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XCOM DLC is proof that Firaxis wants more storytelling in future games

Free DLC for XCOM 2: War of the Chosen is a window into where the franchise is headed

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen Tactical Legacy Pack - an explosion Firaxis Games/2K Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Yesterday, the team at Firaxis Games launched the Tactical Legacy Pack, a new piece of downloadable content for XCOM 2: War of the Chosen. The studio has called it a gift to fans, making it free on Windows PC until Dec. 3. But after plowing through the first sequence of missions, it’s clearly something more. Tactical Legacy is a window into the ongoing development of the XCOM franchise, evidence of a renewed focus on storytelling in the modern series.

To understand how we got here, though, first we need a bit of background. The original X-COM: UFO Defense, released in 1994, is a seminal work in the history of PC gaming. It helped codify the mechanics of the turn-based tactical genre itself, but it was conspicuous for its lack of characters. There was a narrative to be sure, but not much personality.

Firaxis’ reboot, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, came out in 2012. It catapulted the franchise back into the limelight with a pitch-perfect reinterpretation of the classic campaign in full 3D using the Unreal Engine. The most recent iteration, released in 2017, is an expansion for XCOM 2 called War of the Chosen. That’s where Firaxis finally focused on building up a stable of named characters and establishing backstories for multiple new factions. In my review, I called it the definitive XCOM experience.

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen Tactical Legacy Pack - legacy operations
Additional Legacy Operations unlock as you complete them, ensuring that you experience them in order. As you play, you earn points that will unlock additional weapons and cosmetics in-game.
Firaxis Games/2K Games

The stated goal of the Tactical Legacy DLC is to build a narrative bridge between Enemy Unknown and War of the Chosen. To that end, it includes four so-called Legacy Operations, which play out as linked missions. Unlike vanilla XCOM 2, each subsequent mission after the first begins with baked-in upgrades for your soldiers. Those that die are automatically replaced, and everyone who shows up is granted upgraded weapons and skills.

The alien opposition, in turn, ramps up as well. In mission one, you’ll be fighting grunts with ballistic weapons; by mission seven, you’ll be fully kitted out with plasma weapons and power armor going up against multiple endgame bosses simultaneously.

This is a huge departure from vanilla XCOM, an experience that famously tasks players with micromanaging a full complement of scientists and engineers, in order to outfit troops with upgraded gear over time. But what the new DLC takes away in terms of control, it more than makes up for by piling on the narrative elements.

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen Tactical Legacy Pack - post-mission upgrade screen
Between missions, soldiers and equipment will automatically be upgraded.
Firaxis Games/2K Games
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen Tactical Legacy Pack - choosing upgrades on post-mission upgrade screen
Players also have a binary choice as to which bucket of high-end upgrades the game will choose from.
Firaxis Games/2K Games

Each of the seven-mission Legacy Operations is designed to highlight specific characters and events from modern XCOM lore. The first, called “Blast From the Past,” tells the story of Central Officer Bradford’s escape from a devastating assault on XCOM headquarters and his years-long journey to re-establish the paramilitary organization. It’s a window into his life story, one that illuminates his increasingly gruff attitude in recent years.

The result is that this first Legacy Operation caused me to reconceptualize all of my previous interactions with Bradford from the first two games. After playing through “Blast From the Past,” that particular character suddenly became much more real.

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen Tactical Legacy Pack - silver medal
Points are scored throughout the Legacy Operations, allowing players to earn new weapons and cosmetic upgrades.
Firaxis Games/2K Games
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen Tactical Legacy Pack - inventory and unlocks in character customization
Unlocks include perks, such as the aim bonus shown here. In our experience, it seems you need to start a fresh game to use them.
Firaxis Games/2K Games

Legacy Operations are effectively best-of highlights from even longer war stories set within the XCOM universe. Each one plays out in just a few hours — if XCOM were a television series, these would be its stand-alone bottle episodes. They represent an entirely new storytelling mechanic, another tool in the developer’s toolbox. Legacy Operations could be the future of the XCOM series, interstitial experiences that could allow the writers at Firaxis to cover a lot of ground very quickly in future games.

The Tactical Legacy Pack is available now for free to owners of XCOM 2: War of the Chosen. After Dec. 3, it will be available with the XCOM 2: War of the Chosen expansion for $39.99.

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