I can’t help but think of a sausage. A huge, fat, glistening sausage, bulging with meat (or the nearest vegetarian equivalent) to the point that the innards have burst through the skin, forming deliciously fatty globules on the surface. There is surely no room for more, but nonetheless even more has been stuffed inside it. It clearly shouldn’t work. It's almost obscene. It looks like it will fall apart or even explode if even the slightest pressure is applied. It is sausage-based madness. The sausage is XCOM 2: War of the Chosen [official site], and it is as delectable and satisfying as it absolutely bloody insane.
My first few hours with War Of The Chosen, an enormous add-on for which the meagre-sounding term ‘DLC’ is desperately inappropriate, I spent convinced that certain aspects of it were severely misjudged. Its strategy map side - i.e. all the time spent outside of its turn-based missions - was a cacophony of interruptions, confusingly overlapping concepts and dubious internal logic.
That map, and the drawn-out base building associated with it, was always the weakest element of XCOM 2 pre-expansion - this cludgey attempt to view XCOM/X-COM’s longstanding global crisis management through a new lens that entailed far too much schlepping about and being dragged this way and that. The long grind to expand both base and territory while trying to keep the Avatar doomclock in check, all the while peppered with must-do missions, is why I haven’t returned to the XCOM 2 well anything like as frequently as I did with XCOM the first. I dug the intricacy of chaining together skills to survive missions, and I even enjoyed the divisive tension of turn timers, but the strategy map was a drag.
Initially, War Of The Chosen doubled down on this stuff, and I felt the bile rising. Its headline additions (but there are many, many more, both obvious and subtle) involve three recurring boss aliens that haunt you and threaten a game over scenario across the early and middle stages of a new campaign, and three new friendly factions who will provide you with extra units and resources if you meet their objectives. What this means is a half dozen new voices clamouring for your attention, which in XCOM 2 parlance means being constantly nagged to go here, do that, listen to this, work through this mission and this mission and this mission and worry about three new doomclocks.
A single in-game day can often be interrupted by events as many as three times, most of which involve hauling your flying base off to the opposite end of the Earth. So, for example, the simple act of collecting a box of supplies from Chile might take two real-time hours and involve your base inefficiently crossing back and forth across continents a couple of times, while you suffer dire warnings that one of your new enemies is on the cusp of destroying you and, the quintessential XCOM risk, see your soldiers’ ranks severely diminish by the time that box finally gets hauled onboard.
At first, this was exhausting - the noise of all these interruptions while I was trying to get something, anything built or researched. I still have the original X-COM in my blood, which means I’m accustomed to long, lonely minutes of waiting for something, anything to happen, and this is the absolute inversion of that. However, as the game wore on, it became apparent that rather than exacerbating XCOM 2’s problems, WOTC was solving them.
What seems like a mad cacophony is in actual fact the expert spinning of innumerable plates. Yes, there is a lot of noise, and I still miss the peace of waiting, but the additions don’t just bring interruptions - they bring rewards that provide new ways of solving the strategy map’s two key objectives, those being delaying the Avatar countdown and expanding your network of Resistance contacts so you can gain funding and invade key alien bases.
Where once you pretty much had to plough through this stuff in one direction and have your base-building plans defined by the need for communication arrays, or face doom, now completing Covert Actions (auto-resolved, unseen missions that play out over a few in-game days - your guys can't die in these, but they can be wounded or captured, the latter prompting a full, turn-based rescue mission later) might snag you additional Resistance contacts without having to add any new rooms or engineers to your base, an ability to make new contacts instantly if you can afford them, or knock the Avatar counter back a couple of places.
Meanwhile, sufficiently pleasing one of the new factions might grant you a card that reduces costs, brings bonus soldiers on missions or boosts Intel, and optional scanning objectives that pop up on the strategy map can, for instance, grant extra power to your Avenger, while flying to a faction base can speed up construction or casualty recuperation times.
I did not find myself repeating the same old grind to expand the resistance network and instead kept the Avatar bobbins in check with a cats’ cradle of various actions from various sources with unpredictable outcomes and bonuses. Next time I play, it will not happen the same way, nor will the time after that.
I still think that there’s a conceptual misfire in the idea of hauling your whole base across the skies to grab a few boxes when we already know it’s supposed to have dropships, and this is only exacerbated by these new Covert Actions which frequently have just a few of your team go elsewhere to grab something useful without your base having to move an inch. But, even though it still doesn’t make sense, the new option to approach the strategy layer’s key challenges from a number of different angles definitely makes it work. War of the Chosen gives it options and variety.
This is the expansion pack’s philosophy throughout, a clear and very successful attempt to save XCOM 2 from being a straight stomp from A to B in which metagame and squad structure alike always take on broadly the same form.
Where once XCOM’s arms race had specific weapon/armour tech requirements needed to reach or survive certain elements, now it’s a freeform dash in multiple directions, to the point that each and every soldier on your roster is materially different in ability to all the others. A Ranger is not a ranger is not a ranger, no two snipers are quite the same and, again, there are all these skills and items I’ve not even had the chance to research or use. I didn’t unlock plasma rifles until 26 hours into the campaign, because I was already able to tackle high-level foes with a combination of new and complementary soldier skills and special weapons unlocked by defeating the Chosen bosses and new research upgrades.
In my next campaign, I’ll probably fold in a few psychics and SPARK mechs or equip everyone with weird and wonderful stuff built in the Proving Grounds. Where once my XCOM 2 squads always ended up taking roughly the same shape, next time they’ll be dramatically different to the guys I’m fielding now.
I’ve got guys who drag enemies towards them with grappling hooks, I’ve got snipers who live in perpetual stealth, I’ve got a new class of warrior/psychic hybrids who dance around the map with psionic blades and can swap places with friends or foes, I’ve got swordsmen who cannot miss, I’ve got medics with rifles that never seem to run out of ammo, I’ve got people who can make cars explode remotely, I’ve got weapons with more upgrade slots than I could possibly fill, I’ve got, basically, the Power Rangers. (No robo-animal vehicles yet, admittedly, but it feels like just a matter of time at this point).
Coupled with additions from the previous DLC and the now further-expanded tech offerings from the Proving Ground room in the base, the range of loadout options is vast, and that means we’re long past the point where a soldier was just a class. Certain fundamentals remain - a sniper has a sniper rifle, a grenadier is the only type who can use a cannon and so forth - but everyone’s their own specialist now. Not just in terms of equipped gear (which you can in any case move between soldiers), but abilities too, with a new type of experience point introduced that enables you to buy bonus skills for your dudes in addition to the standard rank-up options, and some of which can come from other classes. These points are gained not from straight kills, but tricksier stuff such as ambushes, fatalities that result from flanking, taking out boss-ish foes and so forth.
There are these three new classes introduced too, tied into the concept of three new rebel factions you can convince to join you in the war against advent. Each is to some extent a hybrid of other classes - the hooded, stealthy Reapers fuse sharpshooters’ sniping with Grenadiers’ explosive-fu, Skirmishers remix Rangers’ melee prowess with Specialists’ mid-range firepower and Templars create psychic weaponry as opposed to using mind-manipulation. They mix things up very well, although the apple has fallen far from XCOM 2’s guerilla warfare tree - we’re way off in superhero territory now.
All three classes seem initially overpowered compared to a standard squaddie, and while it’s true that WOTC ensures you can’t realistically have more than a couple of each new’un on your staff, it’s not long before the various new gear and skill options have the heaviest-hitters of your standard inventory catching up and even overtaking. I’ve got a Ranger - one Graham ‘Bandit’ Smith, no less - on staff right now who can very realistically tackle missions on his own, equipped as he is with the snake suit from the Alien Hunters DLC, an enormously powerful one-off alien rifle and pair of katanas gained from taking down a Chosen and most of the skills from both the sword and stealth branches of the Ranger skill tree. A couple of other soldiers - heavily-armoured Specialist Alice ‘Breaker’ O’Connor and exotic explosive-spamming Grenadier Alec ‘Sad Sack’ Meer - should soon attain similar superhuman status too. Again: all this long before I researched Plasma rifles. Those are almost incidental now.
Getting my team to this point was not straightforward, I should stress. Many died, many more had long spells in hospital, I’ve been getting close to triple figures of missions and been interrupted by assorted crises more times than I could begin to count. WOTC is clearly conscious that you ultimately get to make your own Avengers, and it’s not shy about throwing everything at you as you strive to do so, both on the strategy map and in missions.
In the latter, you’ve got the constant risk of one of the three immortal Chosen - each with unique and devastating powers - showing up to hound you in addition to standard enemies. If you’ve got the Alien Hunters DLC then they have their own three randomly-appearing bosses too, and now there’s a whole new enemy faction, a zombie swarm known as The Lost, and who will spawn constantly in huge numbers on any map they appear in. These guys will attack XCOM and Advent alike, which means they can sometimes be turned to your advantage, but in the main what they introduce is a need for frantic crowd control in addition to the usual tactical challenges of the alien soldiers. (I’ll mention also that The Lost pick up a forgotten thread from XCOM 1’s very first mission, wherein the aliens drop a chemical weapon into a city, transforming all its residents into creepy ash-statues, something that was never hitherto referenced again).
Whatever the fiction, The Lost are zombies, and yeah boring zombies yawn etc, but it does a really good job with them. Their movement is eerily floppy, their cracked, ashen texture is sinister, and their lack of any self-preservation instinct makes them distinctly different to other XCOM foes. I wouldn’t want a whole game about fighting these guys but, whether in their own missions or as an extra complication in Advent ones, they’re fantastic at mixing things up and sparing an XCOM 2 campaign from being a grind through too many similar battles.
As part of WOTC’s general commitment to being more Marvel movie than gritty alien resistance saga, facing The Lost grants a new squad-wide ability whereby killing one shambler with a single shot allows your soldier to immediately take another shot rather than end the turn, and this can continue indefinitely until you miss/run out of ammo/target a different sort of baddie. With the right weapons and add-ons (the free reloads gun upgrade is killer here), the headcount within a single turn can become astronomical.
While one might argue this approach is not true-blue XCOM, the sheer number of these respawning blighters prevents it from being an outright power fantasy, and instead it’s these intense Alamo moments. Gunfire and especially explosions will summon even more Lost, so trying to balance subtlety with the need to murder everything is delightfully tricky.
Adding to that sense of new variety is a wider rethink of missions, and the addition of a fair few new environment types into the mix, some of which (such as Lost-blighted conurbations, playgrounds and gas stations) are extremely effective at restoring the menace lost when XCOM moved from contemporary-ish alien invasion to gleaming white future-society. The much-maligned mission timers have been dialled down significantly too - I always found that they did a good job of forcing me to engage rather than being excessively cautious, but they proved too stressful to less obsessive XCOM players and now only make occasional appearances - thus, like The Lost, adding variety rather than being the norm.
In their place, WOTC does more in terms of making the situation tougher as it wears on or making missions partially rather than necessarily completely failable, as well as throwing a few new mission types into the mix. Oh, and some civilian rescue missions now feature Resistance fighters as an AI-controlled AI faction, which enables bigger and more spectacular fights than before.
The net result is that missions are far less predictable and far more varied than before - and I'm not sure I'd even finger XCOM 2 as feeling particularly predictable or samey in that regard anyway, so WOTC makes for an extremely generous strategy game.
Also battling rinse and repeat is a new raft of psychological conditions your soldiers can suffer from, from simple tiredness to fully-fledged phobias of certain enemies. The former means you can still take 'em on missions but they'll be sub-par, the latter is an evolution of the panic system (i.e. a soldier might cower or randomly move or shoot) but which can trigger at any point, rather than only because a team-mate bought the farm, and more importantly they last across missions.
To cure 'em, you'll need to stick 'em in a special slot in the Infirmary, which - like injuries and tiredness and a new training system whereby two soldiers can buddy up and gain bonus abilities - takes 'em out of action for a few days. In other words, the days of depending on one team of six hot shit war vets are gone, and you absolutely require a large, revolving pool of heroes.
With soldiers more distinct from each other than ever before, losing a big wig also hurts more than ever (plus some of the better toys are lost forever if they're carrying them when they die), but the good news is that, because everyone ends up with some kind of X factor before too long, replacing the fallen is no longer a matter of slowly grinding your way back up the class skill tree.
War of the Chosen is the biggest and most varied XCOM has ever been, in other words. I hesitate a little about saying it's the best XCOM has ever been, because I think there's a certain purity and clarity to Firaxis' first bite of this peach that's been increasingly lost since, and WOTC really is going to be totally impenetrable to anyone who doesn't know the series very well. It's not great at explaining all its mechanics, the incessant nagging of the strategy map and range of options and objectives is initially overwhelming even for veterans and, if you've got the previous, smaller DLC installed, the concept of being dogged by reappearing boss monsters with one-off gear rewards and a climactic fortress incursion is confusingly similar to what Alien Hunters does.
WOTC's tone and aesthetic are all over the place too, with the original XCOM 2 concept of a resistance cell trying to bring down alien overlords in Appletropolis struggling to breathe underneath a superhero vs supervillain layer, a zombie horror layer and even an addition like creating 'propaganda' posters featuring your troops pulling action hero poses after a successful mission. Lots and lots of fun thematic ideas for sure, but any overarching coherence to its worldbuilding (already flimsy in XCOM 2) has all but vanished.
It feels as if a few things died on the vine during development too. For instance, two of the new resistance factions feature characters voiced charmingly by Star Trek: The Next Generation alumni (Worf as businesslike human/alien hybrid Skirmisher Nox is perfect, and we get Riker, Troi and Yar too), and fancy introduction missions and sequences, while the third (the zenlike Templars), pretty much arrives silently from off-camera. Would I be wrong to speculate that there might be a Brent Spiner or Gates McFadden-shaped hole there?
Similarly, after all the hullabaloo the game makes about them, including assorted cinematics and in-mission patter, there's no real pay-off to taking out all three Chosen, and it's oddly jarring to just find yourself back in trad. XCOM 2 plot afterwards. For the time that they are around, two of the Chosen are a bit too Saturday morning cartoon in their performances to leave much impression, but the third has a nice line in both world-weariness and running commentary on your actions that makes me realise that character baddies who give you someone to strive against in the long term are an extremely effective addition to a game series in which the monsters rarely speak.
A fair few niggles and quibbles there, but I'll close with this tale:
I was called away mid-mission to meet a friend. I walked approximately 200 metres down the road to the pub we were due to rendezvous in, and the sensation that there was a taut piece of elastic stretching that distance between my brain and the computer in my house was almost physical. On that computer: an XCOM 2: War of The Chosen mission, which would remain agonisingly unresolved for the next two hours. In my brain: a cat’s cradle of thoughts and worries about what I would do on the next turn, how I could ensure my team of soldiers survived the six Advent soldiers currently targeting them, about how quickly I could wrap the mission up so I could return to trying to locate the final Chosen fortress, and most of all a sense that the earthly demands of conversation and sustenance seemed so inconsequential in the face of all this.
This is XCOM writ so damn large, so wide and wild and all-consuming, that it gets the same intractable hooks into me that XCOM games always have while also taking me to new places, occupying even more parts of my obsessive brain. It's true that it's this ridiculous carnival of ideas and not necessarily complementary themes, and that it would have been better to have a root and branch rethink of the strategy map rather than make it a frenzy of nagging, but despite - maybe even because - of all that, this is the first time than an XCOM or X-COM game can be truly described as an epic.
Where XCOM 2's campaign could feel like the drawn-out prelude to the foregone conclusion of the climactic fight, this feels like, if you'll excuse the term, a long war. It's a hard-fought bringing together of a rag-tag army of vengeance, with landmark battles and true heroes emerging from the miasma of skirmishes. Sometimes, I shake my head at its absurdity and its noise, but I really cannot get enough of it.
There's a raft of smaller, more under-the-hood changes I've not even mentioned, but all of which further serve to ensure your campaign does not stomp down the same path every time. It's even cranked the graphicsosity dial up a little too, with improved lighting making everything pop that much more.
I said right back at the start that 'DLC' desperately undersells War Of The Chosen, this fat and bursting sausage of turn-based splendour. I think I might have found 'XCOM 3' a mite more appropriate.
XCOM 2: War Of The Chosen is due for release on August 29 for Windows PC, via Steam, for £34.99/$39.99/€39,99.