War of the Chosen's first mission plays out exactly the same as in the original XCOM 2, which caught me a little by surprise. After being treated to a brand new intro cinematic that partly rewrites how the Commander is rescued in the opening moments of XCOM 2, I was expecting something new, something flashy. But there I was, once again, leading four under equipped rookies into Operation Gatecrasher and wishing they'd brought a few more grenades.
I knew War of the Chosen would be an expansion that built upon the existing campaign (you'll need to start your playthrough from scratch, by the way), but at first it seems a bit too familiar. Disheartened, I got to throwing my grenades and missing 60 per cent shots. The mission ended, the monument fell, and I returned with my squad to the Avenger. And from that point onwards, almost everything I knew about XCOM 2 changed. A slow start perhaps, but once it gets going, this game never looks quite the same again.
Before you meet the expansion's new antagonists, or recruit any of the three hero classes, you'll first discover a feature called sitreps. These things are fantastic. They come into play during most of the standard mission types, adding some kind of variable for you to deal with on top of its initial objective. This can range from being forced to use a squad of lower-ranking soldiers, to fighting on a map inhabited by the Lost, the undead remnants of the humans first hit by the alien invasions.
Actually, let's talk about the Lost a little bit as they're easily my favourite enemy type introduced in War of the Chosen. First of all, there's a lot of them. When these guys turn up during an encounter, they arrive in huge numbers, surrounding your squad and any alien forces you may be dealing with. And that's an issue for both sides because the Lost are, interestingly, not part of the alien roster and will happily attack whatever they can swing their horrible arms at. As you'd hope, there were times during my playthrough in which this confusion played to my advantage, allowing my squad to escape as the aliens and the Lost focused their attention on one another.
Usually though, you'll need to deal with these guys before they overwhelm you. Explosive weaponry may seem tempting, but in most scenarios this only attracts further hordes of the undead and is a terrible, terrible idea. Instead you'll want to take advantage of a mechanic that's specific to this enemy type. After each successful Lost kill while using a ranged weapon, your soldiers receive an additional action. So the most efficient way to deal with a large group is to keep landing successful shots without missing or, as is often the case running out of ammunition. It's a completely different feeling to fighting against a group of aliens and certainly to begin with, there's a great sense that you're hanging on by the skin of your teeth as more and more of them show up.
Alongside the new maps and mission types that you'll encounter, it's these sitreps that ensure you very rarely feel like you're repeating the missions you've already played in XCOM 2. Well, apart from the very first one anyway.
Then there's the Chosen. Although the Avatar remains the final boss of the game, it's these three that provide the real challenge. Until you discover their hiding place on the world map and defeat them where they live (they can't be permanently killed until this point), these guys will frequently appear mid-mission to hunt down your squad. Just like with the Alien Rulers, they don't care if you're already engaged in a firefight and it feels like they have a real knack for turning up at the very worst moments. Even when they don't, the anticipation that they might is often enough to make you rush through encounters and make mistakes. I really like that.
And yes, if you don't track them down and defeat them before the finale, they'll show up in that mission too. You really, really don't want to fight more than one of them at a time.
Each Chosen falls into a different archetype. The Assassin relies heavily on stealth and melee attacks, the Hunter is an excellent sniper that has you scrambling for cover long before you're in range of firing back, and the Warlock is said to have psionic powers almost equal to that of the Elders. They do, however, have a number of strengths and weakness that are unique to your campaign. If you're familiar with the Nemesis system in Shadow of Mordor you'll have an idea of how it works - and what a delight it is to see that idea finally picked up elsewhere.
Defeating the Chosen ahead of the final mission isn't a strict requirement, but most players will want to do that. Not only does it ensure they won't turn up during the final moments of your campaign at max strength, if you defeat them beforehand, you'll also gain access to their unique weapons. Unsurprisingly, they're better than anything else you can manufacture and offer a huge advantage to the soldiers wielding them. The Assassin's blade, for example, does more damage than any other melee weapon in-game and can't miss an attack. Yeah, it's a huge upgrade once you get your hands on this stuff.
This does lead to one unusual side effect, however. If you defeat the Chosen ahead of the final mission, it really does feel like you've dealt with the final boss of the of the game ahead of its final mission. This, again, reminds me of the Alien Rulers DLC to some extent. You'll be turning up to fight the Avatar with the best gear the game has to offer and, as a result, it feels like victory is almost guaranteed.
Speaking of feeling powerful, wow, are the new hero units great. To combat the substantial threat posed by the Chosen, XCOM is able to build relationships with three factions that have been resisting alien control during the Commander's absence. The Reapers specialise in stealth, the Templars offer psionic-powered melee attacks and my personal favourites, the Skirmishers, are a group of Advent soldiers that have now rebelled against their former masters. Should you convince them to work alongside you (which isn't especially difficult), you then gain access to each of their unique hero units.
These hero units level up differently to normal soldiers, using a resource called ability points to unlock, essentially, as many skills as you can afford. Ability points are earned with each promotion, but there's also a shared pool you can tap into that's increased based on how well you play the game. Smart tactical decisions like flanking an enemy, attacking from concealment, or gaining a height advantage can all add more points to your total. If you have access to the correct building type, you can also use these ability points to unlock additional abilities for your other soldiers too. So if you want a Specialist that can use both Aid Protocol and Combat Protocol (which is a great idea, by the way), you can totally do that here. This all sounds more complicated than it really is, but at its core this system rewards you for playing especially well during missions. I also really like this idea because it offers yet another way for players to invest even more resources into soldiers that can potentially be lost forever. That's what XCOM is really about.
You do need to be reasonably careful about investing too heavily into just a single squad of soldiers, however, as War of the Chosen also introduces a new mechanic called Fatigue. You'll likely want to take your new hero classes with you on every mission, but instead you'll be encouraged to give them a break after every few missions as they grow tired. Taking fatigued soldiers out on missions isn't prohibited and sometimes you'll probably have to just that, but it does mean they'll be more susceptible to panic and can also pick up negative traits that will stay with them until you build an Infirmary. These negative traits are never game-breaking, but can be fairly inconvenient. A soldier may grow obsessed with having their weapon fully loaded at all times or become particularly worried about fighting Sectoids (which is entirely understandable).
Outside of the missions themselves, you'll also be encouraged to send soldiers out on Covert Ops on the strategy layer. This usually has you sending between 2-3 soldiers out on a mission outside of your control, to gain resources, improve relationships with one of the factions, or locate the hiding place of one of the Chosen. There's always a risk that these soldiers will run into trouble and pick up injuries, or even fight off an enemy ambush (at this stage you'll need to step in and take control). And this has two quite interesting effects on your campaign, I think. Soldiers can gain experience while out on Covert Ops, which offers another way to ensure lower ranked operative are getting into shape. Which is useful, because alongside the fatigue system, relying on Covert Ops means that you won't always have access to the soldiers you want to use. More than ever, War of the Chosen encourages XCOM 2 players to manage a larger roster of troops, rather than a single squad.
This review is based on the PC version of the game and we're yet to see how it plays on the consoles, but here at least the performance seems to have seen a decent boost. Loading times, in particular, are a fraction of what they were first time around and the tactical gameplay is noticeably smoother. I did experience a couple of hard crashes during my 30 something hours of playtime, which was disappointing given the issues some players had at launch, but in both cases a quick reload seemed to do the trick.
I also haven't been able to play around with the game's Challenge Mode, which won't be activated until launch. This promises to offer bespoke missions, outside of your campaign, with an accompanying leaderboard to see how you compare to other players around the world. This sounds brilliant and if they're regularly updated, I can see myself really diving into the challenges, but we're yet to see them for ourselves.
But really, this expansion is all about the photobooth. I have so much time for this feature. After missions, or promotions, or soldier deaths, you're encouraged to commemorate the moment with a photo of the XCOM operatives involved. You can spend a lot of time here, changing their poses, adding filters and writing captions, and it offers absolutely no gameplay advantage whatsoever. I love it. These posters will then show up during missions as resistance propaganda and I can't tell you how satisfying it is to see them plastered against a wall, offering a potentially fourth thematically-inconsistent backdrop to the firefight you're having.
Gosh, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface here. War of the Chosen proves once again that Firaxis really know how to handle an expansion. There's just so many new systems being introduced here, that it's hard not to be impressed that they didn't hold onto all of this stuff for an inevitable sequel. Don't let the first mission fool you, this is a wildly different beast to the core XCOM 2 experience. So much so, that I really wouldn't advise playing War of the Chosen without having already completed the original game - I think you'd find it too overwhelming, too busy. However, if you have defeated the Avatar Project before now, there's now a fantastic reason to do it once again.
If you enjoyed what Enemy Within added to the previous title, you're in for a treat. War of the Chosen makes the last game's expansion seem meager by comparison. And I bloody loved Enemy Within.
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