With War of the Chosen, Firaxis is making a big move to increase XCOM 2’s tactical variety. In just the first couple of hours of a campaign, I saw several new mission types, two new soldier classes, new enemy types, some major new mechanics, and no fewer than four voice actors from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And from the look of it, there’s a lot more where that came from.
All of the missions I played – including some revamped versions of original XCOM 2 missions – felt new and different thanks to distinct objectives, and none had a “game over” turn timer where you’ll lose if it expires. I don’t mind those as much as some, but it’s great to see less reliance on that mechanic in missions. The first one I played was an introduction to two of the three new factions: the Skirmishers (Advent defectors who’ve managed to remove their own implants) and the Reapers, in which you’re arranging a meet between the two feuding factions. They both hate Advent, but the Reapers’ leader (voiced by Jonathan Frakes, AKA William Riker) doesn’t trust the Skirmishers or their leader (voiced by Denise Crosby, AKA Tasha Yar) and… seems to want to eat them. As food.
Guiding the two factions’ representatives to the meet is a three-phase story mission that introduces you to each of them individually in a short segment where you play as them and two XCOM escorts through the new abandoned city map type. These maps are full of grim and gray bombed-out buildings that contrast starkly with the gleaming Advent-built cities we’ve fought in thus far. Some of the buildings are taller than the map, so their ceilings aren’t visible – that was a little disorienting when I was trying to zoom out to get my bearings, but not a huge deal.
Fighting the Lost requires a different kind of thinking.
The most distinguishing feature of the abandoned cities, though, is the Lost: hordes of humans who’d been turned into zombies by the green gas that spewed out of the alien pods we saw dropped in Enemy Unknown. The plan doesn’t appear to have been very well thought through, though, because the Lost are now hostile to both XCOM and Advent. Fighting them requires a different kind of thinking than we’re used to: there’s a ton of them, but it’s not terribly difficult to thin the herd because killing one with a gun (not a bomb or a blade) gives you a free action. That means kills can be chained together as long as you have ammo, making auto-loader mods extremely useful against them. I also had a little success in using them against the Advent – if you can position yourself so that the Advent are between you and the Lost, they’ll attack the closest target, and at the very least they’ll soak up some Advent fire for you. (Later, we’ll get access to Lost Lure grenades that will let us control them more directly.)
Hero soldiers are almost like starting with a fully equipped colonel.
As soon as I heard the voices of the Skirmisher and Reaper and recognized the voices of Michael Dorn and Marina Sirtis, respectively, I renamed them accordingly as Worf, Son of Mogh and Deanna Troi. (The characters come pre-made in the story mission, but can be remade as you please; if you’re not playing with the story mode enabled they’ll be generated like everyone else.) At low levels, these hero soldiers are almost like starting with a fully equipped colonel, but with less health. The Skirmishers come with a grapple ability from the Spider Suit, plus a Viper-style grab and pull move. More importantly, though, they effectively have the Rapid Fire skill that allows them to shoot without ending the turn – the Ranger doesn’t get that until you hit colonel rank.
The Reaper, meanwhile, is a super-stealth sniper who can move and then shoot, right out of the box. They also start with a Claymore mine that can stick to enemies and be detonated at will, all without breaking concealment. And if a Reaper fires from concealment, they have a chance (which starts out as 50-50) to remain concealed to strike again. Plus their concealment is even more potent than the average soldier’s, with a much shorter detection radius that will let them slip through where the rest of XCOM can’t.
We’ll also meet the psi-focused Templar faction later, but I didn’t have time to reach them in this demo session. If Wil Wheaton, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, and/or Brent Spiner don’t show up in some capacity I’ll be disappointed – the more in-demand Patrick Stewart’s a long shot, but we can hope!
Anyway, the Skirmishers and Reapers are crazy powerful, and in fact, my biggest concern for War of the Chosen is that these hero soldiers will feel overpowered as they rank up – we’ll have to wait and see how Firaxis balances them in the late game so that they are neither dominant nor mandatory. We do know that you’ll be limited in how many of these super soldiers you’ll be able to have in your roster at once, and I can speak from experience that they’re just as squishy as any other soldier if they’re left vulnerable. At one point I found out the hard way that the new Advent flamethrower troopers have grenades when I placed Worf and another soldier next to each other in cover behind what turned out to be an explosive truck – that was an instant mission failure and restart. My Reaper was similarly put on the disabled list when a Faceless sprung out of hiding and smacked her, which also destroyed an explosive car. The Faceless died (it’d also taken reaction fire) and Deanna was left bleeding out as the mission ended. Anyway, the point is you shouldn’t leave these valuable soldiers exposed if you can help it because they won’t be cheap to replace.
Unlike the Rulers, the goal of the Chosen isn’t to wipe out your squad.
That first introductory mission culminated in a confrontation with the first of the three Chosen, the Assassin. She has some nasty hit-and-run attacks that make her tricky to pin down, especially because the version of her that I fought came equipped with Shadowstep, making her immune to reaction fire and allowing her to freely run up to my troops and have her way with them. Much like the orc captains in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, the Chosen’s skills – and a matching set of vulnerabilities – are randomly assigned, and more will be added as they progress. Fortunately, unlike the Rulers from the Alien Hunters DLC, the goal of the Chosen isn’t to wipe out your squad, it’s to disable and interrogate them. Many of her attacks put people into a Dazed state, which effectively knocks them out for a few turns but doesn’t require a Revive skill to bring them back – you just have to get another soldier close to them before the Chosen can reach them and suck information out of their brains, or worse, grab them and teleport off the battlefield.
My solution? Grenades, and plenty of ‘em.
My solution? Grenades, and plenty of ‘em. Luckily for me, the Assassin chose to retreat into a nearby building, and you don’t need to be able to see something to blow a hole in the floor beneath it and inflict both explosive and fall damage. Between that and a couple of good shots it was enough to drive her off, but who knows if the same tactic will work the next time? That unpredictability is what’s most intriguing to me about the Chosen.
After that first mission, I encountered another concern I have about the hero class soldiers: the way they’re ranked up. It’s a system that’s completely different from all of the original soldiers or even the SPARKs. Instead of picking one of two options at each rank, you use skill points that are accrued both by the individual soldier when they rank up and cumulatively by the whole squad when the execute tactical moves like flanking shots or kills from above (you have a chance to earn points when you do this) to buy any skill that’s been unlocked up to that point. It’s an interesting system, sure, and could result in a wider variety of character builds, but it seems needlessly complex next to the elegant simplicity of the normal character development. On the other hand, maybe it’ll grow on me, in which case I’d wish that all soldiers used it. Both systems existing side by side just felt strange during my first impression.
Between the first mission and the next, a lot happened on the strategic map and the Avenger. I bonded two compatible soldiers, which, at the lowest level, gives them a once-per-mission ability to make an extra move when they’re deployed on the same team together. It’s a little disappointing that every pair of soldiers gets the same ability from the bond, but we’ll see how that looks at higher levels.
Soldiers in your roster can pull their weight outside of combat.
I got to send soldiers out on my first Resistance Mission, which is an exciting new system for unlocking missions (specifically things like tracking down Chosen to counter their threats, rescuing captured soldiers, or making contact with the Templars) or gaining resources. Sure, almost all the action takes place off-screen, very similarly to the Covert Ops missions in Enemy Within, but there’s so much more to be gained. It makes the soldiers in your roster who aren’t being actively used in combat feel like they’re pulling their weight, and it’s a way for them to progress without seeing any direct action. Between this and the new fatigue system where soldiers can become tired after a mission and require some downtime before being able to go back out into the field at full strength, we’re strongly incentivized to spend some supplies on recruiting extra soldiers, and to build the Resistance Ring building to expand your capacity for simultaneous missions. Ramping that thing up early feels like it could be a viable new early-game progression path.
Another new idea is Resistance Orders, a Civilization 6-like system with which you can customize a set of bonuses every month by slotting them into each faction. The first orders I had access to allowed me to reduce excavation time by 50%, halve the cost of new recruits, instantly collect supply drops, or reduce the Chosen’s rate of progress toward finding the Avenger by a third. I wasn’t able to play long enough to take advantage of them, but bonuses that powerful are certainly going to have an interesting impact on strategies.
I also encountered my first research breakthrough: a one-time bonus opportunity toward Mag Weapons when my standard operating procedure said I should pursue Resistance Communications. I was free to ignore it, but if I didn’t take it right then the shortcut would disappear for good. Again, for people like me who love to replay XCOM 2 over and over, anything that forces or tempts me out of my rut and puts me in unfamiliar situations is a great thing.
Diving back into missions, I was impressed at how just about everything felt different. In a new variation on an assassination mission, breaking concealment started a timer to an enemy dropship arriving to extract the target. I wasn’t able to reach him before his ride showed up, but I was able to position myself between him and his extraction point so that he all but ran directly into my Ranger’s sword on his way to safety.
It makes sense to have armed people guarding a resistance outpost.
A Retaliation mission began in the familiar fashion, but it soon gave me a new objective: defend a group of civilians with help from some AI-controlled resistance soldiers. Those guys didn’t do a ton of damage to the advancing Advent, but they gave the enemy something other than my guys to shoot at and it just made more sense for there to be armed people guarding a resistance outpost instead of cowering and waiting for me to show up.
I went on a rescue mission that limited me to bringing three soldiers instead of four, but it had a “sitrep” modifier (which is visible before you enter) that gave each soldier a one-time ability to re-enter concealment. That mission was a lot like previous extractions, but without a timer and with a new enemy security level that ramps up reinforcements as it escalates. Because I focused on stealth I was able to move through and grab my captured soldier without engaging the new Advent Priest that showed up, so I’m still not exactly sure what kind of psi powers he has. But calling for extraction cranked the security level up to 10 instantly, which had new dropships full of enemies arriving every turn.
Finally, I went on a reworked Supply Raid mission in which I had to reach containers before Advent could airlift them out. It’s another timer-based challenge that doesn’t involve instantly losing your whole squad if you fail, which is welcome. This goal was complicated by the fact that the map was infested with Lost zombies, a sitrep that appears on all abandoned city maps but can also appear anywhere else.
But it didn’t stop there: this is also where I encountered the second Chosen, the Hunter. Like the Assassin, he has his randomized strengths and weaknesses, but the moment he warps in he’ll start targeting your soldiers with his ultra long-range sniper rifle from across the map. I’m not sure what happens when it hits you because it’s easy to avoid; it paints a cone of effect red and strongly suggests you move out of it so you don’t get shot. Really, it’s an area-denial weapon, and because it only affects one targeted soldier at a time it’s not likely to cause an unfair situation – it just makes you rethink your approach. When I closed in on the Hunter’s location, which is given away by his targeting, he switched to combat mode and summoned an Advent soldier to help him and started hucking stun grenades at my soldiers – which is dangerous with a lot of Lost around who need to be shot. I didn’t get to finish that fight, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity for a rematch – and to meet up with the third Chosen sibling, the Warlock.
And of course, I’d be remiss to not discuss the Photobooth feature. At the end of every mission, you can hit the photo button, which lets you pose your surviving squad members in front of the map they were just on against a propaganda poster-style backdrop and write in your own text to create a poster that will appear around the Avenger. I had fun just pushing the “randomize” button and seeing what it came up with, but when I have more time I intend to come up with some good ones.
That opportunity isn’t too far off because we’re now only about seven weeks away from kicking off War of the Chosen on August 29. For more details and tidbits on War of the Chosen, check out my E3 interview with XCOM Creative Director Jake Solomon.
Dan Stapleton is IGN’s Reviews Editor. You can follow him on Twitter to hear gaming rants and lots of random Simpsons references.