If you’d asked any of us if XCOM 2 would be better with mustache-twirling villains when it came out, we’d likely call the strategy game police. As goofy as XCOM’s Advent enemies are—a motley crew of little green men, snake people with boobs, and shape-shifting slime monsters—we’d cry out, ‘Strategy games are driven by cold, hard logic, not emotion!’ And yet, here we are, all angry at our own purple bad guys. Now we can blame our losses on the Chosen, three characters introduced in the recent War of the Chosen expansion that have hijacked XCOM 2 completely. They’re the best thing to happen to the series since its reintroduction, and some of the greatest videogame villains since Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system. We had to talk about them.
Tim Clark: I've honestly been blown away by the Chosen. Literally, on many missions, but figuratively by how fun they are to fight. Prior to jumping into the expansion, I had vague concerns that being menaced on already stressful missions by super aliens would be like getting sand in your spacesuit. But although the Chosen are irritants by design, there's such a thrilling build-and-release of tension to beating them that I actually looked forward to the encounters. Like all the best pantomime villains, the Chosen are chatty sallys—yammering on during missions, and even spilling over into the menus, telling you how much you suck and how you're doomed to failure.
And it's far from just talk. XCOM has always traded on the attachments you build with your favourite squad members, so the fact they can now be kidnapped during missions—and potentially rescued later—is a brilliant addition. I swiftly developed such a delicious mutual dislike for the Chosen, and burning desire to mount their heads in my trophy room (another brilliant addition), that even early on I was happy to call them the best bad guys since Shadow of War's Nemesis-enabled Warchiefs.
Evan Lahti: Their best feature is that they don't shut up. The Chosen finally give XCOM's bad guys a voice, an identity. The Advent are squawking clones; The Chosen have personalities. They harass you. They rub salt in the wound when you lose a soldier on a mission. When you steal one of their weapons, they have something to say about it. Their lines are often cheesy arrogance, but I love the way they perpetually interrupt your world-saving.
James Davenport: It’s funny, because I think in any other medium I’d be annoyed by how overtly Bad™ these villains are. They’re remorseless, cruel purple bullies and the planet is the schoolyard. Rarely do they say anything that gives them some kind of redeeming quality (that said, I haven’t finished the campaign), but I don’t care. Finally, I have some faces to attach my certain and plentiful losses to besides my own. The Chosen appear and mess my life up with such frequency that everything is their fault, surely. Right?
Tom Senior: Top tier enemies and heroes in XCOM 2 are so powerful they feel as though they are breaking the game—the Alien Hunters bosses can move every time one of your squadmates move, for example. The Chosen bring that illicit tomfoolery into the game at the very beginning, and keep raising the stakes throughout the campaign.
They also hit you where it hurts, not by blowing up the Avenger (though that is on their to-do list), but by kidnapping your soldiers, which is somehow worse. XCOM 2 does a great job of making you care about your troops, and just when you’ve forged that attachment, the Chosen teleport in and steal your precious heroes away.
The Chosen also show how flexible XCOM’s combat spaces can be. When you fight the assassin, there is no point in taking cover because she always strikes with her sword. That encourages you to form a close formation so your soldiers have each other’s backs. You get the fantasy of a bunch of soldiers standing back-to-back to face down an invisible foe.
Their power is perfectly tuned as well. They are difficult and cause problems, but you still regularly take small victories off them. One of the best moments of my campaign involved one-shotting the assassin with a reaper, who targeted a nearby piece of explosive scenery. For a Chosen that’s weak against reaper attacks and explosions, this meant game over and a swift retreat to her sarcophagus.
Bo Moore: The thing I love most about the Chosen is that they reliably translate the mechanics and combat of XCOM into an interesting boss fight. Too often, games with great regular-mission combat totally fail to produce interesting boss encounters (many immersive sims like Deus Ex and BioShock have this issue). XCOM had this issue too, as most of the "boss fights" you come across are just giant enemies like Sectopods—essentially giant bullet sponges with devastating attacks. Sure, they're difficult encounters, but they don't really feel like XCOM. Meanwhile, the Chosen move around strategically, take cover and flank you, and strike when you're most vulnerable. They're exciting enemies that I genuinely fear coming across—and absolutely love killing.
James Davenport: That’s part of a bigger reason they’re so fearsome to me. Besides feeling as capable as me, the Chosen give the impression of someone else playing the game against you. And I’m not just talking about combat encounters. While the days fly by in the strategic map as I research new technologies, so too are the Chosen researching their own ways to weaken my forces. The race to prevent the completion of the Avatar Project used to feel like a race against time, but now it’s a tug of war over efficiency with three gruesome jerks.
Evan Lahti: Three tall gruesome jerks. They're very tall, James.
Tim Clark: Lean in and let me tell you about my first kill. It was the Assassin, who'd previously kidnapped Alison Brie and Shailene Woodley, and had been indirectly responsible for the death of Clive Owen. (All my soldiers are named after actors and actresses.) This was a substantial score to settle. After meticulously picking my way through all the surrounding rooms—draw your own conclusions about how often I was saving—we finally found the sarcophagus chamber.
The battle went better than hoped, thanks to the double Reaper team comp I'd picked, and grenadier Maggie Qs disgusting damage output. But by the time the Assassin did its cheeky Jason from Friday the 13th respawn, a lot of my heavily armed thespians were badly hurt. Step up the hero of the hour, Jean Reno, a specialist who'd become renowned for missing every single clutch shot, but still made the cut on big missions because he'd rolled a bunch of good bonus abilities, including automatically going into overwatch even after dashing. Up he pops and: BLAMMO! A gigantic crit, the first I can recall him landing before or since, cleans the Assassin out in one shot. You better believe Jean got a poster that day. Bien joué, you sexy French bastard.
James Davenport: I skulljacked a Codex before my big fight. That was a bad idea. No one got a poster that day.
Tim Clark: Oh, and one more thing on the Assassin kill. How good are their unique weapons you then get to research? Hugh Jackman is now running her shotgun and katana plus a Wraith suit and absolutely wrecking shop with it. I love that Firaxis give you what's effectively a substantial loot payout for pulling off the big kill. The glow of victory should be satisfaction enough, but truthfully I'm all about sweet new guns.
Bo Moore: Oh hell yeah, the rewards are so rewarding. I slapped the Assassin's Katana on one of my star Rangers, modeled after FFXIII's Lightning. Another of my Rangers, LCD Soundsystem drummer Pat Mahoney, was stuck out of position on a VIP extraction when a group of ADVENT Mec troopers ambushed my team. He was pretty much boned, especially since I was out of grenades and all my shredders were out of moves.
All I had left was Lightning and her bondmate, but they were both out of range from impacting the fight enough to save poor Patrick. Luckily, Lightning's bondmate was able to lend her an action, which combined with Run and Gun gave her enough legs to get in range of the ADVENT squad and do some damage. She queued up her Reaper ability, which refunds actions if you score a melee kill, and went to work. The Assassin's Katana ignores armor, letting her slice through all three heavily-armored ADVENT Mecs in three fell swoops. Mahoney lives to drum another day.