Long War not-so-initial impressions: EXALT

Before I played Long War myself, I ran across several cases of people indicating they didn't like EXALT in Long War, enough to outright disable them. I wasn't really sure what to make of that, because reasons weren't usually given and there's a goodly number of potential reasons to want to turn them off. Narratively, EXALT is detracting from the core of the game. Design-wise, they're ridiculous and difficult to tell apart. (I still can't readily tell EXALT Medics and Operatives apart, which leads to situations where I'm not sure whether my Covert Operative is safe to stop nearby a com-hacked agent or subject to the incomprehensible whims of EXALT's AI for whether they're about to be vaporized by an Alien Grenade or not. Even Snipers are difficult to parse, visually!) The cash hacks, Panic increases, etc, are annoying and the system of trying to prevent them from doing so (Intel Scans) is honestly not designed very well.

I'd hoped Long War had made EXALT well-designed and the dislike I was seeing was rooted more in one of the less gameplay-oriented realms. There are people who mod their games because some aesthetic thing just bugs them.

And when I played my first EXALT mission, I thought EXALT had been made into something decent.

It was actually a really frustrating, difficult mission, but part of that was it took me a while (As in I kept restarting the mission due to the Operative dying, or everybody dying, or the like) to break out of the mentality of trying to kill everything on the map. The actual objective was to hack two 'comm arrays' and then extract my Covert Operative, and me getting bogged down into fights was really antithetical to victory. Once I got into the appropriate mentality it remained a challenge, but really, the challenge was part of the appeal, with the mission really capturing the feel of trying to get someone out from behind enemy lines. That should be hard!

Then I got my next mission, and it was the 'defend an encoder/transmitter and kill everything on the map' version. Aside from initial frustration from the game's line of sight rules/pod activation mechanics being fairly demented, it was... a shooting gallery. Just my Operative running from one comm array to the next while the rest of my team flanked enemies with no regard to their own safety, lobbed explosives into clusters of EXALT forces, etc.

Okay, I thought. It sucks that this particular EXALT mission type is still overly easy, but at least the other mission type was fun.

After a string of encoder/transmitter-defending missions, I finally got the 'extract' mission type again. Awesome!

It was even more of a joke than the encoder/transmitter defense missions. My Operative could literally move once to one comm array, hack it, move most of the way to the next comm array, then next turn move up to and hack that one, and then on the third turn dash the remaining distance to the extraction point. The Covert Operative didn't need an actual team. I could've literally sent a SHIV by itself and had it hang out next to the extraction point, never taking a shot, because EXALT certainly wasn't going to.

More recently, I got another extraction mission, and it was challenging again.

By which I actually mean it was maddening and stupid.

Part of this is a detail I'd happened to learn before playing the game, but hadn't seen in action myself; EXALT pods in extraction missions are a bit odd, with it being typical for there to be a few scattered pods of 1-2 men, and then there's one giant pod of up to 15 soldiers. Activating this pod was basically a death sentence even with the hacking effect, which was a problem because, over somewhere above 15 restarts, I only twice got a comm array formation that didn't place one of the activated arrays such that going for the hack was guaranteed to activate this massive pod.

So actually EXALT difficulty is just ridiculously swingy. That first positive impression was a fluke, and every Covert Operation since has either been trivial or infuriating and stupid.

While trivially easy missions occasionally crop up against the Aliens, and there's definitely been frustrating moments in general in Long War (See previous Floater rant), there's much more of an actual difficulty curve, and the player can get an idea from, among other things, the distant sound effects during the Alien turn, of how nasty a fight is liable to be. If you hear metallic stomping signature to Mechtoids, and you've got no HEAT, no Shredding, no Disabling Shot... maybe you shouldn't be doing this mission, or at least reload and send a different team. That kind of thing.

EXALT doesn't really have these positives. They're better designed than the base game's version in various thematic ways (eg they actually have access to a range of perks like your own troops, up to and including EXALT Snipers actually getting Squadsight like they should've in the first place), but the actual game experience is just frustrating and uninteresting. It's not a difficult challenge to work out how to complete, or to make a decision to not engage with. Particularly for the extraction missions, it's just wildly inconsistent of a difficulty, based on the rather absurd feature of comm array placement, but even encoder/transmitter missions have variable comm array placement and have issues from randomized EXALT reinforcement spawns being a significant influence on how difficulty a given mission is or is not.

It's really disappointing, and while I'm not going to turn off EXALT in my current run (My understanding is this is totally possible to do), I suspect any later Long War runs will be made with EXALT's strategic layer turned off. It just doesn't add a lot to the game.

I suppose this isn't terribly surprising, given that Long War started production well before Enemy Within was even revealed, but... that's small consolation as far as the actual play experience.



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