Long War Initial Impressions: Some Math

So I've finally gotten around to playing Long War. So far, I'm really quite impressed, even as I've found playing the game at times quite frustrating. However, the frustration I've been experiencing has largely been rooted in the base game's design, it's just Long War raises the challenge enough that the base game's problems matter.

Concrete example: the 'step-out' mechanic. A soldier standing in Cover is willing to step into an adjacent tile to take a shot at an enemy soldier who their current tile technically doesn't have line of fire to. A neat little mechanic that sounds simple enough, right?

Well, it turns out that the step-out mechanic has a lot of weird, fiddly rules I wasn't aware of in the base game because it wasn't a problem to have them messing things up. The big one is that soldiers aren't willing to change height level when stepping-out, no matter what. This has led to situations in Long War where serious problems have occurred because I thought a soldier would be able to step-out and take a shot at a target while benefiting from Full Cover, and nope, it turns out that they're not willing to step-out from there. This kind of issue cropped up in the base game, but it wasn't felt particularly keenly because the base game is so forgiving that having a unit's entire turn wasted is not all that likely to have a situation come apart. It's not even all that likely to affect anything, if you're otherwise playing well.

Let's talk some math!

In the base game, the player starts with a squad size of four soldiers. These soldiers, before promotion, have an average damage of 3, and except for the Support post-promotion their average damage is actually 4. Additionally, the player will fairly quickly acquire Laser technology (Bumping everyone up to 5/6 average damage) and also fairly quickly expand their squad size to 5 and then 6 slots.

The Aliens, meanwhile, always have a maximum pod size of 3 units, with the initial Aliens having 3 HP (Sectoids, lower-difficulty Thin Men and Outsiders) and fairly quickly moving up to 4 or 5 HP. (Floaters, Classic Thin Men, Classic Outsiders) If we ignore all randomness for a second and simply declare that for the purposes of this discussion XCOM always lands its shots and always does average/base damage, the net result is that at the beginning of the game a player who is careful to activate only 1 Alien pod at once if at all possible will actually have an unnecessary soldier. The first three soldiers will each vaporize an Alien, and the fourth one will stand around awkwardly, trying to look useful. When you consider that the player can use Overwatch as well, this extends further -theoretically a player could have three full pods activate all at once and only have 1 Alien survive. (In practice the exact mechanics of Overwatch mean this is a nearly impossible result to achieve, but that's okay because this ridiculous scenario is secondary to my point)

Then the player escalates their squad size up to 6 and now even if they're facing Aliens that take two soldiers to kill (eg Chryssalids being shot at with Laser weapons), it's still the case that a single pod is no problem. One of the only relatively early-game units that could be said to break this design is Cyberdiscs, which even on Easy and Normal have 16 HP (ie it would take a minimum of 3 Laser shots to kill them, or a minimum of 4 Conventional shots), and this is somewhat neutered by the fact that they're only allowed to be escorted by Drones, which even on Classic will die to a single Laser shot apiece. (So for a full-size Cyberdisc pod call that 5 Laser soldiers you need -you still have an extra!)

It's only once end-game Aliens start showing up that the player's average firepower stops being 'kill the entire pod before it gets a chance to do anything'. (This is true even if you assume Plasma weaponry is tossed into the player's hands before they ever meet a Sectoid Commander; 7/9 damage will 2-shot a Heavy Floater, unlike Lasers, and same for lower-difficulty Muton Elites/Classic Enemy Unknown Muton Elites, but Berserkers, Ethereals, Mechtoids, and most extremely Sectopods are too tough for that)

By which I mean then you take into account skills like Bullet Swarm, Rapid Fire, Double Tap, In The Zone... and you go back to 'kill the entire pod before it does anything', bar Enemy Within Sectopods.

With room to spare, usually, meaning this is resistant to RNG (If you only need 5 shots to wipe the Cyberdisc pod, having 1 guy miss doesn't effect anything if you have a six-man squad. Two of whom have Bullet Swarm) and, pertinent to what I started out saying, resistant to the player making mistakes due to screwy or outright buggy design.

Long War, by contrast, has a very tight design. Looking at some of the numbers I mentioned above, the beginning of the game seems like it should be the same as the base game, or even more favorable to the player due to actually starting from a squad size of 6, but... Damage Reduction. In Long War, the expected result of a soldier landing a shot on a Sectoid with an Assault Rifle is that the Sectoid survives the shot thanks to the Damage Reduction from their Cover. A Long War soldier can roll high on the damage and one-shot a Sectoid even though Cover, but it's not remotely the expected result. This isn't even touching on how Long War has raised the Defense bonus on Cover and overall  worsened the player force's Aim in various ways. Even if you make the assumption that a Long War force just auto-hits, it's still the case that you start the game expecting to need 2 shots per Sectoid, when there's four Sectoids in a typical pod.

This is what I mean about Long War's design being 'tighter'; instead of the player having so much firepower/so many units, relative to the durability of their enemies, that they expect to kill everything before any of it gets a chance to move unless the RNG is being especially uncooperative or the player especially stupid, in Long War the player actually doesn't have adequate forces to roll up an entire pod in one turn at all, unless they get lucky or play smart while having cooperative circumstances. (ie go for a flank, which itself requires that things work out where a flank is possible) Or a little of column A and a little of column B.

The contrast extends, too; while the player will eventually expand squad size and upgrade weapons technology in Long War, the Aliens have their own Alien Research as well as the pod leader mechanic. In fairly short order Sectoids rise from 3 HP to 4 HP, with the pod leader often being more durable than even that, offsetting the fact that rookies promoting opens up access to the stronger weapons. (SAWs/LMGs, Marksman and Sniper Rifles, Battle Rifles, Shotguns) That is, instead of getting that 1 point of damage they need to start expecting to one-shot Aliens, what actually happens is they do get that damage boost, but the Aliens have already advanced and so the player is really just avoiding falling behind.

The overall result is that in Long War the player needs to get maximum use out of every squad member almost all the time. If they misclick, or the interface misleads as to the decision they're making, or something about the game's mechanics behaves in a bizarre, unintuitive manner (Why can't my soldier lean out of a truck's back and take a shot?), that can, likely will seriously cost them. The cracks in the base game's design show through by virtue of Long War placing the player under much greater pressure.

It's a very interesting, educational experience. Usually fun, intermittently infuriating, but very much worthwhile.


That said, Long War crippling the Arc Thrower's reliability is a decision that baffles me. I see no reason to deliberately throw in more RNG shenanigans, not given the other changes Long War makes. I'd wince no matter the context, but if, say, Long War hadn't done other things to solve the easy access to Plasma weaponry via capturing Alien technology, I'd understand making the Arc Thrower into a coin flip as a clumsy attempt to limit the player's ability to stockpile massive amounts of stolen gear, especially since it would be pretty silly to extend the weapons tree to five tiers and then make it trivial to beeline from the first or second to the fifth without bothering with the third and fourth tiers at all.

As-is, though, I refuse to play along with this particular Long War decision, and have taken advantage of the ability to modify the ini to reset the Arc Thrower to the base game's behavior.

(To be entirely fair, I suspect the Long War team wanted to more radically overhaul capture mechanics and gave it up as a bad job, but whatever the reason for doing it, I can't see it as a good decision)

(Also, for some context: since modifying the ini, there have been ten occasions where I endeavored to arrange for a capture. One of those has been successful)

More to come as I play and digest the experience.


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