How 'XCOM 2: War of the Chosen' will breathe new life into one of 2016's best strategy games

XCOM 2 was one of our favorite games of 2016. Inverting the power fantasy of its beloved predecessor, you went from a globally-funded super squad to scrappy underdogs, building up resistance against an oppressive alien government. Several minor expansions have since added more content, but nothing on the scale of the beefy expansions that developer Firaxis is known forGames like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Civilization V were great at launch, but became truly stunning after major expansions. At long last XCOM 2 will get the same treatment when the game’s next expansion, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, launches August 29. We spoke to lead designer Jake Solomon at E3 2017 to learn more about how the game is going to change.

“The first goal was to make a really, really big expansion” Solomon told Digital Trends. “A lot of new enemies, a lot of new toys for the player. Lots of new mission types, lots of new environments, lots of new strategy systems for the player to interact with.” The breadth of content in War of the Chosen was nearly enough to simply become XCOM 3, as numerous outlets have reported. Firaxis is all about iterative design, however, and a self-proclaimed systems nerd like Solomon couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take another pass at the already-elaborate machinery of XCOM 2War of the Chosen promises to enrich the game on every level, with the overall goal of feeling more alive.

Friends and foes

That sense of life comes primarily from the addition of more characters in the game with whom the player will interact. First and most pressing among these are the eponymous Chosen, a trio of Advent generals who will attack you throughout the campaign. Your encounters with the stealthy Assassin, the long-range Hunter, and the psionic-wielding Warlock will color each particular playthrough, just like your relationships with the orc captains of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system.

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“[The Chosen] are kind of the ultimate enemies of XCOM. They have very distinct personalities that you’ll get to know as you fight them multiple times over the course of the game. Every time you do they’re going to be stronger, gaining procedural strengths and fighting differently. And then their personalities come into play because they’ll be talking to you–about things they’ve done, about things you’ve done, about the last time you met them, about the other chosen. On the strategy layer they’ll be talking about different things going on in the game. So they’re real personalities that you get to know.”

“There are three other factions and you need to work with them and bring them into the fold.”

The Chosen aren’t the only new entities you can expect to hear from, however. “On Earth you’re not the only resistance movement — there are three other factions and you need to work with them and bring them into the fold. When you do you’ll have new ways of countering the Chosen as well as three of the most powerful character classes that we’ve ever made.”

Each of the three factions corresponds to one of the Chosen (randomized every game), such that taking actions against that Chosen will earn the faction’s trust, eventually unlocking a special unit. “There’s the Reaper, which is a stealth marksman and saboteur, so they can attack from concealment and still remain concealed. Then there’s the Skirmisher, which are defectors from the alien army. They’re really different and take a lot of actions in a single turn. And finally the Templars are melee-only psionic warriors wielding dual energy blades,” reminiscent of Protoss zealots from StarCraft. “They build up power with every attack, which they can either save since it lets them do more damage and move further as it collects, or they can spend it all on these crazy-powerful abilities like calling down lightning storms or creating a clone of themselves.”

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Solomon confirmed that any similarity to original X-COM designer Julian Gollup’s upcoming Phoenix Point, which also features multiple resistance factions against an incurring alien menace, stems from a shared inspiration — Gollup’s earlier work in X-COM: Apocalypse. He mentioned a friendly lunch the two had recently had, during which they talked shop about their respective projects, highlighting the differences: “He’s definitely more of a simulation designer, and I’m more of a gameplay rules designer.We’re going about it two different ways, but we’re both inspired by the same thing, his earlier work.”

Three Chosen and three resistance factions means you’ll have six new voices reaching out to you, rather than just one assigning you missions like before. “Adding all these other characters with competing priorities makes the world feel more alive. It makes the game feel warmer.” There will also be more incidental chatter sprinkled throughout the game as well: “On the flight back from the mission the Advent government will try to spin the mission you just went on for them, and then if you go to the bar when you get back to base we have Jake Busey as our Resistance Radio DJ, and you’ll hear his spin playing on the radio.”

Squad goals

This increased emphasis on character and relationships applies on the tactical level as well with the new bonds system. “Soldiers can form relationships when they go into combat. If they’re compatible, the more missions they go on together, the more their bond grows.” At first, bonded soldiers can transfer their movies to each other for a turn, giving one character a double move at the cost of another’s.  As their bond develops, they will earn more potent benefits, such as removing mental status effects via proximity or taking simultaneous attacks without spending actions. Solomon confirmed that the system was, in part, inspired by the relationship mechanics of the Fire Emblem series. “In our heads we always think that these soldiers have relationships anyway, and this just puts it into a system now”

“If [soldiers] are compatible, the more missions they go on together, the more their bond grows.”

Like the radio broadcasts, there are also new, purely flavorful ways in which the game reflects back your particular exploits. “There’s a photo booth, which is one of my favorite features,” Solomon explained, “where after you beat a mission the game poses all your soldiers for a squad selfie. It puts them in random poses, but there’s a bunch of poses that you can choose from. It comes up with random text to put up there like ‘These are the heroes of Earth’ or whatever.” After applying filters and framing the shot just so you like it, you can save the image, which will star to show up in game as a resistance recruitment poster. It calls back to the base game feature of your soldiers’ mugs appearing on wanted posters, but taken to a new level.

With these new additions, Firaxis hopes to infuse the game with more character and narrative color than it’s ever had before. XCOM 2 pits you against a seemingly unending tide of faceless Advent forces. Adding the Chosen and the new resistance factions will make the world feel much more crowded, changing the game substantially. Giving the soldiers formal relationships and allowing for further customization leans into one of the series’ greatest strengths, the connection that you form with your soldiers and loss you feel when they’re killed in combat.

And the kitchen sink

There are a host of other features that we barely had time to cover as well. Ten or so new mission types will add more variety to gameplay, with new scenarios like two soldiers starting surrounded and needing to escape. There is also a new zombie-like enemy, the Lost,  which will be attracted to the sound of combat. No friend to Advent either, the Lost will descend on both forces, opening up battles into three-way melees. “It creates a really fun chaos that doesn’t feel like a standard XCOM mission,” Solomon said. Competitively minded players will also be interested in a new Challenge Mode, which adds time trial scenarios for players to race through: “It’s a global mission that we give to all players and they’ve got one shot, thirty minutes and we compare their score against a global leaderboard”

We’re excited to dive back into the resistance and see how different the game feels when XCOM 2: War of the Chosen arrives on August 29, 2017 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.