'XCOM 2' Became a Great Game by Embracing Excess
By putting a face on its enemies and allies, 'War of the Chosen' finally makes a once-lackluster campaign feel heroic.
Screenshot by author.
One moment, among many: I’ve got six XCOM operatives lined up like a firing squad on top of an elevated train track above a ruined cityscape, where the ashen remains of the dead are still frozen in place from some alien weapon that was unleashed against them. Every turn chalk-white zombies come boiling out of the long alleys, drawn by the sounds of battle, and every turn my squad roars to life, with machine gun and rifle fire scything down most of each wave. As a few trickle through, it’s a 50/50 chance whether they come after my squad or the alien troops on the street below, who are fighting their own grim holding action against “the Lost”.
My soldiers are safe as long as they stay up here, but they can’t move. If the fire slackens at all, the math starts turning in the zombies’ favor. If we move to street-level, the aliens will be able to hit us as well.
And then there’s that whole warlock situation my snipers are trying to deal with.
This isn’t a particularly special mission, to be clear. Weird shit just happens in XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, this year’s expansion to the 2016 sequel to Firaxis’ hit tactics game. A mission or two earlier, some kind of ice-snake showed up at a high-security alien facility, froze half my squad, and strangled my sniper. Oh, that was right before an alien hard drive took on a luminous, living form and caved-in the roof with some kind of black-hole grenade that nearly killed my machine gunner. For a surreal moment, War of the Chosen had turned into Indigo Prophecy, until the physical manifestation of evil network data was killed by a woman with a shotgun.
War of the Chosen wedges all these new elements into the original XCOM 2 campaign, transforming it into some kind of tactical turducken. It doesn’t substantially change anything about the original campaign, but all the new features, characters, narratives, and—most importantly—possibilities have quietly made XCOM 2 one of my favorite games of this year.
XCOM 2’s original campaign felt like an outline of a strategy game rather than the finished product. For the life of me I’ll never understand why it has the trappings of a territory-control game when territory and geography are abstracted into meaninglessness. War of the Chosen doesn’t really change that. But where that abstraction left lots of empty space around arbitrary-feeling challenges (steal the widget from the secret base or this red bar will fill-up!), War of the Chosen fills that empty space with enough personality and atmosphere to create the memorable moments that the original campaign lacked.
Which brings me back to the warlock. One of the three semi-immortal “Chosen” of the title, the warlock is a hero character that the aliens use to stalk the XCOM team as they go on their missions. Over time they get more dangerous on both a tactical and strategic level, so even as you put one down, you know that they’ll be even nastier the next time around. You don’t always know when they’ll show up, but each time they do, it’s like a superhero showdown. Or, if things go poorly, the second-act of Predator.
The Warlock is a spell-caster who, the first time I encountered him, methodically mind-controlled members of my squad and turned them against each other. At the end of the mission, he made one of my support troopers killer her “bondmate”—each team member develops special connections with other members of the XCOM team that provides special bonuses when they are on missions together—sending her into a traumatized panic. We narrowly carried the day, but she and the other survivors of that team were listed as traumatized, and she was immediately scarred with a new negative trait: she was now “cautious” and likely to cower behind cover during a battle.
The warlock can also teleport fresh troops onto the battlefield, and then warp them across the battlefield to pop up in unexpected places, or unleash psionic attacks to leave your soldiers in a daze. In other words, he’s a walking nightmare with a huge bag of tricks that hit you via multiple avenues of attack.
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But the zombies were a wild card in this battle. While none of the ones attacking along the street were getting through the wall of gunfire from my fireteam, a lot of them were taking a shortcut through the abandoned diner where the Warlock was taking cover. And it turns out the Warlock’s use of terror and mind-control does exactly fuck-all against zombies.
And so the most powerful psychic death commando in the world—and maybe the galaxy—found himself getting curb-stomped to death by a growing mob of zombies that he had helped enrage. While also being set on fire by a frightened sniper using incendiary ammunition.
He’ll be back. My operatives are combing the globe for the lair where the aliens bring him back to life after each defeat, but in the meantime it’s a safe bet we’ve got at least a few more duels before he goes down for good. This morning, two of the soldiers I’d tasked to the search were almost captured by alien guards, and had to race through the streets to their extraction zone, exchanging fire with enemy troops the whole way. But the noose is tightening on the warlock, and one of our duels will surely be his last.
With War of the Chosen I finally feel like I have enemies, allies, and a world at stake between us. It’s not just a series of random skirmishes until the game ends, which is how XCOM 2 felt to me originally. Now it’s a campaign full of drama, terror, and stories worth telling. It may still have flaws, but at least it feels like XCOM once again.
What are some of your closest calls in a tactics game? What are the battles that stand-out in your memory? Let me know in today’s open thread!