of things I can't talk about, but there's also a lot that I'm excited to share.

For those unaware, XCOM is a strategy game series that dates back to 1994 when the original, X-COM: UFO Defense, was released by the legendary publisher MicroProse. In the 2012 reboot, developed by Firaxis Games and published by 2K, players take control of a secret international organization working to fight back against an alien invasion.

At the core of the game is turn-based tactical combat. The success of the title on both PC and consoles, has been attributed largely to designer Jake Solomon who, toiling at the knee of the master Sid Meier, heroically brought the genre back from the brink of extinction.

Looking back, it's widely agreed on that the original series' sophomore effort, XCOM: Terror from the Deep, was the misfire that began the series' downward spiral. My fear has always been that XCOM 2 might suffer the same fate, but after around eight hours with the game I'm beginning to think that my fears were unfounded.

Here's three spoiler-free things I learned from my time with the game so far.

XCOM 2 is tough as nails

XCOM 2 has four difficulty levels: Rookie, Veteran, Commander and Legend. Right out of the gate I started the game on Commander and ... was annihilated three games in a row.

Three straight total party kills in the opening levels.

Suffice it to say, I learned my lesson and dialed things back a notch for the second go.

I'm happy to report that unlike the 2012 title there was much less of a delta between Veteran and Commander. The basic difficulty level is still challenging, and I've already lost a few promising squaddies — which is good. It means the game is forcing me to make difficult decisions and put troops in danger, but not so difficult that it's overwhelming. Firaxis' first effort had a tendency to become a cakewalk on the starting difficulty level, and I'm not seeing signs of that here.

In being so difficult, I'm pleased to report that the game's graphical flourishes are actually useful for making decisions. Case in point, when you select the option to have one of your troops fire you can tap the tab button to cycle through available targets. The camera swings in low and tight over the shoulder, as it did in the previous game. But the angle is wider and the point of origin is similar in fact to the one you're presented with when zooming over the shoulder in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. That wider, seemingly deeper field of view gives you a great perspective, allowing for much better situational awareness.

Additionally, during overwatch fire — when your troops are free to fire during the enemy's turn — the camera pans and zooms in such a way that it's much, much easier to recall who is firing at what. They're small things, but make for a much more satisfying time spent at the keyboard.

Maps feel big, and so does your freedom of movement

After a while, the 2012 XCOM got boring. There, I said it. Same maps, same missions. Move ahead a dozen squares, reveal the enemies and have at it for a few rounds. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

With XCOM 2 that's all changed. The maps I've played on so far share very little in common with one another. Even story-based missions appear to have random terrain elements thrown in, meaning that every playthrough should look and feel different.

It's more than just the size and scope of the tileset. Firaxis has actually introduced a new mechanic to the game called concealment. During some missions when your troops first enter the map they're hidden from the enemy's view. As they make visual contact with aliens and enemy emplacements a ring of red tiles spread out, marking the path that will trigger discovery and immediately instigate a firefight. By landing troops at the far end of larger maps, the concealment mechanic encourages players to explore the environment in ways the original game simply didn't allow.

It also flips the script. No longer do aliens arbitrarily reveal themselves from the cloud of war to surprise your troops. Now your troops are doing the surprising, setting ambushes and fighting on the ground of their choosing. The mechanic essentially doubles the tactical options available to players and gives designers new opportunities for scripting missions.

It's got heart

I did not expect XCOM 2 to move me, to invest me in a storyline. But in the opening missions and cinematics that's exactly what it's done.

Sadly, I'm not able to go into specifics. What I can say is that for the first time in the franchise's history it has real characters, interesting people with a backstory and a point of view. People you want to root for. People you will invariably have to save or sacrifice.

But the game also allows for an unusually high level of customization. Before you ever step into a map you can freely create characters and add them to a character pool. Give them names, change the look of their starting armor, reskin their weapons and choose from a surprisingly long list of international voices, languages and attitudes. Want a cigar-chomping African American woman who takes shit from no one? Make it happen. Then you can add those characters to the character pool and later on the game will make them available as new recruits, or as NPC characters in the game world.

Smeared on top of everything though is a kind of gritty survivalism. As I played I was reminded of movies like Red Dawn and Independence Day. I actually got a strong whiff of season three of Battlestar Galactica, specifically the scenes on New Caprica, both in the choice of music and in the character performances.

The environmental details are also feeding back into that loop, showing you places you've seen before as well as completely new and futuristic spaces that tell the story of the world under alien domination. Overall the game has a level of thoughtfulness, and of execution, that strategy fans are simply not accustomed to.

XCOM 2, as well as our review, will be out for Windows PC, Mac and Linux on Feb. 5.