Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
Alessa “Heartache” Roberti was my best scout. She forged bravely ahead through unknown territory, fearless of any aliens ahead of her. When firefights broke out, she snuck around the side through concealment to clinch the killing blow on a crucial target, only to slink back into the shadows and do it all over again. But then she developed an addiction to grenades and wanted nothing more than to toss them around all day long. How was I supposed to balance a sneaky assassin with an explosive pyromaniac?
Advanced Warfare Center and Randomized Perks
In XCOM 2, a special building called the “Advanced Warfare Center” gives every soldier a chance to get a random perk every time they level up. They can only get this perk once, and it can happen upon any level. These perks come from a small pool of possibilities from all classes, so some ridiculous situations can happen. A sniper can get the ability to dodge enemy fire while running, which is pointless because a sniper should not be running. Or a scout can get the ability to throw grenades.
“Heartache” got the Salvo perk, which is for grenadiers. Put simply, it enables her to throw two grenades in a single turn. At first glance, this seemed completely pointless and irrelevant. A scout should not be blowing things up: instead she should be moving sneakily, taking out targets with surgical precision. Grenades are for initiating fights, and scouts are not meant to initiate fights. If they can, they should simply not fight at all, so they don’t give away their position and can continue to search for more enemies.
It seemed to me that the Salvo perk would be much better on a more action-oriented soldier, someone who rushed into the heat of combat guns blazing. But then I looked at my soldiers who already had Salvo as part of their own loadout, the demolitions experts. These soldiers specialize in carrying and using lots of grenades, and they tended to stay in the backline. Even though they could use two grenades in a single turn, it was usually overkill. They would use one explosive to destroy enemy cover and then possibly a flashbang.
My demolitions experts weren’t the close combat brawlers I expected a Salvo-user to be. In fact, when I used “Heartache” as a close combat brawler hoping to get the most out of her random perk, it usually didn’t go well. Maybe offense wasn’t working out.
This was the point where I began to see the value of supporting roles. In XCOM 2, “support” is a much more general term than it is in other tactics games, or even in the previous XCOM game. Usually, support means having medics and healing, which is still true in XCOM 2. But now, every type of soldier has different ways that they can support. Grenades seem like they should be categorized as an offensive weapon, but their true value lies in their supportive potential.
Supports and Carries
To borrow from MOBA terminology, XCOM 2 classes can largely be divided in terms of supports and carries. I define support as any action that makes enemies easier to kill, and carrying as any action that kills enemies. Destroying cover is support. Shredding armor is support. Inflicting status effects is support.
Yes, medkits and healing still provide support, but in XCOM 2, you don’t want to wait for damage to happen. It’s more valuable to be aggressive than to be defensive. Dead aliens don’t shoot back. A simpler way to put it is to ask which group should be initiating fights. Supports start fights, and carries end them.
Under this line of thinking, each of the four classes can be roughly divided into two subclasses, one leaning towards support and one leaning towards carrying. My scale goes from 0 to 100, with 0 representing pure support and 100 representing pure offense.
Specialist/Battle Medic: 0. The obvious support, but at the same time they’re a bit of a “noob trap” unless they’re being deployed on long missions. If a soldier gets shot, you can heal them, but if they get shot and instantly killed by a lucky critical, the support has failed. A more aggressive support might have been able to help kill the enemy before it could have made that lucky critical shot.
Specialist/Combat Hacker: 25. They’re slightly more offensive, but still lean heavily towards support with their emphasis on overwatch, status effects, and hacking.
Grenadier/Demolitions Expert: 40. Perks like Salvo and Demolition give them plenty of options to destroy enemy cover, which in most cases is the deciding factor in a firefight. However, they struggle to take down individual powerful enemies like sectopods.
Grenadier/Heavy Gunner: 60. Even though heavy gunners have plenty of supportive options in holo targeting and shredding, they are also really good at killing individual powerful enemies like sectopods. Enough for me to consider them as carries, but just slightly.
Sharpshooter/Sniper: 70. Since they do so much damage, it’s often a waste for them to kill enemies because excess damage is useless. Therefore, it’s better to just aim for high priority targets and do as much damage as possible even if it doesn’t get a kill, unless a good opportunity presents itself.
Sharpshooter/Gunslinger: 100. The purest form of a carry in XCOM 2. Capable of putting out the most damage, but requires the most setup to do so. Learning to maximize Faceoff and minimize overkill damage feels strange, but it pays off.
Ranger/Scout: 50. Really, they can go either way depending on how they are played. “Heartache” was an aggressive assassin until she picked up Salvo, which turned her into a pseudo-demolitions-expert.
Ranger/Assault: 90. Their ability to reposition in combat makes them great for securing kills, but it also gives them supportive abilities that gunslingers wouldn’t have (for example, flanking a group of enemies then shooting at them, forcing them to move out of cover and into your team’s overwatch).
These classifications aren’t set in stone because a soldier in any given class can take perks from either of their two skill trees, and AWC perks can introduce even more uncertainty into the mix. However, these are broad-stroke rules of thumb that can be followed in most vanilla scenarios.
This way of dividing perks along a spectrum is what allows the AWC to function and thrive. Normally, it would seem ridiculous for characters to receive a random perk. However, this random perk always has a place along the scale from support to carry, and the soldiers themselves also make a choice to be either a support or a carry.
Grenadier with serial? Turn them into a heavy gunner to capitalize on their newfound potential for carrying. Sharpshooter with covering fire? That improves their supportive strength, so they should be a sniper. Some combinations may seem a little difficult (such as a ranger with salvo) but it’s all just a matter of rethinking the support/carry spectrum.
It also represents a more holistic way of viewing team-based supporting roles in general. The two big team-based games, League of Legends and Overwatch, both struggle greatly with their supports. In these games, it’s boring to play support and no one wants to do it. Taking a support character is a conscious action that locks you in that role. However, in XCOM 2, everybody has the capacity to support, and everyone has the capacity to carry. Having a predefined support or a predefined carry only makes you less adaptable to change.
The comparison may seem awkward because XCOM 2 is a single player game against asymmetric odds. But all of these games have teamplay at their core, and yet XCOM 2 is the one that gives supports the most agency and control. A support doesn’t have to be a boring backline healer watching their allies do all the work. They can be as varied and interesting and fun and important as any other class of character.
So when I revisited “Heartache,” I realized the only thing I needed to change was my tactics. I needed to think of her not as a carry, but as a support. Now, she sneaks up next to her enemies with her power armor and her rocket launcher. Once she’s in position, she starts throwing explosives everywhere, destroying enemy cover and letting her allies mop up. She doesn’t look back at explosions because she’s too busy searching for the next fight. “Heartache” is part ninja, part wrecking ball, and part support.