If you’ve never played XCOM 2, here’s my advice: Skip the vanilla version and start by playing the new expansion, War of the Chosen. It’s the best 2K’s XCOM series has ever been.
War of the Chosen is a massive expansion, but it’s not quite a whole new game. Rather, it goes over XCOM 2 with a fine-toothed comb, hunting for mite-sized specks of story to blow up so big that you’ll never forget them. If you’ve played XCOM 2 before, get ready for a familiar ride that picks the perfect moments to swerve left when you were expecting it to go right. And its dynamic, procedurally generated gameplay let me craft my own compelling dramas.
The story of Elisabeth “Thunder” Martine and Felipe “Lightning” Garcia is one of tragedy and triumph, of premature endings and new beginnings, of people profoundly impacting each other, even after cruel circumstances force them apart. It’s one of my favorite tales I’ve experienced in a game this year, and it would’ve never happened had XCOM 2: War of the Chosen not crapped out an extremely ugly in-game poster.
Thunder and Lightning were the first of my characters to “bond” in XCOM 2’s new War of the Chosen expansion, which overhauls the base game with new systems like factions to collaborate with, persistent “chosen” enemies, and bonds between your squadmates. However, it still maintains the base game’s overall structure, in which you assemble a ragtag band of rebels to slowly disarm your alien overlords’ secret “Avatar” project via a series of turn-based guerilla skirmishes. As ever, your soldiers can and will die permanently—unless you save scum your way through every encounter, but that’s The Wrong Way To Play XCOM.
When I talk about the “bond” between Thunder and Lightning, I’m referring to one of War of the Chosen’s most-touted new systems. Some characters, after spending enough time together in battle or during side missions, can become battle BFFs, granting them new powers like the ability to give an additional action—the chance to move, attack, or use a skill again during a turn—to their bondmate. But they have to be together, or else these powers aren’t an option.
This means it’s to your advantage to cram bondmates into XCOM 2’s small four-to-six-character squads in many (but not all) situations. But that description doesn’t really paint the full picture. Bonds, you see, are also a diabolical trap, because they’re one of the many new ways War of the Chosen gets you to care about your people. If you’re an XCOM fan, you know by now that, traditionally, caring has been a road that only leads to sadness. War of the Chosen takes it to the next level, turning that road into a Slip ‘N’ Slide greased with your tears.
When Thunder and Lightning first bonded, the game asked me if I wanted to make a poster of them, something War of the Chosen lets you do to commemorate and share memorable moments like new bonds, hard-fought victories, or even deaths. You can customize posters by posing characters as you please, picking environments, and adding text and filters, but I like randomizing them to see what the game’s algorithms can come up with. They came up with this:
It was so deliciously cheesy that I decided to run with it. I manually changed the characters’ nicknames to Thunder and Lightning, only to realize that it totally worked. Thunder was a deafening terror, her a shotgun a boisterous herald of imminent extraterrestrial doom. Lightning, meanwhile, preferred to quietly ply his trade from afar, but his sniper shots popped the heads of human-alien hybrid Advent soldiers in a flash. They never knew what hit ‘em. Even the characters’ brief, mid-battle dialogue barks fit: Thunder was fierce and impatient, serious as a heart attack. Lightning, on the other hand, didn’t say a lot, possessed by an almost disarming calm even in the worst of times. (You can customize the barks, although I chose not to.) Also, the game randomly generated Lightning with doofy-ass aviator sunglasses and Guile hair, which I took to mean that he was pathologically incapable of giving a fuck.
Thunder and Lightning became inseparable, propelling each other to the two highest kill counts of my 30-or-so-strong roster. They led my team by example and actuality. On the battlefield, they seemed almost untouchable, dodging alien blasts or resisting mind control on the rare occasions that I maneuvered them into dicey situations. As their bond leveled up, granting them more abilities, I gave them matching tattoos on opposite arms and color-coordinated punk rock outfits. They looked ridiculous. I was extremely pleased.
Those were the good times. They didn’t last.
The titular Chosen, it turned out, were Thunder and Lightning’s undoing. These super-powered aliens intervene in battles as they please, provided you’re battling on their turf. There are three of them, each with unique abilities and strategic tendencies, and you can’t just kill them off like you can other enemies. Until you discover their lairs and take the fight to them, they keep coming back better, smarter, and stronger.
One of them, The Hunter, wouldn’t stop harassing my squads during otherwise routine missions, so I decided to collaborate with one of War of the Chosen’s new factions, the cyberpunk-psychic Templars, to take him down. This involved sending a couple high-ranking members of my tiny army on covert missions that I didn’t have direct control over. These came with risks—up to and including the possibility that The Hunter would kidnap one of my people—but mostly they just took time, forcing me to go on regular missions without some of my best and brightest.
To hunt The Hunter, I chose Thunder and a rookie squad member who I figured could use the experience. I would’ve sent Lightning along with Thunder, but he was wounded from a previous battle at the time. I didn’t think much of it. They were extremely powerful together or apart, and the game implied that the covert mission wouldn’t be too much trouble anyway.
While Thunder was away, I got an alert about a regular mission that’d let me temporarily disrupt the aliens’ Avatar project by destroying a communications relay. This was a big one, given that if you let the Avatar project get out of hand, you permanently lose the entire game. I was informed that the mission would be “difficult,” but I figured a crew made up of most of my best troops could handle it.
For the most part, they did. I had them use a mix of stealth and tactical sniping to cope with the aliens’ superior numbers. But then, when it seemed like all we had left to do was a little clean-up on a couple more squads of aliens, The Hunter showed up. I’d dealt with his relative, The Assassin, previously, so I thought I was ready. I had two of my squad members, a shotgun-toting ranger and a hulking grenadier, close in on his position. Meanwhile, I had my two specialists use their drones to give my ranger and grenadier defensive buffs so they could weather whatever storm The Hunter was planning.
He opened fire on Lightning instead. Lightning, who I thought was protected by the cover of an entire house I’d positioned him behind. I miscalculated. He died in a flash. Never knew what hit him. And just like that, while Thunder was out hunting The Hunter, he’d hunted down her best friend.
The remainder of my squad managed to surround The Hunter and lay into him with grenades (one of his procedurally generated weaknesses), but it was an extremely hollow victory. He teleported away, cursing my name and saying other Menacing Villain Shit™, but lived to get stronger and fight another day. Lightning did not have that luxury. Rather grimly, the game then asked me if I wanted to make a poster. I hit the randomize button, and here’s what I got:
Lightning: a cheesy-ass motherfucker, even in death.
Depressed, especially given all the customization work I’d just done on both Thunder and Lightning, I returned to the overworld map, only to get an alert that Thunder’s mission was in jeopardy. There’d been an ambush, and her and her rookie partner were surrounded by Advent soldiers and a new War of the Chosen enemy, the zombie-like Lost, who appear in hordes so large that the game lets you take an extra shot every time you manage to down one. I couldn’t believe it. Was Thunder gonna die right after Lightning?
When covert ops fall apart, the game gives you control of the aftermath. I was tasked with directing Thunder and her woefully underpowered pal through the blanched bones of a once-thriving city. The game advised me to throw conventional wisdom to the wind, break cover on a regular basis, and basically sprint to the evac point. I tried that, only to get cornered by Advent soldiers. In the ensuing battle, I accidentally blew up a car, which attracted a horde of Lost, who started attacking my people and the Advent goons. Eventually, I had my people scramble up to the third floor of an apartment complex and flee. They barely made it to the evac point, but nobody died. Phew.
In my headcanon, it was only when Thunder got back to base after her near-death experience that she found out she was the lucky one. In War of the Chosen, characters fly into berserk rages if they lose their bondmate mid-battle, and they can even come away from those encounters emotionally scared. But this was somehow worse. In-character as Thunder, I wrote Lightning’s epitaph:
In my headcanon, though, Thunder was not the type to mope. She was a soldier, damn it. She knew what she signed up for. She resolved to carry on for both of them—and to kill enough aliens for eight or nine sets of both of them. To symbolize this, I went into the customization menu and gave her another copy of the matching tattoo she and Lightning shared, but this time on her left arm. I also gave her a pair of aviator sunglasses, a precious memento that (I imagine) her fellow soldiers brought back from their ill-fated encounter with The Hunter. In addition, I popped open her abilities menu and used War of the Chosen’s new ability to point system, which allows for far less straightforward characters than vanilla XCOM 2, to learn a couple sniper abilities. Lastly, I decided to change her nickname. I was gonna go with “Storm,” but the game had already procedurally generated a Templar character with that name, so instead I went with “Odin,” aka the god of war and dad of Thor.
What happened next couldn’t have been better if a team of writers had scripted it. I got an alert that Advent soldiers had attacked a resistance enclave, and they were turning it into a bloodbath. I decided to intervene with the newly re-christened Odin leading my squad. As we pushed deeper into the chaos, you’ll never guess who decided to go full-asshole and make an appearance: our old friend The Hunter. To make matters worse, he was absolutely insistent about locking onto Odin. It was like he didn’t even know my other characters were there, or at the very least, he really didn’t care. Each time he got line-of-sight on her from his perch on the other side of the map, I’d move her just out of harm’s way, advancing position all the while.
He started taunting her. “You can run, you can hide, but soon, I will find you,” he cackled at one point. I moved Odin just one square away from his line of sight and unleashed a hellacious shotgun blast on a giant, hideous “Faceless” enemy. “Who said anything about running?” I said out loud.
You’re probably reading this and thinking it sounds like a bunch of cliche action/espionage movie stuff, and you’re right. But it’s my cliche action/espionage story, and my favorite that an XCOM game has ever given me. War of the Chosen created this gripping narrative with a bunch of new systems that emphasize the XCOM series’ trademark life-or-death core. In previous games, you might have gotten bummed when a soldier died, and maybe you imagined that some of your other soldiers were sad too. War of the Chosen provides real fodder for those imagined scenarios with bonds, emotional states, posters, and Chosen enemies.
More than new environment types, enemies, character classes, abilities, or any of that typical expansion stuff (all of which, I should add, War of the Chosen also does quite nicely), that’s what makes this expansion so great. Add to that the fact that resistance factions open up all sorts of new routes through the game—you don’t just have to follow a particular build order in your base and obsessively monitor the Avatar project anymore—and it’s likely that your stories will be very different from mine. There’s variety for days.
The flipside of this is that adding more layers, rather than stripping some away, also accentuates some of XCOM 2’s flaws. Once you make it past the game’s opening, the overworld map becomes cluttered with things to do, and new events pop up multiple times per in-game day. On the ground, meanwhile, the game’s tension remains palpable for longer than it did in the base game, but your characters still ultimately become mega-badasses capable of dispatching aliens without breaking a sweat about halfway through. The difference this time is that once you’ve taken out the Chosen, you’ve already dealt with your biggest threat. The remainder of the game is pretty anticlimactic after that.
War of the Chosen is also a hodge-podge in terms of tone and thematics. At this point it’s humans vs. aliens vs. zombies vs. the Chosen, who are essentially orcs from Shadow of Mordor, and you can make soldiers that are literally clowns. One of the XCOM series’ great strengths is the menace that accompanies each encounter, where you never know what new alien horror lurks around each corner. The potential zaniness of this one detracts from that. In addition, the Chosen are fairly human-like in their looks and mannerisms, which makes them distinctly less frightening than alien monstrosities from the great beyond.
In the face of all the brilliant systems War of the Chosen adds, though, those things are nitpicks. I’m far more invested in War of the Chosen than I was XCOM 2, and I thought XCOM 2 was fantastic.
Odin, you will probably not be surprised to hear at this point, eventually cornered The Hunter. He confidently strode toward her, lamenting that he was gonna have to end her so soon. My squad, though, had other plans. A couple grenades later, The Hunter’s armor was gone, and Odin got to personally finish the job with her sword. It was a vengeance, a tribute, a farewell.
About ten hours of playtime later, I hunted down and dispatched The Hunter once and for all. That moment, though, when Lightning’s death was still fresh, and his best friend weathered a storm of improbably tragic circumstances to say goodbye in her own way, will outlive my memories of countless other video game stories.