Review: XCOM 2: War of the Chosen05 Sep 2017 0
Review: XCOM 2: War of the Chosen
Released 29 Aug 2017
I’ll be honest: when War of the Chosen was announced, I wasn’t very excited. Although I deeply love XCOM, it felt like they were trying to cannibalise the second entry’s success instead of risking derailing the franchise with a third entry. Turns out they marketed the whole thing wrong.
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen is not yet another alternate universe storyline, but like Enemy Within did to its predecessor, it improves upon virtually every good facet of the base game. War of the Chosen takes the vanilla XCOM 2 experience, stretches it to the breaking point, and proceeds to fill in the gaps with exceptional new mechanics and toys.
The latest Firaxis' expansion shows its colours the moment the campaign starts, with a new cutscene both before and after Operation: Gatecrasher, XCOM 2’s (now obligatory) tutorial. That prologue plays mostly the same as in the base game, but after the first mission, War of the Chosen takes a turn right, and never looks back.
The main change comes in the form of new factions interwoven into the game’s narrative. Operation Gatecrasher -- formerly based on the intel of Resistance operatives -- is now acted upon information gleaned by an agent of the cloistered Reapers. They are one of three new resistance groups that rebel against ADVENT forces, and it’s up to you to unite them all under the XCOM banner and work together to eliminate the alien threat on Earth.
However, each of these factions has a counterpart in the form of the Chosen, a trio of Alien operatives whose sole purpose is to hunt down the Commander. Possessing unique traits that are procedurally generated on each playthrough, these enemies act like mini-bosses that have a chance of appearing whenever you undergo a mission in a territory they’re in. When beaten, they retreat from the battlefield, and will continue to plague your operations until you find out where they are hiding and take them out, once and for all.
Finding them, however, is a fight into and unto itself. You’ll need to run covert actions with the help of the aforementioned factions in order to accrue intel on the Chosen and locate their base of operations, and it often takes dozens of hours before you get the chance to storm their hidden stronghold. Those covert operations take place as staff assignments or two man ops that play mostly offscreen, but it the mission goes south, you are given control of the squad and must fight them out of their predicament.
When things really went south and a soldier got left behind during extraction in the base game, there was a chance they would be kidnapped, resulting in a rescue mission to bring back the imprisoned operative. War of the Chosen, however, takes it one step further, and the eponymous alien hunters go out of their way to kidnap and interrogate XCOM’s soldiers. Given the classified nature of the Resistance operations, the longer a soldier is imprisoned, the higher the chance of a Chosen finding out your location and launching an assault on the Avenger.
Regardless if the Chosen comes to XCOM or XCOM goes to the Chosen, you will need to take them out at some point, and that’s another way your new clandestine friends can be put to good use. The new factions feature extremely capable and powerful individuals, who have been fighting the alien regime for 20 years. As your relationship improves, the factions start to send those soldiers to aid the war effort, providing you with an invaluable weapon when confronting the Chosen. The faction operatives possess their own special class, giving you skills and abilities that differ from regular XCOM agents and further expand your tactical options.
The aliens also had their tactical arsenal expanded, with several units like the flamethrower-wielding Purifier or the psionically inclined Priest bolstering the ADVENT ranks. Those new units range from slight reskins to bonafide new archetypes, which offer an exciting variety in an already quite sizeable enemy roster. Making things better is the new photobooth mode, that allows you to take a squad pic after you finished the mission.
Of course, this plethora of new units would be pretty boring if you had to fight them on the same old randomly generated maps, but War of the Chosen successfully delivers on that point as well. New environments, like sewers, tunnels, and abandoned cities are added in the expansion, with the latter being especially interesting. Devastated by alien bioweapons during the original invasion, the old metropoles are now filled to the brim with the Lost: aggressive zombie-like creatures that are attracted to the sounds of battle.
In order to deal with their large numbers, the game features a new mechanic: killing a Lost with a primary weapon grants you a free action, effectively allowing a single soldier to keep shooting endlessly -- as long as they have ammo and kill a Lost with every shot. That helps you manage the situation, but not enough to feel safe against the Lost; they come in swarms, quickly overrunning humans and aliens alike, and provide a very different experience to the usual warfare found in XCOM 2.
These new additions do change the feel of the game, from military guerrilla to something more campy and dramatic. Gone are the quasi Tom Clancy-esque infiltrations of city centers to attain an objective, and in are incursions into long forgotten derelict cities and ornate alien wildlands. The expanded focus on narrative adds a more theatrical edge to the emergent gameplay of the franchise, which further dissociates the base game from the expansion.
One of the ways this narrative gives actuality to what once was imagined is via the new bonds system, a feature that allows two soldiers that work cohesively as a duo to form a squadmate bond. The nature of this bond is purposefully left vague -- friends, brothers, lovers -- but the rewards are real enough: bonded operatives get special abilities and bonuses, from aim boosts to extra actions and more, adding another layer to this already drastically complex tactical simulation.
And speaking of complex, the strategy layer also gets a revamp. Covert ops and factions relations are coordinated via the Geoscape, as is the newest monthly Resistance Orders. Featuring XCOM and faction “cards” that provides boons like reduced debris clearing time or cheaper recruitment of rookies in specific regions, this new feature allows players to prioritize their personal strategy every month.
There is also a SITREP system that dynamically adds new modifiers to specific missions, such as larger enemy numbers or extra concealment charges to XCOM operatives. These alterants serve as another layer of procedural generation to customise your experience, and the new mission parameters mostly succeed in changing the pace. They do not appear in every sortie, but are visible in the Geoscape beforehand when affecting an operation.
Besides the SITREP system, War of the Chosen also brings new operations to the mix. Taking out ADVENT generals, destroying uplink nodes, and rescuing Resistance agents are just a few of half a dozen new mission types, all either completely new or upgrades of older versions. Terror events were also revamped, now featuring proper resistance fighters and doing away with individual civilians that must be evacuated. The focus of those ADVENT retaliation missions now rely on taking out the attackers before they wipe out the camp, and you must clear little pockets of activity as you sweep the area engaging every enemy in sight. The AI resistance fighters actually help you, by shooting aliens with unerring accuracy (but causing very little damage), which helps mitigate the increased number of enemies in these operations.
That perfect accuracy works for both sides, however, and it is one of the flaws in War of the Chosen. It represents the biggest problem with the expansion: for all the new things it introduced, XCOM 2’s most egregious flaws haven’t been touched. NPC interaction consists of zero missed shots, with ADVENT troops one shooting civilians from across the map with 100% accuracy. Enemies are all-knowing, capable of seeing around corners and detecting you in situations where you clearly should have the upper hand. Stealth is still actively discouraged, as inactive patrols magically home into your position if your squad spends too many turns concealed. Those design decisions are made with the intent to up the stakes and keep the player emotionally engaged, but end up backfiring and only serve to make the game feel artificial and unfair.
In the end, however, War of the Chosen is just as good -- if not better -- than XCOM 2. It takes everything that was good about the base game and improves it, adding a ton of new features and overall making a brilliant game even more complex. This expansion, like Enemy Within before it, managed to take an already outstanding experience into something truly exceptional. Very few franchises manage to so competently unite amazingly polished gameplay, brilliant strategy, and a wonderfully constructed universe -- let alone do it twice -- but XCOM did it.