X-Com 2: War of the Chosen review-in-progress

After 2K and Firaxis shipped the Shen’s Last Gift expansion in June of 2016, I thought we were done with XCOM 2. At E3 2017 I was shocked to see a new expansion, but even more blown away by the sheer volume of what the team had in store for War of the Chosen. I’ve spent a great deal of time with the game, but shockingly I’m going to need a full run of the game to fully understand all of the mechanical changes and improvements are on deck here. At this point, there are so many improvements that I’m even hesitant to call War of the Chosen an expansion.

War of the Chosen, like all of the previous DLC, is sewn directly into the base game. This means that it can be consumed in the middle of a campaign already in motion. That said, War of the Chosen feels best when it’s just a part of the cacophony of additions already introduced with the existing expansion packs.

After a slightly changed intro which shows off the lethal efficiency of the new Reaper faction, you are dropped into XCOM 2 as you’ve known it thus far. That said, it doesn’t stay that way for long.

The videos leading up to the release of XCOM 2: War of the Chosen focused hard on the three members of the Chosen, as well as the three new hero factions you’ll be able to recruit through the course of the game. The Reapers are a heavy stealth sniper class, able to unleash long range damage without breaking stealth. Templars are powerful psionic wielders capable of building Focus via kills with their Psi Blades, boosting their other powers in the process. In a pinch, they also carry a machine pistol for wetwork. Skirmishers are the real surprise of the trio, as they are ex-Advent foot soldiers. Unleashing the KAL-7 Bullpup rifle as their primary, and a wrist-mounted skulljack-type weapon called the Ripjack as their off-hand, they gain additional actions as they attack, making short work of a whole host of foes without breaking a sweat.

On the other side of the fence are Hunters, Warlocks, and Assassins. Hunters are the long range sniper of the Advent heroes, able to kill at a very long distance. Warlocks have powerful psionics, but can also summon additional warriors to the field during battle. Assassins are the most aggravating as they move lightning quick in stealth, disorient with their melee strikes, and are able to kidnap soldiers for interrogation. These are definitely not the Rulers of the Alien Hunters expansion, but we’ll get into that a bit more later.

Beyond heroes on both sides, there are a few new foes beyond those super soldiers to keep an eye for, and many of them require a pivot in tactics. Priests can bolster psionic powers for the enemy, using many of the powers you’d develop in the endgame against you. Nothing is as frustrating as having one of your best soldiers frozen in place by Stasis. Purifiers wield flamethrowers with an extensive range, capable of burning cover, blowing up vehicles, and setting your troops on fire. Finally, the Spectre is able to close distance on your troops as a black cloud, strike them unconscious, and then create a clone of them, including their abilities and weapons. In reality, the three classes are a blend of the other more traditional classes, though all three have excellent UI improvements to mask that.
From a technical perspective, XCOM 2 has been polished to a high-quality sheen. Load times have been nearly eliminated, and the second pass at both UX and UI results in cramming a lot more data into the game without overwhelming the look and feel of the base game.

You’ll earn action points for your soldiers, which you can use to go back and nab complementary powers for your warriors. If you’ve ever wanted to be able to shred armor while you suppress, now it’s possible. Higher level skills require more successful missions, which has the effect of making any extra taken missions worthwhile.

Your soldiers now have an energy level. Taking the same crew into the field, day after day, will take its toll on them, resulting in a “tired” status, making them less effective in battle. It’s the sort of small addition that results in humanizing your soldiers, making them more than the sum of their skills and class.

If there’s one aspect that War of the Chosen really doubles down on to great improvement, it’s in the weakest area from the base product — storytelling. Now, completing a mission may yield a small chatbox in the screen corner where the Spokesman gives a prepared speech about how the “rebels” are disrupting the harmony that they would build if they could just do so uninterrupted. Similarly, there are a lot more in-engine cutscenes, some surprises, and thus a stronger connection with your soldiers. The bond system, coupled with an energy level gauge, means you may not always be running your A-team, so your attachment and growth of a B-team and even a C-team becomes paramount.

Covert Actions are a new metagame that lets the player sending out soldiers, scientists, and engineers improve relations, extract captured friendlies, and even recruit other heroes. It means balancing all of your resources, not just your soldiers. You can get supplies, increase income, or increase faction standing which will unlock new missions, and these are often the path needed to uncover important mission-driving plot points.

Dark Events were painful before, but imagine how much worse they are when you have three new factions wreaking havoc on your team. They can capture team members and interrogate them, carry overwhelming strengths, but also have a few weaknesses. They are also weaker against one of the three new factions more than the others. As an example, the Nightqueen is weak against Reapers, and takes additional damage from high ground attacks.

Missions often have multiple objectives, making them more dynamic than they were before. Sometimes they’re as simple as taking down power relays that the enemy can use to scramble reinforcements, and other times it can be holding an area while waves of foes swarm your position. Several new mission types are added to the mix as well, including supply raids and a revamped retaliation. Supply raids lets you sneak up on the enemy as they pack up equipment and supplies so you can ambush them and steal some of those crates for yourself. Retaliation had me literally cheering for the otherwise-oppressed civilians as they have now learned to pick up a rifle and defend themselves. These rescue missions become less a race to save cowering civilians, and now have you zipping around the map to help defenders hold down their position against an otherwise overwhelming foe.

One of the things I absolutely love about War of the Chosen is that the team at Firaxis has lit a massive fire underneath the player, forcing them to move without relying on the simple mission-level timers they have used in the past. That said, now there are four world-level timers to worry about – the Avatar project, as well as separate timers for each of the Chosen. What’s worse, those Chosen will continue to harass your team in new and interesting ways. They can capture your soldiers and interrogate them, leaving them mentally scarred when they return.When gravely wounded in the natural course of a mission, they may pick up additional negative traits like a phobia, making them suffer will penalties against Sectoids, as an example.

If timers were a point of frustration for you (and you didn’t fix that with mods), you can now adjust that in the options, easing some of the pressure burden of hustling to your target. Those timers are joined by new ways to use that mechanic, such as tracking enemy awareness level. While the pressure is still very much on, War of the Chosen leans on the static timer system far less than before.

Even though the maps are procedural, they also feel like they’ve been retouched by hand. The monolithic spires that used to represent Advent comm towers are replaced with something more consistent with the design of the Advent Gatekeeper orb bodies. Similarly, new bridges create level changes that can disrupt otherwise well known maps. Even the first tutorial mission puts the Elder pedestal statue target up a set of stairs that hides enemy positions until it’s too late. If those changes don’t put you on your toes, the new Sitrep system will.

At any point, the game will throw a monkey wrench into your plans, adding a random modifier called a Sitrep on top of whatever your mission objective might be. As an example, it may change the usual payload of creatures you’d normally face, place explosive barrels throughout the space, grant each soldier a one time use Conceal power, remove the fog of war for your team, and more. Pushing it further, XCOM continent bonuses also get similar tweaks such as additional supplies, intel, or random powers for a month. Unfortunately, the same thing applies to the Advent team who can inherit random powers like being immune to reaction shots, or picking up bonuses to their critical strikes.

In retrospect, having played through XCOM 2’s campaign a few more times since I wrote my review, I feel like there was one aspect of the Alien Hunters expansion that fell a little short that is immediately rectified by War of the Chosen. My team was more than powerful enough to run off the Rulers from Alien Hunters with little trouble, and once I had put them down they stayed down. In War of the Chosen, once you do manage to take one of the trio out, you’ll see them pop up again, fresh and furious from their regeneration chambers. They will continue to confound and harass your team until you do enough ground work to uncover them and destroy those chambers for good.

As if these new enemies weren’t enough, you’ll also be facing a neutral faction called The Lost. The Lost are mutated humans that have devolved into a feral zombie-like state. I say neutral as they are more than happy to attack your soldiers or the enemy in equal measure. The louder your attacks (blade attacks versus a very loud grenade launcher, as an example) the more you’ll attract Lost foot soldiers. Some will shamble towards you quickly, others will scrabble towards you on all fours, clawing at you in packs. This can be an advantage as you hang back and let the Advent deal with them, or can be an incredible disadvantage as you end up flanked by two foes. It’s a step up from the somewhat rote “sneak towards enemy, shoot them” formula that sets in after a few dozen hours of the game prior to this expansion.

I feel like I could go on for another few pages of improvements and still not cover everything new and exciting in War of the Chosen. We haven’t even talked about new vulnerabilities, negative traits on shaken soldiers, or the endgame implications of all of those changes. There’s even a new Challenge mode that lets you tackle community challenges on a leaderboard asking for my attention.

Stay tuned for our full review as we move towards the August 29th release date of XCOM 2: War of the Chosen on PC.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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