XCOM games are about staring down the impossible and choosing to fight on anyway. The premise of the franchise is that Earth is under siege by immeasurably more advanced alien swarms. XCOM 2 posits that we, as players, can’t be victorious. Where its predecessor had you marshal your best defense to repel the invasion, XCOM 2 opens on a occupied, defeated Earth. Twenty years after their defeat, the governments of the world have all but given up, opting to negotiate with their tormentors instead of fighting back. Instead, you take the reins and gather up what resistance you can to keep the war–and hope–alive, and try to liberate Terra from the three-toed grasp of hyper-advanced psychic space monsters.
The new XCOM 2 expansion, War of the Chosen, expounds upon that foundation in every way. The baddies are tougher and your own troops have more strategic and tactical counters, but they’re also more human and, in some ways, more fragile. Together, these feed into not just the complexity of XCOM’s already robust chess-like play but the human edge as well.
XCOM has always found its grounding in its characters. You, as a player, are encouraged to name the members of your resistance after your friends and family. After some time on the battlefield, they grow more experienced and versatile, developing new skills and finding their own, ad-hoc narrative slices.
During my first run, I remember one of my high-school friends, Ben, grew to become my top soldier. A pinpoint sniper, Ben could deadeye any foe from 100 yards–easy. But the long slog of the war with the aliens left him traumatized. And, over time, he became a glass cannon. His mind was rattled by intimidation, and his frail body ached. On his 60th mission, he was brainwashed and slaughtered by his captors.
These sorts of vignettes flow organically in XCOM 2, but War of the Chosen explores them more fully. First, soldiers that spend lots of time together form close relationships, conferring battlefield stat bonuses as well as fodder for whatever backstory you choose to conjure. War of the Chosen encourages you to create inspirational posters for your warriors, too, to post around your base. Between missions, you’ll see the beaming faces of your finest dole out propagandic slogans. It doesn’t affect anything outside of aesthetics, but it’s a tacit acknowledgement that your team and their connections matter, and it’s a simple way to reinforce the desperation at play. Each of these soldiers, though they march into battle, often without ever questioning their commander, are still human. They need faith, and they need symbols of victory that encourage them to press on.
Of course, this is something of a red herring. War of the Chosen wants you to use these features–kindling relationships with characters like Ben and leaning on them for your own sort of moral support–so that it can bludgeon you with hopelessness down the line.
For every fun little addition War of the Chosen slots into XCOM 2, it also adds something more sinister. The eponymous “Chosen,” for example, are an elite trio of champions that are hell-bent on capturing and torturing your soldiers, picking their minds clean so they can take aim at you.
That places a grim and sobering filter over everything else. You send these people out to fight and die, and you have to carry the knowledge that if they suffer, it’s because you failed. And, what’s worse, if they’re captured, they’ll face far more pain and anguish not because of anything they did, but because your resistance continues to frustrate your presumed overlords.
To balance the scales a little, you’ll also be able to tap three new factions for your burgeoning Squad. The Templars, for example, are powerful mind-wizards who loosely counter the Warlock, one of the Chosen and a psychic warrior whose mind has been twisted by obscene power. The Reapers and Skirmishers round out your ranks with stealthy-snipers and gruff, short-range assault troops, respectively. Each of them comes with special skills so as not to overlap with your more basic, rank-and-file soldiers.
Each of these add-ons might be a solid inclusion on their own (who wouldn’t want cadres of super-soldiers to shore up the ranks?), but War of the Chosen wouldn’t work without all of them.
The new factions are introduced early, so players who finished the base game have some new meat to sink their teeth into. Everyone else? They get a straightforward introduction and continue on as normal. The key, though, is that a Reaper can help you expand your tactical options early on, where stages–bereft of the reverse-engineered laser cannons that show up dozens of hours later–could use a little more excitement.
This makes the first few hours a bit easier than the rest, but this affords you room to experiment before the truly punishing moments appear. After all, characters who aren’t watched have a tendency to be ripped apart or shot to bits. Having a souped-up fighter in the field affords you some flexibility: As with a queen in chess, you can adjust your plans on the fly, leveraging that additional power at key moments–either for offense or defense. But, as with the queen, losing such a valuable soldier can hurt doubly so.
The Chosen play a similar role, dropping into missions and harassing your teams whenever possible. They learn and grow from battle to battle, too. It’s not quite as robust as the Nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor, but they will adapt to your tactics, covering their weaknesses over time. That makes them exceptional foes down the line. In essence, they become bosses that dog you and wear you down, an omnipresent threat that could hit at any time.
As the game marches on, you are beset on all sides by powerful foes that force you to adapt. Your own soldiers might grow as well, but when your elite squads are picked off, or they’ve grown weary and fatigued, or when they lose their best friend or lover, that loss is palpable.
War of the Chosen packs in appreciable new layers of tactical and strategic depth that breathe new life into what was already one of the genre’s best. But it is, once again, the humanity of the fight that binds it all together. New factions wouldn’t work without new challenges, and new bonds are strained by foes that seek to quash opposition not with overwhelming force, but by cracking your will. If one mission goes particularly south, you may be forced to bury far more well-trained fighters than you can replace. And when you can’t quite field the strength you once did, you might not have the drive to keep going. You share not only in new powers, but in the pervasive defeat felt when they are taken from you.
Everything that Chosen brings–from the elite soldiers to the deeper connections between your squads–feels like a living part of the XCOM universe. If you like your deep strategy and brutal turn-based tactics alongside brilliant interplay between camp and emergent drama, there is none better.