XCOM Analysis Big Picture Part 1: Classes

I called the previous post the denouement, but it turns out I have more to say. I did a lot of talking about the nitty gritty of individual bits in these posts, and then at the end made some sweeping statements, but I've got a backlog of more meaningful analysis I was never quite sure where to fit in prior posts.

For the next few posts, I'm going to be talking about where the remaquel went wrong on a big picture level... and alright, talk some about where it went right, because for all its faults it's got some good points to it.

First example...
Classes: what do?

In the original XCOM, soldiers improve by doing, and the improvement is incremental and soldiers tend to end up gaining a little bit of everything each mission they actually contribute to. Your most experienced soldiers end up godly at pretty much everything, bar the point that Energy and Psi Strength are fixed when a soldier is generated. There's no biasing a soldier toward a weapon category, or a particular approach to combat. In the short to midterm, yes, soldiers have stat inequalities biasing them toward some roles over other roles, but in the long term everybody has the same stat caps and can reach them in everything at once. (Except Energy and Psi Strength, again) Your elite soldiers are thus interchangeable, able to take over each other's roles on a moment's notice. Indeed, since soldiers drop their gear on death and you can pick it up in the middle of combat, you can literally have a Designated Medic keel over dead and then someone else just picks up their Medikit and carries on just as competently at using it.

It's all a bit bland and uninteresting, when it gets down to it.

So cool, the remaquel introduces a class system. No longer is your medic whoever happens to be carrying a Medikit, with the Medikit simply being passed on to the next guy with no loss of performance if the original carrier dies. No, the Support is your medic, and anybody else is a worse medic, objectively. Your snipers are, in fact, your Snipers, and nobody else can take over the role if your Sniper are ambushed and all killed.


... unfortunately, the game doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what any given class does, as I've harped on a bit in the class posts.

The Sniper is probably the closest thing to an exception, and then they undercut that idea by making Headshot their Squaddie/automatic skill, and not the skill that makes them into a Sniper: Squadsight. (To the developers' credit, XCOM 2 corrects this) For that matter, Snapshot is undercutting the idea as well, as it allows a Sniper to function as a sort of off-brand Assault, particularly when you consider that it can combine with In The Zone to let them flank some Aliens and wipe them all out in a single turn, which is pretty much as un-Sniper behavior as you can get.

The Support is the very vague idea of 'supports people', and in practice their main thing is they're your go-to class for Medikits. There's also an attempt to focus them on Overwatch, but Overwatch isn't a mechanic designed to support other units -a point I'll be covering in more detail later- so it's just a roundabout way of making them less bad at killing things with their gun. They also have a secondary component of tending to end up being your Arc Thrower user once they hit Major due to Deep Pockets (In both the base game and Enemy Within) but that's sort of this weird quirk, not a clear extension of the Support idea.

The Assault has a reasonably clear role, sort of: flanker. But then the game seems fuzzy on this in practice. The primary benefit of a flank is a high chance at a critical hit, and the Assault is the second-best class in the game at generating critical hit chance, able to reach 90% on anything (Well, okay, just 80% against Hardened targets) off of two skills, an upgraded SCOPE, and the Shotgun's innate 20% to crit, at which point flanks are pretty redundant to an Assault. And since critical hits aren't an interesting mechanic -they're just 'sometimes you do better'- it's not like a crit-by-flank Assault is really all that distinct from a crit-by-build Assault. They both generate high damage a high percentage of the time. That's it. There's a solid foundational idea to the Assault, but the execution doesn't seem to understand what this idea is or the implications of it, or at least not the impact of other mechanics on the class' role.

The Heavy is a clear conceptual callback to the idea that high Strength was ideal for all three of Rocket Launchers, heavy guns like the Heavy Plasma, and carting around loads of Grenades, but what their actual battlefield role is?... in some ways, the game seems for them to be your toughest class, but tanking hits isn't a particularly valid role on the field in the remaquel. (I guess it's a useful trait for spotters for your Snipers?) In other ways it seems to intend for them to be a pseudo-support piece -Holo-Targeting, anyone?- with no clear concept of how that's supported to be distinct from the Support. In practice, the Heavy's biggest distinguishing feature is Bullet Swarm, for a whole lot of reasons, but that seems to be more of a happy accident than a deliberate decision to make the Heavy flexible and capable of tremendous damage output.

SHIVs are probably the best example. The developers seem to have no idea what their battlefield role is, other than being a callback to Heavy Weapons Platforms from the original XCOM. They have unusually hard-hitting guns, sure, and you can upgrade in Suppression and a handful of other quirks, but... well, Heavy Weapons Platforms were useful for a few different reasons, but the quickest comparison point is Psi: in the original game, Heavy Weapons Platforms were notable for the fact that the Aliens couldn't (Well, wouldn't, actually, but close enough) mind control them, and mind control was a huge threat worth having a specialized answer to. In the remaquel, Psi isn't nearly as threatening in the first place, it's less common on the battlefield, and one of the two Psi-capable Aliens (Ethereals) is actually in some respects more dangerous to a SHIV. (Because Psi Lance and Rift are stronger the less Will the target has, and SHIVs have zero Will) Another advantage Heavy Weapons Platforms had in the original was that they were always able to handle their weapons, even though their weaponry was comparable to heavy weapons (Hence the name) that normally required unusually high-Strength soldiers to carry without penalty. SHIVs aren't doing something like carrying around a Rocket Launcher they can fire after they've moved. They're just... kind of bad. They don't even have that much HP when you take into account Armor and how the remaquel handles gear... which is a problem I'll be getting a bit more into later.

Mecs, once they come along in Enemy Within, just seem to be intended to be a sort of uber-class that's balanced on the strategic level -the fact that Meld is a limited resource, first and foremost, but other points are consistent with this (kind of) like how they gain experience at half the rate of other classes. Tactically, they overlap pretty heavily with the Heavy, with the Heavy's primary advantage/distinguishing trait being that Bullet Swarm is a lot lower level than Overdrive. In many ways, they're the Heavy, But More So, having a main gun that's stronger but less ammo (Same as the Heavy is to, say, the Support), no innate unlimited-use secondary weapon (Unless you take the punch, of course...), etc etc. By itself that does a good job of conveying the point that Mecs is unclear in role, as its essentially being redundant with an existing class, but when you consider how vague the Heavy's role is, it makes it clear the Mec's role is fuzzy indeed.

Further undercutting the purposefulness of classes is that inventories aren't possible to modify in the field in the remaquel. In the original game, if you ran snipers+spotters as a strategy and all your spotters died, you could have a random sniper hop down, grab whatever gear you consider spotter gear (eg flares), and have them carry on just fine. In the remaquel, even if the class mechanic didn't exist, making all gear available to all troops, once all your spotters fell your snipers would end up in a sticky situation, instead of just running over and grabbing a dropped Assault Rifle to take over the spotter role.

Adding to all this, the game seems unclear on what its philosophy on teams is.

Some games with a class system and the ability to field multiple units are fairly clearly intending for an optimal team to be made of multiple classes: the warrior tanks damage so the wizard doesn't have to, the healer keeps everybody alive but is useless if the people they're keeping alive don't need the help staying alive, the wizard outputs damage but will collapse dead if the enemy violates their personal space, and so a good team has a warrior, healer, and wizard.

Other games intend for the class/team system to be about defining different kinds of strategy. A band of thieves might be just as valid as a warrior, healer, and wizard team, and get things done by sneaking about unseen and ambushing their foes. Same for a team of nothing but warriors, which would instead be a straightforward team that charged headfirst into battle, or something of the sort.

The remaquel seems to mostly intend for the player to use mixed-class teams, but then it does things like give Snipers Battle Scanner, which allows a team of 6 Snipers to arrange Squadsight spotting without anybody deigning to be seen by the Aliens personally. The game only weakly encourages combinations of classes, and furthermore if it does intend for the player to use mixed-class teams the fact that squad size is so small is a strange decision. If the game had successfully pulled off 'at least one of each class is better than having one or more classes missing from the team entirely' then the base squad size of 4 would only allow one viable team: one of each class. The ultimate limit of six soldiers would still be fairly limited in its diversity -and here I'm implicitly discounting SHIVS and ignoring that Enemy Within introduces Mecs. If you imagine SHIVs were actually valid and distinct and count Mecs as well and assumed the game was successful in making redundancy of individual classes objectively inferior, then there would be exactly one viable team type in Enemy Within!

So on the whole the class system, while a good idea in principle, was implemented in a way that implies the developers weren't sure what the class system was intended to accomplish.


Next time, I'm going to cover weapons, particularly how they exacerbate the class problem.


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