XCOM Items Analysis Part 3: Gene Mods and Medals

Gene Mods
Gene Mods cost Meld and $ and take the soldier out of action for five days while the Gene Mod is being installed. Most Gene Mods require you autopsy specific Aliens to unlock, as well.

You only get one Gene Mod per soldier for each of the five application possibilities. (ie only one of the two Brain options, only one of the two Eye options, etc)

If I don't specify a required Autopsy, it's because the Gene Mod is unlocked the instant you can perform Gene Mods at all.


Neural Damping
+20 defensive Will, panic immunity, Mind Control stuns soldier instead of mind controlling them
35$, 20 Meld. Requires Berserker Autopsy.
The generalist choice compared to Neural Feedback, and also primarily the low-Will choice. If you've got a soldier you want to keep using whose Will is too low to protect them from Mind Control, this is your go-to option. It's also obviously protecting against panic, but panic is very rare (A soldier with 80 Will cannot panic under any circumstances without penalties being applied to their Will, which is a fairly easy value to achieve even without taking into account external Will boosters like Neural Damping itself), even for soldiers with extremely low Will, so this isn't particularly a reason to take it. Even though it theoretically means that Neural Damping is more consistently useful than Neural Feedback, since Neural Feedback is only useful against Sectoid Commanders and Ethereals, where Neural Damping can come up in any mission against any enemy, it's just not a strong enough reason on its own.

The fact that it burns more Meld than Neural Feedback is another strike against it, unfortunately.

Neural Feedback
Does 1+1x10 Will to enemies who use Psi on the soldier, and forces all their Psi abilities into cooldown
35$, 10 Meld. Requires Sectoid Commander Autopsy.
The specialized anti-Psi option: at high Will it can do fairly high damage to enemies and regardless of Will it can take Ethereals entirely out of the fight for a time. (Everything they can do aside from move around is considered a Psi ability) Note that the enemy's Will is not factored into the damage. A soldier with extremely good Will rolls carrying a Mind Shield and wearing Psi Armor can do 19~ damage in retaliation. That will outright kill a Sectoid Commander, even on Classic/Impossible, and an Ethereal on Impossible will be down to 6 hit points, just 1 on any other difficulty level.

Notably, since everything Ethereals can do to your soldiers is considered to be a psionic action, it's very easy to bait them into triggering Neural Feedback, and anything they try is unlikely to work or will do poor damage to the soldier if you've stacked that much Will onto them. Simply ensure that the Neural Feedback soldier is the only thing in the Ethereal's reach. The trickier part will be cleaning out the Muton Elite bodyguards without leaving anybody else in reach of the Ethereal -unless of course you've got multiple soldiers with Neural Feedback.

Notably, Neural Feedback is pretty cheap to slot in. Its main problem is that doing stuff like upgrading your Mecs or installing Adaptive Bone Marrow is much more consistently relevant, and it's pretty easy to burn through your Meld stocks rapidly if you're careless about it, even if you aren't losing soldiers you've invested Meld into.


+10 Aim to next shot after a miss
15$, 5 Meld

Arguably the generalist option compared to Depth Perception? It doesn't self-stack, anyway, so it's not some kind of sanity check ensuring that insane dodge can be overcome. It's just... there. Sufficiently small, situational benefit I question whether it's worth the Meld cost. At least it's cheap?

Depth Perception
+5 Aim/+5 Crit chance if the soldier has the height advantage
15$, 5 Meld

For soldiers intending to abuse height advantage. Too small a benefit to really care. Really, so small I have to question whether it's worth the Meld at all. It's admittedly Meld-cheap, but 5 Meld isn't nothing, and it adds up if you slap it onto multiple Snipers. Which Snipers are honestly the main soldier type to give it to, since if they're in a sniper nest it's basically a free, automatic benefit, however small it might be.

On a conceptual level, Depth Perception bothers me, too. The whole point of the way human eyes are positioned is to produce depth perception. Exactly what is this Gene Mod supposed to be doing differently? The little graphic does nothing to clarify the point...


Secondary Heart
Soldier bleeds out instead of dying the first time they hit zero HP in a battle, bleed out timer is 2 turns longer, and Critical Wounds don't affect Will
75$, 15 Meld. Requires Cyberdisc Autopsy.

Great if you're not good at keeping your soldiers alive. If you're good at the game, it's a lot more questionable. It's also the go-to choice for anyone you want to be a psi soldier, to ensure they will remain at peak performance on their psi abilities.

It puzzles me that having a second heart ensures that you don't die the first time you drop to zero health. What about being shot in the head? Why would a second heart prevent that from being lethal? And... why does performing an autopsy on a Cyberdisc provide insight into how to install a second heart into a human being? The Autopsy on the Cyberdisc indicates it's actually a cybernetic organism, but that doesn't really explain why it provides the foundation for the Secondary Heart Gene Mod. There's a line about studying how the Cyberdisc "circulates plasma", but not only is the idea of plasma as blood faintly absurd, it still doesn't explain how the Cyberdisc autopsy leads to the Secondary Heart Gene Mod. Even taking into account the end-game dialogue further cementing that Cyberdiscs are cyborgs and therefore have organic components... uh, so? That doesn't imply they have a second heart or anything. It's really bizarre.

Adrenal Neurosympathy
When this soldier lands a kill, the soldier and nearby allies not blocked by cover get a 2-turn bonus of +10 Aim, +15 Crit, and +2 move. (Also clears panic in those allies) Once triggered, there's a 5-turn delay before the given soldier can re-trigger.
25$, 10 Meld. Requires Muton Autopsy.

A useful, general ability. The bonuses are small, but you're going to be killing things, and the potential for it to boost the entire squad means that it'll "add up" fairly quickly. If you've got Meld to burn, it's definitely worth it, and even if you don't it's probably worth slapping onto somebody. Probably a Sniper, since they don't particularly benefit from Secondary Heart if you're using them properly.

Adrenal Neurosympathy's range is huge, incidentally, and as far as I can tell the idea that its effect can be blocked by cover doesn't actually mean anything. It's hard to say though, as the game's implementation of line of sight and line of fire are sufficiently wonky all-around it's entirely possible that it is, in fact, coded to be blocked by objects, and it's just not obvious because the way the game determines whether cover applies is inconsistent and confusing anyway.


Bioelectric Skin
Can "see" enemies through walls within a short range and is immune to strangulation.
35$, 15 Meld. Requires Chryssalid Autopsy.

Actually quite nice. Perhaps a bit expensive for what it does, and on open maps that lack Seekers it's useless, but most of the time it's actually a pretty cool tool. You only need one or two guys with it, too, so the fact that Mimetic Skin is brokenly good doesn't mean Bioelectric Skin is simply out-competed. Giving Bioelectric Skin to your Snipers means you don't need to worry about them being strangled by Seekers when they're off Squadsighting by themselves, and also bolsters their relevancy in the indoor environments Snipers usually struggle to be an aid in. Alternatively you can give it to an Assault, particularly once you're late in the game and can give them Ghost Armor to provide a source of cloaking. With Bioelectric Skin they'll often be able to tell when they're going to encounter enemies soon anyway, and so are less likely to regret the lack of Mimetic Skin.

Mimetic Skin
Soldier cloaks when moving into Full Cover if they weren't in line of sight of an enemy when initiating the move.
150$, 65 Meld. (Originally 75$, 35 Meld) Requires Seeker Autopsy.

Utterly broken. There's a reason a patch basically doubled its cost. Excepting Sectopods, no enemy has any way of coping with invisible soldiers, Mimetic Skin's requirements to be activated are fairly trivial -the act of becoming cloaked means that you don't need to worry about whether the Full Cover will be safe from a flank or not- especially for a high-level Sniper, won't activate Alien pods that enter your line of sight thus allowing things like In The Zone Squadsight kills on enemies because they haven't had the chance to run for Cover, and is just... all the utility it brings to the table would basically require an entire post to itself to go over in full. It's incredible, and the developers seem to have severely underestimated it during development.

The only substantial caveat to the effect is that Full Cover is not always available in a fairly large area, particularly on some of the outdoors maps. Even with activated Aliens, it's not that hard to arrange to trigger it. You just need to have that soldier break line of sight with the Aliens, and then move to Full Cover. The Sectopod is basically the only Alien that can do anything about cloaked soldiers, and Mimetic Skin never times out. The cloak effect will remain until the soldier does something to end it, or until their Full Cover is destroyed. There's also a number of useful actions a soldier can take that won't break the cloak!

Going into Overwatch, tossing a Flashbang, tossing a Mimic Beacon, reloading the soldier's weapon, applying a Medikit, and using Psi Inspiration are all actions that won't break the cloak. While some of these aren't so useful (Mostly I'm thinking Mimic Beacon), effects like being able to reload under cloak are actually fantastic, and even Overwatching without breaking the cloak is a positive. +30% crit chance on incoming Aliens will stack with the +50% bonus for them being out in the open for a nearly guaranteed crit right there, before even adding in points like that Shotguns have an innate +20% crit chance. (Admittedly, this requires you're running Opportunist to matter, which realistically requires you're using Training Roulette...)


Muscle Fiber Density
Thin Men jump effect.
60$, 25 Meld. Requires Thin Men Autopsy.

I'm not sure why this is priced so high, given that Skeleton Suits, Ghost Armor, and Archangel provide similar functionality. It's also the second-most expensive Gene Mod, which... what? Heck, a Skeleton Suit costs half the $ to make!

To be fair, it's potentially very useful for Covert Operatives -who can't take Armor- and for Assaults, who can Run & Gun much farther out than the grapnel can take them. The Volunteer might appreciate it as well, since they're not allowed a grapnel-capable suit and the mobility has its uses in the final mission. It's also just plain more useful than Adaptive Bone Marrow if you expect to successfully minimize the ability of enemies to get in shots on you, since Muscle Fiber Density isn't dependent on being shot to be useful.

The pricing is still rather bonkers, though.

Adaptive Bone Marrow
Wound recovery time reduced to a third, and the soldier will fully regenerate their "natural" health in combat, 2 HP per turn.
30$, 15 Meld.

Wound recovery time reduction is nice, but the big benefit is the regeneration in combat. It's capped by the fact that even an elite soldier tends to be getting half or more of their health from their armor, but it's obviously a huge benefit against weaker Aliens, and even against stronger Aliens the hit point extension, for free, no need to spend a Medikit charge, is excellent. Oddly, the battle regeneration tends to make the wound recovery redundant, as anyone who ends a fight with only armor HP missing doesn't need wound recovery time. It's also kind of weird, logically speaking, that a soldier can regenerate entirely over the course of a battle, but if the fight ends with them still wounded, they'll need hours to days to heal, just less than if they didn't have Adaptive Bone Marrow.

One flaw with it is that it encourages slow, cautious play (To give soldiers time to heal) having been introduced as a Meld-requiring upgrade in Enemy Within, where Meld Canisters discourage slow and cautious play. Also, if you're doing slow and cautious play properly, Aliens will rarely get the chance to inflict damage. There's a bit of a paradoxical nature to the Gene Mod.

It's still useful, there's just wonky elements to the design.


A complicated Enemy Within addition. Read the page yourself if you care about the full details. Note that Will bonuses from Medals don't apply to Psi combat at all. Also note that which Medal option you take is a permanent choice for the long term: you don't get to assign a Squadsight Sniper a +Aim Urban Combat Medal while giving an Assault the +Defense version of the same. You'll have either one or the other version of the Medal in a given run, the end.

Urban Combat Badge (Limit 5, provided every few missions)

+5 Defense in Cover.
+5 Aim against enemies in Full Cover.

This one is just silly. Take the first one, period: in practice it will nearly always apply anyway. The second one is a lot more narrow in where it applies, and frankly making Full Cover only +15 Defense compared to Partial Cover is pretty worthless. It makes a lot more sense to load up on ways to destroy cover or flank the target than it does to just suck it up and hope the Urban Combat Badge's slight increase in Aim saves the day. You'll never know when the first option helped, but you can count on it being relevant basically anytime anything shoots at you. (Unless you get flanked)

Defender's Medal (Limit 3, issued when soldiers are killed or critically wounded, occasionally just when wounded)

Soldier never panics in response to allies being injured or killed.
Medikits and Restorative Mists restore 2 more HP when used on this soldier.

This is an odd one. As "natural' panic is very rare in the game anyway, the first option isn't very useful, but the second option is weird. I basically feel the second one is better -just, it's hard to pin down who you should give it to, exactly. Assaults, I guess, since they are the most prone to risky actions?

International Service Cross (Limit 2, requires missions have been done on three different continents)

+2 Will to the soldier for each different nationality in the squad.
+2 Aim for each continent bonus X-COM has earned.

Silly and gimmicky. It basically boils down to "pick option 2", since you set a Medal's type of bonus for the rest of the game, and you'll eventually have all the continent bonuses in good play, whereas you can't guarantee having every member of the squad be from different nationality. Eeeh. I guess it's nice to make nationality of troopers mechanically meaningful without turning to stereotyping? But it's the undesirable choice, so it falls a bit flat.

Council Medal of Honor (Limit 2, requires a minimum number of Terror/Council/Cover Operations missions be completed)

+1 Aim and Will for each mission the soldier has participated in (After being given the Medal) in which no soldier died, to a maximum of +10.
+10 Aim and +10 crit if no allies are within 7 tiles of the soldier.

I like this Medal. Build up to a long-term payoff that's stable or take an immediate, overall weaker payoff (Will is more useful than a crit chance, really) that you have to play a specific way to actually benefit from. A lone Squadsight Sniper probably prefers the latter possibility in general, admittedly, but Squadsight Snipers tend to work in pairs so it's still a complicated Medal. The former is the more general, powerful option, but if you're still struggling to avoid deaths by the time you're given the Council Medal of Honor, the second choice is probably the better choice.

Star of Terra (Limit 1, awarded upon completing the X-COM Base Defense Mission)

Entire squad gets +5 Will and +5 Defense. (Robots only get Defense bonus)
All squad members below Lieutenant gain 25% more out of the mission completion experience value.

All buddies are slightly better, or all lower-ranking buddies grow faster. You'll only get this Medal once, so be careful with the solder you give it to. If you're managing to hold onto a stable squad of six experienced members the Will+Defense will be better, and the fact that Council missions can gift experienced soldiers means that if you have a low attrition rate you'll still not be benefiting from the experience gain advantage. (Lieutenant is, in fact, the minimum level for gift soldiers, so the medal will never help a gift soldier level up!) The Will+Defense choice has the meta-advantage that it fits better to the assumption that you'll manage to keep the holder of the Medal alive -if you're expecting soldiers to die on a regular enough basis to outpace Council soldier gifts, you're probably not able to keep the Medal holder alive consistently anyway.

Basically, probably take the Will/Defense bonus and never look back.


Gene Mods seem extremely ill-considered, advancing the transhumanism of the base game (Which was restricted to psychic powers and the amoral Aliens' cybernetic horror back then) in a context it's really, really inappropriate to. There are so many logistical and ethical difficulties in permanently installing major military hardware into soldiers who are intended to return to the civilian population after their tour of duty is up, and Enemy Within entirely ignores them. This is particularly painful when you consider that Dr. Vahlen will comment, when you come up against EXALT Elites, that XCOM would, "of course", never modify their people so extensively.

Never mind that the player can install up to five Gene Mods into each soldier, and EXALT Elites only have one Gene Mod apiece. Never mind that Mecs are based around Meld use as well, and the first step in creating a Mec is, for some ungodly reason, removing all their limbs to then replace them with metal versions. In fact, only the head seems to survive the conversion process! No no, EXALT has obviously modified its operatives far more than we would ever do, because even though we're transhumanists at heart, we totally do it less than EXALT as proof that we're more moral.

Sorry, no. XCOM only has the moral high ground over the Aliens in that regard, and honestly if you stop and think about Gene Mods and Mecs too hard even that point is debatable. Most of the ethical problems in installing military hardware into your soldiers are rendered moot if your soldiers are literally manufactured by and owned by the military, with no civilian life intended at all, as seems to be the case with the Aliens. For all that the gameplay of XCOM treats your soldiers as mindless extensions of the player's will, the plot of the game firmly places them as a conventional military or paramilitary organization -that presumably these soldiers you are turning into quadruple amputees (Only worse) will be expected to return to a civilian life at some point, and it's absurd to imagine that XCOM intends for their super-top-secret military hardware to be left installed in these soldiers. What, exactly, is supposed to be going on here?

The game tries to wave away the ethical problems with Gene Mods and Mecs by framing the beneficiaries as "volunteers", but this only addresses the short-term problem of consent. It doesn't address the long-term logistical problems, where you have to figure out what XCOM does with its soldiers when it releases them into the civilian population. The game dodges the issue by not covering the post-game world at all, and XCOM 2 starts from the assumption that XCOM failed its mission and so obviously no Mecs retired, but honestly an argument can be made that the Alien usage of cybernetics and genetic engineering is vastly more moral than how XCOM goes about it. It's particularly jarring how the game attempts to insist that XCOM has the moral high ground over EXALT on the topic, when it most certainly does not and can even be argued as lacking the moral high ground relative to the Aliens on the topic.

Gameplay-wise, Gene Mods are kind of all over the place. Some of them are niche, but very good when they crop up. Some of them are incredible in general. Some of them barely matter at all even when they actually apply. I really wish they'd had a more coherent vision of Gene Mods in mind. If every Gene Mod was a small benefit, I'd assume the intention is that you're supposed to stack them onto an individual to get a clear benefit, similar to how in the original X-COM a soldier's per-mission gains are practically invisible but once accumulated they really matter. If every Gene Mod was an incredible game-changer in its own right, that would be cool too. If they were all fairly situational, sure, fine. But the combination of the three is... confusing. The Eye Gene Mods, for example, should probably be ignored unless you've got Meld lying around after having outfitted your core team with all the other Gene Mods, because they provide such a limited benefit, and only in specific situations, where other Gene Mods are more general and significant. The price-point difference is simply not significant enough to overturn this idea, either.

Medals, though they have their flaws, seem to be a more coherent concept, in terms of every Medal providing a small, somewhat situational benefit, excepting the Star of Terra, which you can only get the one time in a run and so is justified as being an exception. If you really want to notice the effect of Medals, you kind of need to stack a few onto an individual. Fair enough, particularly since Medals are free -part of the problem with the Gene Mods with limited impact is that they demand resources and take the soldier out of action for a time, raising the question of whether such a small benefit is really worth it. With Medals, the question isn't whether you're going to give them out at all, it's who will get what Medals and what bonuses you'll have the Medals provide in your run.

Both mechanics feel like a strong idea with a somewhat underwhelming execution. This is true of gameplay, but it's also true of more narrative/thematic considerations -my issue with Gene Mods raising ethical questions isn't that the game does it, but that it makes no attempt to address those questions. Aside from some vague muttering about the future of humanity and yadda, the actual practical implications of Gene Mods are just... ignored, beyond the gameplay implications. It's difficult to take seriously some of the game's attempts to suggest XCOM may defeat the Aliens, and in the process become just as bad as them (Enemy Within opens with a different quote from Enemy Unknown: "Those who play with the devil's toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword."), when the whole thing isn't actually explored at all. There aren't even little touches -something as minor as the player being barred from sacking soldiers with Gene Mods or who have been converted to a Mec would convey that XCOM is treating these people as military property and be subtly creepy to anyone who ran into it.

Next time, we cover Interceptors and their gear.


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