XCOM 2 Equipment Analysis: Primary Weapons Part 1

Weapons in XCOM 2 have some key differences, compared to its predecessor.

First of all, there is no capturing of weapons. Related to this, there's no individual production of weapons. There can exist individual copies of weapons via the Weapon Attachment system, but you never pay for an individual weapon. (Ignoring DLC, anyway) Instead, unlocking a weapon type gives you free, unlimited copies of the base form of that type/tier. That is, you start the game with unlimited copies of Conventional Rifles, and when you purchase Magnetic Rifles you suddenly have unlimited copies of those, too.

This means that, even more so than the previous game, you're basically never going back a tier. In the prior game, you could theoretically suffer a squad wipe, thus losing Plasma weapons your troops were carrying, and thus be set back to Laser weaponry until you captured/built replacement Plasma-tier weapons. Or even back to Conventional, if you'd sold/lost all your Laser-tier weaponry and couldn't afford to build replacements of those!

These weren't terribly realistic scenarios, sure, but they were possible. In XCOM 2, such a scenario is no longer possible. This is part of a broader trend of XCOM 2 reducing X-COM's fragility, making it so that a mission or three going badly does set you back, but the extent to which it can do so is more limited than the prior game. The nice thing is that this primarily serves to make the game less unfriendly to lower-skill players, such as first-time players: if you're not prone to squad wipes and the like in the first place, this isn't a particularly significant change from the previous game. If anything, XCOM 2 might be a bit harsher on high-skill players, since it's now possible to lose gear even in missions you actually won!

Note that an odd aspect of this is that while the game will actually let you equip someone with sub-standard gear (Barring some exceptions I'll get to later), there's basically no reason to actually do this. It's not like XCOM 2 has a mechanic equivalent to the Arc Thrower, where doing reduced damage might be helpful for specific purposes.

Anyway, another consequence of the inability to capture weapons is that you more properly climb up through the tech tree of weapons. In the previous game, it was entirely plausible to be doing things like skip straight past Laser Pistols to Plasma Pistols, or spend an extremely brief period running Laser Rifles before they were shunted aside by captured Light Plasma Rifles. In XCOM 2, you have to progress in a fairly specific order. This has benefits for the game, as it lets the game have a more sane tuning of enemy progression: the previous game had too much of a fundamental problem from the player being able to rapidly transition to endgame weapons, making it virtually impossible for enemy progression to work as intended. XCOM 2 can actually pull off having enemies progress in roughly three tiers of overall power to parallel your weapon progression, where you're punished for falling behind and rewarded for pulling ahead, and indeed as we'll see later there are cases where enemies are explicitly organized into three tiers.

In overall mechanical terms, though, weapons work fairly similarly to the prior game. Most classes have a single primary weapon possibility, the Assault-equivalent gets access to Rifles in addition to Shotguns, etc.

What has changed is damage mechanics, and it's weird and more complicated under the hood than the game's presentation would suggest.

A given attack has up to three components to its damage range. The first of these is base damage: this is a single number, and if the other two components don't apply that attack will always do the same amount of damage if no external modifiers apply. (That is, ignoring Armor, Rupture, rolling a crit, etc) ie a base damage of 4 means doing 4 damage if nothing external modifies it.

The second of these numbers is 'spread'. This is applied to base damage to give a range. A spread of 0 means no randomization. A spread of 1 means the attack can be its base damage, or +1, or -1. A spread of 2 allows it to furthermore be -2 and +2, in addition to the previous three possibilities. And so on. Unless the game's RNG is screwy in some non-obvious way, as far as I'm aware these possibilities are all equally likely. That is, an attack with 4 base damage and a spread of 1 would be a 33% chance of 3 damage, a 33% chance of 4 damage, and a 33% chance of 5 damage, while switching to a spread of 2 would be a 20% chance for each possibility and so on.

The final, most confusing component is '+1'. This is an additional, separate roll from the spread roll, and does basically exactly what it sounds like: if the +1 roll triggers, the attack does 1 more damage. On most attacks, this is a 50% chance of rolling successfully, and anytime I don't specifically note the chance you should assume it's 50%, but as I've already alluded to with a few class abilities there are exceptions. Note that it is very specifically +1 to damage. There are no cases of the +1 roll adding 2 damage on a success, or any other number.

An implication to note about this formula is that you can actually correctly infer what a given attack's numbers are (Mostly) by just looking at the in-game spread of damage given. If an attack lists a single number, such as Combat Protocol against a non-robot... there's obviously no spread, and no +1. If an attack has exactly two possibilities (eg 4-5 damage), then that attack has +1 but does not have spread in its formula. If it has exactly 3 (eg 3-5), 5 (eg 2-6), 7 (eg 1-7), or any other odd-numbered range of possibilities, then it has spread but not +1. If it has any even number of possibilities (eg 3-6 damage, which is 4 possibilities: 3, 4, 5, 6), then it uses both.

The only stuff you can't infer from the in-game display once you have this information is the percent chance of getting +1, and crit damage.

Speaking of crit damage, it's... a little weird, albeit straightforward. In short, any attack that is allowed to crit has a single number for its crit value, and that number is simply added at the end if the attack rolls a crit. A notable implication of this is that an attack critting is not necessarily more lethal than a non-crit could possibly be: an attack with a base damage of 3-5 that gains only +1 from a crit, for example, will do more damage on a max-damage non-crit (5) than on a min-damage crit. (4) Crit damage is also completely arbitrary per attack: it's not anything like 'add 50% of base damage' or any other systemically consistent design. Indeed, War of the Chosen modifies some weapons' crit damage bonus!

This makes it fairly annoying that if you're not using a mod the game never actually tells you what a given attack's crit damage bonus is. Some weapons it's strongly worth pursuing trying to boost crit chance, because they have fairly high crit damage. Other weapons get nearly nothing out of crits, and you should treat crit chance boosts as a nice bonus to have, not worth going significantly out of your way to acquire. That's fine, except figuring out which is which off in-game information is nearly impossible if you don't do something arduous like note down the result of literally every crit you get, comparing it against non-crit numbers to try to infer the actual mechanics and the specifics of a given weapon, or directly check the numbers in the config files.

Even weirder is how the game handles crit chance. In the previous game, crit chance was a die roll performed after rolling for hit chance: a soldier with a 50% chance to hit and a 50% chance to crit would only crit 25% of all shots taken at those numbers, because half the time they wouldn't hit, and half the time they did hit they'd not crit. This is how most systems with a similar apparent framework work, and is essentially intuitive, not requiring the game explicitly spell it out.

In XCOM 2, that same 50% chance to hit and 50% chance to crit guarantees a crit if you hit.

This is because XCOM 2 basically rolls one number and then compares it against both chances. Thus, if your crit chance is equal to or higher than your hit chance, you're guaranteed to crit if you do hit. Or say your hit chance is 50%, and your crit chance is 25%: now you have a 50% chance of a crit, because half the numbers that provide a hit also provide a crit. A crit chance of 60% on a hit chance of 80% is a 75% chance that a hit will crit. Etc.

This is weird and unintuitive, but one thing it explains right out the gate: XCOM 2 lowered the crit bonus from flanks, and is a little less generous with crit chance boosting from skills, technology, etc. This makes sense, because anytime neither your hit chance nor your crit chance is 100% your actual crit chance is inflated compared to the prior game. Usually not very much, but still.

On a different note, later tiers of weapons can require a certain minimum number of Engineers to be able to purchase. The Shard Gun, for example, requires you have 2 Engineers to be allowed to purchase it at all. I'm not noting these examples down, because I haven't found where in the files that information is stored and in real play I so rarely see it happen I tend to forget it's a mechanic that exists at all. You should generally be aggressively pursuing opportunities for Engineers anyway, and the game is usually pretty generous about throwing them at you for free. It's something to keep in mind if you're considering beelining to advanced weapons while happening to have an unusually low Engineer count, though.


Conventional Assault Rifle
Damage: 3-5 (+2)
Range type: Medium
Ammo: 4
Acquisition: Unlocked at start of game.
Used by: Specialists, Rangers, Psi Operatives, Rookies.

The +2 in parenthesis is how much rolling a crit adds. Also notice I haven't listed a crit chance boost: this is because Rifles don't get one, unlike the previous game, making early-game combat less swingily random.

XCOM 2's range categories are mostly pretty similar to the previous game, but the details are a bit different. In the case of a Conventional-tier Medium-range weapon, you can get up to +20 Aim from getting closer to the target, starting from 15 tiles away. (As opposed to needing to be within 10 tiles in the prior game and getting +35 for a point-blank shot) I specify 'Conventional-tier', because XCOM 2 has a not-very-consistently-applied concept of the tier of a weapon boosting its Aim gain. This is honestly largely ignorable, as it's literally +1 per tier: so the Magnetic Rifle caps out at +21 Aim, and the Plasma Rifle caps out at +22 Aim. Bizarrely, Magnetic-tier Medium range weapons also have their boost to Aim start from 3 tiles further out than Conventional or Energy. What's especially bizarre is that it's just a further range on getting +1 to Aim.

I mean, I like the idea of Aim range modifiers being influenced by tier, but the details are just confusing.

Also worth pointing out is that the Aim boost from getting in close with a Medium-range weapon is comparable to the Aim boost from high ground advantage. As such, Medium-range weapons strongly encourage taking high ground over trying to get in the enemy's face, especially early in the game when your soldiers have poor inherent Aim: a Rookie flanking a target and standing directly adjacent to it has only an 85% chance to actually hit their target! That's high, but if they do get that 15% chance to miss, now they're in serious danger, whereas if they'd taken a shot from high ground at a distance the enemy isn't going to turn around and take a flanking counter-shot of their own, generally speaking.

Also note that the variability on damage is, aside crits, pretty similar to Conventional Rifles from the prior game, but bumped up by one point. This is simultaneously quite meaningful and not very meaningful: XCOM 2 has overall better enemy durability than the prior game, so bumping up damage on your weapons is offset by greater enemy durability, but on the other hand it makes RNG much less of a swingy factor; in the prior game, it was always the case that the maximum number of successful Rifle shots to kill a target was twice the minimum (That is, if you always rolled low it would take twice as long as if you always rolled high), whereas in XCOM 2 there are HP values where the damage roll isn't important (For example, 6 HP will always take exactly two Rifle hits to kill, ignoring crits) or where the range is less wildly swingy. (eg at 7 HP it will take 2-3 hits to kill, where a Rifle in the previous game would take 2-4 hits; the worst case is 50% longer, not 100%) The overhaul to crit damage is also, aside Enemy Within being glitched when it came to crit damage, a reduction in RNG swinginess; an Assault Rifle in the base version of the prior game that crit could do as much as 7 damage as opposed to the usual 2-4 damage, ie more than triple your low roll. XCOM 2's Assault Rifle, if it crits and high rolls, will also do 7 damage, but that's only slightly more than double the damage of a non-crit low roll.

All of this means that combat is more tightly-designed and influenced more heavily by your tactical decisions than by the RNG in the early game and to a lesser extent into the late game, instead of the vagaries of the RNG being the primary determiner of whether your troops casually stomp a pod or do some chipping damage and then half the squad gets crit-killed.

This is very much a good thing.

The Rifle itself is, much like in the previous game, defined first and foremost as the worst of your primary weapons, particularly in the base game, with sub-standard damage, the same clip size as a Shotgun, and no special advantages attached to its classes counterbalancing its weakness. (ie nothing like how Sniper Rifles are balanced under the assumption their wielder has Squadsight) Notably, since Rifles no longer have built-in crit chance, they don't have that over Cannons the way Rifles had it over LMGs in the prior game. Not that it was a terribly meaningful advantage in the prior game, but it contributes to Rifles being the worst weapon -Cannons are more damage for less ammo, where LMGs were more damage for less ammo and less crit chance.

Particularly notable for Conventional Rifles being the weakest weapon is that if you're playing above Regular you'll find that basic ADVENT Troopers will occasionally survive a direct hit from a Conventional Rifle, where the other base-game primary weapons always kill basic ADVENT Troopers on a successful hit. This means that even though the broadly increased damage means Rifles are less badly behind in proportionate terms, they're still notably poorer in performance at the beginning of the game than your other primary weapons.

Mind, the tuning is much better. The Rifle is overall your worst primary weapon, but with how things have been re-tuned the Rifle genuinely has something to recommend it over each other primary weapon type. Where in the prior game the Rifle just plain sucked, I'd argue the Rifle in XCOM 2 comes closer to suffering from being a general-purpose weapon and thus usually beaten out by specialist options, which is a common issue in games and isn't automatically a design failing. It'd be a bit more meaningful if XCOM 2 had more built-in variety on equippable weapons... but then again, it's worth noting that Firaxis commissioned Pavonis Studios to make an alternative weapon set, so while the actual base game doesn't provide alternatives an argument can be made alternatives were intended as part of the design.

As far as conceptual/narrative/etc stuff goes, the Conventional Rifle bothers me. The biggest reason: basic ADVENT Troopers are using magnetic weaponry that is supposed to be more advanced and powerful than your old-Earth weaponry, but a basic ADVENT Trooper's rifle is actually weaker than your old-school hunk of junk Rifles, doing 3-4 (+1 from a crit) damage as opposed to the 3-5 (+2 on a crit) your Conventional Rifles do.

The secondary reason I'm bothered is that honestly X-COM using old Earth weaponry is pretty sketchy a proposition in the context of the narrative presented. You really ought to be running with stolen ADVENT weaponry, given how widespread ADVENT's presence is and how infeasible it is for the narrative to pretend you can't just steal them and ammo for them. Especially because the Resistance has people on the inside to potentially slip ammo and weapons X-COM's way. Even if the game wants to have the player start out with outdated junk... do something like make 'em laser weapons and have some dialogue about ADVENT having only relatively recently switched from laser weaponry to magnetics, and there you go, X-COM has distinctive old-school weaponry to start with and is playing catch-up with ADVENT.

Among other points, laser weapons would help sidestep some logistical concerns regarding eg production of ammunition. Ammo is abstracted out in this and the previous game, yes, and this is good for the gameplay overall, yes, but realistically speaking ammo has to be acquired from somewhere, and with outdated weaponry that's not being manufactured by mainstream corporations or the like... X-COM has to be either relying on an increasingly limited supply of looted stores or manufacturing the stuff themselves, both of which are a bit at odds with the overall game presentation. Going with outdated laser weapons would give the game the opportunity to suggest X-COM didn't have to worry about ammo for them (ala classic X-COM's laser weaponry), or only had to worry about it to the extent of plugging battery packs into the Avenger's power supply, or something.

It would also better sell that this is the future of the prior game. The Rifle isn't particularly egregious in this regard, but all your Conventional tier weapons of the prior game were actually somewhat futuristic-looking, looking like they were imagined as plausible near-future versions of modern weaponry rather than actual current weaponry with the serial numbers filed off... and then your Conventional tier weapons in XCOM 2 lack this near-future aesthetic, and indeed mostly don't bear any particular resemblance to the designs used in the prior game. This is particularly blatant if you have the Tactical Legacy Pack, as the weapon designs are pretty faithful to the concept of 'prior game weapon designs, aside being old and in poor condition', and eg the LMG looks completely different from the Conventional Cannon.

There's plenty of real-world weapon variety, of course, so it's not like it's particularly unrealistic for X-COM to be using different designs in this game than they used in the previous game, but as visual communication it's a pretty dubious decision, and as far as attempting to make these games convincingly lifelike the fact that Conventional-tier weapons in XCOM 2 abandon the near-future look is pretty incoherent. In isolation, it's a reasonable decision; if XCOM 2 were a standalone game, the look of the Conventional-tier weapons is pretty much exactly what I'd expect in the context of the narrative provided.

XCOM 2 is a sequel, though. For visual communication purposes we really ought to be using rusty, aging versions of the Conventional-tier weapons from the prior game, if we're not using laser weaponry or something, and honestly for realism purposes too given the game keeps signaling that X-COM as an organization is a pretty direct continuation from the prior game. It's not even really possible to try to argue this is representing Earth having been bombed back to the metaphorical Stone Age and so X-COM is using whatever prehistoric junk survived a technology crash; I don't even need to return to the 'we really should just be using stolen magnetic weaponry' point, as even if I accept the dubious premise that X-COM is relying entirely on internally-produced technology for Totally Plausible And Reasonable Reasons... Gremlins exist and are unavoidably 'canon' to the narrative, since Shen has ROV-R in plot-only cinematics. X-COM can apparently make heavily autonomous artificial intelligences that fly around using some sci-fi hover/flight technology that looks suspiciously like it's basically magic. This makes it a much harder sell that their firearms have gotten less sophisticated due to the Alien invasion.

It's not like XCOM 2 acknowledges the point that 'advanced' doesn't necessarily mean 'better', certainly not the part where cutting-edge technology is often less rugged than old standbys, which would be a pretty good reason for X-COM to be using less fancy-looking weapons given they're an underground resistance that realistically can't afford to rely on temperamental tech. If it did, some of the issues I'm raising here would still be relevant, but they'd be acceptable casualties in pursuit of a coherent vision.

As-is, it looks suspiciously to me like the art team made Conventional-tier weapons in XCOM 2 look more primitive than their equivalents in the prior game for local experiential reasons.

By that I mean that they went for designs that look old and primitive from current frames of reference so players with zero context would hopefully interpret them as old and primitive. Even though the visual direction of the prior game and the timeframe of XCOM 2 itself demand that 'old and primitive' from the perspective of Bradford, Tygan, and Shen is cutting-edge and futuristic from the current real-world perspective.

This would be frustrating and bad if it is indeed the reasoning, to be clear.

Anyway, moving on...


Magnetic Rifle
Damage: 5-7 (+3)
Range type: Medium
Ammo: 4
Unlock Condition: Completing Magnetic Weapons research.
Cost: 125 Supplies, 10 Alien Alloys in base game. 75 Supplies, 10 Alien Alloys in War of the Chosen.
Legendary Cost: 200 Supplies, 30 Alien Alloys in base game. 135 Supplies, 20 Alien Alloys in War of the Chosen.
Used by: Specialists, Rangers, Psi Operatives, Rookies.

I've already alluded to this repeatedly, but hey, here we are: where your second-tier weaponry in the prior game was Lasers, just like in classic X-COM, in XCOM 2 your second-tier weaponry is magnetic weaponry, a clear callback to Terror From the Deep's Gauss weaponry. Neat.

Just as with the Conventional tier, this is slightly stronger than its equivalent of the prior game -the Laser Rifle- and by extension is a little less swingily random because you still do X+/-1. Similarly, the crit range is essentially the same (7-10 damage), but this isn't so dramatic a spike compared to non-crit damage, reducing RNG's influence on damage output. One implication of all this is that transitioning to Magnetics isn't nearly so dramatic and important as transitioning to Lasers was -yes, it is important, but with the prior game a Laser Rifle's minimum damage was literally doubling the minimum damage of a successful hit compared to a Conventional Rifle, dramatically improving the minimum damage performance of your troops. Five damage is a 66% increase in performance over the minimum 3 of a Conventional Assault Rifle of this game: a big boost, to be sure, but not so consistently important, particularly since the boost opens the way for 'magic number' sourspots. For example, against enemies with exactly 6 HP, outside of crits and external damage modifiers, a couple of Magnetic Rifle shots is identical to a couple of Conventional Rifle shots; this isn't a scenario possible in the prior game, as doubled damage means the only way for a Conventional Rifle shot to have identical functional performance to a Laser Rifle shot is if the target is so weak either attack is a guaranteed kill. (By the way, nothing in the prior game had the 2 HP necessary for this to be possible on an uninjured enemy)

Note that all magnetic-tier primary weapons -aside Templar Gauntlets, and in base XCOM 2 SPARK cannons- gain an additional slot for Weapon Attachments. This means that while the damage boost isn't as large, proportionately, as in the prior game, it's still a big deal to get Magnetic Rifles online.

Also worth mentioning is the magnetic-tier weapons are broken up into two researches that collectively unlock all your magnetic-tier weapons, and that these two researches are set up as a basic research and an advanced one. The Magnetic Rifle is part of the basic package, and so Specialists have a bit of a leg up over some of the other classes in the mid-early game.

Narratively/conceptually, I'm not much of a fan of magnetic weaponry in XCOM 2, or more precisely not a fan of how everything fits together. The player starts with conventional weaponry, moves up to magnetic weaponry, and ultimately replaces them with beam weaponry, with this division being partially paralleled on your enemies: ADVENT soldiers wield magnetic weapons, while Alien soldiers have plasma weapons just like the prior game, and Aliens generally hit harder than ADVENT troops that are roughly equivalent in campaign progression.

In theory, I actually think that's a perfectly fine setup, and indeed it sounds like a natural fit to you being a ragtag resistance force barely scraping by while fighting an oppressive global government with an essentially limitless pool of resources. It broadly makes sense for X-COM as an organization to start out using older-generation gear while the Alien-backed ADVENT government has a shiny new form of weapons that's nonetheless inferior to what the Aliens themselves use. It also makes logical sense for X-COM to first trade up to magnetic weapons and then trade up to plasma weaponry.

But what makes this make sense is the implicit assumption of scavenging. That X-COM would transition to widespread magnetic weaponry by stealing whatever ADVENT guns happen to survive the rigors of combat, with the occasional plasma weapon peppered in from the occasional Alien that both happens to be around and happens to have its weapon survive combat, and slowly phase out magnetic weapons for plasma weapons as they loot an adequate supply of those.

Instead, X-COM as an organization does everything 'in-house'.

Now, I understand the general impetus at work here, and indeed already commented on the change having benefits for the game. The prior game quite clearly ran into trouble from wanting the player to transition to plasma weaponry in the late game while letting the player steal plasma weapons from close to the beginning of the game. Enemy Within made something of an effort to correct for this, but neither of its solutions was all that effectual: increasing the expense of manufacturing plasma weapons didn't do anything to slow down the player when it came to Rifles, Pistols, or to a lesser extent LMGs, since the player wasn't liable to build those in the first place given theft was free and you ought to capture at least one representative of every capturable species anyway. Meanwhile, increasing the research time was more an annoyance to the player than an actual fix, not really doing anything to discourage stealing and researching Light Plasma Rifles right away.

So it's pretty obvious that XCOM 2 has basically given up on the idea of having the progression it wants simultaneous to letting the player steal enemy gear.

But I really feel this is a multi-layered mistake.

On a mechanical level, there's two different major issues I have with it. The first of these is that a big part of the X-COM experience is the fundamental process of encountering deadly capabilities and then getting to ultimately take them for yourself and turn them back on your foes. Ripping it out like this is thus fundamentally removing part of what even makes the series what it is.

Correlated to this is my second issue: there's other solutions available that don't have the problem of gutting X-COM-ness. Apocalypse, for example, actually makes stolen gear your second-tier weaponry, with your ultimate general-purpose weaponry being in-house tools custom-built to target your enemy. This allows it to have roughly three major tiers of weapon progression over the course of the game without either getting rid of looting as a mechanic or making it too easy to skip past the second tier.

Alternatively, the original X-COM game fundamentally stays away from a clearly tiered system. Yes, the original X-COM can broadly be divided into conventional, laser, and plasma tiers, but the game also has damage types (eg Sectopods are vastly more vulnerable to laser weapons than to plasma weapons), places unique capabilities within each tier (The non-conventional weapons have nothing equivalent to the Autocannon/Heavy Cannon in real terms, lasers are unique for having unlimited ammo, no laser-tier Rocket Launcher exists...), and has broadly-equivalent weapons still have notably divergent capabilities and parameters. (eg Laser Pistols have access to auto-fire, unlike conventional Pistols and Plasma Pistols, Plasma Rifles are one of the best sniper weapons in the game...)

And, of course, implicit in me laying out a scenario in which this progression does make sense is that the three-tier system of weapons could effortlessly be combined with looting mechanics with a little bit of thought. Indeed, XCOM 2 outright has the ability for enemies to drop loot your troops can pick up in the field! It wouldn't be terribly difficult to hijack that system and make it so that enemies all have a chance of dropping some appropriate weapon type on death, with the explanation for why it's only a chance being that blowing holes in people has decent odds of doing catastrophic damage to their weapon as well. That would've been very cool and distinctive and fit naturally into how XCOM 2 has you fight ADVENT soldiers in vastly greater quantities than Alien soldiers, all while using mechanics that are already in place and making the world feel more vividly real!

That would be amazing and relatively straightforward to implement.

As opposed to what we got, which is a bit underwhelming. More balanced than the prior game, yes, but underwhelming nonetheless.

Then there's a convergence of gameplay and narrative concept, or more accurately a divergence. One of the usual rules of an X-COM-type game is that equipment is equipment is equipment: a Plasma Rifle fired by a Muton hits just as hard as one fired by a human being. The previous Firaxis game was willing to bend this rule a little, such as by lowering damage on Thin Men and Floaters on lower difficulties, but by default it held itself to this rule.

XCOM 2 very blatantly does not hold itself to this rule.

Right out the gate if you compare beginning-of-game Rookies to beginning-of-game ADVENT Troopers, the issue is strongly in place. ADVENT Troopers are visibly in full body armor and are supposed to be wielding a superior form of rifle, yet on Legendary (ie the most player-hostile difficulty) their HP is actually identical to your Rookies who are ostensibly in Kevlar (And may well be half-naked, visually), while their mag rifles do 3 damage where your conventional Rifle does 3-5 damage. When they upgrade to Advanced Troopers, the HP comparison gets better, but their mag rifles are now directly inferior to your own Magnetic Rifles (5 damage vs 5-7 damage), and now that they've picked up Frag Grenades of their own... they're weaker than the Frag Grenades you were using from literally the first mission!

Even if I wave off enemies upgrading without any narrative justification (ie assume that in 'reality' the ADVENT Elite Trooper stat block is the one encountered from the beginning of the game, with the progression the player experiences being pure game-ism), this is a persistent issue. Sectoids, for example, are using some manner of wrist-mounted plasma weapon that is clearly bulkier than your own Plasma Pistols... so of course it's weaker than your Plasma Pistols. And unlike ADVENT Troopers, there's only one Sectoid form, so there's no arguing over what's the 'narratively true' version.

The whole thing is distractingly unreal and a bit disappointing to have from a game with the XCOM label.

Then there's the more purely narrative level. First of all, the game's attempt to explain why you're developing everything in-house is incredibly limp-wristed: there's a vague allusion to ADVENT magnetic weapons somehow harming or killing anyone who tries to pick them up without having the right genes, and that's it. Not only is this very vague, but it's difficult to imagine how it could function as a real explanation, and is particularly problematic in War of the Chosen where the Skirmishers exist and this explanation would realistically imply them using ADVENT magnetic weaponry from right out the gate. Sure, okay, this explains why your (Non-Skirmisher...) troops don't pick up ADVENT weapons and start firing them mid-mission, but there's basically no way to explain why there's no option to box them up and take them back to the Avenger for the engineering team to figure out a way to disarm this mechanism. Pretty much any explanation you could come up with would inevitably create problems elsewhere: for example, if you come up with an explanation for why picking them up with tongs and sticking them in a box will end badly, you've probably created an explanation that makes it extremely difficult to believe that ADVENT's process of manufacturing and delivering their weapons doesn't end up with crates of the gear exploding or whatever before they can make it to their destination. And if you try to say 'well, the mechanism doesn't activate until it's been assigned to a particular soldier', now you're just raising the question 'why doesn't X-COM try to raid trucks/trains/whatever delivering fresh batches of rifles, then?'

On top of all that, the game doesn't actually hold itself to whatever mysterious mechanism is supposed to justify this, with the cinema that plays when you beat the game showing someone taking a gun from an ADVENT soldier and pointing it at others with no consequences!

Plasma weaponry is even worse, in that the game doesn't have a justification anywhere for why you don't just steal the Alien weaponry! You can try to gloss over some individual cases: I can easily believe the Sectoid's weapon is too ergonomically divorced from human sensibilities, such that you might as well build something from scratch rather than trying to modify it or use it as-is. Andromedons always have their gun visibly break, and due to their unique mechanics I can believe that's a deliberate self-destruct mechanism or something of the sort. Codices may well be narratively intended to have their gun be a projection that doesn't persist once they're killed, even though the rifle does remain in-engine when you kill them.

But that only goes so far. I have doubts there's any satisfactory explanation one can come up with for why the Viper rifle can't be looted and used as-is, and Mutons are a stretch too.

Furthermore, part of the narrative problem is how all this conflicts with the notion that you're a lightweight resistance movement operating on relatively tight resources. Part of the benefit of the scenario in which X-COM is stealing ADVENT weaponry is that it sidesteps the industrial requirements involved in rapidly manufacturing weapons and their attendant ammo, and indeed would make it easy to wave off how the game essentially ignores ammo other than as an in-combat 'when do I reload' consideration. Classic X-COM ended up showering you in ammo, so much so that plasma weapons having ammo limitations was a bit of a joke -and this is even though the game has a glitch that means you're not looting as much ammo as you should be! By a similar token, XCOM 2 could've waved off ammo concerns by implying X-COM is able to loot more than enough ammo, probably with help from Resistance contacts.

Instead, XCOM 2 creates a scenario where logically ammo should be eating into your Supplies, and furthermore creates a scenario where it's a lot harder to buy that you're able to get your advanced gear at all, let alone in a timely manner. The X-COM concept has always had kind of silly timelines if you try to take things completely literally, but XCOM 2 is particularly egregious in this regard -which is frustrating since it's so unnecessary.

Then there's how this decision makes the parallels pretty inexplicable. If X-COM's weapon technology is developed in-house instead of stolen or reverse-engineered from their enemies, why would it work out as making magnetic weapons and then beam weapons in parallel to how your enemies have magnetic more basic/less lethal and plasma more advanced/more lethal? The game vaguely tries to pretend your science team is studying the opposition's gear to learn how to imitate it, but this isn't reflected in the mechanics and doesn't answer the question anyway, since for one thing it doesn't address why your team very specifically imitates the magnetic weapons and then the plasma weapons. If you accept the conceit that plasma weapons are clearly superior and everyone knows it, wouldn't the priority be investigating them first?It's not like there's any obvious reason to assume that magnetic weapons will be vastly easier to develop and/or somehow lay the groundwork for figuring out plasma weapons.

If the game was going to abandon theft as one of your primary mechanisms of advancement like this, it would've made far more sense to make it so that your own weapons are largely unrelated to the weaponry your enemies are fielding. This is especially true when you consider XCOM 2 goes out of its way to tell the player that the Ethereals are softpedaling their minions: it'd be easy to incorporate a bit with Tygan and/or lady Shen talking about how the ADVENT magnetic weaponry looks like shiny future-tech to impress civilians as part of the propaganda about Aliens uplifting humanity, but is actually comparable to or inferior to classic Earth weapons from twenty years ago, and suddenly your conventional-tier weaponry being better than ADVENT magnetic weaponry would be an affirmation of the narrative, not a contradiction of it!

Like, great, magnetic weapons as a shout-out to Terror From the Deep is cute and all, but this could've been handled so much better, and without necessarily expending any more effort than the current implementation.

XCOM 2 is a massive improvement over the prior game, but big missteps like this are still frustrating.


Plasma Rifle
Damage: 7-9 (+4 in base game, +3 in War of the Chosen)
Range type: Medium
Ammo: 4
Unlock Condition: Completing Plasma Rifle research.
Cost: 250 Supplies, 20 Alien Alloys, 10 Elerium Crystals in base game. 175 Supplies, 20 Alien Alloys, 10 Elerium Crystals in War of the Chosen.
Legendary Cost: 500 Supplies, 50 Alien Alloys, 60 Elerium Crystals in base game. 350 Supplies, 35 Alien Alloys, 50 Elerium Crystals in War of the Chosen.
Used by: Specialists, Rangers, Psi Operatives, Rookies.

Yes, War of the Chosen nerfed the crit damage bonus for Plasma Rifles. This is actually a fairly widespread change War of the Chosen makes. Notably, the Vektor Rifle is the king of crit damage, unmatched in how much a crit gives... only because of this widespread nerf. I suspect these facts aren't unrelated.

Note that while magnetic-tier weapons gained an additional Weapon Attachment slot, beam-tier weapons don't add yet another one. You can get three slots on a weapon, but it requires a Continent Bonus in the base game or Breakthroughs in War of the Chosen, and either way they affect all three tiers, not just beam-tier weapons.

As with the prior two tiers, this is a bump of 1 damage over its counterpart in the prior game, with crit damage values being equivalent but resultantly less of a spike relative to regular damage... well, until War of the Chosen lowered the Plasma Rifle's crit damage, anyway.

Also note that where magnetic weapons were two packages, beam weapons are broken up into four researches that are presented as 1-to-1 to specific weapons. I say 'presented' because it doesn't really work out that way in practice, particularly in War of the Chosen, but the point I'm working around to is that nonetheless the Plasma Rifle research is your unavoidable entry point into beam-tier weaponry. As such, your Specialists will get a period to shine in the mid-late game, as breaking into beam weaponry will bolster them and potentially also Rangers before anyone else.

Well, aside the point that the Plasma Rifle research also unlocks Plasma Pistols and realistically Sharpshooters should lean heavily on their Pistol anyway, but still. It at least puts Specialists ahead of Grenadiers for raw damage output for a bit.

Also notice that on Legendary the Elerium Crystal cost in particular spikes significantly; where the Supply and Alien Alloy requirements roughly double, the Elerium Crystal cost quintuples. (More in the base game!) These rough ratios are very typical of beam-tier weaponry, and mean that one of the big contrasts between Legendary and the other difficulties is that the late-game transition to beam weapons is slower and more considered; you will basically never be able to simply snap up every option as they're unlocked, and will instead have to consider what is most beneficial to unlock first.

This is less awful than you might expect. Progressing to magnetics early is important not only because it's a significant proportionate boost but also because there are mid-game enemies that are tuned to be a challenge to take down with magnetic-tier weaponry -and in turn are basically guaranteed to be killing people if you're still using Conventional weaponry when they show up. The endgame is not tuned in an equivalent manner in regards to beam weaponry; certainly it's better to be using beam-tier weaponry in the endgame, but you can get by surprisingly well with all-magnetics against endgame enemies so long as you're not making serious errors.

This is exacerbated by considerations like that two-and-a-half of the three major endgame enemies are susceptible to Bluescreen Rounds. A Bluescreen Rounds Magnetic Rifle is 10-12 damage against electronic enemies, vs a Bluescreen Rounds Plasma Rifle being 12-14 damage against the same. That's a less than 20% boost in average damage performance for upgrading to Plasma Rifles, ie a basically ignorable boost.

In general, beam-tier weapons are something you should buy eventually, but they're not priority essentials to anywhere near the degree of magnetic weapons. An argument can be made it's better to go for Powered Armor first, since that boosts literally every class and opens the way to Powered Heavy Weapons, which are a much more dramatic boost in firepower.

Moving on from the strictly mechanical... on top of all the issues I raised with the overall weapon framework back when covering the Magnetic Rifle, I honestly don't even like how beam weapons are handled aesthetically in XCOM 2.

Most frustrating and egregious is their wind-up period. Just speaking from the perspective of enjoying the game as a pure game experience, this is bad, slowing your battles down because now every shot takes a half-second longer. It viscerally makes beam weapons less fun and less satisfying, feeling like you're actually being punished for advancing to the highest technology level instead of rewarded! This is particularly bizarre and baffling because the prior game doesn't have an equivalent issue; plasma weapons in the prior game don't have a wind-up period and don't even have particularly slow projectiles, even though yes they aren't hitscan like laser weaponry or as fast-moving as Conventional-tier bullets.

And then this wind-up period is a narrative/conceptual problem as well. Not only is there a half-second windup period, but it's audible. So first of all that means Overwatch ambushes should realistically become much less effective once you're using beam weapons: there's a world of difference between 'the Sectoid's first sign that anything is wrong is when a bullet tears its way through its skull' and 'the Sectoid hears weapons powering up and is hurling itself to cover before the shots are actually fired'. It also means they really ought to be less accurate or easier to Dodge, as it's a lot harder to land a shot on a target if there's a noticeable lag between pulling the trigger and having the weapon fire. As an illustrative example, if a target dives through from one piece of cover to another in under half a second, someone with good reflexes firing a weapon whose shot is on the way essentially instantly could absolutely hit the target without knowing about it ahead of time, so long as their weapon was aimed in the right general direction. A weapon with a half-second windup period, meanwhile... they'd need to literally see through walls or see the future or something so they could start firing before their target has even left cover to actually land the shot.

The switch to hitscan laser-looking shots is also a poor fit to how units are animated when killed in XCOM 2. While it's strictly unrealistic for bullets to launch a target several feet -as the kickback on the gun ought to be even greater than what the victim suffers, and your soldiers aren't launched several feet back when they fire their weapons- it at least feels correct on a basic level for an object's speed to be 'transferred' to what it hits if it disappears. (And indeed, if objects are equivalent in mass that actually is basically correct physics) Hitscan laser projectiles don't benefit from that quirk of human psychology, and the result very blatantly looks wrong in addition to not fitting actual reality.

There's also a bit of a communication wonkiness aspect. The Shotgun is distinguished from the Rifle in part by virtue of the Rifle firing a brief stream of bullets, where the Shotgun instead fires a cluster that exits the barrel simultaneously... except wait, the Plasma Rifle fires a single discrete shot. This is actually bad game design: visual consistency is strongly important for helping players learn complicated systems quickly and efficiently, and this is a fairly major violation of that. It'd be a dubious decision if all beam-tier weapons had one approach to animation that was completely different from the various approaches used by lower-tier versions, but it would at least help cement the communication of 'this is a beam-tier weapon'. This is just inconsistency for no benefit.

I'd still be confused if all beam weapons were forced to fire a single shot, but I'd assume some poor animator thought multi-beam shooting looked ugly, or that testing concluded multi-beams were prone to making the game chug, or something. As-is... why the Rifle in specific?

As for the beam-tier firearms themselves... they're just confusing on multiple levels, aesthetically.

If you compare the Conventional Rifle and the Magnetic Rifle, you can tell that the Magnetic Rifle has the same basic ergonomic structure as the Conventional Rifle, aside being a bit bulkier overall. Conversely, the Plasma Rifle has re-arranged everything the soldier touches around the trigger guard aside the trigger guard itself and almost certainly significantly changed the balance of the weapon's weight due to how radically changed the rest of the design is... oh, and for some reason the firing chamber has been given gaps in its sides, which means a soldier has to pay attention to a heat hazard that wouldn't exist in the prior weapon designs.

The Rifle family is the most egregious about this, but this is pretty representative of the aesthetic shift in progressing to beam weapons. The prior game had some issues in this regard, but it got a partial pass on the plasma weapons because most of them were stolen Alien weapons with no graphical changes once they were in human hands, and why would Alien weaponry cleave to identical ergonomics as human-made weapons? Whereas beam weapons in XCOM 2 are by humans, for humans, their designs only distantly resembling what is seen in Alien plasma weapons.

So why is it the engineering team apparently prioritized being ergonomically friendly in magnetic weapons and then abandoned it for beam weapons?

For that matter, how are you supposed to steady a Plasma Rifle against your shoulder? It looks like it's technically possible to do so, but it also looks like it would be incredibly awkward and that the rifle would very possibly slip aside in response to kickback from firing, ruining accuracy.

It's not even a viscerally appealing design. It's consistent with the Warden armor's design, in terms of being rounded and shiny and all, which is to say it looks ugly and stupid. Plasma weapons in the prior game did a decent job of looking like a cool alien firearm, so long as you glossed over how they looked a lot like giant plastic toys. For that matter, Alien plasma weapons in this game look... ridiculous, but sufficiently exotic sufficiently consistently it's believable plasma weapon ergonomics are driven by some quirk of the power source or something. Or maybe the Ethereals are just prioritizing their soldiers' weapons looking shiny and cool over them being practical -there's a lot of reasons that would make perfect sense and be consistent with stuff like the Archon staff design.

The X-COM beam weapons are just disappointing, aesthetically, in addition to being ergonomic nightmares and fire hazards.

Conventional Shotgun
Damage: 4-6 (+3)
Range type: Short
Ammo: 4
Acquisition: Unlocked at start of game.
Used by: Rangers.
Special: +10 crit chance.

Like most returning weapons in XCOM 2, the Shotgun's base damage is higher than the prior game equivalent, but unlike most its crit damage possibilities are actually even higher than its prior-game equivalent. Though in practice past the early game a critting Rangerr often means a flanking Ranger, which means Hunter's Instincts makes the crit damage proportionately smaller by a noticeable margin anyway.

Short range works broadly similarly to the previous game: you gain bigger Aim boosts for getting close, but you also suffer Aim penalties for being too far away. It's specifically up to -30 for being too far away, and up to +40 for being in the target's face. Notably, that's a big enough boost even a Squaddie Ranger can hit 100 accuracy on most targets simply by getting adjacent to them with no Cover in the way. Where in the prior game Shotguns gained Aim for being within ten tiles of their target and suffered Aim penalties for being more than ten tiles away, in XCOM 2 Shotguns have their exact middle point at exactly 11 tiles. The exact gains/losses are arbitrary per tile; for example, at 10 tiles away, you get +2, whereas 9 tiles is +6 (ie +4 over prior), 8 tiles +12 (ie +6 tiles over prior), and then 7 tiles +16. (ie +4 over prior) You can consult your config files if you want the details; it's not important enough for me to bother laying out the whole thing.

Notable is these are actually less extreme variance than the prior game, where Shotguns got +50 for point-blank shots and -40 for max-distance shots. This is in practice overall favorable to Rangers compared to Assaults, as Defense doesn't go up as consistently as in the prior game, meaning +40 for point-blank is rarely actually less accurate than the Assault's +50 for point-blank: only Gatekeepers, Archons, highly-trained Chosen, the Berserker Queen, and the Archon King have enough innate Defense that it's particularly plausible for a point-blank shot to have a miss chance without external modifiers. (eg the Ranger being Poisoned)

Also notable is that the ratio compared to Medium is much more meaningful in XCOM 2 than in the prior game: in the prior game, Short range being more short range-oriented than Medium range was technically true but had barely any effect on actual play as far as how you used weapons of those categories. In XCOM 2, Medium range's bonus for getting in close is exactly equivalent to the bonus for having high ground, where for a Short range weapon it's actually twice the bonus for having high ground. Thus, for a Medium range weapon it's not worth abandoning high ground unless you can get a flank in the process (Speaking strictly from an accuracy perspective), where for a Short range weapon high ground is nice to have but easy to justify abandoning. As high ground also tends to lack High Cover, for a Ranger situations will regularly occur in which it makes no sense to cling to high ground!

This is a very nice change and I'm pleasantly surprised XCOM 2 managed to pull it off by simply tweaking the exact Aim bonus numbers, even if I still think scaling the damage to distance would've been a more sensible and interesting option.

Unlike Medium range, Short has no tier-based Aim boosting effect. The config files support making such a thing readily enough, but the default numbers are the same across tiers, making it even more confusing this is a thing in the first place.

Also notice that crit chance is down compared to the prior game. This is slightly misleading due to crit chance mechanics having been overhauled -a Ranger taking a 50 accuracy shot will have the same crit chance as an Assault did if no skills are involved and so on- but since Rangers excel at getting highly accurate shots they do frequently have depressed crit chance compared to Assaults with Shotguns in the prior game, particularly since flank crit chance is down: an Assault getting a close-range flank would have 100% hit chance and 70% crit chance, bare minimum. A Ranger under the same will have a 100% hit chance and a 50% crit chance. Assuming no Laser Sight, admittedly...

It should also be noted that reloading no longer being a turn-ending action is arguably least useful to Shotguns, out of all returning weapons. It's debatable, as there is the point that a Ranger who was going to Slash a target within one action of movement can simply reload for free, but Rangers are the single most likely class to end up in a position where they need to reload and move to avoid being flanked, at which point reloading not ending the turn hasn't helped at all. This is particularly relevant in the base game, where Rapid Fire can be spammed and so late-game Rangers can easily chew through ammo at a prodigious pace, not to mention Hunter's Instincts is more powerful and so pursuing flanks every time all the time is much stronger a priority and therefore movement is constantly essential, but even into War of the Chosen it can be an issue.

Conceptually/aesthetically, I've already covered the main stuff of relevance with Rifles, but I will note that I'm curious why XCOM 2 switched away from the iconic Shotgun design from the prior game with very visible slugs set on the weapon itself. I don't dislike the new design or anything, but it seems an odd decision, especially since it makes it a little harder to visually identify Shotguns vs Rifles at the Conventional tier. It isn't necessarily a big deal, since secondary weapons mostly cover identifying class distinction on sight (ie a Ranger can be told apart from a Specialist because one has a sword strapped to their back and the other has a glowing robot following them around), but if you like to bring multiple Rangers and equip some with Shotguns and some with Rifles it can force you to do more manual double-checking to keep track of things.


Shard Gun
Damage: 6-8 (+4)
Range type: Short
Ammo: 4
Unlock Condition: Completing Magnetic Weapon research.
Cost: 75 Supplies, 5 Alien Alloys in base game. 50 Supplies, 5 Alien Alloys in War of the Chosen.
Legendary Cost: 75 Supplies, 15 Alien Alloys in base game. 50 Supplies, 10 Alien Alloys in War of the Chosen.
Used by: Rangers.
Special: +15 crit chance.

As with the basic Shotgun, this is +1 damage over the Scatter Laser, and then maximum crit damage is higher.

Notice, however, that crit chance has gone up by 5 points. This is a thing with Shotguns in XCOM 2, much like Sniper Rifles in the prior game, that tech progression includes crit chance boosts.

Also notice that the Shard Gun is another weapon unlocked as part of the basic Magnetic Weapons package. This is part of why I didn't suggest Rangers might wish to use Magnetic Rifles for a bit; that can happen, yes, such as because you haven't gotten 2 Engineers yet or because you're unusually low on resources such that you can't afford both the Magnetic Rifle and the Shard Gun purchase, but quite frequently you'll just buy both once they're unlocked, rendering the possibility moot.

Otherwise, I don't have anything to say about the Shard Gun... well, not directly, anyway.


Storm Gun
Damage: 8-10 (+5 in the base game, +4 in War of the Chosen)
Range type: Short
Ammo: 4
Unlock Condition: Completing Storm Gun research.
Cost: 140 Supplies, 20 Alien Alloys, 10 Elerium Crystals in base game. 100 Supplies, 10 Alien Alloys, 10 Elerium Crystals in War of the Chosen.
Legendary Cost: 200 Supplies, 50 Alien Alloys, 60 Elerium Crystals in base game. 150 Supplies, 25 Alien Alloys, 25 Elerium Crystals in War of the Chosen.
Used by: Rangers.
Special: +20 crit chance.

This is exactly as powerful in base damage terms as its counterpart from the prior game, the Alloy Cannon, aside that crit damage is higher... in the base game. In War of the Chosen, it's actually exactly equivalent to an Alloy Cannon.

Crit chance has also risen to rejoin Shotgun crit chance from the prior game. This is a minor-but-relevant element in why late-game Rangers in the base game tend to be more about the shooting than the Slashing.

Unlike the Shard Gun, the Storm Gun is unlocked by a research that does nothing else. Notably, even in War of the Chosen this remains true, and is actually unique to the Storm Gun out of beam-tier weapon researches when including DLC. As such, in War of the Chosen, if your resources are currently plentiful the Storm Gun is in some sense the least valuable of the beam weapon researches. In the base game, though, it only matters inasmuch as the Storm Gun isn't unlocked alongside the Plasma Rifle the way the Shard Gun was unlocked alongside the Magnetic Rifle.

Otherwise, we're just looking at the ultimate Shotgun, not a lot else to say mechanically.

Aesthetically... on the plus side, we've escaped the inexplicable nonsense of having plasma weaponry failing to be plasma-using on the one weapon that would make any real-world sense to be a plasma weapon. On the minus side, the Storm Gun is merely a new set of aesthetic/conceptual problems, as XCOM 2's beam weapon tier is a bunch of weapons with a charge period that then unleashes a clean blue line. When Shotguns as a class are handled as being a weapon that is fired off the cuff and releases a cluster of shots.

These are at odds with each other, and the Storm Gun I would've actually forgiven for repeating the Alloy Cannon's sins. (And yes, I realize the Shard Gun is already based on firing Alien Alloys, but they could've said something like 'Alien Alloy-jacketed rounds' for the Shard Gun and then claimed the Storm Gun fired pure Alien Alloys shots, or something) The solution of having the Storm Gun fire multiple little beams is incredibly ugly and also confusing from any kind of in-universe standpoint, as it's difficult to imagine what the point of this behavior is. The windup period before it fires is also even more outlandishly wrong than on the Plasma Rifle, taking an animation that is normally quick and to the point in a manner appropriate for 'Ranger runs up to someone and blasts them in the face' and now your Ranger very visibly stalls, waiting for their Shotgun to obligingly release its ugly, inexplicable beams, and their would-be victim even more blatantly obligingly stands around and waits to be shot than the usual extent caused by being a turn-based system.

The whole thing is painful.

At least the Storm Gun's ergonomics are actually reasonably similar to the prior Shotguns. That's... something in its favor, I suppose.

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Next time, we continue talking about primary weapons.

See you then.

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