XCOM: Design Space

I stopped the 'big picture' posts ages ago in part because stuff got in the way, but mostly because I was dissatisfied with my own attempts to articulate ideas. In retrospect, I was repeating a decent amount of what I'd said in the previous, non-big-picture posts, but with less clarity and context. Spent time thinking about stuff. Played Long War. Played Xenonauts.

Comparing and contrasting Long War, Xenonauts, Classic XCOM, and the base version of the remaquel helped get me clarity of a few different sorts. One element of clarity was realizing that an element I was struggling with was that... well. Concrete example:

Floaters vs Floaters

I don't like that Floaters are, as a game piece, purely defined by 'it flies'. The effect is largely meaningless, which means the enemy is not distinctive, which makes them uninteresting, and the advantages they get out of it cannot be bypassed or played around particularly. In the end, they're barely any different from Sectoids.

I like Floaters as a game piece, because flight as a distinctive advantage works so well, opening up an array of options for them and forcing you to think about more aspects of the battlefield than with Sectoids.

Okay, obnoxiousness over; the first paragraph is remaquel Floaters, the second one is classic XCOM Floaters.

You might notice that in one case I'm saying 'it just flies. That's terrible,' while in the other case I'm saying 'it (implied: just) flies. That's awesome.'

This points in the direction of the issue I've been struggling with: the remaquel is a very, very different game from the original game, and it makes talking about the two surprisingly difficult, because apparent overlap is often actually quite divergent, with myriad background factors feeding into it.

In the case of remaquel Floaters, I don't really dislike that flight is all that defines them as a game piece. What I dislike is that flight in the remaquel is a boring mechanic: if you can fly, you basically de facto have 20 more Aim, de facto are in unflankable Partial Cover unless you choose to not be, and.... that's really basically it. Flying units are able to take current travel routes that are unavailable to other units, allowing them to achieve flanks a ground-bound Muton couldn't pull off, but these are really basically edge cases more than anything else.

In classic XCOM, though, flight is a gamechanger. Firing lanes matter in classic XCOM, as does facing, and in conjunction with how Reaction Fire works in classic XCOM, the overall result is that the player can use corridors as killzones... against ground-bound units. Fliers may well loop over a building, tall mountain, or other obstacle a grounded unit would consider entirely impassable. Furthermore, certain aspects of physics make high ground safer to fire from: if two units are placed on roughly opposite sides of an enemy and start taking shots at the target while occupying the same Z-level, shots that fail to hit their actual target could easily end up hitting each other. If, instead, they're both firing on a target below them, the more typical result of missing their target is that some chunk of ground nearby their target is going to be blasted.

So in the remaquel, flight is a boring, bad mechanic that undermines tactical depth instead of expanding it. In classic XCOM, flight is a nuanced and interesting mechanic that busts certain key assumptions that make certain strategies work, demanding a player adjust how they think about the battlefield if they don't want to get torn apart.

(Unsurprisingly, Xenonauts falls more in line with classic XCOM here, and Long War more in line with the remaquel. Indeed, I think flight in Long War is far worse of a mechanic than in the base game, just because Long War's AI is so much more consistent and aggressive about abusing it, making it a bad mechanic that intrudes on real gameplay constantly instead of a bad mechanic that's kind of ignorable in practice)

Moving on to a bit of a different point: an aspect I've previously wanted to discuss but always struggled to contextualize was...

Slow and Steady vs Bursts of Improvement

One of the many ways in which the remaquel is a very different game from classic XCOM is their radically different approaches to soldier growth. In classic XCOM, soldiers grow a little bit in each mission they participate in, with the number of missions they've been on being a primary factor in how good they are. These improvements add up over time, but for the most part they're examples of diminishing returns (Every Time Unit gained is less useful than the last one, in terms of percentile improvement to your speed, and Energy never grows, limiting how far just increasing your TUs can help your travel speed) and elite units aren't actually any better at killing things than rookies except on average; an elite can fire a Heavy Plasma just as often in a turn as a rookie (Unless the rookie's Strength is low enough that they suffer TU penalties, anyway) and no more, they're just more likely to have their shots hit.

(This is a huge simplification, but broadly accurate enough)

By contrast, in the remaquel soldiers experience dramatic spikes in quality. On the most basic level, a level gained provides a skill and some stats all at once, with zero progress made until their experience meter ticks over to the next rank, but much more relevantly is that some levels/skills are gamechangers while others are nice-to-haves. A Sniper who hasn't reached Squadsight/Snapshot is just awful. A Heavy that picks up Bullet Swarm doubles their potential damage output and gains myriad more difficult to identify advantages. An Assault that picks up Close Combat Specialist is suddenly able to single-handedly murder groups of Chryssalids. A Support who... okay, Supports don't really have any amazing skills, to be honest...

... but the point is that these level-ups can be contrasted against, for instance, an Assault who's considering Aggression or Tactical Sense, both of which are nice to have, but don't dramatically spike the Assault's utility and combat effectiveness.

The contrast between the two games is surprisingly stark on this topic, and it ties into a lot of design issues. The remaquel pretty freely throws high level gift soldiers at you, and to an extent it kind of has to. In classic XCOM, rookies are bad to be bringing to a serious fight, but while they'll probably die horribly when faced with Sectopods and psi-spam in an Ethereal Terror Mission, a Rookie who manages to turn a corner and find they've got their Heavy Laser pointed right at a Sectopod's back is actually pretty much just as capable of killing the Sectopod as your most elite of elite XCOM soldiers would be in the same situation. It's just that the elites would be a lot more likely to land a shot when firing at far-away Sectopods. And admittedly less likely to trigger reaction fire.

Whereas in the remaquel, there's a staggering difference between Colonels and even Squaddies, let alone Rookies.

One of the better examples of a difference in design philosophies is something I touched upon about classic XCOM: in classic XCOM, soldier quality doesn't matter to potential damage output. Firing a weapon uses a percentage of your Time Units, so aside from some Magic Number shenanigans (eg Heavy Plasma's Auto Fire takes 35% of your TUs, which should mean you can only Auto Fire twice in a turn, but at certain numbers rounding means you'll actually be able to fire three times) an elite soldier is no more lethal than a rookie. They're more reliably lethal... but even then, they're subject to the whims of the RNG, whereby any non-explosive shot in classic XCOM can do literally 0 damage. (Before Armor!)

In the remaquel, by contrast, a clear pattern of design decision is that every class has (at least) one way to fire more than once in a turn: Assaults can get Rapid Fire, Snipers can get Double Tap or In The Zone, Supports can get Sentinel, and Heavies can get Bullet Swarm. (Plus Rapid Reactions, but Rapid Reactions is terrible) That means that the remaquel can put the player in situations where, for instance, a Sectopod can be killed in one turn by an elite squad via the power of multi-shots, and a Squaddie squad would be completely unable to kill it before it started shooting. Not only that, but damage is much less random and much lower relative to HP in the remaquel, so soldiers' rising HP isn't 'better odds of surviving when shot', it can actually be 'a rookie would die if shot by X, but a Colonel would definitely not die if shot by X'.

So to a certain extent classic XCOM can get away with fairly harsh squad wipes and no way to shortcut to having elite replacements because rookies are less reliable than elites, but not fundamentally incapable of matching elites, where the remaquel has your soldiers spike so dramatically in quality that it has to spike enemy quality by a similarly dramatic amount which in turn means it has to keep feeding you high-quality soldiers so you're not simply doomed if you have one bad mission.

Of course, this also ties into a thematic issue I've been thinking about....

You Are What You Eat

Classic XCOM's story is one where humanity defeats their enemies by basically becoming their enemies: we steal their guns so we can punch at their level. We steal their grenades. We steal their stun grenades, which are better than our insanely risky-to-use Stun Rods. We copy their aerospacecraft so we can punch at their level. We copy their advanced armor so we can survive at their level. We steal their psychic powers. We steal their antigravity personal flight systems. Our Heavy Weapons Platforms very clearly parallel Cyberdiscs, and it takes a while to work up to having our own laser-spitting hoverdisc death machines.

In the end, XCOM steals and uses basically everything the Aliens use that isn't a Terror Unit. By the end of the game, you have risen to the Aliens' level by in some sense becoming the Aliens.

In the remaquel, some of the elements of this design are still there -the ability to steal Alien guns and Grenades, mostly- but... well, I've already commented on how the Blaster Launcher is something the Aliens don't use in the remaquel. It's an original human invention in the remaquel. So too do we invent Not-Actually-Plasma Shotguns as well as Plasma Sniper Rifles, which the Aliens utterly failed to come up with on their own. We invent cloaking fields, which in Enemy Unknown the Aliens lack entirely, and when Enemy Within sort-of-kind-of fixes this by introducing Seekers it's undermined by the fact that Enemy Within also introduces Ghost Grenades AKA the ability to just slap cloaking on anyone you like on a moment's notice, a tool the Aliens entirely lack. We invent armor for boosting psionic ability, a tool that Aliens entirely lack.

And moving a bit away from the technological end for a bit, in the remaquel the majority of your power progression actually comes from soldiers leveling. I already mentioned that every class has at least one way to fire more than once in a turn, reliably: note that advancing from conventional weaponry to Plasma weaponry is generally an increase from 100% to 225%. So a Heavy gaining Bullet Swarm is, in raw firepower terms, only slightly behind jumping straight from an LMG to a Heavy Plasma. (And this comparison is ignoring that Bullet Swarm has all kinds of other benefits) Armor is a bit less silly, in that Titan Armor is +9 HP (When compared against basic body armor) whereas non-Snipers only gain 4 HP from leveling, Snipers gain less than that, and the only skill that boosts HP -Extra Conditioning on Assaults- has its amount actually based on the quality of your armor, but it's still the case that leveling accounts for a surprising amount of a soldier's durability even into the endgame. And then there's tons of skills that don't fit neatly into a comparison against weapons or a comparison against armor...

... which makes it pretty funny that Enemy Within opens with a quote suggesting that the remaquel is trying to shoot for a 'you become what you're fighting against' vibe. Heck, Mecs don't demand you Autopsy a Mectoid (They just inexplicably are invented the instant Meld has been researched), and more striking is that Gene Mods -which are explicitly 'we're installing Alien DNA into our soldiers to give them qualities the Aliens have'- almost completely fail to actually draw from Alien capabilities. Only Muscle Fiber Density (Thin Men jumpy legs) and debateably Mimetic Skin (Cloaking, which requires you Autopsy a Seeker... but which produces cloaking that behaves nothing like a Seeker's cloaking and has no conceptual connection to a Seeker's cloaking explanation) manage this at all. It's not like Enemy Within made it so that Cyberdiscs always survive with 1 HP the first time they should've died, to roughly line up with Secondary Heart's effect, or made Chryssalids ignore your own cloaking, or made Berserkers immune to Mind Control, or made Sectoid Commanders fry the brains of your psi-troops if they try to Mindfray/Psi Panic/Mind Control a Sectoid Commander, or... well, Adrenal Neurosympathy is probably meant to be inspired by Blood Call (temporary boost to Aim and Mobility caused by an ally, though inexplicably Adrenal Neurosympathy replaces some of the Mobility with a small crit chance boost), but the fact that it's not a manually activated ability distances it enough that it was only in writing up this list that it occurred to me Adrenal Neurosympathy is probably intended to be derived from Blood Call.

Anyway; it's funny Enemy Within does this quote, because the base remaquel is bad at this, Enemy Within is only slightly better, and indeed one of the big design philosophy differences between classic XCOM and the remaquel is that the remaquel believes in the player building power internally with only a little bit of stealing from the enemies to help, where classic XCOM is all about playing with the devil's toys.

And Apocalypse, the sequel that actually involved Gollop (Terror From the Deep didn't), actually builds on this idea...


Do I have a larger point?

Yeah: some concrete examples of bone-deep cases of what I've said before about the remaquel trying to follow in classic XCOM's footsteps without really understanding the classic game's design space.


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