Few video game franchises can illicit such strong and disparate emotions as XCOM. You might start an hour-long session feeling incredible with the noticeable progress seen in your soldiers, then quickly switch into a swearing fit as you miss a critical 90% shot, and then finally let out a massive sigh of relief as you head back to base with all of your soldiers still breathing. After returning to the command center, you now need to focus your thought process on the macro war against the alien occupancy group known as Advent, making decisions about research priorities and assigning tasks to your various engineers and scientists to ensure you stay one step ahead of your foes. It’s an incredibly stressful experience that many older gamers came to love with the original games (originally known as X-COM, in case you needed more confusion when it comes to your Wikipedia reading) and garnered an incredible new following with Enemy Unknown’s release back in 2012. 2016’s XCOM 2 was, well, a bit of a let-down, for me at least. The fundamentals were still there, of course, but it felt like an incremental improvement over the previous installment, and the host of bugs and performance problems made it a chore to play. Eventually, Firaxis was able to fix most of the major issues with XCOM 2, and I recently played the vanilla campaign with just a few mods to help make the experience a bit less tedious and more tactical (more on that in a bit). But Firaxis is known for making incredibly intricate expansions that end up overhauling the core experience of their games, as evidenced with Enemy Unknown’s expansion Enemy Within, and now War of the Chosen has arrived and, in my opinion, elevated XCOM 2 to the proper sequel that the venerated franchise deserved almost two years ago.
It’s important to mention that WotC doesn’t change the campaign structure of XCOM 2. You’re still out to thwart the Avatar Project, an Advent plan to gain complete dominance over Earth and eliminate your resistance fighters from existence. As the commander, you still have to research the alien menace, assault key facilities to further develop your tech, and engage in numerous guerrilla actions to bolster your ranks and harvest resources. What makes WotC so interesting is how much it adds to the base game in order to make it feel like an entirely new experience. Truth be told, I think veteran commanders will find the most enjoyment out of the expansion because the various spanners thrown into their works will help to keep things fresh and exciting. Newcomers, however, now have to deal with an incredibly complicated game of macro- and micromanagement and deal with the new threats and challenges Firaxis cooked up in their sadistic labs. I highly recommend playing the vanilla version of XCOM 2 before facing the new threat. Go on, I’ll wait…
Okay, ready for the new stuff, Commander? Let’s start with probably my favorite addition: the insane number of mission types. XCOM 2 felt very constrictive at launch, as nearly every mission had a timer to keep you moving forward and prevent you from turtling in order to overcome the occasionally dim AI. These timers were downright brutal at times, and it often made for an uncomfortable play experience that many modders fought back against with numerous “Remove Timers” mods on Steam. I eventually came to enjoy these restrictions and play conditions (mostly because, in my mind, they were eventually balanced a bit better with additional patches), but it could get annoying to play four or five time-based missions in a row. Thankfully, WotC has added so many new mission types that XCOM 2 now feels like the polar opposite of repetitive. You’ll gun down an Advent officer one minute, hack a guarded terminal on your next sortie, rescue your own cornered soldiers on a covert op, save civilians from an Advent attack (and be careful, because some nasty Faceless aliens might be hiding in plain sight) or perhaps lead a key VIP to safety. It’s a testament to Firaxis’ design sensibilities that I’ve yet to feel a sense of repetition despite my nearly 65 hours with XCOM 2. I still get excited on every mission, and there have been times where I needed to take a quick walk away from my computer after a particularly harrowing mission. Nothing feels routine in XCOM 2, and that’s a good thing.
XCOM 2 featured a lot of variety when it came to the various alien threats attacking your soldiers, but for my money the biggest threats were often the Advent, who would focus on disabling or hindering your party so the various grunts got a chance to shoot you dead. War of the Chosen doubles down on this tactic with lots of new foes who do more than just shoot bullets and lasers to bring you down. The Priest attempts to disable your soldiers with a powerful stasis field, while the Spectre attempts to hijack one of your own and create a shadow version with all of the same powers and abilities (not good if you have a particularly strong grenadier with lots of heavy ordinance). These additions help to play up the strategy and sense of drama on the battlefield. You’re not just worried about how to kill the enemy but also how to mitigate the debilitating effects on your party.
Oh, and I can’t forget about The Lost, who seem like an uninspired addition until you finally encounter them. Yes, they are just zombies, and zombies are all the rage and horribly played out at this point, but they are A LOT of zombies that can quickly swarm your party and bring you down if you’re not careful. You can attack multiple Lost provided you take them down in one shot, so standing your ground is an option. But what makes The Lost amazing is the fact they attack both you and Advent, so they end up being a kind of moving cover that you can use to your advantage. Too many advent blocking your path? Just throw a grenade and The Lost will come running to “help” the situation.
Thankfully, you’ve got some new friends to bring to the dance. XCOM can align itself with three factions for various covert actions, and this brings with it three new “hero” classes, each with a host of new abilities and tactics. The Reaper is an amazing stealth unit capable of marking targets through the dreaded fog of war, blowing up cars and various other environmental hazards, and staying in concealment even after they’ve attacked. Templars, who I haven’t had a chance to play around with a whole lot, get some massive crowd control attacks, but they have to build up a psychic charge before they’re able to unleash their true potential. Skirmishers are probably my favorite, however. Sure, they’re straightforward attackers, but they get some melee prowess and the ability to shoot twice in a turn if you level them up correctly. Oh, and they get a hookshot to move around faster than anyone else. What’s great is these hero units aren’t necessarily stronger than your base soldiers (in fact, they usually do less damage with their basic attacks), but they open up new opportunities and help to keep things fresh.
The Chosen, however, seem to be Firaxis’ pride and joy, and it’s hard to argue with their execution. Three elite aliens are out to bring XCOM down, each with a unique power set and strategy. The Assassin focuses on melee strikes, the Warlock uses lots of psychic attacks, and the Hunter tries to keep you pinned down with sniper fire. But The Chosen are out for the long game, and have little interest in just killing your friends. They attempt to interrogate disoriented soldiers in order to gain knowledge about XCOM, which allows them to attack your base directly and possibly end your campaign. In order to kill these guys for good you’ll have to engage in specific covert actions to uncover their lair. Unfortunately for you, The Chosen also learn from their battles, and outfit themselves with new tactics and countermeasures not unlike the various orc commanders from Shadow of Mordor. It was quite the shock to have the Warlock show up with immunity to explosives, given my natural tendency to blow things up and worry about the consequences later. It’s a bit of a bummer that The Chosen act like little more than Saturday morning cartoon villains (they might as well be part of Cobra Commander’s cadre), as the aliens work better as an existential threat rather than moustache-twirling antagonists. You can tell Firaxis wants them to be the Joker to your Batman, but it’s more like Snidely Whiplash tying Nell to the train tracks again. Still, their banter is fun, and you’ve got a huge number of cast members from Star Trek: The Next Generation voicing the various resistance factions. Making XCOM a bit more colorful is probably the right direction, and going down a GI Joe or Evangelion route could be pretty cool in the future. “Get in the robot, Commander.”
Mods were a critical part of the XCOM experience; so much so that Firaxis focused on the PC version for the initial release and gave the creation tools to the community right away. However, this was pretty much necessary as XCOM 2 was missing some critically important gameplay tools that often made it more frustrating than rewarding. The developers, thankfully, listened to the community and made a few key additions that help make this the definitive version of XCOM. Target preview is an absolute godsend, as you can now see who you can target before you make a move, which helps to reduce the problems that can occasionally arise from line of sight and the procedurally-generated environment. Your soldiers can now develop bonds with their squad mates, allowing for some useful teamwork on the battlefield (and, of course, devastating ramifications should one of them die on the mission). Much like Darkest Dungeon, your soldiers will get tired after repeated missions and could end up developing phobias on the battlefield. Your soldiers feel more like real people than ever, which makes it especially hard when one of them dies on the battlefield. To be fair, Major Jacqueline went out in a blaze of glory during my assault on the Assassin’s stronghold, but I miss her dearly (and I still haven’t told my wife I got her killed).
War of the Chosen brings a wealth of performance enhancements. Load times have been significantly reduced, and the number of odd hitches and stutters during gameplay has also seen a dramatic drop off. Unfortunately, I still ran into a number of glitches and hiccups that will keep me from ever braving XCOM’s one save ironman mode. An Advent mech teleported through the world at one point, my Skirmisher couldn’t see past his own face after moving to a higher vantage point, and a few blast attacks that are supposed to have some kind of visual indicator were completely absent and left me wondering what exactly was happening. XCOM 2 is a rough game at times, and it’s my hope Firaxis can work on some of these issues going forward.
There are also some old problems from vanilla XCOM 2 that have yet to be addressed. The way the game conveys information is occasionally lousy. I was caught off guard when a giant Advent robot reactivated from a stunned state even though the game indicated I had two turns to deal with it, and those damn things hit super hard and seem to take three attack turns whenever it suits them. Concealment is an awesome feature that allows you to get the drop on your foes, but it will sometimes let you down and not give proper feedback as to what action will reveal your soldiers (particularly when making a double move). Running into a fresh group of adversaries after moving one square too far on your last turn is an agonizing experience, particularly in the early game when your soldiers are squishy as hell. The last real problem is the game’s third act, which, despite the introduction of various new enemies and threats, remains woefully boring compared to the early hours when you’re scraping together whatever you can to survive. XCOM 2 just runs out of interesting things to throw at you, and instead opts to run waves of enemies with tons of health at your soldiers in a war of attrition. The Chosen can show up on the final mission if you fail to deal with them, but XCOM 2’s finale remains the weakest part of an otherwise stellar game.
With tons of difficulty options and a wonderful mod community, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen is the perfect game for just about any ambitious armchair general. You can tough it out in a super calculated ironman campaign on legendary or, should you choose, tone down the difficulty a bit and save scum as you learn the ebb and flow of war. XCOM 2 may have gotten off to a rough start back in 2016, but between Firaxis’ dedication and this amazing expansion we now have one of the best strategy RPGs around.