Review: XCOM 2's War of the Chosen expansion adds layers of new challenge, personality, and narrative
XCOM 2 originally released in early 2016, and in the year and a half since then it has seen several additional content releases that have taken it from a strong game to an all-time-great one. The latest expansion, War of the Chosen, overhauls much of the early and mid-game experience through the addition of new enemies and new soldier traits, and builds on the success of previous expansions to create something truly special.
With War of the Chosen, XCOM 2 adds significant mission variety and emergent story telling elements to its punishing tactical turn-based core, providing dedicated fans with a number of interesting new challenges and becoming the new baseline XCOM 2 experience for anyone experiencing the game for the first time.
Soldiers with personality
Whenever someone who hasn't played XCOM asks me about the series, I always say something like this:
"It's so hard. You have these soldiers with names, and personalities, and you can customize their armor and weapons and everything. You really grow attached to them. They get stronger as they go through missions, but they can get hurt...and they die. So many of them die, and you can't bring them back, and it's all your fault..."
This is one of the major appeals of XCOM 2, something the game does so much better than other titles in the same genre. It gives you the tools to carefully craft and upgrade a few dozen soldiers, it gives you just enough to distinguish them and make them memorable (especially if you have the Anarchy's Children and Alien Hunters expansion with additional cosmetic upgrades), it gives you a chance to watch them grow from enthusiastic recruits to hardened sci-fi super soldiers...and it kills these soldiers without mercy. It's brutal, and painful, and it gives the game a tense edge that works so incredibly well.
War of the Chosen adds new elements to the soldier personalization side of XCOM 2, most notably in the form of Bonds, ability points, and psychological stress, as well as adding a good number of new cosmetic options based on the game's resistance factions (more on those later). Each of these elements works well on their own, but when taken together they significantly ramp-up the soldier management side of the game, adding new strategic wrinkles and considerations that complicate your choices at every turn in a satisfying way.
Whenever I'm playing a campaign in XCOM 2, I like to pick a naming theme for my soldiers. Previously I've used Key and Peele's football names as inspiration, which provided some laughs in the midst of the horrors of war. This time around, I went with names from Game of Thrones. Thanks to the game's new bond system, which allows soldiers who go on a lot of missions together to develop a relationship that makes them both stronger when fighting on a squad side by side, I got to see Arya Stark and Cersei Lannister develop an early connection. That connection was somewhat strained when a mind controlled Arya killed Cersei with a sword, but I got the chance to see the psychological damage the loss of her bondmate did to Arya, so I guess it was worth it...right?
It was funny, at the very least.
War of the Chosen is full of little emergent narrative moments like this. I sent Catelyn Stark and Yara Greyjoy on a mission to rescue a previously captured soldier (I swear I'm not trying to spoil anything from the show, this is just what happened!), and after things took a turn for the worst Catelyn and Yara carried two unconscious squadmates to the evac point. Immediately afterwards the two developed a permanent bond, and it all felt just perfect and natural. The two had fought side by side and forged a relationship that would grant them additional actions, a powerful dual strike ability (which lets both bondmates fire on a single target), and more bonuses, but which would significantly handicap them in the event of a bondmate's death.
Aside from bonds, the main new positive element for your soldiers comes in the form of ability points, which are earned both by individual soldiers and as a group pool. Points are earned for smart tactics and accomplishing things during missions, so flanking shots, combo kills, and defeating elite enemies will all earn you points to spend. These points can unlock additional upgrades and abilities for your soldiers, which makes each individual soldier unique in a way they hadn't been previously. Now, two soldiers of the same rank and class could have very different abilities, including some abilities normally restricted to different classes. This makes your high ranking soldier stronger than ever, while at the same time making soldier death more punishing and painful, especially if you sunk group pool points into that soldier.
The stress of war is more present than ever in War of the Chosen, as soldiers have a new psychological health bar that must be managed. Longer missions lead to more stress, which in turns leads to soldiers growing tired or developing phobias (including fears of specific enemy types, fear of missing shots, or the dreaded "fear of panicking"). This stress system serves as a check against players who exercise too much caution in missions, scouting with single soldiers and keeping the rest of the squad in permanent overwatch. While this technique is effective for avoiding damaging ambushes, it will place more psychological stress on your squad because it will take so much longer. War of the Chosen forces you to try to balance caution and speed, and this balancing act will frequently lead to mistakes one way or another. And in XCOM 2, mistakes mean death.
RIP to Beric Dondarrion, Tywin Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, Sandor "The Hound" Clegane, and all the other brave souls who met their deaths because of me.
War of the Chosen's propaganda poster element doesn't affect gameplay in any meaningful way, but my god is it ever a brilliant addition to the game. You'll get a chance to design a poster after each mission to commemorate your success, while other posters will be created randomly when soldiers are promoted to specific milestones, or when bonds mature to significant levels.
The poster mechanic encourages your to spend a few minutes reflecting on your accomplishment after each mission, extending that endorphin rush and feeling of pride that comes from besting one of XCOM 2's challenges. And of course enemy propaganda will also show up if things go poorly, and if one of the elite Chosen enemies manages to capture one of your soldiers you'll have that failure rubbed in your face again and again (providing a strong incentive to undertake a rescue mission).
The propaganda poster tool (which is available as a standalone download you can play around with) is just powerful enough to do its job, though by the end of my War of the Chosen campaign I was wishing it had a full suite of Instagram filters, additional fonts, and the like. Regardless of its limitations, I found myself scrolling back through my poster archive again and again, remembering the glory days form early in the campaign. Best of all, posters you create will sometimes appear on walls in the world during missions, which is a fun bit of world building.
War of the Chosen adds three new resistance factions to the game, which each offer soldiers with powerful abilities. Getting in contact with each faction (via story missions) rewards you with a single soldier each from the Reapers, Templars, and Skirmishers, and it's possible to recruit additional soldiers from each faction through special covert missions. Reapers are powerful snipers with an advanced form of concealment, Templars are melee-based psionic fighters, and the ex-Advent Skirmishers have a collection of mobility upgrades. Faction soldiers add both personality and strategic options to the game, and the new characters introduced include five voice actors famous for their roles in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Firaxis knows how to play to their fans, huh?
In addition to the faction soldiers you'll also have to manage faction relationships and faction-based covert actions, which will in turn unlock powerful upgrades. Covert actions are small side missions that involve two or three soldiers and unfold off-camera over a few weeks. You won't manage these missions directly, but the soldiers you choose to send will be unavailable during the mission time frame -- and can occasionally be wounded or captured as a result.
The upgrades you can earn by improving your relationship with the different factions are some of the most powerful bonuses XCOM 2 has ever offered, including things like the ability to gather supply drops instantly and to have timed mission turn clocks not begin until your squad is detected by the enemy.
All these different faction elements add a lot to the game's early and middle stages but, aside from the soldiers, they become much less important in the game's final hours. By that point most of the faction bonuses aren't as critical any more, and covert actions are usually more of a chore than they are worth (though they do provide a steady way to earn promotions for lower ranking soldiers). Each of the factions does get a small cut-scene sign-off once you've beaten the game, though, so make sure you stay tuned for that after your final battle.
The Lost and the Chosen
War of the Chosen adds a number of new enemies to the mix, including the zombie-like Lost. The Lost appear in swarms and will attack both human and alien alike, and winning battles on maps with the Lost often involves using the creatures as tools to distract and harass Advent forces (while doing your best to keep them from charging your way). The Lost are relatively weak and can only attack from close range, so their real danger is in their numbers. They will often appear in groups of a half dozen at a time, and explosions and gunfire will draw more and more hordes into the fight.
Soldiers can target Lost enemies with a "headshot," and if the headshot kills the target the soldier is refunded an action. In practice, this means that skilled soldiers can kill multiple Lost targets on a single turn, only ending their run when they have to reload, they miss, or their target doesn't take enough damage to die. While the Lost can be a challenge early on, once you get the hang of them they are really more like a map feature to be managed rather than a deadly threat (at least on Normal difficulty). I finished a few Lost-heavy missions with more than 100 enemies killed in each, and you don't see Lost any more after the mid-point of the game, since by that point they would be more of a nuisance than a challenge.
The new unique Chosen enemies are the real stars of the show in War of the Chosen, building on the ideas introduced in Alien Hunters and providing threats you'll face again and again throughout your campaign. The Chosen each control a specific region on the world map, and will show up randomly during missions in that region to make things much, much harder.
The Chosen don't have the ability to move after each of your soldiers moves, which is what made the elite enemies in Alien Hunters challenging to the point of feeling unfair, but they are still powerful enough to become the top threat whenever they appear. They also provide elements of unpredictability and replay value, as they sport strengths and weaknesses that are procedurally generated. As you can see in the image above, the Assassin Chosen in my game was immune to Overwatch shots and explosives, and could call in Heavy MECs as backup in a fight. Fortunately she was vulnerable to close-up attacks, which was what eventually allowed my soldiers to bring her down for good, but she was a serious threat up until that point.
The Chosen are designed to be a thorn in your side, and they do a great job of it. They'll continually trash talk you, both in missions where they appear and randomly in between missions, as they call up the XCOM 2 base just to mock your latest upgrade or discovery. As time goes on their powers grow and they continue to track your movements, and if you let them go unchecked for too long they'll trigger a tough-as-nails mission in which you need to defend your ship (in a similar fashion to the UFO intercept mission in the core game, which is still present in War of the Chosen).
Finally beating each of the Chosen requires a series of covert actions to locate their secret base, and culminates in a challenging assault mission for each one that, in my campaign, provided some of the most serious challenges of the entire game. Your mileage will vary with this, as with so much else in XCOM 2, depending on how much research you've done and how far along your troops are by the time you launch one of these invasions, but even for seasoned veterans these lengthy missions and the respawn abilities of the Chosen in their respective final showdowns will require careful planning.
Taking out a Chosen gives you huge rewards both in the form of that enemy's unique weapons and the simple relief of not having to worry about that particular foe (or their secret plans) any longer. Because the Chosen weapons are so strong, I found the remainder of XCOM 2 after the Chosen had been eliminated to be a bit easier than I experienced on previous playthroughs. There are other factors at play here, obviously (including the additional unit upgrades War of the Chosen adds and my greater experience with the game), but the Chosen weapons are strong enough to be automatic inclusions all the way up to XCOM 2's final battle.
Speaking of the final battle...I was just a little disappointed to see that it was essentially unchanged from the vanilla game, and neither the Chosen nor the Lost made any appearance. After their major presence throughout the game, I would have liked some nod to these iconic enemies in the game's climactic final fight.
The new way to play XCOM 2
According to Steam I've played XCOM 2 in one of its various forms (vanilla, with Alien Hunters, or with War of the Chosen) for about 110 hours. Honestly, I would have guessed it was more.
XCOM 2 is a game that will consume your life, whether you're one of the ironman diehards or someone who can't resist save scumming when things take a turn for the tragic (and yes, that would include me). War of the Chosen adds an enormous amount of variety and layers of strategy to the core game, and I'd go so far as to say there's very little reason to ever play without this expansion in the future.
The only downside of War of the Chosen as the new default is that it paves over quite a bit of what made Alien Hunters special, and that expansion deserves to be the star of the show for at least one playthrough. If you've already played that and had your fill, though, you'll never look back once you start facing off against the Chosen (and the alien kings and queens and unique weapons from Alien Hunters will still show up in your new games, they just don't get much attention or explanation).
I encountered a few bugs and glitches during my time with War of the Chosen, though they mostly disappeared by the time I got to the end of my playthrough (as Firaxis released patches). At its best XCOM 2 can be a bit of a glitchy game, and seeing strange clipping or animation issues isn't rare. This remains a minor annoyance, but the chance of a rare hard crash will remind you painfully to save frequently (even though the game saves after every turn in a mission, it still doesn't feel often enough!).
Thanks to the vastly increased variety of the content in War of the Chosen, I had to play XCOM 2 for more than eight hours before I ever saw a mission type duplicated, which is a huge leap forward compared to the vanilla game. Lost missions often play out as desperate chases, while unexpected battles against the Chosen turn your careful strategic plans into mad improvisation. And all along the way you'll have more choices to make than ever before about what to research, how to manage your soldiers, and how to deal with the seemingly insurmountable threats that face you at ever turn.
War of the Chosen makes XCOM 2 deeper and more dramatic, and throws curveballs straight into your established strategies. If you like turn-based strategy and haven't played XCOM 2, you need to fix that right away. And if you already like XCOM 2, then you need to get War of the Chosen.
Oh man I forgot to tell you guys about the time Beric Dondarrian was down and bleeding out on a mission, and then he got saved and "resurrected" at the last minute by one of my medics! Oh and also how one of the tattoos you can give to your soldiers is a howling wolf, which is just perfect for the Starks. And how I always had Arya carry that Mimic Beacon because it felt so flavorfully correct, you know?
Anyway, I highly recommend naming all your XCOM 2 soldiers after Game of Thrones people. It almost helps to soothe the pain of not having new episodes each week.