XCOM 2: War of the Chosen review in progress - an exciting, arduous expansion

Deep in an abandoned city full of zombies UK editor-in-chief and XCOM grenadier Samuel Roberts is in trouble. He has been mind controlled by one of War of the Chosen's boss villains, a psionic master known as The Warlock. Mind control, as you would expect, gives the Chosen complete control over Samuel's movements.

It's too late for me to move him away from the rest of my group, we're being swarmed by dozens of zombies and the extraction point is at the end of a long street. Samuel turns and raises his weapon.

He makes this face:

And then grenades two squad mates and the VIP I need to extract.

They don't quite die. I order them to flee towards the extraction zone, away from the zombie hordes (an extra five or six seem to pour onto the map every turn) and away from their crazed colleague. Explosions draw even more of The Lost into the fight, so Sam's betrayal makes things worse for everyone.

The Lost are former civilians who have been warped into mindless killing machines by alien energy somehow. That means they have no allegiance, and will happily attack aliens. I notice the top of the street the Warlock has become totally swamped by zombies. The Chosen have special rules that describe strengths and weaknesses, and the Warlock takes bonus 'bewildered' damage if he is damaged by three or more sources in a turn.

The mission is not going well for him.

The Chosen Warlock is down to just three health. I raced my squad and the VIP to the extraction zone. Sam shakes the mind control (the Warlock is understandably distracted) and starts running for home as his squad mates snipe the lost trying to eat him. I consider staying one more turn, just to see if the Chosen falls, but I extract instead. Mission complete.

Almost everything about this scenario felt fresh. Lost city missions featuring zombies crop up infrequently enough to make these knotted three-way conflicts feel novel even 20 hours into the expansion. The lost cities are one of a fantastic collection of new environment sets, which include neon slums and underground sewer hideouts. I don't know if the level generation systems have been significantly tweaked for the expansion, but so far the battlefields have been believable, exciting places to fight.

The new resistance heroes are a fantastic addition. The reapers, skirmishers and templars are very powerful, and capable of executing mission-saving plays. The sneaky sniper-equipped Reaper can throw a claymore and then shoot it to detonate without breaking stealth. Brilliantly any XCOM member can shoot the claymore once it's down. I fought through a mission from vanilla XCOM 2 in which your Avenger base craft gets shot down. Under pressure from waves of assault, you have to charge out of the avenger to blow up a suppression array. My Reaper charged past everyone in stealth and chucked a claymore at it. One of my other snipers shot it all the way from the base area (you automatically hit claymores). With some help from my other snipers, it quickly went down.

Reapers can also shoot unstable terrain to cause massive explosions. In one mission the Assassin Chosen teleported onto the map, beat up a ranger and then took cover behind an explosive stack of alien machinery. The Assassin takes extra damage from both explosions and Reaper attacks. Defeated by a single explosion, the Assassin fled to fight another day.

The human-alien hybrid Skirmisher class have ways of making a big impact. The grappling hook and natural speediness, combined with a deadly close-range gun, marks them out as a hit-and-run class. However my favourite Skirmisher moment so far involved using their grapple hook grab to seize an enemy general fleeing for his extraction point and pull him back across the map into a close combat attack.

Templars are the most unusual class. They have a machine pistol, but their primary attack power comes from the flaming psychic blades they can shoot out of their forearms. Whenever they hit an enemy they build focus, which powers up the Templar's attacks and unlocks their most powerful abilities. Every time you attack in close combat you get a free move, so your Templar can run out of combat, deal massive damage to a single target, then take another move back into cover.

This is absurdly strong, the resistance heroes take time and investment to unlock. You get one of each flavour when you meet each faction, but to recruit more you need to complete covert missions to build trust with each faction. These ask you to dedicate a few soldiers to run a mission in the background for a week or so. Important covert actions, such as missions that track down the Chosen and eventually allow you to defeat them for good, require soldiers of higher rank. The soldiers gain experience and promotions, though there is a chance they can be wounded or captured in the process.

PERFORMANCE

So far XCOM 2: War of the Chosen has run exactly as well as vanilla XCOM 2 on my PC. I'm playing the game on a GTX970 8GB, Intel Core i5-4670K 3.4GHz, 8GB RAM. On this rig the game runs confidently at 60+ frames per second on high settings. 

Covert actions can mean removing your most powerful and interesting soldiers from the game for a while. This initially seems like a shame, but War of the Chosen encourages you to develop a wide roster with a lot of different skills. Rookies and supplies are plentiful, and some covert actions give you a way to correct an intel, supply or personnel shortages so you can grow out your roster as needed. 

Covert actions are essentially a gating mechanism and a correction mechanism that lets you can use to even out the hand the game has dealt you. I like them because they improve your soldiers in the process, and they provide you with interesting decisions to make once you've met all three resistance factions. You can only pursue one covert action at a time, do you hunt the Chosen in your region, or do you try to build faith with a different resistance group because you want their sweet psychic fiery arm-sword guys?

In other areas War of the Chosen feels sluggish, particularly on the strategic layer where you build rooms on the Avenger, direct research and choose where to place the Avenger on the world map. War of the Chosen piles all of its new ideas onto the same old campaign. You're still hunting down black sites to slow the Avatar project. You're pulling chips out of the commander's brain, autopsying alien cadavers, capturing live aliens for study—all of the beats have been the same so far. But in addition you're freeing soldiers from Chosen prisons, fending off attacks on the new resistance factions, countering dark events, attacking supply convoys and all the rest of it.

As a result the map screen starts to look quite busy.

I have found myself fighting through many more missions on a shorter time frame, which stretches the gear progression arc substantially. It feels as though my research for basic plated armour has been going for about four hours now, as I've fended off attacks on my territories, struck out at enemy supply lines and thwarted dark projects. The new missions, classes, enemy types and Chosen bosses are exciting additions, but they stack your responsibilities high. The more I have to deal with, the more the game feels as though it's slipping out of my control.

XCOM 2 balanced reactive and proactive play beautifully. You start with a few resistance contacts, defending desperately and clawing back resources where you can. Then you start chasing down alien facilities and taking offensive action. Outside of the covert actions, War of the Chosen has been almost entirely reactive so far. It's not a harder game, exactly, but it's more of a slog, in part because the exciting new elements mesh with a plot that is so very familiar to XCOM players now.

I'm not at a point where I can put a final score on the expansion yet. I want to make it through the full campaign to see how the Chosen interplay with XCOM 2's traditional story beats, and I need to run the start of a few extra campaigns to find out to what extent the campaign is randomised, and to feel out whether these pacing changes are a result of this particular playthrough. I'll be back next week with a verdict, and some things I wish I knew before I kicked off the campaign.

I will leave you with a memorial of one lost soldier who fought bravely. RIP PC Gamer editor Phil Savage.