The War of the Chosen expansion makes XCOM 2 a much better game, and there are so many reasons why, and so much that could be talked about. So instead, I’ll tell a little story about why it’s so bloody lovely.
Before I do that, I’m going to get the criticisms out of the way, as all of them are related to technical issues that seem to have snuck in with War of the Chosen, but somehow, the sheer strength of War of the Chosen’s additions make them somewhat tolerable. For starters, there’s stuttering framerate, which seems to have gotten a touch worse with the introduction of this expansion. Then there’s some audio bugs, causing voices to needlessly overlap. Then you have occasional cut scene repetition and minor text bugs. These should be fixable, and given that previous issues, such as load times, got sorted in time, there’s every chance these could be rectified, but given that the release was delayed, I’d expected it to run a lot better. Okay, now onto the good stuff.
If you had to pinpoint the reasons as to why XCOM can be thrilling, brutal, captivating, upsetting, and panic-inducing in the space of just three turns of a mission, then XCOM 2’s meaty expansion, War of the Chosen, provided me with just the sort of snapshot you’re looking for.
Having sent my squad into a fairly routine mission to mess up communications for alien overlords Advent, apart from taking the odd bit of minimal damage, things were going swimmingly, with the target in sight and the patrolling troops mostly dispatched with plenty of time to spare. Then, with the last move of my turn, I moved just one tile too far, leaving a soldier exposed to a previously unseen duo of a shapeshifting Spectre and a mechanised unit. Triggered by my poorly thought out entrance, the duo scattered to take a tactical advantage. I’d need a miracle, what I got was a chaotic massacre that dovetailed with some quick, risky tactical thinking.
Not only did those two enemy troops have the drop on me, but the Warlock decided to join the party, out to prove a point after my team had soundly beaten him the last time we’d met.
The Warlock is one of the titular three Chosen, nine-foot-tall purple elite aliens imbued with the power of the Elders whose only purpose is to stalk, goad, and sabotage XCOM at every turn both in mission and on the world map in an effort to reclaim XCOM’s Commander (you). Fighting these conduits of the alien Elders is one of the key new features found in War of the Chosen, and outside Shadow of Mordor, it implements the first high profile use of that game’s highly lauded Nemesis system to really drive home what formidable meddling dickheads the Chosen are. The Chosen almost act like an opposing player, going in their own ops, doing their own research, and building up their skills and strengths as they strive to achieve their goal of defeating XCOM and recapturing you so they can rule Earth.
Back to the mission, and it’s now the turn of the enemy. I’m expecting some heavy damage to be coming my way, and sure enough it comes. First, the previously mentioned Spectre knocks out the stranded soldier that triggered this debacle. The Spectre is one of the new ‘standard’ enemy types, and their trick is scanning your downed soldier and creating a psionic replica with all the same skills. They also happen to be able to shift from a solid form to a gaseous cloud when on the move, making them tough to hit with an Overwatch shot. Three enemies become four, my squad is down to five instead of six.
The mech unit goes next and chucks a grenade at two of my soldiers whom I’ve stuck close together because they’ve bonded over several missions. Yes, soldiers can now bond and build friendships, boosted further by the introduction of a training room you can build on the Avenger; it means bonuses for sticking them close together in combat, even allowing one to sacrifice an action for the other. Anything that breaks these bonds can have a devastating emotional impact on the one left behind, one of many psychological traumas you can now unwillingly inflict on your poor soldiers. I got to find this out first hand here as the grenade, combined with the nearby propane tank I’d given no thought two minutes ago, tore that friendship apart as Lt. Massoudi was deemed unfit to exist on this Earth via double explosion damage. His partner, Captain Bagdasarov, went into a focused rage and fired back at the mech, but the minimal damage dealt was cheap vengeance.
The odds were technically even at this point, but that grenade changed the game. There was a sitrep in play (mission modifiers that add fresh, dangerous variety to the procedural maps), and that sitrep had added the threat of another prominent new enemy type, The Lost. A zombie-like horde that are easy to pick off individually (Killing one allows a free shot to kill another until you miss or run out of things to kill), but they come in huge numbers, drawn by loud noise and gunfire. They also, handily, aren’t picky about who they attack. The grenade attracted a swarm of the dry-skinned feckers, adding me another slice of delicious dark comedy. How could things get so bad in the space of one turn? Surely it wasn’t going to get worse?
Enter the Warlock, and it’s his turn. After spouting yet another derogatory judgement of my ability to lead (I really, really wanted to blow the purple shite to smithereens at this point), he teleports in yet another soldier, a Purifier, who proceeded to move into range of my remaining four soldiers. Purifiers carry flamethrowers, usually to deal with Lost swarms without making too much noise. They also tend to be a bit…explosive if you shoot them just the right/wrong way, dealing damage to anything in the grimly generous area. I have an idea, a potentially dangerous one, but the stupid, smarmy purple bastard may have just given me an out. If I can use one of the aces up my suede-patched sleeves.
My remaining soldiers are two of XCOM’s finest, and are joined by a representative of two of the new factions, the Skirmishers and the Reapers. Together with the Templars (humans who’ve embraced Psionic powers to a impressive new degree), the trio of factions each have a style, a methodology, and a Chosen that they have a personal grudge with. Helping them out builds trust, and the rewards are specialist soldiers and lovely bonuses to research, weaponry and more.
My Skirmisher, Mox, is a former Advent soldier and is a human/alien hybrid. He and his faction have a loathing for their creators, and Mox is a shining example of how the aggression and lust for vengeance have been used to create one badass unit. He’s got a grappling hook that can draw in enemies to deal a devastating blow with his arm-mounted blades, but we won’t be using that here, that would be suicide on a Purifier. It’s Outlander, our Reaper, who holds the key to this scuffle because she’s still hidden thanks to the stealth skills that allow her to have a chance to remain concealed after each shot. She is tucked away, just out of the way of her three remaining companions, and I used her remote Claymore to chuck between the Purifier, the Lost, and the Warlock (who incidentally, is susceptible to explosive attacks). I move the remaining squadmates out of range, and one of my XCOM units gets to use a free pistol shot to set off that claymore.
The explosion is an air punch moment as it chains with the tank on the Purifier detonating to obliterate multiple Lost, and heavily damages the Warlock. Of course, now I have just made a hell of a lot of noise, and while the Warlock is hurt, the Lost thinned out, and the Purifier toasted, I haven’t killed the Warlock, the Mech unit is still active, and the explosions have woken up a whole new horde of Lost. The air punch was as fleeting a victory as XCOM offers, and as the odds continue to piddle upon me from a great height, I accept the cursed stream happily because times like this, fighting against the impossible odds and just about winging it based on panicked intuition is when you realise that War of the Chosen makes an already great game into a bloody fantastic one. And now, with the Photobooth mode, every little victory out in the field can be captured in a commemorative picture. Because nothing helps you immortalise the time you rescued your botched mission quite like getting the traumatised survivors to strike a pose for the cause.