At this point I do not know if XCOM 1 and 2 game director Jake Solomon is a motivational genius, or a tyrannical overlord who rules through fear and intimidation. In just under five years, his apparently tireless team has created two fantastically in-depth and feature-rich AAA strategy games, numerous DLC updates, and two truly expansive expansion packs. The most recent one, War of the Chosen, is mammoth, not some quickie filler content designed to make a few bucks for minimal effort. It's a robust and deep expansion that touches on every aspect of the game.
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen follows the same design ethic as the XCOM: Enemy Within expansion. I adored that expansion, and am happy to see Firaxis continue to build out its games in this manner. Rather than adding an awkward epilogue of tacked-on content, the dev team has injected all of its new ideas, mechanics, and enemies into the core game.
XCOM 2 was already a bigger game than XCOM 1, and was arguably already stretching its seams. There was a risk that adding new content was going to create a game that ended up over-stuffed rather than content rich, especially when Mr. Solomon has stated that War of the Chosen is the largest expansion he has ever worked on. Thankfully, for the most part, everything here works. The game is a lot busier than before, but it seldom feels bloated.
The meat of the new content revolves around with the titular Chosen, three alien veterans that have been retconned into the main story to recapture the XCOM Commander (you), and douse the rebellious fire you had reignited. The Chosen drop into missions throughout the game, adding another level of threat to an already precariously balanced conflict. The Assassin, Warlock, and Hunter are unique threats when they appear, thanks to some powerful new skills which they will add to as the game progresses.
In my first game, the stealth oriented Assassin started off with an immunity to melee attacks, and didn’t trigger Overwatch – an already nightmare-inducing combination. So, while it was bad enough to see her dance through my squad and pickoff my Ranger while my crew stood by helpless to stop her, when she added the ability to summon additional units to the fight, it began to feel like she really didn’t like me. My already battered soldiers barely made it through beforehand, but now she’s teleporting in reinforcements while mocking me for my incompetence. For the first time, XCOM felt personal.
Unlike the Alien Rulers added in the Alien Hunter DLC, the Chosen are not overpowered squad-slaughtering units that use new unfair mechanics. Rather, they are elite units with specific skills that need to be countered. The key is to exploit their inherent weaknesses. As with their special skills, these vulnerabilities are randomly applied, and help to keep them interesting in subsequent playthroughs.
Each is weak to a specific class and attack type, making squad variety even more important. While the Hunter may be able to snipe you from across the map, and the Warlock can summon a seemingly endless army of the spectral dead, you will always have access to the tools to take them down – you just need to know how to use them, and remember to keep them handy. Death and defeat are constant companions in XCOM 2 – now more than ever – but you won’t be facing them alone.
XCOM 2 introduced the resistance, but for the most part it was a passive addition adding in some mission diversity and the odd bonus. In War of the Chosen, things get a lot more interesting. Three factions have been added, each with their own mission types, covert-ops that can unlock new skills, bonuses, and perks. Most importantly, each of the factions adds a new playable hero class to the fight.
The Reapers are stealth based snipers with peerless accuracy and range of movement, while The Skirmishers are highly mobile former Advent soldiers with a powerful grapple attack. My personal favourites, though, are The Templars. Get this: they are psionic monks dual-wielding blades made of impure thoughts – blades which increase in power the more aliens they slice and dice.
Hero classes in XCOM initially feel out of place, as the series has always been about turning rookies into killing machines before mourning their inevitable deaths. Thankfully, these new units are not hugely overpowered, and you’ll be limited to one of each for the vast majority of the game. Also, they die just like everyone else. But unlike XCOM soldiers, the hero classes level up using a more open system, where skills can be unlocked by using a shared pool of points earned in combat by completing missions, fulfilling objectives, or killing elite units. This allows you to potentially unlock all their skills given enough time – assuming they don’t die.
While the Chosen and Factions are at the core of the new content in War of the Chosen, that's just scratching the surface. The Avenger has a couple of new rooms. The Training Room allows you to spend your pool of points to add skills to your XCOM soldiers, and no longer are you locked into an either/or situation when improving your units. In the mid to late game, if you’re willing to deplete the pool you can choose that Blademaster skill you had to pass up previously in order to focus on a stealth build.
The downside is that points spent here means less for your other soldiers, and hero units. Elsewhere, the Resistance Ring unlocks covert ops that can earn some powerful rewards, but which take a couple of soldiers out of the action for a while – if they come back at all. Like much the "The Long War" content, it’s all about flexibility, choice, and variety.
On top of all of this are a bunch of new mission types, maps, and tiles to add some much welcome spice to the conflict. We have three new "standard" Advent enemies in the Priest, Purifier, and Spectre. They’re nice additions, but mostly they’re just a twist on already existing units. Another interesting addition are sit-reps. These are random mission modifiers that alter the circumstances of a single mission, and range from a limitation on squad numbers to additional skills for XCOM soldiers to the map being littered with explosives. Each adds a nice twist to proceedings without being an obvious distraction.
There is also a new stamina mechanic, which forces the player to vary up their squads. Not only can soldiers be killed and injured, but they also become tired if you keep sending them out in the field. Rest them up for a few days and they’ll be good to go. As a result, you may find yourself shorthanded if you’re not careful, but you’ll also have a far more balanced and powerful army due to the constant rotation of active units in battle. In short, there is a lot to love here, and love it I do.
However, I do have a gripe, and that’s how cluttered the world map has become, and all of the interruptions it causes when attempting to do anything. Between the new Chosen missions and the progression bars as they hunt for you (much like the Avatar Project threat progression), the faction missions, resistance missions, covert-ops, and the various new map markers for their respective bases, the over-world map is confusing, and you’ll be constantly notified of new threats you need to deal with, or a situation that needs resolving, when you just want to speed through a couple of days to get the next project completed, or rest up and heal your soldiers.
It can be infuriating, but does settle down in the late game, and is an unavoidable side effect when you jam this much content into an already filled to the brim bag of tricks. There is still so much I have not covered, but with a quoted 112 additions to the game, there is far too much to talk about in a single review. Rest assured, every XCOM fan will find something to love here. Likely a great many things, in fact, some of which you might not discover until you begin writing a review and discover a menu of game modifiers you missed the first two times.
I am happy to report that not only has Firaxis expanded the game, but it has fixed a lot of it too. Performance is massively improved; for the first time I am able to run the game at 4K while maintaining high framerates. Not only that, but much of the quirkiness is gone. The random pauses after some actions have been removed for the most part, and load times are much zippier. There is still the some of the XCOM jank we’ve come to accept, love, and meme with: units able to shoot through some scenery, the odd animation glitch, and some AI severely lacking in the “I” department. Thankfully these are far fewer, and much less distracting. War of the Chosen is the most solid release from a technical standpoint the series has seen to date.
If you’ve been paying attention to the pre-release hype, you may have noticed that I have yet to mention one of the most publicised aspects of the expansion: The Lost. Truth be told, I don’t want to talk about them, they’re easily the worst part of the game. A Zerg-like swarm that offers up a meagre challenge purely because they’re so numerous. They may be neutral, so when they turn up they are just as likely to attack Advent as you, but they’re a needless distraction that is overused.
The first time you meet these zombie-like monsters they are horrific, and the realization of what they are is disturbing. This is quickly replaced by annoyance, as they become little more than filler. They are weak, with even the strongest of the three variants being a single shotgun blast away from oblivion. The biggest issue is how they work mechanically.
Killing one with any ranged weapon gives you another action, so you’re able to chain together a high number of kills in quick succession. They have low defenses, so hitting them is also very straightforward. They’re not difficult or threatening enough to be interesting, and frankly they feel like pointless grind after the third encounter or so. Making them stronger and less frequent could have made them far more interesting, but in the end The Lost are just another victim of 21st century zombie over-saturation.
Still, there is a lot of content here, and for the most part it’s great. However, the sheer volume can be overwhelming, and turns the strategic layer into a disjointed series of timers and constant interruptions. Thankfully, the tactical combat layer feels deeper and more free-form. Coupled with the expanded upgrade paths and team relationship dynamics, improving your squad has never been more rewarding, and losing a squad member never more keyboard or heart-breaking.