My library has two copies of XCOM 2. I saw them once on the new items shelf, before they were snatched up for play by eager library gamers. I didn’t play XCOM: Enemy Unknown (a 2012 remake of the classic turn-based strategy RPG from 1994) much more than an early tutorial of the game’s port to tablets and cell phones back during my San Francisco days, at a preview event by publisher 2K a year or two ago. So I picked it up.
XCOM 2 is a turn-based grid-based strategy RPG series in which you fight as the commander of the resistance against aliens who have taken control of Earth. Between combat you can mine for resources, research new weapons and facilities in your mobile fortress, and acquire new staff, which can all be acquired by using one of the game’s two methods of currency, money and intelligence. This overmap simulation element feels a little 4X-lite (4X is a genre of strategy game where the focus is on diplomacy, commerce, R&D, and war; the term was coined for the classic space empire-building game Masters of Orion, but the Civilization series is probably the most famous example) and is focussed on resource management and allocation, with a time limit during which the enemy is doing their own research projects to be used against you in combat.
Combat plays out on large maps, filled with roving aliens, and uses a squad, turn-based tactical system. Your characters (starting with a team of four that can be expanded to six) have two standard actions (think Dungeons and Dragons rules, if you’re familiar) and can use them to move, fight, or use a special ability—with some special abilities being a free action, taking one, or possibly two actions. You have a limited range of movement, all of which is based on general stats. You move all your squad members and have them execute their actions, then the other team gets to use their theirs. In this respect, XCOM 2 is a very traditional turn-based strategy RPG; it’s not particularly trying much that’s progressive or innovative (like, say Valkyria Chronicles or Codename S.T.E.A.M.) but is simply a refinement of the tried and true best of the classic genre.
What surprised me was how hard it was, though. Even on it’s normal setting, XCOM 2 does not give much, and it demands a certain degree of foreknowledge about what research is supposed to be prioritized. Some of this certainly would benefit the player to have previously played the XCOM 2012 remake, since it runs on a similar model. As you progress, the situation for humanity becomes more and more dire, calling eventually for a final showdown between you and a giant host of the toughest baddies; though thankfully, they give you a nice bonus character at the end.
Resistance narratives are good stuff for games; as generally underdog stories make for good gameplay in combat scenarios (you-versus-the-world means a lot more baddies to fight) though it can also trend towards jingoistic or nationalistic rhetoric, and doesn’t give much opportunity for complex narratives, unless it’s subverting the trope. Historically some great literature has been created around resistance to oppressive regimes. Here’s some resistance library picks:
For a vision of resistance written by people in the midst of it, you could check out Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, based on the famous Sophocles play, and performed first in Paris in 1944 during Nazi occupation. The play presents the events of the tragedy as a necessary sacrifice to resist tyranny.
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury’s vision of a future in which books are illegal has been referenced and echoed so many times, it’s a good idea to check it out if you haven’t already (though for reference, paper burns at a variety of different temperatures).
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins – You could add a lot of dystopian young adult fiction to this list, since nonconformity, divergent thinking, and creative problem solving are a huge feature of the genre, but Hunger Games takes the cake as a popular entry in the genre that’s well written and features a strong female protagonist. Katniss Everdeen, who bowhunts illegally to feed her family in a repressed district, volunteers to fight in The Hunger Games, after her sister was selected to be in the Games, where representatives of each district must fight to the death. Defiant through the end, Katniss becomes the face of the resistance in later books.
Battle Royale by Koshun Takami – I couldn’t well put up The Hunger Games without also putting this gem from Japan, that preceded it by several years (spawning a manga series and two feature films). In Battle Royale, a fascist society holds its children hostage by entering them into a lottery, where the winning entry grants one junior high school class is forced to fight it out on an island until there’s only one survivor. On the island, while others play the deadly game, a small group forms a resistance effort.
The Terminator – While many prefer James Cameron’s early 90’s follow up to the film that made his Hollywood career, Terminator 2, the original is a tightly written and directed tour de force of science fiction storytelling. Struggling with its’ defeat at the hands of human resistance fighters in an apocalyptic future, the machine empire SkyNet sends a human-looking machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill the resistance leader’s mother, Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) before he’s conceived. The future resistance sends back it’s own fighter, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to stop The Terminator, creating an inescapable time-loop of consequence and action.
(Fun Fact: The garbage dump scenes from Toy Story 3 used the bleak future scenes from The Terminator as a reference point to create a sense of dread and despair in the Pixar film’s final act.)