A broad and deep expansion that restores a fear of the unknown.
Even with its procedural maps, XCOM 2’s missions started feeling a little stale after a hundred hours or so. Enter War of The Chosen, a large-scale expansion which grafts on more than enough new variables to give that creeping sense of predictability a brutal beatdown.
Variety is War of the Chosen’s biggest strength, and its long list of changes was very successful at making me rethink my established tactics. There are several new mission types, including clever new spins on Alien Supply Raids and Retaliations (the latter finally includes armed resistance soldiers who help you fight off the attackers – a little too effectively sometimes), extracting captured XCOM soldiers, assassinating Advent generals who’ll flee to extraction points when you break concealment, evading ambushes, saving VIPs from zombie hordes, and more. Few of them rely on do-or-die turn-timers, which was a good call on Firaxis’ part. I don’t mind the occasional timed mission, but we have enough of those already.
The Abandoned City and the decaying underground sewers are a stark, refreshing contrast.
Many of those take place on new map tilesets like the Abandoned City or the decaying underground sewers – both a stark, refreshing contrast to the gleaming Advent-built metropolises. Neither is what I’d call pretty or colorful, but they’re just as detailed as the original set of locations, and more is always better. Many of the original map sets have noticeable new elements to them, such as the Advent City’s new bridges.
Any mission is subject to being affected by modifiers known as Sitreps that put random twists on conditions that can have major effects on what squad and equipment you’ll want to go in with. One populates the map entirely with beasts like Faceless, Berserkers, and Chryssalids; another removes the fog of war (for you, not the enemies); and one scatters high-explosive containers around that you can avoid or use to your advantage. On top of that, there are tons of new Dark Events, such as giving all Advent troopers Lightning Reflexes for a month, and a huge amount of new continent bonuses, including one that provides a chance for a random Advent soldier to defect and join you in a mission.
A handful of new Advent troops joins the fray, and even though none is really game-changing they all demand new counter-tactics. The especially nasty body-snatching Specter can knock out a soldier and create a phantom clone of them, which is brutal, but I enjoy fighting them more than a typical mind-control unit because even if I can’t take them out I can still kill the clone guilt-free. The Priest’s psionic powers match up closely with a Sectoid Commander from Enemy Unknown, including a mind-link that fries the brain of the unit receiving the buff if you can take down the Priest (I kinda wished Firaxis had just brought back the classic gray Sectoids instead). And the flamethrowing Purifier just likes to watch the world burn.
Going up against the Lost is a completely different kind of fight.
Some missions, especially the new Abandoned City maps, are also packed with the Lost, a creepier kind of zombie who’s hostile to both XCOM and Advent. They’re a completely different kind of fight thanks to their huge numbers and the fact that any kill shot you land on them doesn’t cost an action, so you can blast away until you have to burn all of your actions on reloading, miss, or only wound one. Because of that vulnerability they’re very rarely a serious threat, especially after you’ve upgraded your guns with high-end expanded magazines and auto-loaders (one time I killed over 100 of them just to prove that I could), but I do like the extra dimension they add as a third side in fights with Advent forces, especially when you use the new lure utility item to bring them down on a group of enemies.
That’s a lot of new threats to deal with before we even get to the headliner: most missions have a possibility of being dropped in on by one of the three titular Chosen. The Assassin, the Hunter, and the Warlock are each semi-immortal boss characters whose appearance changes things up in distinct ways when they spawn in on the opposite side of the map after you break concealment. They’ll harass you from afar with mostly easy-to-avoid attacks such as the Hunter’s telegraphed sniper attack, which forces you to move one specific soldier out of a cone of danger or take a hit, or the Warlock’s summoned spectral zombies. It’s just enough to give you a little something extra to deal with, and these attacks only rarely came at such a bad moment or situation that it cost me.
The Chosen are a clear nod to Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system.
Then, when you get up close enough to directly engage them, the Chosen will try to abduct and interrogate your troops rather than kill them outright. Because of that, and the fact that they only get to move once per turn (though they seem to have either a lot of actions or several special abilities that don’t cost an action), they didn’t feel like unfair squad-killers like the Rulers from the Alien Hunters DLC, but they aren’t pushovers by any means, either. Their random weaknesses (a vulnerability to one of the three hero classes and one type of attack, such as explosives) and growing list of random strengths are a clear nod to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s outstanding Nemesis system, and that keeps the threat scaling up as you increase XCOM’s power. When the Hunter gained an invulnerability to melee attacks and then an Avatar-like power to teleport whenever he took damage, the fights against him took on a very different feel. And because they’ll keep coming back from the dead until you track down and destroy their resurrection chambers, they’re not easy to put down for good. If you do, though, they have some nice weapons as a reward.
The Chosen are meant to add personality to the otherwise faceless aliens of XCOM 2 (besides the Spokesman, who you never get to shoot), and to some degree that’s successful. They’ll remark specifically about your actions, taunting you when you take losses, dismissing the deaths of disposable Advent troopers as meaningless, and calling out the use of special weapons like the Bolt Caster. That said, much of the dialogue is fairly generic “You’ll never defeat me!” supervillain stuff, and as a fan of the Quiet Bradford mod I wonder how many campaigns I’ll play before I’ll want to see them muzzled.
Fear The Reaper
On the XCOM side, we more than keep pace with the new threats. Starting a new campaign with the story mode enabled quickly introduces you to the powerful Reaper and Skirmisher soldier classes with a multi-part scripted mission that effectively teaches you their basics by splitting your squad into two before joining up for a six-person squad battle against the a Chosen. Soon after that you can meet the Templars. In the new intro cinematics, these three rebel factions talk a big game (in the recognizable voices of Star Trek: The Next Generation actors Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Jonathan Frakes, Denise Crosby, and John Delanci) about hating each other’s guts and needing to be unified under the XCOM banner. But sadly, none of that is actually reflected in gameplay – the moment you run up against a Chosen they decide to unite against the common foe all on their own, and none of the choices you make risks angering them; you only decide which ones you want to improve relations with first. In that way, the factions are really just an elaborate front for upgrade menus for some of the many new things going on on the world map, and obtaining elite soldiers with a certain set of skills.
Using the same soldiers on every mission has severe consequences.
I don’t love the idea of predetermined “special” troops instead of the traditional XCOM method of letting heroes emerge from the rookie ranks organically, but at least the limits on recruiting mean you can’t stack your team with elites. I only had three (one of each) in my roster for the majority of a long campaign, and four by the end. That seems like a lot when the squad size still maxes out at six, but because of the new fatigue system you aren’t able to take the same group of soldiers on every mission without them acquiring some very inconvenient negative traits, such as impulsively taking a shot immediately when you order them to go into overwatch or choosing to reload their weapon at random, spending an action. They might also pick up a fear of a specific type of alien or have a chance of panicking at the sight of a teammate’s blood, which is the last time you want them to lose their cool. These traits can be slowly removed in the new Infirmary building, but War of the Chosen is very clear on what it thinks of having one go-to squad for everything, whether they’re a special class or not. Seeing that a trooper is tired makes them feel more human, too.
Most of these classes’ innate skills, like the Skirmisher firing two shots per turn and free use of a grappling hook or the Templar’s retreat move after a melee strike feel like having a captain-level soldier (without the beefed up health and stats) in your squad from the start. I found that rather than unbalancing things, having some access to those abilities allows for more advanced tactics in the early game, while most soldiers were still learning the ropes of their classes. They’re highly useful and versatile without being absolutely essential, plus they are somewhat limited by their inability to equip heavy armor – and Reapers and Templars have only one utility slot. They’re also limited in aesthetic options, with only two slightly different textures for their armor sets and two voices per class.
Reapers’ stealth can trivialize certain missions.
The exception to that respect for balance is the Reaper’s super-stealth, which reduces the enemy detection range to just one tile and practically lets them walk up and poke an alien in the eye without being spotted. In fact, they have a 50 percent chance of doing almost exactly that – firing their rifles from concealment rolls the dice on whether they’ll be spotted, and later they can get a skill called Sting that guarantees they stay hidden for one shot. True, they don’t do as much damage as a regular Sharpshooter, but that’s still a huge advantage. Their Claymore mine is also an absurdly effective means of striking without risking retaliation, though because you have to shoot it to detonate it it’s mostly only good for stationary targets until it’s upgraded to a sticky bomb at a high rank. But the Reaper’s stealth was a real unbalancing factor in search-and-destroy missions like assassinations and even the Avenger Defense, where I was able to walk up, spot the disruptor for snipers across the map, and make an escape without taking a hit, all within five turns. Don’t get me wrong, I felt clever the first time I pulled it off, but henceforth there’s no challenge to what used to be a tough mission.
The five existing classes are unchanged by War of the Chosen, except now you can make them wildly more powerful by unlocking every skill on their tree, including a whole set of random abilities that makes each person feel like a scratch-off lottery ticket where you almost always win something. That’s done with the new and sort of confusing ability points system: each soldier earns points individually as a reward for good tactical behavior like flanking shots, kills during ambushes, or from an elevated position, but each one earns points at a different, randomly determined rate, and there’s also a shared pool that can be spent on anybody. I love the skill combinations I was able to create this way, and it gives more control over how troops develop than the now-obsolete Advanced Warfare Center, but the way there are now two different upgrade screens for every soldier except the special classes and the one that gives you full control isn’t accessible from the loadout screen before a mission makes it feel a little clumsy.
You can give your fighters even more new bonuses by bonding pairs of troopers together through a cohesion system that’s difficult to keep track of. Each soldier has a randomly determined rating for how compatible they are with every other soldier, and that determines how fast their bond develops based on how many missions they go on together. Those bonds can be worth the micromanaging of the buddy system, though, because right off the bat two bonded soldiers get the ability to give their BFF one of their actions once per mission, which can absolutely turn the tide at a crucial moment when. And the benefits of a bond only grow from there.
I created the greatest hacker XCOM had ever seen.
But by far the most crucial new building you need to construct on your Avenger is the Resistance Ring, the center from which you launch the enormously powerful Covert Actions. These have you send two or three troops (or sometimes a scientist or engineer) off on their own to do everything from track down the Chosen in their lairs or recruit new elite soldiers to more mundane tasks like acquiring more supplies and intel, but with a whole lot of other options in between. All of this comes at the risk of not having your troops available when you need warm bodies for a mission or getting them captured (each mission has its own potential hazard levels, which are made clear up front) but it’s also a great way to advance their stats and cohesion outside of combat. By sending one Specialist on multiple missions that boosted his hacking skill, I created the greatest hacker XCOM had ever seen, with all-but-guaranteed success rates on anything less than a Sectopod.
You’d be crazy to not get the Resistance Ring up ASAP.
On top of that, Covert Actions unlock extremely powerful Resistance Orders and slots to put them in. These closely mirror Civilization 6’s government policies: at the end of each month you’re given the opportunity to slot Reaper, Skirmisher, and Templar policies that give you global bonuses like extra Resistance Contacts, a 10 percent supply drop bonus, instant contact with new territories, +20 to hacking skills, and more. With potent upgrades like that you’d be crazy (or deliberately challenging yourself) to not get the Resistance Ring up and running as soon as possible, which is a little discouraging in that it’s unlikely there will be a lot of viable builds that prioritize other structures.
Between that, the traditional Avenger scanning, and research opportunities, there’s almost an overload of choices in the early and mid game, which makes how you spend the Avenger’s time and resources feel wide open. Research breakthroughs and inspirations pop up frequently, forcing you to make a choice between sticking to your pre-planned research schedule or detouring for the opportunity to unlock another tech faster or get powerful upgrades like adding a mod slot to all sniper rifles or +1 damage to all shotguns. Many are too tempting to resist.
Of course, you now have so many options for turning back the Avatar Project clock that there’s little urgency. It was possible to keep a game going indefinitely in vanilla XCOM 2, but in War of the Chosen, you’d almost have to go out of your way to let it expire. You’re free to keep going as long as you’d like, research nearly everything, kill all three Chosen for good, and become a nigh-unstoppable god by the end.
Which, if nothing else, gives you plenty of time to mess with the goofy built-in propaganda-generating photobooth. At the end of every mission you’re prompted to create and customize a poster with a photo of your squad posed however you’d like with optional flashy backgrounds and Snapchat-like filters, and randomly generated or custom-written text. You can also make them to memorialize dead soldiers or commemorate bonds. It can be used for straight-faced roleplaying purposes or absurdity, and it makes a fun side activity after a tough fight.
Performance improvements are very noticeable.
Finally, it will come as a relief to both XCOM 2 veterans and people who’ve been holding off on jumping in that the performance improvements that come with War of the Chosen are very noticeable. Obviously, not everyone will have the GeForce GTX 1080 in my machine, but not everyone will want to run it completely maxed out at 4K resolution, as I did, where the only major hitches occurring during the first moments of a mission when things were still loading in. Choppy deployments and some slowdown around big fires aside, XCOM 2 appears to have mostly licked its performance problems – if not all of its animation glitches and occasional crashes to desktop. Also, a word of warning to mod lovers: every single one I tried pre-release broke in some way, so you’ll have to wait for mod authors to update before you can use essentials like Evac All or Capnbubs Accessories Pack. Don’t even think about The Long War 2 anytime soon.
The one new feature I didn’t get to try out in for this review that I’m looking forward to is the Challenge mode, which will offer one-off missions from Firaxis that give you a pre-set squad to work with and challenge you to beat it as efficiently as possible to place on a leaderboard.