September 1, 2017 // 3 p.m.
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One
Version Reviewed: PC
I'm not sure when it happened, but XCOM 2: War of the Chosen has spent the last week insidiously taking over my life.
I've played it for hours every day, and when I'm not playing it I'm thinking about it, turning over tough turns in my head. I've sketched out turns in the office, tried to explain situations to my partner as I eat, tried to work out impossible battles in the shower.
The brilliance of the expansion pack for the game — you'll need the base game by the way — doesn't become apparent immediately. The game starts with four rookies blowing up a monument to show the Advent administration what time it is. Soon after that, though, everything comes apart.
XCOM 2's tactical overmap was always a bit much, a wall of noise that drags you this way and that around the map as you desperately try to keep a collection of antique plates spinning to save the human race. War of the Chosen doubles down on this, with angry pop-ups telling you how important your assistance is in pretty much every region on the globe.
It's overwhelming, but once I settled into it I found the game was deeply rewarding and filled with nuance and strategic options. While the many changes do a lot to make the game more complex, less forgiving, and much more demanding of players, it accomplishes this in an elegant way.
Take The Lost, for example. The Lost are a call back to the green gunk released in the opening of XCOM's tutorial mission, but let's call it what it is: The Lost are zombies, exploding out of buildings to charge at you. The Lost often have just a few hit points, and they move towards you slowly and predictably, hordes clawing out of the earth in response to explosives.
The Lost aren't a real threat, they're just a complication, attacking both your XCOM troopers and the alien menace alike. But fighting them presents a unique challenge where the enemies are trying to overwhelm you with sheer numbers, and the biggest threat is having to reload at an inopportune moment.
The Lost don't appear in the game that often, but they're used as part of War of the Chosen's toolbox to mix missions up, appearing as a part of the SitRep system which throws a spanner into certain situations to keep things interesting. This includes things like timed missions or masses of enemies or even the titular Chosen.
The Chosen function similarly to the mini-bosses seen in XCOM2's DLC: There are three of them, and they'll show up to mess up your missions. They're powerful, they have unique abilities, and they can make missions in their region tougher until you devote the time to take them out. They feel more fleshed out than the aforementioned mini-bosses, and each of them is annoying in a unique way that will affect you at a different time in each campaign because of your geographical starting location.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. Three new factions that you have to juggle will also help you out with covert actions that can get you supplies, assistance on missions and technology and the sheer number of ways you can gouge an advantage out of the alien oppressors means that once you're clear of a challenging first few hours, your soldiers have never felt more capable, each of them an alien-slaying superhero.
Your soldiers can now be trained to gain extra skills using tactical points earned for making smart decisions. Flank an enemy? That's a tactical point. Kill an enemy in an ambush? That's a tactical point. These points can be earned by each soldier depending on their combat intelligence, but also accumulated by XCOM in a pool to be spent by any soldier. In some cases, this simply means you can build a specialist who can heal and harm, but you can also pick up leftfield random choices, which led to me having a Ranger character with the sniper skill Deadeye, allowing him to do extra damage to a target providing he can hit them.
Considering he's usually stood next to the target brandishing a shotgun in their face, it's phenomenally powerful.
Better yet, as soldiers serve together they can gain even more bonuses by bonding, providing extra traits to operators that empower them as they work with their bond-mate. These can be levelled up over time, and it provides real moments of heartbreak if you lose anyone.
The game counters how powerful XCOM soldiers are with all these extra features by adding another. Soldiers will become exhausted by combat, and so even unhurt soldiers will need to take a rest once in awhile. You can send them out into the field like this, but they'll be shaken, easier to panic, and slightly less reliable, and there's a chance they'll develop a negative trait: a fear of Vipers that could cause them to panic if they encounter one, or a fear of missing shots that'll cause them to lose it and empty their magazine in frustration if their aim is untrue.
The side effect of this is that by 30 hours in I had a squad of 20 Ultimate Badasses, each with their own unique flavour but all more than capable of dropping aliens. War of the Chosen is the first time XCOM has ever really felt like a power fantasy, and it shifts the focus from bleak survival to something different.
War of the Chosen turns XCOM 2 into a game about impossible choices, with insistent voices on all sides trying to get you to risk it all for slight reward. It's also, in my genuine belief, the best XCOM has ever been. This feels like a true sequel, and the fact that it's just a bulging expansion pack grafted onto XCOM 2's already meaty campaign is at times hard to believe just because of how different everything is.
There's a lot of pretenders to the throne, but for my money this is the best 'Aliens are taking over the world and we desperately need to fight them off before it's too late' simulator around, and bettering it will be a daunting task.