By Scott Southard. This is LOAD FILE, where we pace back and forth in a frenzied panic after realizing the lasers are already whizzing past our heads. Scott hides and whimpers in a corner for ‘XCOM 2’, out now on PC.

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2011’s original reboot of XCOM carved in my brain deep neural paths of action and response. After hundreds of hours of attempts to save our terrestria from invading platoons of unthinkable monsters, I organically began routines of the most efficient and effective methods for building bases, improving squadrons, and fighting aliens. These paths carved themselves deeper and deeper into my mind, like small rivers scraping themselves into enormous valleys, and eventually… I had to stop. Every new game I started was an exercise in autopilot, rarely did I ever again find it exciting or engaging to play through a campaign. Since then, some of the ruts have been washed away by other turned-based strategy games (like the mediocre Massive Chalice or the excellent Invisible Inc.) or simply by time.

XCOM 2 has taken this re-virginized landscape and tilled an oddly familiar network of troughs and canyons. Much of the gameplay is similar, especially on the surface. At this point, it is a style of gameplay, just as valid as first person shooters or Match 3 games for your phone. So a lack of revolution in terms of structure isn’t surprising or necessary, and XCOM 2 knows this. In such a short time (the original series obviously gave this second run a leg up) it’s become a powerhouse of the gaming community. I’ll welcome any iteration with open eyes and an open heart.

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As time moves along, humanity is forced to imagine a future where the aliens have already won (which isn’t all that hard, considering the amount of times I lost my whole squad in XCOM: Enemy Unknown). They’ve implemented a mildly acceptable umbrella government called the Advent Administration that projects itself as a benevolent entity meant to bestow peace and progress upon the human race. Obviously, this is a nefarious farce, and as the recently un-cryogenically frozen Commander, it’s the player’s job to mount a new resistance force (with a few old faces). There are murmurs of an impending doom in the form of The Advent Project, which begins as a secretive progress bar, but incrementally exposes itself in bits and pieces as missions are accomplished and the XCOM resistance gains more ground.

There’s a wonderfully nuanced post-apocalyptic feel to the universe of XCOM 2. It’s the type of place that most humans are perfectly content to live in, and only a handful of dissidents find themselves actively fighting Advent’s presence. We see talking head, alienesque politicians with evil, backstabbing plans, who, on the surface, provide a wonderfully utopian plan for humanity. Earth’s citizens cheer in unison and only the few who’ve uncovered the truth have organized against this front. Now that I think about it, XCOM 2 isn’t all that different than the world we’re living in today.

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The XCOM forces have reestablished themselves with new faces in a new headquarters (a fallen alien ship!), and gone back to the routines that have always worked for them. As with the first game, there are two levels of gameplay: active fighting and the base-building metagame. The fighting is tile and turn-based, with an emphasis on strategic movement; percentage-fueled decision making with terrible punishments for thoughtless actions. Each of your footsoldiers has a class with special abilities that further amass as soldiers gain experience in the field and level up. It’s immensely satisfying to complete a mission with the units you’ve come to care for (they’re all heavily customizable and gain nicknames as soon as they’ve gotten some field-experience), and it’s equally satisfying to continue improving their unique skills and abilities.

The downside to all of this familial improvement is that when a soldier dies, they die for good. Permadeath is a terrifying prospect that loads every single action with the weight of non-negotiable dread. It helps that the base building aspect of the game allows you to stack your units with weapons and armor to best prepare themselves for any given fight, but minimized risk is still risk, and the game always has incredibly high stakes.

Like I said, not much about the game has changed, and that includes the bugs. There are still infuriating moments of poor display, confusing multi-level traversal, grenades that never seem to land in the spot you’re aiming for, and a load of graphical glitches that seem like they’ll never be fixed (How does the damage indicator still pop up and display nothing? How can the enemies still die before the gun is even fired?). None of it is particularly gamebreaking, unless you’re playing on the anti-save scumming Ironman mode, which regularly saves the game on top of the last save, effectively stopping the player from going back and undoing whatever dumb mistakes they made.

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While the heavy permadeath gameplay leads to some of the lowest lows I’ve ever felt in a video game, the converse experience of a perfectly executed mission or a slim escape imparts a feeling of ecstasy unmatched by any game out there. I’m thrilled that the turned-based strategy revolution is being helmed by a storied franchise with this level of depth, polish, and emotional heft.

There are times when things aren’t perfect, and there is certainly nothing envelope-pushing about the second game of this series, but that’s a fine, rooting step in the process of establishing a property as one of the best in the business. I don’t need evolutionary gameplay when I’m already glued to the monitor, yelling curses at aliens, being the armchair resistance commander I’ve always wanted to be.

Developed by Firaxis Games.

Published by 2K Games.

Distributed by Take-Two Interactive.

Directed by Jake Solomon.

Produced by Garth DeAngelis.

Platforms: Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux.

8 out of 10