Releasing a £40 game followed by a similarly priced expansion a year and a half later seems somewhat archaic in an industry riddled with season passes and piecemeal DLC, but Firaxis are one of the few developers determined to stick to this tried and tested model. As such, some might balk at the idea of such a pricey expansion, but War of the Chosen isn’t some throwaway string of cosmetic items and meaningless features, it’s a fully fledged extension of XCOM 2‘s core ideas, and practically doubles the length of what was already a bulky campaign.
War of the Chosen‘s (WOTC) presence can be felt right off the bat, with something of an alternative prologue. In the original game, sweater-wearing voice-in-your-head CO Bradford finds the Commander’s body locked in a stasis chamber in an ADVENT facility. In WOTC, he is actually tipped off about the Commander’s whereabouts by a member of the ‘Reapers’, one of the expansion’s three resistance factions. The ‘resistance’ used to be portrayed as a ragtag group of untrained fighters battling the aliens in jeans and T-shirts, but WOTC repositions them as a soon-to-be unified alliance of the Reapers, the Skirmishers and the Templars.
While they won’t be winning any prizes for original naming conventions, these factions add a host of new ways to approach XCOM 2‘s missions. The Reapers specialise in stealth and concealment; Reaper units can last entire missions without breaking concealment, planting and setting off claymores, detonating environmental explosives, and scouting out enemy locations undetected. They aren’t huge damage dealers, but their presence on the battlefield can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure.
Skirmishers, on the other hand, are agile shock troopers equipped with punchy SMGs and grappling hooks. They can reel enemies in before dealing strong melee attacks, and can fire weapons on the first turn without ending their go. Oh, and they’re also ‘freed’ ADVENT soldiers, bastardised amalgams of human and alien DNA freed from the clutches of the Elders. No biggie.
While I found the Templars to be the weakest (and snobbiest) of the three factions, they do fix one of XCOM 2‘s minor issues. Everybody wants to play around with psionics, XCOM‘s version of the Force, but most will only unlock psionics in the late game, by which point they won’t want to train rookies to use these powers when they’ve got a perfectly hardy squad of colonels at their disposal. Templars sidestep this issue by being available fairly early on. Their units are close range psionic warriors, who use the ‘rend’ ability to charge powers, which can then be unleashed upon unsuspecting victims.
But it’s ADVENT’s newest toys that really make War of the Chosen special, namely ‘the Chosen’ themselves. These are essentially high-powered boss characters who take control of specific regions of Earth. In my campaign, ‘The Assassin’ took the USA, ‘The Hunter’ took Europe, and ‘The Warlock’ controlled Asia. This means that any missions undertaken in these areas can play host to ‘The Chosen’, who add an extra layer of challenge to any mission they invade. They usually spawn at the back of the map, working their way towards the player, summoning extra minions or performing long range attacks as they go.
The Assassin works rather like the Codex units from the vanilla game; she’s an agile teleporter who uses swords and psionics to subdue and stun opponents. The Warlock summons heavy mech units, psionic zombies, and uses mind-altering powers to turn the tide of battle. The Hunter is by far the most entertaining of the three – a long range sniper unit who marks targets from high ground, and seems more interested in trash-talking XCOM than actually excelling in combat.
Killing a Chosen unit in battle is one thing, but keeping them down is something else entirely. To permanently remove them from the field of play, the Commander must run a series of covert operations (essentially non-playable ‘off screen’ actions on the tactical map) to hunt down each Chosen’s personal lair. While these missions are challenging, mini-finales for the expansion, my one gripe is that they’re essentially clones of one another. There are only minor differences between each Chosen’s lair, which is odd, given that they utilise contrasting battlefield tactics. Why isn’t the Warlock’s base populated with mainly psionic and mechanical enemies? Why isn’t the Hunter’s lair made up of large caverns for optimal sniping? It’s only a small issue, but it does result in something of an anti-climax.
Then there are ‘The Lost’ (again, no prizes for originality here), fast-running zombie units that populate the streets of Earth’s abandoned cities. While it’s implied that these creatures are the outcome of failed ADVENT experiments, their feral nature makes them an enemy of both XCOM and ADVENT, which can really alter the dynamics of any given battle. The Lost might be easy to eliminate, and any kill scored against them grant an extra move or action, but getting swarmed by 10-20 of the things can set up a nasty roadblock between the squad and their extraction point.
This can get really tight during timed scenarios, or in any of WOTC’s new mission types. Protecting resistance camps doesn’t just mean running around the map collecting civilians – XCOM now fights arm in arm with other resistance soldiers, defending reinforced sites. There are also new assassination missions, new alien enemies, and ‘bonds’, which allow soldiers to develop camaraderie and unlock new abilities. It’s a system pinched partly from Fire Emblem, as well as existing XCOM 2 mods, but it’s a great way of fully expanding upon partnerships and head canons most XCOM players have already developed.
These partnerships (as well as fallen soldiers and successful missions) can be immortalised in poster-form, using XCOM’s new propaganda machine. While this has no real mechanical or systemic benefit, it’s a fun way of making your soldiers look like dangerous bad-asses to the ADVENT-controlled population, and it’s always satisfying to see your posters slapped on burned out convenience stores during missions.
As was the case with Enemy Within for Enemy Unknown, WOTC forces the player to break any habits they learned while playing XCOM 2. It’s no longer enough to pack a grenadier with heavy ordnance and explode your way through ADVENT forces, because explosions now attract Lost hordes. You can’t simply field a squad of sharpshooters and rangers, manipulating distance to get the advantage, because the Chosen are too unpredictable for almost any game plan you might have going in. They force you to think on the fly, changing up your tactics at a moment’s notice, making for even tighter, more tense battles than before.
It is hugely surprising that an expansion of this magnitude, one that adds three friendly factions, half a dozen new mission types, a new enemy faction, several new enemy units, and three boss characters, could be as well balanced as WOTC. For every new trick ADVENT pulls from its sleeve, XCOM and the resistance have an answer. For every tactic The Chosen manage to avoid, there’s some new way for the Commander to subvert their attacks too. WOTC doesn’t necessarily make XCOM 2 harder – the difficulty level has largely stayed the same. What it does do is make the game significantly more dynamic, more layered.
In WOTC, you might be tasked with escorting a VIP. You go in with a pretty solid idea of how you’re going to reach the extraction zone, at least until the Assassin shows up and starts trying to pick off your soldiers. Some heavy mechs appear, and you try to blast through them with grenades, but this just attracts a horde of Lost. You might resign yourselves to an early extraction, but the Lost begin to attack the Chosen and her allies, giving you that extra window to escape their onslaught. With War of the Chosen, XCOM 2 is now more unpredictable, more malleable, and more surprising, but no less tactically engrossing for it. This is still the benchmark for smart, engaging turn-based strategy, Firaxis has simply turned up the heat and sent in the cavalry.