XCOM 2 Analysis: Second Wave


The game itself calls them the more prosaic 'Advanced Options', but it's pretty clear this is a return of Second Wave.

They also don't have icons in-game, but eh. Visuals help with memory and all.

Note this is a War of the Chosen exclusive. The base game only has a handful of settings to mess with, and none of them are part of this list.

Also, aside the first three, you can freely mix-and-match all of the Advanced Options. I'm focusing primarily on them as individual choices, but you might find that a particular combination is a lot of fun even though you find the components individually uninteresting. Something to keep in mind.

Anyway, they are...

Reaper Ally
Start in contact with Reapers and with a Reaper.

This is the orthodox start. Having a Reaper to scout is a huge quality of life improvement, Reaper Resistance Orders are mostly very good and are biased toward being particularly useful early in the game, having access to a second Reaper down the line is a further quality of life improvement, and having immediate access to Reaper HQ's scan-for-Intel effect is occasionally useful. If maximizing your effectiveness is your goal, Reaper Ally is the clear winner.

Also, to be clear, if you don't pick a (Resistance faction) Ally option, the game will still put you in contact with one immediately, it's just it will be random which one it is.

Naturally, this cannot be selected alongside Skirmisher Ally or Templar Ally, nor them with each other. Less obvious is that it's also incompatible with having Lost and Abandoned turned on, and by extension is incompatible with having the tutorial turned on. (Turning on the tutorial forces Lost and Abandoned to be on as well) Having Lost and Abandoned is effectively a variation on picking Reaper Ally; your first Resistance faction will be the Reapers, a Reaper will be the first Resistance soldier you both acquire and get to keep, etc. It's just Lost and Abandoned tweaks timing and makes the Skirmishers a little more accessible overall, as well as making your first Skirmisher automatically kidnapped, requiring a rescue to properly integrate into your forces.

Skirmisher Ally
Start in contact with Skirmishers and with a Skirmisher.

This is the solid secondary pick. Skirmishers are overall the least useful of the Resistance classes, but the Skirmisher Resistance Orders are pretty solid overall and include a few that are particularly helpful to acquire early in the game, and the Skirmisher HQ effect of speeding facility construction when scanning there is at its most useful in the early to midgame.

If you're tired of picking Reaper Ally all the time but still aren't very confident in your skills, Skirmisher Ally is the thing to pick.

Templar Ally
Start in contact with the Templar and with a Templar.

This is basically a challenge mode pick. Having an immediate Templar is pretty significant since a major weakness of your squad early on is an inability to 100% for sure land kills outside of maybe chucking grenades, a problem Templar solve, but the Templar HQ scanning bonus is by far the least useful in general and is particularly lackluster in the early game when injuries have good odds of being deaths outright and you largely don't care about getting injured soldiers back into rotation quickly because your soldiers are mostly all just as low-level as each other, and Templar Resistance Orders include a lot of duds, particularly from an early-game perspective. There is a pretty large number of Resistance Orders that are particularly significant to get early in there as well, but always as an effect that will eventually be a noticeable advantage; Art of War being acquired extremely early will be fantastic once you've got the Training Center online and have a few soldiers with a good number of levels under their belt. Prior to that point, it's literally worthless to everyone that isn't a Resistance class, and even for them it'll take a few levels to meaningfully help.

Same basic deal for Bonds of War, Deeper Learning I and II, Trial By Fire, and Noble Cause; in the long haul, having these from very early on provides a fairly significant edge. At the beginning of the game, though, they're providing little or no actual benefit.

That said, it's a fun challenge mode pick if you're confident in your ability to handle the early game, so don't write it off completely. Consider it if you're comfortable with your current level of challenge and would like some variety to the experience.

Beta Strike
Most HP values are increased, usually doubled, including HP provided by equipment. Additionally, player soldiers heal half the damage they took in a mission at the end of the mission before calculating wound recovery times. Finally, most mission timers are extended 50%.

Note that the Lost are completely unaffected by Beta Strike, which is good since doubling their HP would ruin the tuning of their Headshot mechanic. As such, Beta Strike actually makes Lost-heavy and especially Lost-only missions easier, since your troops can shrug off hits more readily. You should only rarely be ending up in a position to get hit by Lost, mind, but even so.

The Alien Rulers all get a 50% boost to their HP instead. Lower-tier Chosen get doubled HP, but higher-tier Chosen -and higher-tier versions of the Warlock's summons- get lesser boosts. This space will be updated with more specifics later. Similarly, I still need to test if Julian gets the standard boost or a different boost.

One of the odder implications of Beta Strike is that your soldiers can never spend as much time wounded from any single mission, roughly halving their expected recovery time from a given severity of injury. That is, being half-dead will take about half as much time to recover from in a Beta Strike run than in a run with no Beta Strike, because the game first heals half that damage, and so calculates as if the injury only took off a quarter of your health. As such, while it's fairly difficult to reliably avoid your soldiers taking damage from Beta Strike, this ends up presenting less of a strategic load than you might expect, especially once you've got the Infirmary up and staffed. Indeed, if you're reasonably good at the game and don't make significant errors based on not properly grasping the implications of Beta Strike, you may well find Beta Strike leads to less overall strategic load than you're used to. It's particularly ridiculous once you have the Infirmary built and staffed, as at that point even a near-death experience will have a soldier bounce back in less than a week.

Otherwise, though... Beta Strike is honestly basically a way to make the game harder on yourself. The damage and HP numbers are normally tuned so that if you're making sure to hit damage improvements in a reasonable timeframe good play will increasingly reliably involve wiping out pods without them ever getting the chance to act, with the introduction of Reapers cementing this dynamic in War of the Chosen. Beta Strike makes this pretty close to impossible, even if you're ahead of the curve on damage output.

This ties into the core way XCOM 2 creates depth and danger in encounters: that combinations of enemies stack together delayed threats which are greater than the sum of their parts. Without Beta Strike, you can very reliably remove a key enemy or two in a pod even if you don't catch the pod with Overwatch, preventing too many such effects from accumulating, with bad play in fact generally being defined by pulling too many pods to successfully take out all the delayed threats before their effects stack up. With Beta Strike, it can be a struggle to kill two weak enemies in a pod, or even just to kill one middling durability enemy!

Worse yet, many of the more problematic enemies in the first place are ones who to some extent or another bypass HP. Stun Lancers are an excellent early-game example; without Beta Strike, their potential to inflict status effects on your soldiers with their melee strike is pretty ignorable until the mid to late game, as basically anything has the potential to kill your soldiers in a single hit in the early game. Nonetheless, they're a huge threat due to their ability to make a high-accuracy strike on a soldier regardless of Cover, and if you leave them alive they have decent odds of straight-up killing someone, no need to trigger a Stun or the like. With Beta Strike, however, your troops are durable enough to shrug off any one hit from any given enemy, bare minimum... except wait Stun Lancers knocking them Unconscious has no respect for their boosted HP. Worse, Stun Lancers are already disproportionately durable for an early game enemy when you consider that they're not pod leader units; with Beta Strike on, it can take your entire squad firing on them to kill one, and a pod can contain two of them from quite early.

Related to this is that Beta Strike is extremely uneven in its effect on balance, even aside cases like the Lost where the actual HP modifier is different. It's frustrating to have ADVENT Troopers survive so much punishment, but it's partially offset by your own troops being able to soak a lot more punishment. Or you could look at it the other way, and say that Beta Strike's boost to the player's HP is at least partially offset by enemies getting an HP boost themselves.

This breaks down when considering how uneven it is whether a given enemy can bypass HP or not. Sure, a Beta Strike ADVENT Trooper is essentially comparable to a non-Beta Strike ADVENT Trooper. A Muton's ability to execute Stunned troops, however, jumps from a cute detail that rarely comes up to a massively disproportionate threat.

Then there's the mission tuning issue. I'll just ignore the question of whether 50% longer timers is appropriate to doubling HP values; it's not what I'd have intuitively expected, but I can allow for the possibility that playtesting concluded it was the best multiplier.

The problem is the psionic transmitter mission type. Sure, your base timers are 50% longer, but if you smash two of the widgets in those missions you don't get 3 turns, and the psionic transmitter puts the majority of its timer behind those devices! (6 turns of timer, vs the 4 you start with) Worse, the widgets have had their HP doubled -this probably won't matter sometime by midgame, but when you're working with Conventional weapons it means your Rifles have a chance of low-rolling and failing to destroy them. Furthermore, Pistols and Autopistols go from being guaranteed to destroy them and efficient choices for doing so to being impossible to destroy them at the Conventional tier, and in the case of Pistols even the beam tier isn't actually guaranteed to break them in one hit! All of this means that a psionic transmitter mission can be basically impossible to pull off if it crops up early in a Beta Strike run! And even later, it will still be disproportionately challenging.

That's just for the timer, note. In Retaliation missions civilians don't have increased HP. (Or if they do, it doesn't matter: the point is I've seen a civilian die to being on fire by taking exactly 2 damage, so if Beta Strike has doubled their HP, they had a measly 1 HP and it essentially doesn't matter because almost nothing will ever do the 1 damage necessary to make this hypothetical boost matter) So your ability to wipe out the attackers is significantly slowed down, but you're probably losing one or more civilians each and every turn. That makes Retaliation missions disproportionately difficult.

Another example of unevenness is the missions where you destroy an Alien transmitter, and the ones where you defend a Resistance device. As I alluded to with the psionic transmitter mission type, environmental objects of any sort have their HP doubled. (And this is coded badly, I should note, as the devices in these two mission types don't have their HP bar modified to reflect their new max HP: you won't see their HP bar decrease any until they're actually below half their maximum HP) So needing to destroy an Alien transmitter before it goes off is noticeably more difficult (Though not as bad as the psi transmitter), while defending a device is vastly easier, so much so that even relatively late in the game where a Sectopod may be firing on it you won't be under serious time pressure.

Also frustrating is how it affects the second part of Chosen Stronghold assaults. These missions are carefully tuned so that it's possible for a decent team to kill enemy reinforcements as fast as they appear while still getting in some damage on the Chosen's sarcophagus, and so it's feasible -even on Legendary- to destroy the sarcophagus in 1-2 turns... and then Beta Strike doubles enemy HP and the sarcophagus' HP. It's not so bad if you manage to hit a Chosen in the midgame, before stuff like Andromedons can reinforce in and before the Chosen itself has reached its ultimate tier of training, but if you are hitting that late in the game... even on just Commander, this can easily devolve into an impossible situation, where your squad is going to wipe and there's not really anything you can do to prevent it except redo the mission and hope the RNG primarily generates enemies it's feasible for you to quickly kill. (eg Codices, if you have Bluescreen Rounds) If things get that far, you may just have to give up on taking out that Chosen and accept that they'll be interfering with the final mission.

All of this means that not only is Beta Strike overall slanted against the player, but that luck has a disproportionate influence on your success or failure. Some missions are vastly more difficult, potentially to the point of being basically impossible. Others are arguably easier than if Beta Strike is off. There's no real rhyme or reason to this, not in any coherent design sense.

And of course it warps the balance on the player end of things. Stasis was already one of the Psi Operative's most useful skills, but now it's even more valuable, where Soulfire has turned underwhelming now that enemies take so much more punishment. Domination is a lot better than Void Rift or Psi Lance. The Freeze Bomb is even more ridiculously good, Flashbangs are even more worth considering, Rupture is prone to providing far more of a damage boost... not that the game's skill and item balance was perfect or anything, but Beta Strike is even wonkier.

I'm not a fan of Beta Strike overall. It's not well-tuned, its concept is fuzzy (What is the intended motive for enabling it? What should I be hoping to experience?), and I particularly dislike how its overall presentation makes it sound like an easy mode and then the actual mechanics are heavily biased toward making things harder. I don't know if the developers genuinely didn't realize this is a hard mode or just did a poor job of communicating that it is, but either way that's a problem.

That said, if you're having trouble with Legendary difficulty and in particular people keep getting killed as your core problem, Beta Strike can make it potentially more manageable. Legendary isn't tuned around the assumption that you almost always wipe out a pod without it getting to act, so Beta Strike isn't breaking an assumption of being able to do so the way it is on lower difficulties.  Meanwhile it helps mitigate how on Legendary your soldiers are distressingly prone to dying in a single hit, and indeed actually reduces wound recovery time, where wound recovery time is a significant burden on Legendary.

This is one of many little things that makes me think War of the Chosen was tuned with Legendary in mind first and foremost, unlike the base game where Legendary got a surprising amount of work put into it but Commander was clearly the intended experience.

Grim Horizon
Most time-limited Dark Events never time out.

I've been over this in the Dark Event posts, but there's a fair few Dark Events that are unaffected by Grim Horizon, either because they have no duration in the first place or because they're just arbitrarily excluded. This makes Grim Horizon remarkably uneven; one run might hit the endgame with 8 Dark Events running simultaneously, and then another run make it to the endgame with literally zero ongoing Dark Events. It's all down to how many Dark Events that went through could even be affected by Grim Horizon. There's more Dark Events affected by Grim Horizon than not, fortunately, so it trends toward mattering, but the degree is still highly variable.

Regardless, Grim Horizon does a lot to add replayability to the game, as different Dark Events stacking up can create radically different long-term incentive structures. I love the idea of it, even if the execution is uneven.

Precision Explosives
Most explosives do less damage the further from the center a given target is.

A curious effect of Precision Explosives is that it becomes possible to do 0 damage to an Armored target, as apparently the drop-off effect subtracts after Armor has performed its own subtraction and doesn't include a forced minimum damage. This makes early Armored targets like ADVENT Mecs unusually dangerous, potentially causing your attempts to chip off Armor and health to fall just short of a kill where normally you'd be assured they die.

Precision Explosives itself is not applied uniformly, with Claymores and Remote Start entirely unaffected by it. It does, however, also affect enemy explosives, so while the game itself describes Precision Explosives as making the tactical combat harder it's not quite that simple. It is overall biased against the player simply because good play involves minimizing the AI's opportunities to attack, and thus minimizes the potential for Precision Explosives to harm the AI's performance, but not as cleanly as the game makes it sound. As AI explosives are some of the more consistently threatening effects of the game, and the AI doesn't understand it should behave differently with Precision Explosives on, Precision Explosives will somewhat regularly cause your soldiers to be slightly less wounded and so require less recovery time, and may even avert one or more deaths.

A secondary implication is that Experimental Grenades are a disproportionate boost in damage over Frag/Plasma Grenades, since a non-trivial portion of their damage potential comes from the damage over time effects they apply and Precision Explosives doesn't affect those.

Also note this has zero effect on Smoke Grenades, Flashbangs, and the Frost Bomb. It only affects damage, not Shred or status infliction rates or the like. This also contributes to making Experimental Grenades a bigger jump in performance, since their side effects are so much more important and more likely to be the primary draw, rather than raw damage per se.

Truth be told, I suspect this is in the game entirely due to Long War having damage drop-off on explosions. Even more so than Beta Strike, it's hard to tell what a player would want this for. 'Realism', I guess, but in terms of gameplay mechanics this isn't terribly purposeful. Mildly interesting for the effect on Experimental Grenade importance, I guess, but I've only ever turned it on to see what it does, primarily for these posts; I can't think of a single reason I'd want it on in terms of adding depth to the experience or the like, because it doesn't.


Lengthy Scheme
The Avatar Project's bar is twice as long.

I feel like Lengthy Scheme is too much of a modifier. I would've appreciated a +50% version to use for Commander difficulty, as I feel its Avatar Project situation is tuned poorly and can easily put you under disproportionately huge pressure through streaks of bad luck, but doubling the length? You might as well have made this option 'turn off the Avatar Project bar'.

Still, if you struggle with Commander difficulty's poor strategic tuning, or want to dip your toes in one of the options that increases difficulty like Grim Horizon, you can turn on Lengthy Scheme to give you a lot more breathing room. Or if the Avatar Project just puts you under too much psychological pressure, here you go, you can play War of the Chosen without feeling like death is breathing down your neck.

Again, I really think it should've been a +50% modifier instead of a +100% modifier, but whatever, it's optional, and it's not like it's a fundamentally interesting idea; different tuning wouldn't suddenly make it more interesting.

It also makes the Avatar Project bar look incredibly silly, replacing square blocks with little slits, as shown above. I think a number format would've been better; 3/24 for the above. With this many blips it's difficult to properly count it up. Admittedly it's not hugely important to know the exact number, but still.


Time Turner
Mission timer durations are doubled.

Like Beta Strike, this is... uneven.

First of all, several missions create time pressure by having your enemies attacking one or more vulnerable targets, and Time Turner has no effect on those missions.

Second, the psionic transmitter mission type has the majority of its timer tied up in relay nodes, where destroying one adds a turn to the timer; Time Turner doubles the initial timer length from 4 turns to 8, but it does not make it so destroying a relay node adds 2 turns to the timer. If you have trouble with psionic transmitter missions, Time Turner helps only somewhat -their overall timer is roughly 10 turns, so you're only extending the clock by 40%- while being hilarious overkill on other mission types.

Third, both forms of Avenger Defense mission put you under time pressure using mechanics Time Turner doesn't touch; classic Avenger Defense missions triggered by a UFO attack rely on insanely aggressive reinforcement generation to push you to hurry up, while Chosen Avenger Defense missions give the Avenger an HP meter that's being whittled down by emplacements, unaffected by Time Turner.

A side effect of all this is that the Resistance Orders Private Channel and Infiltrate become pretty worthless outside the psionic transmitter mission type. Doubling all timers is hilariously generous; even if you're quite bad at the game, it's mostly serious overkill.

All that said, if you have the Alien Hunters DLC and want to do a run with the Alien Rulers running loose (ie with Integrated DLC off), Time Turner is worth considering turning on. The Alien Rulers being able to pop into timed missions, without having the courtesy to freeze timers like the Chosen, is one of the most miserable elements of them in the base game; timed missions are generally tuned so you have maybe a couple of turns to spare by the time you get the timer disabled, unless you're insanely aggressive in advancing. While Alien Rulers generally only delay you by a turn or two in a direct sense, that's enough right there to potentially wipe your squad, and is ignoring how the squad will be further slowed down if anyone ended up Unconscious due to the loss in firepower and attendant need to play more cautiously. If you instead burn a Revival Protocol on them, that's less bad, but still slowing the squad down slightly.

Being able to experience the Alien Rulers without dreading them getting your entire squad MIA from ambushing them with no warning in a VIP Escort mission or similar makes them running loose a much better experience right there. So that's one pretty good use for Time Turner.

It can also be combined with Beta Strike if you just want to be able to play tactical missions without strong time pressure. They won't completely eliminate time pressure, but they'll reduce it so far only ridiculously cautious play will risk timing out.

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Next time we cover a new mechanic to War of the Chosen, sorta; Bonds.

See you then.

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