If anybody knows how to make a proper video game expansion, its Firaxis. Civilization V and XCOM: Enemy Unknown were both solid games at launch, but it was only with the addition of packs like Gods & Kings, Brave New World, and Enemy Within did they become modern masterpieces. When we spoke to XCOM 2 lead designer Jake Solomon at E3 about its upcoming expansion, he gave us the impression that War of the Chosen would indeed be that full, Firaxis-style “add-in” we’ve been craving. With the time finally here for our XCOM 2: War of the Chosen review, we are happy to report that it more than delivers on that promise.
Without changing the basic shape of the game, War of the Chosen adds variety with new allies, enemies, and missions, as well as even more ways to give your soldiers personality and memorable stories. War of the Chosen makes an already-great game really sing by achieving a critical mass of variety in XCOM 2‘s sandbox.
Heroes and villains
The largest, sweeping additions to the base game are the eponymous Chosen; three unique, elite Advent units that show up and harrass you on your missions as you attempt to bring down the Avatar project. In principle, they’re similar to the elite enemies from XCOM 2’s Alien Hunters DLC — ultra-powerful units that can jump in and complicate your life during any mission.
The Chosen are a richer execution of the same concept. Where the rulers of Alien Hunters could feel frustratingly powerful, taking actions in response to every move your soldiers make, the Chosen are tough, but fair. When crashing a mission, the Assassin, Hunter, or Warlock, take a moment to announce their presence, mock you, then make a single powerful move. They do everything from summoning reinforcements and taking area-of-effect shots, to knocking out or even kidnapping your soldiers (though that may lead to you mounting a rescue operation later).
Taking a cue from Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system, each of the Chosen has randomized strengths and weaknesses that inform how to best take them down. The stealthy assassin in our game could avoid overwatch shots, and was immune to melee damage, but was susceptible to explosions, ensuring that we brought an extra grenadier whenever we expected the Assassin to be there. Your nemeses acquire more strengths as time goes on, forcing you to adapt your tactics. Their harassment extends to the strategic layer as well, messing with you by clamping down on regions in retaliation, reducing their income, or stealing unused upgrades from the Avenger.
If anybody knows how to make a proper video game expansion, its Firaxis.
Just as Mordor‘s nemeses gave a fantastic amount of narrative color to an otherwise endless orgy of orc murder, so to do the Chosen bring a lot of life and specificity to your struggle against Advent. When they jump into your missions it always creates an exciting tension for how you will deal with them on top of whatever other objectives you’re already pursuing. Moreover, populating the strategic layer with more agents that can mess with you adds a charming level of personality to a part of the game that previously felt more sterile than the tactical level.
You’re not alone in facing the Chosen, however. The expansion also introduces three independent resistance factions, which can lend you powerful new soldier classes that correspond to the weaknesses for the three respective Chosen.
The reapers surpass rangers as XCOM’s best infiltrators: They’re faster, stealthier, and packing a sniper rifle that can be used even after taking an action.
The templars, brutal melee fighters, also steal the rangers’ thunder. They build up psychic energy with attacks that can be saved for static buffs or unleashed in special moves.
Lastly, the skirmishers are ex-Advent soldiers that make excellent flankers, with a grapple to zip around the map as a free action and a bullpup rifle that can fire multiple times per turn. All three resistance classes start off much more powerful than your standard units, and only get better with experience
Sharp-eared players might notice that the new characters include several actors from Star Trek: The Next Generation, such as Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker) as the leader of the Reapers, or Marina Sirtis (Counselor Troi) and Michael Dorn (Worf) as the Reaper and Skirmisher characters, respectively. It’s fun to recognize them, though at times they feel a bit under-utilized giving awkward gameplay barks like calling for more ammo.
In addition to giving you some extra muscle, the resistance factions also add a new activity for the strategic layer, Covert Actions. Soldiers can be sent on away missions for various goals such as training exercises or stealing alien loot. Soldiers risk capture, injury, or ambush (where you have to play out their escape), but sometimes the risks can be mitigated by spending supplies, intel, or extra soldiers.
Most crucially, each faction can conduct a series of three covert actions to track down the stronghold of their respective rival Chosen. Completing these unlocks a particularly challenging assault on their home base. Succeed and you will have removed a major threat and be rewarded with extremely powerful, unique weapons.
Baby, you got a stew going
The strategic arc of XCOM 2 is entirely defined by the abstract counter for the Avatar Project, which ticks up until you lose or assault facilities to hold it back for longer until you can complete the final mission. While the general outline remains the same, adding the Chosen and the resistance factions fills out the game with mid-term goals and many more moment-to-moment choices.
More than any one feature, War of the Chosen’s greatest addition is the sheer amount of variety it adds to the base game. On top of the Chosen and resistance factions and the covert missions, there’s also a new system of soldier bonds a la Fire Emblem or personality traits like in Darkest Dungeon.
The Lost, a new zombie threat, shows up by the horde during missions and attacks both you and advent. Killing Lost with a headshot grants a free action if you succeed, changing the tempo and adding a new risk-reward dynamic to fights where they show up. There are also just a wide variety of new mission types thrown into the mix to keep you on your toes.
Firaxis’ series reboot, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, was a fantastic modernization of a strategy classic, but it offered a relatively narrow scope of play, with particular optimal techniques emerging on both the tactical and strategic layers such that any one game looked mostly like any other. Enemy Within broke that up with the addition of Meld canisters to force more aggressive action within battles, and XCOM 2 took it even further by inverting the power fantasy to make you a scrappy, adaptable underdog.
War of the Chosen fulfills the base game’s promise by adding more variety and unpredictability to your play, undermining optimal strategies to encourage more playful experimentation.
Its additions touch all of the game’s many-layered systems, making their contribution to the whole experience more than the sum of its individual parts.
Adding a cherry to this cake is a new Challenge mode that serves up daily challenges to complete tough missions within a 30-minute time limit and then compare your score to global and friend leaderboards. Like multiplayer, these special missions feature units from both Advent and XCOM, letting you play with characters you would not be able to in the base game. It’s a fun way to enjoy the game’s fantastic, tactical playground without worrying about a mission’s implications for the strategic long run.
XCOM 2 was one of our favorite strategy games when it launched in early 2016, but we haven’t played much since our first few games. War of the Chosen has thoroughly sunk its hooks into us, and we anticipate many late nights for months to come as we master its new challenges. Firaxis has smartly revised its own ideas and integrated mechanics from other games to strike a perfect balance between familiar and fresh. The ideas it adopted from Shadow of Mordor and Darkest Dungeon were actually two of the mechanics we hoped other developers would rip off this year.
Veterans will be drawn back by the wealth of new toys at their disposal, but there’s never been a better time for new players to get onboard as well. The content from War of the Chosen integrates seamlessly whether it’s your first time or your hundredth, making it a strictly better and more interesting game. Good luck, commanders.