XCOM 2 Analysis: War of the Chosen's Fatigue Mechanics
A new mechanic in War of the Chosen that the manual briefly alludes to, but which is not properly explained anywhere in it or the game itself, is what I call a Fatigue system. (In part because a lot of elements of XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen are clearly influenced by Long War, and this system is broadly comparable to Long War's Fatigue system)
Specifically, when you deploy units, their Will 'rots' over the course of a mission. If it drops below 67%, the soldier will be Tired after the mission ends -you can still deploy them in this state, but it's a very bad idea, as they'll react badly to more or less literally anything bad happening, and once the mission completes they'll probably earn themselves some manner of psychological problem that will impair their performance in future deployments even once they've rested. You're also not allowed to deploy them onto Covert Ops if they're Tired, period, though note that assigning them to Facilities is not blocked by being Tired: they can perform Bond training, Retraining, Psi Operative training, and negative trait removal at the Infirmary just fine. This means the Fatigue system doesn't hit Psi Operatives as badly as you might expect, and more generally encourages trying to prioritize sending Tired soldiers to Facility-related stuff so you minimize how many troops are unavailable at any given moment.
Once a soldier has entered the 'tired' state, they'll take 8-12 days to recover from it. This is independent from normal Will regeneration, so even if it would take less time for them to regenerate their Will to max that won't lead to them exiting the Tired state prematurely. If that happens, all it means is they'll have more starting Will if you insist on sending them out anyway, and so be more likely to avoid Panicking and whatnot.
If you push them even farther, there's a 'Shaken' state that kicks in once they drop below 33% Will. You flat-out can't deploy a soldier who is Shaken until they recover, which takes 14-20 days, once again independent of normal out-of-battle Will regeneration rates. (The config files also indicate Shaken soldiers are even more likely to gain a negative mental trait than Tired soldiers, though this doesn't jive with my actual experience so I suspect it's not a properly-implemented mechanic) In an ideal world, you'd only ever deploy completely fresh soldiers and they'd never have anything bad happen to them on missions.
War of the Chosen is not designed to let you achieve that perfect state, at least once you get out of the cheating-for-you absolute baby difficulties. (ie Rookie and Regular)
This system is fairly interesting and important on a number of levels. Thematically, it's an example of War of the Chosen making more of an effort to make warfare seem, from an in-universe standpoint, like something draining and unfun; the base game had some efforts in that direction, but they weren't very effective. Fatigue, and the associated mental disorders that can occur from pushing your soldiers too hard, does a lot to shift the feeling of the game away from 'a handful of superheroic supersoldiers happily stomp an evil alien empire at no real effort' to something more like 'a ragged underdog of a resistance force does its best, and does eventually succeed, but it's a long and taxing effort for everyone involved'. Particularly impressive is that it does so without making the experience an unpleasant strain on the player, which is what usually happens when a game attempts to provide mechanics for 'war is hell' or similar.
Mechanically, it helps prop up the relevance of the Will stat, which was of extremely limited relevance in the base game since it's no longer used for psychic offense and base XCOM 2 has even fewer Panic test sources than the prior game. A mildly interesting implication is it means psychic threats are more relevant if you have a tendency to not give your soldiers enough rest, since Will is still relevant to psychic defense, though due to how small Will numbers are this is essentially invisible to the player. More importantly, it interconnects with the Chosen having been introduced; Fatigue means you can't constantly deploy your A team into every mission, not unless you want to court disaster from their exhaustion getting to them, which means you're more likely to field a B or even C team that... can't necessarily stomp the Chosen when they randomly swing by. Suddenly these boss entities go from free Ability Points to potentially swooping in on an under-strength team you sent into an easy-seeming mission to get them some experience and turning what should have been easy experience into a disaster.
The overall result is that you have to play quite differently from the base game. Instead of constantly sending your highest-level troops, except when injuries force you to fall back on B team members, you need to do something different. Maybe send a couple of your highest-level troops to baby-sit some lower-level soldiers so they can hopefully fend off the Chosen if they show up. Maybe make more of an effort to juggle your A team and your B team so they're actually comparably effective. Maybe a mix of these.
It's really quite nice.
The nitty-gritty of the details are, surprisingly, mostly relatively easy to infer from the DefaultGameCore config file.
First of all, when a pod is first discovered, each soldier has a 50% chance of losing 1 Will, rolled twice, unless it's a form of Lost, in which case the chance is only 33%. (Still rolled twice, to be clear) This is per visible enemy and rolled separately for each soldier; that is, if you see a pod of 3 Aliens, each squad member will lose 0-6 Will. (The config files indicate soldiers lose up to 1 Will per enemy spotted, but if you're using a mod to reveal Will drain this is clearly incorrect) Distance or personal visibility is not a factor; if your Reaper scouting far ahead of the group discovers a pod for the first time, your entire squad is rolling for Will hits. This means you have little ability to control this factor's influence on Will lost; in missions that involve evacuating to finish the mission and also involve enemy reinforcements, you can have lower-Will soldiers evac before reinforcements arrive to avoid them taking a Will hit, but generally if you know about a pod it's already too late to avoid the Will drain.
Also note that Lost triggering Will loss less frequently is misleading, as if Lost are present they will be present in huge numbers. A mission with no Lost that has the final report placed as 10~ enemies will, if there's Lost, probably exceed 50 enemies. So where a normal mission with 10 enemies expects to drain 10 Will from each soldier, a The Horde mission with just Lost will expect to drain 33~ Will; more than three times the Will loss!
(The config files indicate this caps out at 33% of their maximum Will drained by this effect in particular, but experience shows this is probably not actually correct. Possibly it's just something funky going on with how the game rounds numbers or that the clamping won't prevent a single pod sighting from draining you from 68% to 60%, but whatever the reason I know from experience that late-game squads can have completely fresh soldiers end up Tired when absolutely nothing bad happened in the mission, and not right at the very edge of the Tired threshold, but missing a solid 40% of their Will)
Note that enemies being spawned counts as a new pod sighting, whether that's reinforcements arriving by air or the Chosen summoning minions or a Lost wave appearing or a Psi Zombie being raised by a Sectoid or Gatekeeper. This makes such effects slightly more important to prevent from happening than they were in the base game; you may wish to prioritize killing Sectoids immediately more than you did in the base game, to reduce Will lost, especially in the early game when enemy counts are low enough that spotting just 1 more enemy is a pretty big proportionate increase to expected Will drain. Surprisingly, 'new spawns drain Will' extends to Chosen respawning when attacking their Strongholds, though this isn't super-important given how fundamentally draining the missions are. (Among other points, if the cap on enemy-sighted Will drain is enforced, multi-part missions clearly only enforce it per segment, not for the overall mission chain; I regularly have soldiers Shaken after hitting Strongholds, having started fresh)
Second, civilian deaths cost your soldiers at least 2 Will, even if none of your soldiers actually witnesses the death. (This effect caps out at 25% of their maximum Will lost, which might sound strangely generous, but it's cumulative with the normal oh-god-what-am-I-even-looking-at Will loss; thus, Retaliation missions can actually push a soldier straight to Tired even if nothing bad happens to any of your soldiers, even if the caps do function)
Outside Retaliation missions, your soldiers actually don't care about civilian deaths. Hit an ADVENT city center and catch six civilians with a Blaster Launcher? Your soldiers apparently write them off with a meh. So unless you feel guilty about killing digital civilians, don't worry about accidentally killing them; there's no negative consequences.
Third, a soldier with a Bondmate does not like bad things happening to them. The Bondmate just taking an injury is normally okay, but otherwise... The Bondmate died? Instantly takes away a bunch of Will, not to mention automatically results in them Berserking. Bondmate captured? Instantly takes away a bunch of Will. There's actually unused entries for penalties for having a Bondmate knocked unconscious or mind-controlled as well, but they don't have numbers to do anything so they don't matter. Unless you change them to matter, of course.
Fourth, the Spectre has the ability Horror that siphons 20 Will. Which is bad, given your soldiers have 40-56 Will prior to external boosts being applied. And it forces them to Panic!
Fifth, a soldier going into critical condition (Dying or going into Bleeding Out mode) always subtracts at least 2 Will from your other soldiers. This effect, curiously, actually caps out at 25% of their maximum Will in any given mission, just like the civilian death one. Also worth pointing out is that when a Spectre Shadowbinds one of your soldiers, the rest of the squad suffers Will drain as if the soldier died; there's a reason somebody will play a 'soldier dead' line in response to Shadowbind! The funny thing is, the soldier who was hit by Shadowbind is fine, no Will lost to it. Regardless, this means Spectres are hard on your soldiers, psychologically, when combined with their access to Horror. If you're regularly experiencing Fatigue crunch, consider prioritizing killing Spectres sooner.
Sixth, Mind Control actually drains Will from every member of the squad except whoever was actually Mind Controlled. A minimum of 2, I'm pretty sure, just like death.
Seventh, soldiers lose some Will each time they take a hit, guaranteed. (Something like 2-4 per hit) Note that this is not proportionate to damage dealt, just to the number of hits taken, so damage over time effects are surprisingly hard on Will if not cured promptly.
Maybe eighth, there's an entry for 'insubordinate squadmate'. I'm... not sure how this actually works, but it's also a guaranteed loss of at least 2 Will, with a cap of 25% of their maximum Will in a given mission. I suspect this is actually a cut mechanic, but it's possible I've simply never encountered it, or have encountered it and just not recognized it; maybe soldiers Panicking is 'insubordinate squadmate'?
But wait! If your soldier is already tired, even more stuff affects them negatively!
The Tired soldier took a hit? That Tired soldier is guaranteed to lose Will proportionate to how much of a percentage of health they lost; they went from fine to nearly dead in one shot? Will is ripped apart. Lost one hit point out of 16? Okay, just a little bit of Will was lost over the norm. (Notably, this means sending Tired soldiers out early in a run, before you have improved armor technology or high-level soldiers, will go much more badly if they get injured than later when you do have those things) Furthermore, the Tired soldier has a 50% chance of Panicking when injured, which can result in any of Panic, Berserk, Obsessed, or Shattered. We'll get to what those mean next post.
Any soldier took a hit? Your Tired soldiers won't lose additional Will from a squadmate being hurt, but they've still got a 50% chance of Panicking. No chance of an Obsession roll, but Panic, Berserk, and Shattered are all possibilities.
A squadmate died? Your Tired soldiers lose Will in proportion to how highly-ranked the soldier who died was, and have a 75% chance of Panicking. Panic, Berserk, and Shattered are all possible sub-reactions.
Squadmate captured by one of the Chosen? Same thing as if a soldier died as far as your Tired soldiers are concerned.
A squadmate so much as Panics? Your Tired soldiers are guaranteed to lose at least 2 Will and have a 60% chance of Panicking, with all four of Panicked, Berserk, Obsessed, and Shattered as possibilities.
A squadmate gets mind-controlled? Your Tired soldiers are guaranteed to lose Will proportionate to the mind-controlled soldier's rank, and have a 50% chance of Panicking to boot. Panicked, Berserk, and Shattered are all sub-possibilities. The Will loss is actually half of what they'd lose if the squadmate had died, but yikes regardless.
Lastly, if a squadmate is knocked unconscious, that's guaranteed to take away Will proportionate to the soldier's rank from your Tired soldiers. Like with mind control, it's only half what a death would cause, and it actually has no chance of inducing Panic, but...
Yeah. Send a team of Tired people out? They're all going to freak out at the drop of a hat, and this will produce panic chains as they freak out in response to everyone else freaking out.
Don't send out squads while they're all Tired!
It's okay to send one Tired soldier in an emergency, but you're just asking for a squad wipe if literally the entire squad is Tired. (Caveat: Mind Shields can let you ignore the immediate issues. Your soldiers will still end up with longer-term issues, though)
Note that in-game this all happens basically invisibly. Your soldiers have a green bar representing what proportion of their maximum Will they currently have, and so you can potentially see it draining, but there's no clear indications of anything happening, let alone clear feedback on what caused it. It's also not explained by the game; not even to the minimal extent of mentioning that this new element of soldier UI is showing the proportion of their maximum Will they retain. Fortunately, there's a mod that provides pop-ups of Will lost when it triggers; this mod makes the whole thing a little less opaque.
... still pretty opaque, mind, but hey, that's what this post is for!
So implications time!
Before I start, I'll note that I don't know how the game rounds in regards to the Tired threshold. That's why I'm vague about the exact Tired point in the following paragraphs; I don't know if the game takes '40.2 is 67% of 60 Will' to mean that 40 is already Tired, or maybe 41 is Tired, or actually you have to drop to 39 or less to be Tired. Fortunately, there's enough randomness involved being imprecise isn't a serious problem in drawing conclusions.
Past Rookie rank and before Covert Op grinding or a Focus PCS, your soldiers will uniformly have 40-55 Will in War of the Chosen. Very early in the game, a map will have exactly 6 enemies, which means at most 12 Will lost per soldier. For a soldier with only 40 Will, they need to drop below roughly 27 Will to be Tired; thus, it's actually impossible for a single mission to drop anyone (Except some Rookies, possibly, depending on how the game rounds things) to Tired purely on the basis of spotting enemies, initially (Even if the 33% drain cap doesn't apply), and they will usually be able to get through two missions fairly close together without becoming Tired. A soldier with 55 Will would need to drop below roughly 37 Will, and so will often actually be able to run three early missions fairly close together without becoming Tired. (As their average Will loss will be 6 per mission, which times three puts them at exactly 37 Will, of which they'll actually regenerate some between missions and this is all random anyway so they could always get slightly lucky relative to the exact average)
As the game progresses, enemy counts go up, while your own soldiers only gain Will if you work for it. A regular late-game mission will often be around 13 enemies, and may occasionally peak as high as 17. 13 enemies is already more than twice what you encountered at the beginning of the game, and so more than twice the expected Will drain; that's up to 26 Will drained just from seeing enemies! And even just the average result of losing 13 Will is enough that a 40 Will soldier will be right at the Tired threshold. As such, late in the game, a completely fresh squad that completes a mission flawlessly will still probably have at least one soldier Tired afterward. And then as the game progresses you start having Spectres showing up, Mind Control becomes more common, injuries get harder to completely avoid except by outright killing everything... so secondary Will drain overall becomes more common, even though injuries and particularly deaths overall become less common as you progress.
Furthermore, since the Tired threshold is a percentage, it requires a lot of Will boosting to really escape the clutches of Tiredness. Covert Op grinding is at most 5 Will at a time; that means you gain 2.65 points of Will buffer each time a soldier is sent on a Covert Op that provides 5 Will. That's just a reduction in the likelihood of becoming Tired, not an escape; even for a 55 Will soldier, jumping to 60 Will still means dropping below 40~ Will is hitting the Tired point, which will happen if the majority of the 'enemy sighted' Will rolls hits them successfully.
As a different example, a Superior Focus PCS is worth 20-25 Will if you don't have the Integrated Warfare Resistance Order, which is thus worth 13.25-15.90 points of Will buffer. Jumping from 55 to 70 puts the Tired point at roughly 47 points; that's 23 points below the max, and thus it's still possible for a perfectly-done late-game mission to make them Tired!
It's not until about 90 Will that you can be certain a flawless late-game mission will never make the soldier Tired. And by 'flawless', I don't mean the game's definition of flawless where no one was injured or killed and you killed all the Aliens and all; that too, but even stuff like Shadowbinds that the game doesn't count against you rating-wise will still result in additional Will drain. 90 Will is completely unreasonable, realistically requiring you take a soldier with a high base Will, deliberately grind their Will on Covert Ops repeatedly, and slap a Superior Focus PCS onto them so you can ensure they don't get Tired. You could potentially do that with one, maybe two soldiers in a run, but you'd have to be doing so from basically the beginning of the game for it to be at all helpful, and why would you? If it's that you have a favorite soldier, like you love Templar and want to field them every mission... you're not going to be constantly having them Will grind, because that's contrary to having fun using them as much as possible. And from a more pragmatic trying-to-win approach, only Reapers are maybe worth the effort of Will grinding to that extent...
... except not really, because assorted exceptional missions will drain Will more rapidly, and frankly why put all this effort into Will boosting a single soldier when you could be making multiple other soldiers better soldiers so your squad has better performance?
Also, all of the above is for difficulties below Legendary. Legendary's very first mission already has 8 enemies, and that bump up in numbers is reflective of Legendary's approach as a whole; it's basically unavoidable on Legendary that people will get Tired very regularly. Sure, you have more time to Will grind from Covert Ops... but wait, Covert Ops take longer! So that's a bit of a wash.
Basically: Will boosts should never be treated as anything other than a slight tilting of the odds on Tiredness, Will variability on soldiers is something to keep in mind but not important enough to eg write off a soldier for the crime of having the minimum number on Will, and you should basically always assume a given mission can result in a soldier being Tired past the very early game, and plan accordingly. (eg if you want your Reaper available for an upcoming Retaliation mission... don't send them on another mission that pops up first, even if they're fresh and have high base Will. The RNG may make them Tired regardless)
Incidentally, this explains why soldiers no longer gain Will from leveling. If you had the base-game situation of expecting most soldiers to hit something close to 100 Will completely incidentally, the Fatigue system wouldn't really have much of an impact, since elite soldiers would be able to very reliably count on staying fresh after just a single mission, and indeed would often be able to take multiple missions close together without becoming Tired.
It'd obviously be kind of dumb to introduce Fatigue and then make it essentially irrelevant.
This is a surprisingly elegant, brilliant system for something that's easy to look at and think 'they just stole Fatigue from Long War and then made it random'.
I mean, that's basically true, but randomizing it in this manner has an important benefit compared to Long War, and indeed relative to base XCOM 2; forcing you to have a more diverse and varied play experience.
In base XCOM 2, below Legendary you expect to be able to largely field the same six soldiers into every single mission throughout the game. If you find your Fan Fire Bluescreen Rounds Superior Perception PCS Sharpshooter solves the issue of Gatekeepers and Sectopods (Aside needing to Shred them some first, of course), then that will likely be your answer to Gatekeepers and Sectopods in every mission for the rest of a run, and indeed likely you'll just recreate it in future runs. Advanced Warfare Center bonus skills were the only serious caveat to that latter point, and most of them aren't very significant and a given soldier only gets one such skill anyway so you're not able to get particularly impressive, particularly improbable combinations of skills that will likely never show up in a later run, making it very unlikely to actually lead to you hitting upon a novel solution you can't reliably recreate in future.
Injuries and deaths can break this up some, but that's about it, and below Legendary the game is really tuned under the assumption that past the very early game your squad largely doesn't let enemies get turns, with a significant bias toward 'enemy got turn, but it didn't matter because they wasted it on an action that isn't immediately threatening' when you can't arrange to immediately kill off literally everything.
This severely hurts the replayability of base XCOM 2; once you've hit on an answer to a certain kind of problem, the game is designed so you don't really need to think about other possible answers. A very shallow level of mastery is more than good enough to consistently handle even the biggest challenges of the game. (Ignoring the highest difficulty for the moment: I'll be talking about this in a later post, but Legendary is practically a whole other game than the other difficulties, particularly in the base game) The result is that the gameplay gets very repetitive very fast; you've been here, you've done this, you barely even need to think about it, just do what you did the last time, or the last two times, or whatever. At which point why play the game anymore?
Long War requires a higher degree of mastery to get through encounters than base XCOM 2, but its Fatigue system encourages repetitiveness all the same. After all, before external modifiers every squad member will acquire the same amount of Fatigue and recover from it at the same rate. The net result is that in Long War you're encouraged to default to having two, maybe three distinct squads, the squads themselves only occasionally changing things up for the same reason you might change things up in base XCOM 2; because somebody is unavailable due to injury and so you'll sub in someone else, or has died and so you need a permanent replacement.
This ends up remarkably similar of an experience to if, instead, Long War had half or a third as many missions and didn't have its Fatigue system, but then you personally took it upon yourself to play two or three runs in parallel. Each run (squad) will tend to answer a given problem basically the same way every time, and the only reason it feels meaningfully varied is that you're not bringing your A Team into all the missions in Long War. And even then, once new enemy types are done entering rotation and your soldiers are mostly at or close to max rank?... the rest of the campaign is just a grind at that point, not new and interesting gameplay forcing you to rethink your assumptions and generate new solutions to familiar problems. This is further exacerbated by other aspects of Long War, most significantly its preference for 'many small bonuses add up to a big effect'; a Fortiores Una Officer really ought to be leading a squad based heavily around Damage Reduction, or else it's a bit of a waste of an Officer level, which actively discourages borrowing soldiers from other squads because you've built them to work well with their actual squad, and not with whatever squad you're considering subbing them into.
War of the Chosen's randomized Fatigue system dodges these problems. You can't try out Banish on a Sectopod, be happy with the result, and mindlessly repeat that in every future encounter with Sectopods; at some point your Reaper is going to stay on the Avenger to rest whether you like it or not, and when that inevitably happens you're going to have to think of a different solution to Sectopods. And whatever new solution you come up might be unavailable simultaneous to your Reaper being unavailable in another encounter down the line, forcing you to think of a new solution once again.
Furthermore, since the system is random, and can largely be summarized down to 'there is a chance for any given soldier to be Tired, or not, in most missions past the early game' you can't be overly-precise in your planning. In the very early game, I'll do stuff like send my starting Reaper on exactly two missions and then have them skip the next one to ensure they're available for the first Retaliation mission and thus the first Chosen fight. Past the very early game, the only way to be sure the Reaper will be available for a given mission is to not send them on other missions at all. So either I do without a Reaper to hold onto them for some crucial mission, meaning I'm forced now to come up with non-Reaper solutions to problems I might resolve with a Reaper, or I risk doing without them in the mission I want them for, and so am forced to come up with non-Reaper solutions then.
The overall result of War of the Chosen's Fatigue system is that the squad you use from one mission to the next shuffles about quite randomly, where you can't count on having any given tool and especially not any given combination of tools, and so are perpetually having to think anew about how to solve a given situation. This vastly improves the core replayability of the game, especially when stacked atop a number of other changes War of the Chosen makes, and even within a given run does a lot to keep the campaign engaging all the way into the late game; in base XCOM 2, once your squad is max level and has endgame gear, any further missions tend to feel like time-wasting tedium, because you're just going to do the same ol' same ol' and nothing will be learned, since by that point your enemies are also done changing on you. In War of the Chosen, just having multiple Colonels and endgame equipment is not enough to make tactical combat feel like a pointless grind.
This is incredibly economic design, a shockingly simple system singlehandedly providing a sweeping improvement to the entire experience.
This kind of thing is part of why I go as in-depth into XCOM 2 as I do; War of the Chosen is a massive leap forward in the subtler, more important aspects of game design, impressively so given how many of the core systems are actually untouched or barely-altered. There's clever design decisions to unearth and discuss, among other smart or otherwise-competent things to pull out and talk about.
It's a pleasant surprise, given where the series started, and where it initially went.
Next time, we cover Panic in War of the Chosen, and the related and new concept of what I call 'phobias'.
See you then.