Hunting the hunters in XCOM 2: War of the Chosen

I'm a few missions into an XCOM: War of the Chosen campaign and nothing is on fire. Okay, things are a little bit on fire. I just massively failed a mission to slap some explosives on a pulsating alien artifact. The enemy's new colour-coded enemies pack quite a punch when you're unprepared for their abilities.—never underestimate an alien hybrid with a flamethrower.

It has been great fun so far. I was worried that the Chosen would become a game within a game—an annoyance to one side that had to be dealt with while getting on with the important  business of saving the world. They really do dominate, though, which makes War of the Chosen feel like an overhaul rather than a straightforward expansion. New environments like the abandoned cities populated by The Lost (zombies) and ruined underground hideouts make the game feel immediately fresh even as the game's structural changes gradually become apparent. 

I still worry that there will be too much to keep track of once I have discovered all of the resistance factions and I'm under attack from all of the Chosen, but War of the Chosen masterfully drip feeds each element in the early game with some new characters and some surprisingly badass cutscenes. There is plenty more to discover, and I'll get into the new skill trees and hero abilities closer to launch once I better understand their efficiencies. Here are a few points that have jumped out at me so far.

The resistance heroes are the real stars of the expansion

The Chosen are an interesting threat, but so far I have found the resistance heroes to be much more interesting. They are introduced through a great series of introductory videos and missions that build out the world. The idea that Earth has been occupied for a long time is much more convincing when you're meeting people who have survived in the shadows for decades and formed rivalries and alliances with other groups. I would read a series of XCOM comics set in this world.

The heroes' introductory missions mix up the formats we've become accustomed to in 'vanilla' XCOM 2. One mission lets you assign a resistance hero a bodyguard of two soldiers as you travel through a zombie-infested city on the way to a clandestine meeting. This bodes well for the special Chosen-hunting missions to come.

The two factions I have encountered so far—the powerful Reaper snipers and the fast hybrid Skrimishers—are characterful and exciting to use in the game. The Reaper hero can move and fire her sniper rifle, and has a chance to remain cloaked when performing actions, even when one of those actions involves tossing a claymore at someone's head. The skirmisher can obliterate enemies up close and then use a grappling hook to zip away to safety.

The Chosen patrol areas of the world map

Once the three Chosen have been introduced they pick a continent and camp down there. If you fight in their zone there is a chance they harry you during missions. The Chosen are tricky to deal with and they are a significant threat, but they have specific weaknesses that make them more manageable. The Assassin takes extra damage from Reapers and explosions, so you're encouraged to mix up your squads to incorporate some anti-Chosen options when you're battling in their territory.

If you don't disrupt the Chosen using covert actions and missions they can enact some nasty plans. The Assassin I'm battling at the moment is working towards "Retribution—a brutal crackdown on the Resistance, permanently lowering XCOM's income." The Chosen need to gather 'knowledge' before they can put a plan into action, which they accrue by kidnapping and holding XCOM soldiers. They give you a strong incentive to take a mission to break them out of prison.

I was worried The Chosen collectively would be too disruptive, but they are actually competing with one another for the favour of their alien overlords, thank goodness. That at least gives us the chance to pick them off one at a time.

Covert actions are an integral part of the expansion

You periodically receive a list of covert actions you can undertake from each resistance faction. You add the required soldiers to the mission, they vanish for a few days, and then automatically complete. Covert actions are essential if you want to hunt down the Chosen in that resistance faction's region, but they are also a vital source of supplies. You get a lot more rookies than you do in a standard XCOM 2 campaign, but it can be hard to scale up your economy to keep up with the demands of the campaign. 

You can also use covert actions also increase your influence with resistance factions. Doing this unlocks more resistance 'orders', which give you strong, specific upgrades. I have 'lightning strike', which gives units +3 mobility for the first two turns of battle while they are concealed. It's hard to tell at the moment whether it's worth pursuing these at the expense of other covert actions.

There are so many facilities to build now

This feels like the most unfocused part of the expansion so far. You need a resistance ring to enact resistance orders and manage your covert actions. You need a training facility to manage your soldiers' skills, in addition to the guerrilla tactics school, which you absolutely have to build at some point to expand your squad size. Clearing out rooms in the Avenger, spending money and assigning engineers doesn't involve much interesting decision-making and it feels like I'm being charged in-game currency to access some of the expansion's coolest features.

Your scientists get inspired

There is so much to juggle in War of the Chosen that the game has to give you a hand every now and then. Sometimes your science team will get excited about a particular technology upgrade. If you select that 'inspired' upgrade it completes extremely fast. They complete so fast it feels stupid to select any other upgrade.

You can check whether you will flank before you make a move

One of my favourite additions in the expansion is a small one. When you have a soldier selected you can press alt while mousing over a square to see if you will end up in a flanking position or not. This certainty is great for the game. War of the Chosen rewards you with skill points for tactically astute moves like flanking and attacking from high ground. You can use these to give your ordinary soldiers special abilities that normally belong to resistance group specialists.

There is a huge amount to the expansion, including more customisation options, maps, ordinary mission types, Advent variants, propaganda posters, resistance radio, dodgy "we're not so different, you and I" Chosen banter. We'll bring you more as I get stuck in. War of the Chosen is out on August 29.