XCOM Big Picture Part 3: Overwatch and Suppression

Overwatch and the sub-mechanic Suppression are both fairly unclear in their implementations, even more so than the classes are.

In theory, they're both building on the reaction fire concept from the original XCOM. In the original XCOM, reaction fire makes it possible to hold a defensive position/create a defensive line and have it mean something, as well as helping minimize certain flaws of the Time Unit system; it's not actually a clever exploit to have a soldier turn a corner, shoot an Alien, and then go back around the corner, because the Alien may well shoot your soldier somewhere in there, even though it's not their turn.

At the same time, reaction fire can be worked around, as units only react to foes they can see, bar the caveat that if they survive a shot hitting them they always get a chance at reaction fire aimed at their attacker. Thus, a wall of soldiers holding a good defensive position, all aimed in one direction, can be flanked and killed. The overall net result is that there's incentives to utilize terrain to control access routes, move your group carefully, and otherwise add nuance and complexity to the process of keeping your people alive.

In the remaquel, Overwatch is... pretty unclear in its actual utility. I'm genuinely unsure what the developers were thinking when they designed Overwatch, aside from 'reaction fire is a thing in X-COM'. I can't even guess at the gameplay goals with it, because it has exactly one piece of utility, and it's just a very simple optimization point, not any kind of interesting mechanic. There's hints -the developers seem to have viewed Overwatch as some kind of 'supporting' mechanic, going by class distribution of skills, though I'm not sure how they thought that would work- but I can't make any solid guesses.

In practice, Overwatch's primary utility to the player is to exploit the 'pod activation' mechanic to effectively add turns to their units: if the player endeavors to arrange things such that any pod that activates is either activated by their first unit of the turn or activated on the enemy turn, with their units ending in Overwatch as much as possible, then most of the time pods are activated, what'll happen is the pod comes into view, up to 6 members of the squad get an Overwatch shot in, then the player's turn rolls around and they get full turns on the entire squad to deal with the enemy. That's basically like getting 1-and-a-half turns out of your squad in a single turn.

This does not make for interesting gameplay, though, and Overwatch-specializing skills aren't really used to make Overwatch more interesting.

Overwatch on the Aliens is just as dubious in its implementation. It's primarily relevant because most Alien units will, when first activated, move to Cover and then enter Overwatch. As opposed to taking a free shot. Aliens still deal with the fundamental problem that entering Overwatch in combat conditions is almost always inferior to simply taking a shot, and for them it's exacerbated by the pod activation mechanic. The only time it makes sense for an Alien to manually enter Overwatch is when a previously-activated Alien ends up out of line of sight of the player. (I don't believe Aliens are programmed to prefer to do that, either, though I could easily be wrong)

The automatic/'free' Overwatch during pod activation is, itself, not serving a clear purpose: since Overwatch only serves to discourage movement -no Alien has a skill like Covering Fire to change this- it basically mildly discourages attempting to move around for a flank or the like in the first turn after activating an Alien pod. This sort of connects to making the Assault your flanker, since they can take a skill to trigger an Overwatch shot in complete safety, but this idea runs into the problems that 

A: the Lightning Reflexes Assault is not safe if multiple Aliens are in Overwatch...

B: the act of triggering Overwatch frees your other soldiers up to move if they want to, not just the Assault, and...

C: Honestly? The risk of activating other pods is a much more significant deterrent against charging trying to get a flank after activating a pod, as you're usually going to be getting line of sight on whole new sections of the map while making the movement necessary to get a flank. The Assault has no skill to make this danger less of a problem. The game is simply designed such that pushing for a flank is an unnecessarily risky maneuver you should avoid doing in most situations.

So in practice Aliens overwatching just... encourages you to move cautiously and engage in fairly static gunfights? I guess?

Either way, Overwatch is a mechanic whose goal is difficult to work out.

As an aside, there's the odd point that in Multiplayer Overwatch becomes a lot more meaningful, since players aren't behold to the pod mechanic -and there its primary implication is that the game tends to punish being the initial aggressor of the match, as it gives a sensible enemy a free chance to shoot at you.

This is... honestly a dubious design decision for a multiplayer game, and honestly it's only okay for a single-player game because you can design under the assumption that the AI is supposed to make that mistake every time. Discouraging actually moving the game forward is bad. At its most extreme, you can end up with players simply stalling indefinitely, because trying to resolve the match is a sucker's bet, but even just slowing the game down without actually adding any depth to the experience is bad.

Overall, Overwatch is... present, and a clear callback to the original XCOM, but it doesn't seem to serve a clear, useful design purpose. The main thing that sort of works about it is that it can be viewed as a compromise between letting activated pods immediately shoot at you for free vs having activated pods completely helpless until their next turn.

In practice, it's not that different from having the pod helpless initially, especially prior to Enemy Within at least giving the player actual (competent) melee. In Enemy Unknown, the closest to that is the Arc Thrower, and it's not even possible to use it on most enemies unless they've already been injured. At most it could be said to encourage killing all but one member of a pod before going to capture that one member, but that's basically overkill in conjunction with how limited the Arc Thrower's number of uses is, in terms of trying to reduce how capture-happy players are.


Suppression is a clear variation on Overatch... and is even worse.

It burns two ammo, can only trigger against a single target instead of on the first hostile that moves in your vicinity, still can't crit and suffers the usual accuracy penalty if it does trigger, and then it ends if the Suppressor is injured or Suppressed themselves.

In exchange, the Suppressed target suffers a modest Aim penalty (-30, stackable), but only so long as the Suppression lasts, the Suppression may destroy terrain when initiated, and finally it can shut down Overwatch, including other Suppression.

So what's the utility these traits point to?

-The potential to destroy terrain is not a good point. You have that chance anyway with a regular shot, while actually having the potential to do damage to the target. Maybe Suppression has higher odds of destroying terrain, but it's not like it's guaranteed or anything, and the entire terrain destruction system is so opaque it's not reasonable to expect a player to infer this is the/a use for Suppression.

-The ability to disable enemy Overwatch is dubious as well. In most cases it makes more sense to take a regular shot in hopes of killing the target, since a dead target is obviously not taking further shots of any kind. Furthermore, movement is sufficiently unimportant it's pretty trivial to ignore enemy Overwatch. Standing there taking shots at them works just fine much of the time, even if they don't die. Generally, if an Alien chooses to enter Overwatch instead of taking a shot, that's a relief. The fact that Sectopods can enter Overwatch for free, hit very hard, and are insanely durable (Such that just straight-up killing them isn't necessarily an option) is really the only case -in single player, at least- where I can imagine Suppressing to disable Overwatch being an at all good idea.

I'm not even sure about that one, honestly.

-The -30 Aim is theoretically meaningful, but honestly the main thing that matters is that the AI is coded to hate moving when Suppressed. The threat Suppression provides isn't actually that high, particularly when you consider how durable Aliens can get. Worse, it's arguably an active detriment, as units that have Aim-ignoring capabilities will pretty much always turn to those when Suppressed, when in most cases those are actually some of their most dangerous capabilities. A Muton Elite lobbing its Alien Grenade is a lot more likely to be a problem than it taking a shot with its Heavy Plasma, even though the Heavy Plasma does hit harder. For one thing, the Alien Grenade can't miss.

Furthermore, Suppression shots suffer the Overwatch accuracy penalty and the target still benefits from innate Defense. A Colonel Support's base Aim is 90, which gets reduced to 70% of 90 (63) on a single-action move, and then that gets reduced by innate Defense bonuses. Most late-game Aliens have at least 10 Defense (53 Accuracy) and can have up to 30 (33 Accuracy) if we ignore Ethereals. (Who you should never ever Suppress, as they don't use Aim at all) That's awful. Your best-case against late-game Aliens is little better than a coin flip. Unless they're in Full Cover, you have better odds of hitting just taking the shot!

The Heavy is even worse, of course, starting with 15 less Aim at Colonel rank. That means it's 52.5 Aim before Defense gets applied, for a usual best-case of 42 Aim. (The game rounds down decimals) This is particularly agonizing as the Heavy is clearly intended to be your primary Suppressor class, but in practice it's true more for the fact that Danger Zone and Mayhem can be used to provide unlimited area-of-effect damage that will never miss via targeting things with Suppression than it is because they're any good at what Suppression does, base.


So the only reason Suppression is actually useful for cutting the target's Aim is because the AI will blithely cooperate with the badly wrong idea that being Suppressed means that moving is a bad idea. Worse, many Aliens have innate access to Suppression, and Suppression can be disabled by Suppression! If the AI was smarter, Suppression would be even less useful. It's just for some strange reason the AI is incredibly reluctant to use Suppression, itself, even though roughly half of the Alien types have innate access to it! (More than half in Enemy Unknown, slightly less than half in Enemy Within, ignoring EXALT)

In practice, it's moderately useful as an assist to capturing lone Aliens that have no more threatening secondary abilities/cannot currently use any more threatening secondary abilities. So... Sectoids, Floaters, Outsiders, plus Mutons/Muton Elites/Heavy Floaters that have used up their Alien Grenade already. And I guess Sectoid Commanders who have both used up their Alien Grenade already and recently got smacked by Neural Feedback without it killing them. Everything else is un-capturable and/or will simply turn to other, more dangerous abilities. Or is an Ethereal and therefore doesn't care about Aim in the first place.

For a concept that's fairly significant to current military science, that's astonishingly narrow, and I'm honestly not sure what the development team was imagining Suppression would actually do with how they set it up.

Going in, I was honestly expecting Suppression fire to punish pretty much any action with a shot, and to not run out until the player's turn/until the Suppressor died. I also figured it would default to having 'splash' on its targeting, and that it would probably an accuracy advantage, or at least make multiple shot attempts per target, given that the entire idea is that you're spraying shots at the target's area. I also figured it would burn through Cover, guaranteed, over the course of a few turns. This all seemed fairly logical and meaningful.

Instead, the main way Suppression is useful is that a Heavy who takes Mayhem and Danger Zone gets free area-of-effect damage when Suppressing.



Next time, we talk about something a bit deeper -one of the game's clear design goals, and how it fails to hit it.


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