If you've been playing XCOM (either the originals or the reboot series) for any length of time, you've undoubtedly come across things that make you want to hurl your computer into the sun. Missing point blank shotgun blasts, seeing multiple 85%+ shots fail in a row, taking one extra step and activating another pod, watching as your flanking shots fail to connect while the aliens crit you in high cover, the list goes on and on.
But what if I were to tell you that not only is the game fair, it's actually skewed in YOUR favor. Hard to believe, right?
Enemy Unknown/Within had hidden modifiers in place to help you along, and XCOM 2 is no different. I'm going to warn you ahead of time; some of what you are about to read is going to make all those misses seem extra impossible, especially on the lower difficulties. Here's what I've been able to dig up in the ini files and the code (using the XCOM 2 SDK):
(Some of this isn't cheating, really, at least not in the "behind the scenes" sense, but just the differences between difficulty levels like you would expect. I got carried away and listed everything I could find, so consider it a comprehensive look at what each option actually means.)
Not to disparage anyone's skill level, but if you honestly are having trouble or think the game is tough at this point, then you either have monumental bad luck or are just missing something fundamental. There's no way around it; on Rookie, XCOM 2 is cheating for you, and it's cheating hard:
- Rookies start with +2 HP and +10 will.
- XCOM's chances to hit are all multiplied by times. The game doesn't show this, but internally all of your 50% shots are really 60%.
- When you miss, you are given a flat +10 aim bonus on all shots over 50% until you land a hit . This means your 50% shot is now 70% (50 base * 1.2 +10) after one miss, then 80% after two, and so on.
- If you get hit by an enemy, they get a global -10 aim reduction on that turn, as long as you have less than five squad members. So, each landed shot makes it less likely that they will land another.
- If one of your squad is killed (leaving you with less than four), or if you bring less than four units into a mission, you will see a +15 aim bonus for any shot over 50% and a flat -10 enemy aim penalty for dead/missing unit below four. This means, if you deliberately bring only one trooper into a mission, you are looking at a +45 hit bonus and a -30 enemy aim penalty. Coupled with your flat 1.2 hit bonus (which is applied first), a 50% hit is now turned into a 105% auto-hit (except it isn't, as I'll explain later).
- The game will try to steer inactive enemy pods away from you as long as you are fighting at least four enemies. You can still trigger nearby pods on your own if you are careless, but they shouldn't wander into you on their own.
- Can get easier missions with less/weaker enemies on them.
- Your troops take less XP to rank up, and various activities and timers such as building or wound recovery are faster.
- Various other small tweaks, such as item costs and reward increases.
The hard cap for aim assisted shots is 95%. It's still XCOM, after all, so it remains possible for you to flub your shots unless it actually says 100% on it, and even then the enemy can dodge for reduced damage (which is HOT BULLSHIT I might add, but whatever). This just makes it much more likely that you will avoid multiple misses in a row as long as you are taking shots with a reasonable chance to hit.
It is possible that the AI is shackled at this difficulty level; not throwing grenades when they can, and reducing panic to just running and hiding versus friendly fire and suicide grenades, but I didn't see any explicit references while trawling through the code, so consider that hearsay.
Veteran cheats, not as bad as Rookie, but more than you may suspect.
- Rookies start with +1 HP.
- XCOM's chances to hit are all multiplied by times. Meaning that your basic 50% shot is now sitting at 55%.
- When you miss, you are given the same +10 aim bonus on shots over 50% as you do on Rookie. Your 50% shot is now at 65% (50 * 1.1 +10) after one miss, 75% after two, and so on.
- The "less than four soldiers" bonus is now down to +10 hit bonus (from +15) and -10 enemy hit chance (the same as Rookie). It still stacks.
- The game will steer inactive enemy pods away from you as long as you are fighting at least six enemies (up from Rookie's four).
- Can get easier missions (the same as Rookie) with less/weaker enemies on them (more/harder than Rookie but less than Commander).
- Your troops take more XP to rank up than Rookie, but less than Commander. Build/wound timers are also longer than on Rookie.
- Item Costs are higher than Rookie, with less rewards.
- The enemy AI may still be shackled, but I can confirm your panic isn't. Troopers can and will throw grenades at your own guys when they freak out.
So, there's still a lot of background tweaking going on. All of your shots are still better than you think, you still get the miss streak busting bonuses, and you still get some major buffs when you have less than four units. The game will actively try to keep the number of units you are facing at a reasonable level, but not as much as it did before. It also removes the enemy's hit streak penalty, meaning that you can and will see a lot more landed shots on a single turn.
You've got to be kidding, right? There's cheating here too? Absolutely; not even a Commander level campaign is on the level, although things also start swinging the other way as well.
- Rookies start with the 4 base HP, no bonuses.
- Enemies are now given +1 health. No more surefire grenade kills on those early troopers!
- XCOM's chances to hit have no base level modifications. 50% is 50%.
- When you miss, you are given a . Yes, that's actually higher than on either Rookie or Veteran, which I assume is compensation for removing the base shot multiplier. Now your 50% shots are actually 65% after one miss, and 80% after two. This means that it's actually easier to avoid miss streaks on Commander when you are right at the aim assist threshold (versus Veteran), but it falls behind once the unmodified chance to hit increases enough for that multiplier to take over.
- The game will steer inactive enemy pods away from you as long as you are fighting at least six enemies, the same as before.
- Can get easier missions than Legend, with less/weaker enemies on them (more/harder than Veteran, though).
- Your troops continue to take more XP to rank up, and you will see even longer build timers and wound recovery requirements.
- Still greater item costs with lower rewards.
- The AI is unshackled, as far as I can tell.
I'm surprised they have as much behind the scenes cheating as they do for this level. In a way, I'm a bit sad; I figured Commander was basically the same as Legend without the re-balanced strategic layer and some enemy HP modifiers, but that's not the case at all. You still get the miss streak bonuses, although the "less than four soldiers" buff is totally gone, and you still have the game doing its best to keep engagements at six enemies or less.
If you want to do some modifications to basically make a Commander+ difficulty level (no hand-holding like Legend but without the major strategic re-balancing), you can tweak XComGamecore.ini (search for AimAssist) by dropping MissStreakChanceAdjustment=15 to 0, and XComAI can by modified (search for MaxEngagedEnemies, although it's right at the top of the file) by changing MaxEngagedEnemies=6 to -1.
(Those should be in Documents\My Games\XCOM2\XComGame\Config on Windows, although you can also modify DefaultGamecore.ini and DefaultAI.ini in Steam\steamapps\common\XCOM 2\XComGame\Config to the same effect. I like leaving the defaults alone, though.)
Cheating in Legend? Maybe for them, but certainly not for you.
- Rookies start with 4 base HP as before.
- Enemies are now given anywhere between 1-3 health and an extra 1-2 armor.
- There's no aim modification at all. No miss streak bonuses, no enemy aim penalties, nothing. What you see on the screen is exactly what's going on...except for that bullshit dodge mechanic which isn't surfaced anywhere.
- The game will not steer pods away from you. There is no max engagement size; if you are fighting six aliens, and that pod is set to path into you, it's going to path into you.
- Legend is unable to get the easier mission types and all versions of the missions are as hard as they can be, including extra enemy pods not seen on Commander.
- Harder enemies will show up earlier on Legend than on any lower difficulty.
- The strategic game is totally re-balanced, to the point that it almost winds up twice as long. I won't go into the details as I doubt I've even found every change, but suffice it to say that everything takes longer, costs more, and is generally just harder to do.
Legend is hard, but I found it easier than Impossible in EU/EW. It's the only difficulty out of the four that isn't making modifications to your dice rolls without telling you, and it's the only one that isn't pulling any punches on the tactical layer. The strategic game is extensively modified from what you get in Commander, but that's to be expected.
If you know of any other behind the scenes or balance changes that I've missed, I'd be interested to hear about them.