It’s winter, which means I turn to things which give me comfort and joy. Anything to get through the cold days and long, dark nights. That often means video games, and usually games I’ve loved in the past and still enjoy. The XCom franchise has been near the top of that list since the original strategy title was released way back in 1994, as the world wide web was only beginning to dawn.

The XCom series was and remains a turn-based strategy game, which is a bit of an anachronism these days. The game takes place either in your base (an actual base in the original series; a flying helicarrier called, appropriately enough, The Avenger, in the newer one), where you monitor the world for potential alien attacks, build research and engineering facilities, and recruit/train soldiers for your squad; or in tactical combat mode where fields of battle occur using maps laid out in checkerboard squares that dictate movement for your soldiers and the enemies each turn, with obstacles for cover and a “fog of war” making encounters sometimes tense. Those basic concepts have remained since the first game. This game’s bones are built upon turn-based board games and RPG’s of the 70’s and 80’s, and I admire that they’ve stuck to the concept.

Reworked and released in 2012, XCom: Enemy Unknown was an excellent refresh of the original game. Still turn-based, still featuring retro science fiction fun positing an alien invasion of earth and the XCom force dedicated to researching the alien technology and building counter measures to supply a tactical squad for missions, it upped the classic. New graphics, new types of game play styles, and hella fun missions. Its expansion (Enemy Within) ramped things up to 11 by adding earth-based enemies who oppose XCom, adding additional complications for you to overcome as you to try to root out the people who are causing damage to your cause.

Next came the 2016 sequel, XCOM 2, which through repeated plays has become my favorite strategy title of all time. XCom 2 assumes you lost the previous game and now you must mount a resistance, contacting new zones over time and building up your forces. It definitely ramped things to 12 and was much harder (and some of their decisions I don’t necessarily agree with, like having to scan for supply drops every month rather than just receiving them).

War of the Chosen was the 2017 expansion pack for XCom 2 I somehow missed. Checking Steam a few weeks ago, I noticed it was on sale, so I picked it up and have been playing it nonstop ever since. I’d always thought XCom 2 was a challenging game. Every decision you make has ramifications, especially early on, and even the end game was hugely difficult. War of the Chosen makes the early stages of the game EVEN HARDER, though the trade off is that late-game activities feel much easier than they did in the original version.

War of the Chosen brings in three new resistance factions for you to work with. You can recruit their soldiers – Reapers, Templars, and Skirmishers respectively – each of whom have unique characteristics unavailable to your own troops and who are very useful in those early rounds. I found the Reapers in particular extremely powerful as scouts given their shadow ability. Over time, you will build a better relationship with each faction as you perform covert operations with them. But the ultimately goal for each faction is to defeat the alien-human overlord ruling their area of planet earth.

Bonus: many of the voices in the new expansion are our old Star Trek friends, including Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, and John de Lancie. I recognized Frakes fairly early on, though I had to look up who it was (the voice was familiar, but out of context I couldn’t quite figure out who it was).

These 3 new overlords – the assassin, the hunter, and the warlock – are super powerful beings who can ravage your squad during a mission. The first time I ran into one, I nearly lost the whole team. Two deaths, everyone else wounded, we barely got out of the encounter alive. Over time, as my squads improved, grew bigger, and got better weapons – and as I improved my tactics to deal with the new challenges –  these fights became more manageable, but they remained a difficult challenge until late in the game, coming as they often did in the middle of heated battles with other alien-human forces. They were absolutely a worthy addition that made even normal mode feel stressful. This is NOT a relaxing game, at least not at the start.

Then, toss in zombie hordes. Yes, that’s right, zombies. It seems some weapons of the aliens left cities in ruins and masses of humanity changed into the walking dead. Now imagine early on you’re fighting aliens, and now hordes of zombies are joining in, and one of the overlords shows up. Yeah. . . that was fun. Not. But the zombies are a fun addition to the game and ensure I have to use different tactics on those types of missions, which only expands the tactical feeling of the game and its replayability. Luckily they can usually be killed by single shots, and doing so gives you another free action. A squad member with good aim, like a sniper, can mow them down almost as fast as they can come. But you’ll still wind up with a good many of your squadies recovering from injuries and out of action for days or weeks.

Covert operations are a new feature with a variety of mission types. The most important type can help you track the overlords to their lairs to eventually be taken out. These missions in particular are needed to build the higher rapport with the other resistance factions. There’s way more depth to it then that of course – covert actions provide bonuses to the soldiers who partake of them, from promotions to permanent increases in critical skills, as well as supplies and other resources, AND those higher levels of trust allow you to have monthly goals with a faction that provide boosts to research or combat or bonuses to resources gathered. One monthly reward you can earn automatically gives you your monthly supplies, ending the silly scanning for them. Covert ops really makes things better, and they happen “behind the scenes” mostly, so it’s not taking too much of your time to do them.

There’s a whole raft of features and improvements that I love about this.  New maps; new mission types; new weapons; even new customizations for your squaddies. Though, like I said, it really ratchets up the difficult and stress early game. At one point I was a 19 hour counter (game time) away from losing, and only managed to save my bacon with a last-ditch desperate combat mission to destroy an important alien facility, a mission I wasn’t sure I was ready for. I never got that close again, but it was a near miss I didn’t care to repeat. Too early in the game for that to happen. I changed some of the ways I played and I think that helped.

The only bad part about the expansion is how much easier things are late game. The ability to increase soldier’s skill points to god-like levels, the new weapons (each overlord provides a unique weapon that’s a bit better than anything you can research – the sniper rifle alone is probably a bit too powerful, allowing you to move and fire in the same round, which had previously provided a check to snipers), everything combines to ensure you wind up with not one or two but as many as three or four competent and diverse teams of soldiers to carry out missions. I had enough I never worried if one were to be out wounded for a while, although by the end of the game most of my missions were coming back as “flawless” with almost zero opportunity for opposing forces to get a shot in edgewise before I’d taken them out.

Spoiler alert: in the original XCom 2 final battle, I remember spending HOURS getting through it, and losing three soldiers to the final boss and his minions. It was nearly a crushing defeat and the win was so very sweet. With War of the Chosen, I’d killed the boss 2 out of the 3 times required – the first time before he ever got off a single shot – before any of my soldiers took damage. In the end, only 1 soldier was wounded and nearly killed, but even they survived, and it was over in a total of 12 rounds. Much too easy I thought, though I still savored the victory. Then again, after spending so long fighting so hard, maybe I sort of enjoyed a bit more of a breeze through at the end. And, on the third hand, I beat XCom: Enemy Within even more easily with two shots on encountering that game’s final boss, so this was definitely more challenging.

War of the Chosen is a very worthy expansion I’m glad I finally picked up. Highly recommend this if you’re into turn-based strategy games and/or the XCom franchise in general. 9 out of 10 pieces of Reynolds wrap.

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