Games Review: XCOM 2: War of the Chosen (PC, 2017) is the best version of XCOM ever made

XCOM 2 is, at its heart, a game about loss. It’s why save-scumming, the act of loading an earlier save in an effort to avoid catastrophe, is so frowned upon in the game’s community. Losing valuable soldiers isn’t just a part of the game, it fills out the unscripted narrative of your personal XCOM 2 experience. Basically, if playing XCOM 2 is paining you, that’s how you know you’re doing it right and in the game’s latest expansion, War of the Chosen, developer Firaxis is doubling down on the pain.

War of the Chosen is a transformative addition to the XCOM 2 base game. It addresses a lot of problems that fans had with the launch version but it also has a list of updates of its own to bring to the table. The thing that may surprise longtime fans of the series is War of the Chosen‘s pivot into what feels like almost full-blown roguelike territory. It is a rethink of the game’s fundamental design choices and goals so complete that it felt like an entirely different game to the one I reviewed for The Iris last year.

War of the Chosen could easily be considered a total conversion mod that found itself elevated to legitimacy. It pays its respects to the XCOM 2 base game but then moves briskly to alter it in ways both clever and welcome, taking what was already an incredible experience and finding ways to improve and hone it further. Chosen offers fresh mechanics to get your head around, new enemies to deal with and new factions with which to forge alliances.

The first of these are called the Reapers. The Reapers are a group of stealthy warriors who are sympathetic to your cause, but prefer to operate at long range. You’ll inherit a starter soldier from them named Elena Dragunova, a sniper packing a carbine with a scope. Elena is, from the moment you add her to the squad, superior to any stealth or sharpshooter unit you’ve ever had. Ever. There isn’t another unit in the game that can hold her candle to her ability to run recon and that’s before you’ve even applied a single goddamned upgrade to her.

Among the Skirmisher faction you’ll meet Pratal Mox, a genetically engineered human and member of an Advent splinter cell who’ve thrown in with XCOM. Mox will become your go-to flanker, using his grappling hook to either rapidly take high ground or reel an enemy in for a heavy melee attack. His rifle can also fire twice in a single round which is unbelievably awesome.

This renewed focus on character allows Firaxis to pour more energy into War of the Chosen‘s story, which will be great news for players that thrive on Fluff like me. It may, however, be a bit of a deterrent for Crunch players who preferred the simplified nature of XCOM 2‘s story, which allowed them to get straight into the meat of the strategy. Keep reading though, crunchies, I want explain why this change is good for you too.

The benefit of the stronger story is that it raises the stakes — every mission is do-or-die. Where the Alien Hunters DLC added significant bosses to harangue players throughout their entire playthrough, Chosen takes it a step further, becoming one of the only games I’ve seen since 2014 to approximate Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis system.

As you move through the campaign, every engagement with the Chosen tells them something about you. Over time, they will modify their strategy in anticipation of your movements, making them a far greater threat than the Advent ever were. They are mean bastards, utterly ruthless. You will grow to detest them, and the speed at which this hatred takes root is a testament to the quality of the enemy AI. You will notice that there are now four separate timers counting down onscreen — one of them relates to the Avatar Project, and the others are all tied to the Chosen that are still alive and scurrying about the world.

Chosen also brings in Bonds, a way of measuring how tight knit your XCOM squads have become over the course of their careers. These Bonds grant perks and bonuses for use on-mission. Should one of your bondies be killed in action or captured, a new feature that will see you embarking on high-stress rescue ops, the surviving bondie will be scarred emotionally. This is represented as a stat debuff, reducing their combat effectiveness.

To make matters worse, you’ll be dealing with another new enemy type — the Lost. Mutant, zombie-like humanoid creatures that will show up in different locations. The Lost feature in a number of campaign missions that frequently end in you having to charge your squad through the level in a bid for freedom or backed into a corner trying to fend them off long enough to clear a path out. When they aren’t the focus of a mission, you should accept that the Lost may just show up unannounced, and always at the worst possible time. They’re not particular in their prey either, anyone is fair game. You, the Chosen, the Advent, it doesn’t matter. The Lost will go after anyone in their way.

The sum of all these new features and tweaks is that XCOM 2 now carries a dramatic payload greater than any other game in the series. But here’s the thing — if you swaddle your soldiers in bubblewrap and save-scum your way through the game, you won’t get any of that.

I had a friend declare recently that the game’s Iron Man mode, which prevents the player from saving the game on their own, should be the default rather than an option. At the time I thought maybe he was going a bit far, but now I can see that I was wrong and he was right. Committing to Iron Man mode is entirely necessary because playing the game any other way eradicates the ability to lose. And losing — the sense of loss, the weight of it, the living with defeat and moving forward anyway — is the very spirit of the XCOM series distilled.

I get it. People who play video games don’t like to lose. We’ve been conditioned over a lifetime of playing video games to accept only victory. We’re all Kirk tackling the Kobayashi Maru, convinced that No Win Scenarios don’t exist. You only have to look at how salty Overwatch players get when taking a loss to see that we’ve forgotten how to accept defeat.

The truth is that slugging it out in War of the Chosen, even in what you know to be a losing battle, can be just as enjoyable as stomping the AI and cruising to victory. There will be moments where the situation will suck beyond the telling of it. You will lose soldiers and sometimes entire squads that you’ve become very attached to, but you’ll have had a great time, and an experience that very few other games can offer.

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen takes the finely tuned strategy the series prides itself on and augments it further with an array of clever, rewarding improvements. A lot of what bugged you in XCOM 2 has been fixed — the load times are much better, you can preview targets before the movement phase, even the voice over has been expanded (there’s five, count ’em FIVE Star Trek: The Next Generation actors in this expansion). There isn’t another game in the turn-based tactical strategy genre that even comes close to this level of quality and polish. XCOM 2: War of the Chosen is the best version of XCOM ever made.

Score: 9.5 out of 10
Highlights: New mechanics; New enemeies; New XCOM
Lowlights: It isn’t on the Switch so I can take it with me everywhere
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC, Mac OS X, Linux
Available: Now

Reviewed on Windows PC.