XCOM Analysis: Denoument

There will once again be spoilers for the end of the game. Turn back if you don't want to know.

When it gets down to it, the game's primary problem is that it doesn't know what it wants to be, nor how to go about being whatever thing it is it wants to be.



In theory, it wants to be the new, updated version of the original XCOM. However, it's clear that

1: Firaxis had a shaky grasp of what much of the original XCOM's design accomplishes, and thus what is important to recreate and what is optional.

2: The remaquel wants to be its own thing, without necessarily being clear what it is sacrificing in the process of distinguishing itself from the original.

3: The remaquel just plain isn't clear on what its own underpinnings accomplish.

Critical hits are a good example of point 3. They have exactly one clear purpose in the game's design -a big reward for flanking targets, above and beyond simply ignoring the Defense the cover provides- but then the game isn't built around that point. The most crit-focused classes -Assault and Sniper- can get astonishingly reliable crits when not flanking, which is particularly baffling in the case of the Assault as it is the class whose primary feature seems to be that they are king of getting flanks. This is directly contradicting the purpose crits-from-flanks serve: if you can get crits reliably without getting a flank, then the only incentive for flanking is ignoring the target's Defense from cover. And if you can get accurate shots even through cover -a Colonel Sniper with Damn Good Ground holding a SCOPE has 145 Aim when using Archangel Armor to get height advantage on 99% of enemies, which means even targets in Full Cover will be hit if they don't also have innate Defense- then who cares about that part of a flank?

Which leaves flanks, themselves, with no clear, consistent utility.

Another example of point 3 (And arguably point 2) is that my understanding -from interviews with members of the development team- is that they wanted players to connect to their soldiers as individuals, hence why there's an extensive system for customizing soldier visual design. This is probably also why Mecs have their heads on display, for instance. But mechanically, soldiers aren't distinct individuals if you aren't running certain Second Wave options. In theory the skill system should allow players to have even soldiers of the same class quite divergent, but in practice the balance of individual skill pair choices is so lopsided in the majority of cases that deviating from a handful of cookie-cutter builds makes no sense to do. Every Sniper should be a Squadsight Sniper, every Heavy should take Bullet Swarm, every Assault should take Rapid Fire, etc.

A third example of point 3 is that the game employs randomness, with no clear idea what purpose randomness serves. At the most basic level, randomness can be used to break up cookie-cutter strategies, requiring a player to adapt to varying conditions rather than always answering the same situations the same way, but the game shies away from this utility -Aliens come in 'pods' of 1-3 copies of the same individual, with most exceptions still stuck to a specific rule, such as how Sectopods and Cyberdiscs get 0-2 Drones following them instead of being pods of 1-3 Sectopods or Cyberdiscs. Instead randomness gets applied to damage, to your chance to hit, etc.

Now, to be fair, the original XCOM had far more randomness to damage, but the randomness of damage served to throttle back a player's ability to precisely plan turn actions, encouraging cautious play. It also tied into mechanics like how a Heavy Plasma will occasionally break UFO sections, but as it happens at random, and only occasionally, a player can't efficiently and effortlessly burn a hole through a UFO's wall first time every time. In the remaquel, damage variance is so low that it almost never matters, and critical hits (Ignoring flank-crits for the moment) in particular basically just add spikes of lethality -sometimes reducing how many unit-turns it takes to kill an enemy, sometimes killing a player unit that should've survived the turn no matter what.

My complaint about the plot twist at the end is probably one of the better examples of point 1. The original XCOM is consistent and coherent, with basically everything about the Aliens logically following from what we ultimately learn of their nature. The remaquel, by changing the goal/motive of the Aliens, removes the root reason for things like Terror Missions and Harvest missions, and fails to provide an adequate replacement.

But for more gameplay-specific aspects, probably a better example of point 1 is the change in how weapon 'accuracy' works.

See, even though both games give you a 'percent chance to hit' report when firing a weapon, they mean completely different things. The remaquel is, bar some cheating for the player on the lower two difficulties, doing approximately what you'd expect for its framing: when you take the shot, a 'virtual die' is 'rolled', the result is compared against your chance to hit, and if the result is good you land your shot. The visual effects of weapons fire are completely, totally irrelevant.

In the original XCOM, though, the percentage you're being given is... actually very misleading. Shots fired are using actual physics, hitting whatever the shot intersects with, and 'accuracy' is how tight a cone of possible fire you have. At 100 or so accuracy, the cone is so tight as to be basically a straight line, and it's nearly impossible to miss, but lower listed percents aren't really very useful, as distance is an implicit factor in your accuracy: a target you're standing right next to is impossible to miss without truly awful accuracy, while a target halfway across the map is actually fairly unlikely to be hit by any given shot at even relatively high accuracy.

This has a lot of implications on how the game functions.

It means that you can miss your original target and hit another target entirely. It means that groups of enemies are easier to spray fire in and hit something, it means that firing from above is a good way to control collateral damage, it means that surrounding a target is risking shooting your own units in the crossfire -where in the remaquel surrounding a target is a natural consequence of trying to get flanks!- it means you should avoid clustering your units so the enemy has less chance of getting lucky on their 'misses', it means that when a civilian has a Chryssalid stopped two tiles away from it just spraying fire at it is quite likely to kill the civilian, it means bigger targets are easier to hit, it means that cover is a naturalistic mechanic where a unit firing from the other side of a window is relatively free to fire out but is a lot harder to successfully shoot back (Because eg a shot that would've hit them in the legs instead hits the wall in front of their legs) instead of an artificial mechanic, and probably more things I'm forgetting besides.

The remaquel loses a lot of these implications, and closer is more accurate is the only part of the whole thing the remaquel tries to artificially recreate. In losing these things, the remaquel loses a major component of the depth of the original game!

And there's a lot of stuff like that. The equipment system of the original game was complicated -and honestly, yes, it was probably too complicated and tedious, but the remaquel's simplified system loses a lot of the fairly natural checks and balances of the original game, and dramatically reduces diversity. In the original, soldiers can cart around backup weapons, extra grenades, utility items like Medikits and Stun Rods... but the weight will impair them if they carry too much, backup weapons take up a lot of space and require ammo be carried for them too demanding still more space, swapping stuff into a hand so it can be used takes up soldier time and if you end up in a situation where you can't actually pull out and use the thing then you're basically dealing with costs without getting benefit out of them. The system is deep, and helps make the game interesting and fun, even for someone who has already beaten it once.

The remaquel version is very one-dimensional. You have a gun, with only Assaults and Supports having any complexity beyond "use the best one". (Specifically: they both might consider using a Light Plasma Rifle over a Plasma Rifle for its Aim bonus, and the Assault technically has a choice between using a Shotgun or using a Rifle) You have a Pistol -unless you're a Heavy or a Mec- which is always "use the best one". (And the Heavy's Pistol-replacement -the Rocket Launcher- should be upgraded to a Blaster Launcher if you've got one, period) You have armor, which is basically linear (Basic->Carapace->Skeleton Suit) until you hit the end-game armors, which aren't very well balanced. (Archangel Armor tends to trump them all, and Psi Armor in particular is strictly inferior to Ghost Armor unless you care about the 20 Will bonus, which is honestly not noteworthy enough even for Psi soldiers) And you have an Item slot (Two for Major+ Supports in EU, two for everyone except Mecs past the early game of EW), which is basically the only part of your equipment management that is even slightly interesting -and even then, Snipers should always be Squadsight and so should always take a SCOPE (Since nothing else does anything of use) until Enemy Within introduces Seekers... and simultaneously gives everyone a second item slot, so Snipers should still hold a SCOPE, just with the second item slot being something to provide Strangulation immunity.

This is simple optimization, not any kind of engaging experience in its own right.

And on and on. The remaquel just plain doesn't understand the original XCOM well enough to know what effect it has when it makes changes, and then goes right ahead and makes massive changes.

It's a big-picture problem that trickles down to almost every individual choice, and the game suffers for it.

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