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XCOM 2: War of the Chosen wants to reinvent the classic franchise once again

Impressions from our first few hours

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen art - three aliens Firaxis/2K
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.

Firaxis games gave fans a surprise at this year’s E3; a massive new piece of downloadable content for XCOM 2 called War of the Chosen. The new module is so large that the team considered making it the basis for XCOM 3. Instead, Firaxis opted for what amounts to a total conversion for the game, a new storyline with new mechanics that bolts on to the existing XCOM 2.

I spent some time this weekend playing and replaying the game’s first few hours. Here’s what I learned.

The Chosen

War of the Chosen introduces new, elite alien units called the Chosen, a trio of siblings who will hunt XCOM forces throughout the game. Each one has a powerful set of skills in addition to certain strengths and weaknesses. It reminded me quite a bit of how Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor changed things up from time to time by creating extremely powerful enemies with very specific weak points.

A gray-skinned alien crouches with a sword in her hand.
The Assassin type is the first Chosen players will meet in game. Her skills will improve over the course of the game.

The first Chosen that I met, an Assassin-type named Ref-Rai Mordenna, was entirely immune to melee damage. She also had a special power, Shadowstep, which had previously only been available to XCOM units. It allowed her to walk through my soldiers’ Overwatch without drawing fire.

Working in my favor was the fact that Mordenna took increased damage from explosives. She was also especially vulnerable to one of the game’s new XCOM soldier classes, the Reaper. Our first encounter played out like a game of hide and seek with my Reaper moving in close to flush her out and my other units lobbing grenades in over her head.

War of the Chosen’s early game amounts to a greatly extended tutorial with a bunch of narrative cutscenes thrown in to introduce the new characters. But what excited me more than the fancy videos was the potential these new units have to influence the decisions players will make at the strategic level.

That’s because each of the Chosen has a home territory, and every time you launch a mission in their patch you run a high risk of encountering them during a tactical battle. Just like the enemies in The Alien Hunters DLC, the Chosen manage to escape before the battle is over. Firaxis promises that when they return to the battlefield, they’ll have leveled up just like your troops.

Precisely how you kill the Chosen isn’t entirely clear.

A white-armored Skirmisher pulls an Advent commander toward him with a grappling hook.
Pratel Mox is a new, named character on the side of XCOM. His faction is called the Skirmishers.

Reapers and Skirmishers

War of the Chosen introduces several new XCOM factions to the game, including the Reapers and the Skirmishers.

Reapers are humans that have learned to survive in the burnt out husks of Earth’s fallen cities. They have the movement range and stealth skills of the Ranger class coupled with the long-range marksmanship and limited ammunition of the Sharpshooter class. They also have a claymore, an explosive that can be tossed across the map and detonated at a later time.

Skirmishers, on the other hand, are Advent soldiers who have defected to the human cause. They are highly mobile, with a grappling hook to reach elevation quickly. They can use that same hook to lash out, Scorpion-style, and pull enemies toward them for the kill. They also have a bullpup-style rifle that allows them to fire twice each round.

These new, named characters join the XCOM side as low-level grunts. Each has a unique set of skills that you will unlock as the game progresses.

Bondmates Chris Grant and Michael McWhertor pose in front of an XCOM flag.
Soldiers can develop bonds over time, which grant them special powers when they go on missions together. When bonds are first formed you can take a selfie and create a poster, which will show up as propaganda in the game world.

The Lost

War of the Chosen adds zombie hordes, called the Lost, to the XCOM formula for the first time. You’ll encounter dozens of them at once, but there’s a twist in the form of a new mechanic called Headshots.

The Lost are particularly fragile and every time one of your soldiers kills them they’re granted a bonus action. This means you’ll be emptying your magazine nearly every turn and, once your rounds are depleted, you’ll have to make a choice: Do you reload and stand your ground, or do you run? It becomes a leap-frog race to safety with one group of soldiers covering the other as they sprint to the exit.

While I’m only a few hours in, I’m excited to see where War of the Chosen goes from here. This new DLC remixes what made the XCOM sequel great into something completely different. What matters now is the follow-through. In the end, I’m curious to see if War of the Chosen enhances an already excellent game or if it simply proves to be a distraction.

The next level of puzzles.

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