Back when Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor first came out in 2014, people pretty much immediately started asking, “When will other games get Nemesis Systems?” Flash forward three years, and the most prominent game to do it is… Shadow of War, the sequel to Shadow of Mordor. But soon you’ll be able to add XCOM 2 to that painfully short list as well.
XCOM 2’s War Of The Chosen expansion, which comes out this August, unfortunately does not add orcs (Firaxis has gotta save something for XCOM 3), but it does shake up the game’s strategic and tactical layers with persistent enemy aliens called “The Chosen” who remember and reference what’s happened in previous battles. They’ll mention how other Chosen are doing or taunt soldiers they don’t like. They can even kidnap your soldiers, and, if you rescue them, that Chosen will give your soldier shit for getting kidnapped. In an interview at E3, XCOM 2 designer Jake Solomon told me the dev team was inspired by Shadow of Mordor in ways both obvious and subtle.
“We used [Shadow of Mordor] as a jumping off point,” Solomon said. “You’re playing that game, you’re developing these relationships, and it’s just so gratifying to have a game acknowledge what you’re doing as a player. Even to the point where, another element that inspired us from Shadow of Mordor [was the way orcs gain characteristics when you encounter them multiple times]. In XCOM, you fight these Chosen aliens multiple times, and as they get stronger, they gain procedural strengths and weaknesses.”
As examples, he offered a Chosen who becomes immune to stealth and a Chosen who learns to fire back at you immediately after you miss. “You’ve gotta change how you fight them every time,” he added. “It creates this kind of growing relationship.”
The goal is to add personality where, as Solomon sees it, there was kind of a void before. Granted, filling in the blanks with your own imagined stories and interactions has always been a large part of XCOM’s appeal, and Solomon doesn’t want to take that away. Rather, he wants to give players’ imaginations more to work with. “We wanted to get some life into this world—to give characters competing goals and get them talking—which is something we’ve never done,” he said. “That makes the game feel very different.”
Your soldiers will also grow and change over time. They can pick up procedural traits as well, though they won’t necessarily be positive ones. In War Of The Chosen, Solomon and Firaxis want players to build a large roster of extraterrestrial exterminators—rather than just a few crack squads—so soldiers can get tired from missions and develop quirks. For example, a soldier might get traumatized by psyonic attacks and begin freaking out when they see a Sectoid or a Codex. At that point, it’ll probably be in your best interest to bench them for a little bit.
But soldiers won’t just use their newfound cerebral cortexes to bury themselves in psychological torment. They can also become battle buddies. It’s not quite Fire Emblem-style romance, but the basic idea is similar. If two soldiers prove compatible (something that’s decided by procedurally generated factors), they’ll form a bond and gain special abilities when they’re together. Also, they’ll start shooting rifles and drinking beer together in between missions, which just sounds adorable.
If that’s not enough, soldiers will also be able to take victory pictures together after successful missions—a sort of extension of XCOM 2’s current “cool guys don’t look at their transport ship” victory screen—and bonded soldiers will get special treatment there, too. Instead of generic random text to accompany the photo—something like “The Heroes Of New Mexico”—they’ll get special text that references their bond. Solomon was particularly excited to offer an example that was inspired by a story from Kotaku’s own Luke Plunkett. You might remember that Luke took to calling a pair of soldiers he particularly adored “The Sisters Of No Mercy.” That, said Solomon, will be a possible bondmate nickname in War Of The Chosen.
But XCOM is not supposed to be a happy-go-lucky feelgood game about warbros who spout one-liners like “You think I’d miss this party?” and then maybe smooch. The aliens always have the upper hand, and humanity is on its last legs. It’s not about triumph, it’s about skin-of-your-teeth survival. So I had to know: what happens when bondmates die? Just how much is Firaxis going to twist the knife?
“If they’re on a mission together, the bondmate is gonna go berserk,” said Solomon. “They don’t like seeing their friend die at all. It’s not good.”
The development team discussed taking things even further. They considered preventing a soldier who’d lost a bondmate from ever bonding again. They even thought about having surviving soldiers go stare at your base’s memorial wall after missions and just grieve. But they realized that might all be a little too much.
“We thought about it and decided against it,” said Solomon. “It’s this fine line of, would that be emotionally impactful for the player, or would the player just feel like shit because, I mean, losing a soldier is bad enough already?”