Author Topic: What do I do to make the game more challenging?  (Read 11649 times)

Offline Meridian

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What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« on: July 14, 2015, 08:21:34 pm »
Hi all,

several people have asked me what do I do to make the game more challenging, i.e. harder.
What mods, settings, rules, etc.

To answer all such questions at once, I decided to make this post.
I will ignore mods completely and talk only about vanilla OpenXcom... but similar principles apply to most (if not all) mods as well.

---

So, first of all, to make the game harder, you have to eliminate (or dumb down) things that make it too easy.

Let me illustrate this key point/idea on something I've seen on IRC yesterday:
"07:49    every tactic is appropriate in winning"
That is true, if you are fighting a real war (actually since humanity developed wartime conduct, even this is not true anymore), but in a computer game this has severe consequences.
If every tactic is allowed, then I can just use a squad full of super-psi-soldiers and win every mission without ever leaving the Skyranger. If you want a proof, look at BattleBunny's latest LP (second half of it).

Summary: You need to limit the use of tactics and game mechanics that make the game too easy.

Spoiler:
Note: to be absolutely fair, you can theoretically make it harder by pumping up alien side of the game instead of dumbing down the human part of the game (i.e. still happily abuse all cheesy stuff) ... but to get a comparable level of difficulty, you would have to make aliens/AI 1000% "better" (progressively)... and yes, that is not a typo, I meant to say 1000%, not 100%. And then it will just not be the same game we all love anymore...

Very stupid and unrealistic example (just to illustrate the point): Sending hordes and hordes of pumped up ethereals, sectopods and chryssalids at the player -- while allowing him to reload endlessly -- is a lot easier than sending just a couple of floaters at him in Ironman mode. Yes, fricking weird (nobody would reload endlessly), but strictly speaking easier.

---

Now, when we know we need to set some rules, let's discuss what can we do.
The game is basically divided into two parts: geoscape and battlescape.

In geoscape, there is very little potential to make the game truly harder (and a lot of potential to just make it annoying instead).

First option would be to make the dogfights harder (e.g. attack with one interceptor only; or use inferior weapons only, etc.). But since the game can be won without ever shooting down any UFO (for proof see my Hawaii challenge LP), this is of little importance.

Second option would be to make economy-based constraints with implications such as more expensive staff, craft and equipment; longer research, etc. And that might seem like a perfect way to make the game harder.... until you realize that it doesn't make the game "harder" in any way... it just makes the game *longer*. Oh and btw. it is possible to win the game with starting tech (plus Cydonia-or-Bust and Avenger), you don't need better weapons, you don't need any armour (although it looks funny to walk on Mars without helmets), you don't need experienced soldiers... you can win with a bunch of rookies carrying rocket launchers, heavy cannons, HE packs and flares (I would give you a proof but I don't remember who did it on camera).

So, what's left are rules for battlescape...

Summary: If you want to make the game longer, download one of many mods, which make the tech tree more complicated and/or economy more tight (Solarius' FMP, Hobbes' Redux, Hellrazor's Hardmode, etc.). If you want to make the game harder... continue reading.

---

Now we know we need to set some rules for the battlescape to eliminate the "cheesy" (sometimes even "cheaty") stuff.

So, what is cheesy?
What makes the game "not challenging" anymore?
If you want a text book example check out Ivan Dogovich's "Up Close and Personal" mod.
There is a weapon called "Advanced Flash Bang"... a super-effective stun grenade, which doesn't give aliens any chance of success whatssoever (especially with instant grenades option turned on).
That's cheesy.

I know that everybody will have a different view on what is cheesy in vanilla, so I will name only things, which I believe most of us can agree on. Eliminating those should cover 90% of cheesiness in the game.

Cheaty:
 1. Reloading

Cheesy:
 2. Abuse of psionics
 3. Supersoldiers
 4. Abuse of explosives
 5. Abuse of AI

Summary: Don't worry, I will go into details. Please continue reading.

---

1. Reloading... is sometimes necessary, especially if you are playing with mods that are not 100% stable yet. But in most cases, autosave is enough.

Not reloading is the single most effective way of making the game harder. For those who don't have a strong enough will (98% of us), turn on the Ironman mode, to escape temptation.

Your best soldier dying is part of the game. Your most favourite soldier dying is part of the game. You making a stupid mistake is part of the game. You making a misclick is part of the game. Everything else (expect for game crashes) is part of the game!

Btw. this option almost entirely eliminates also issue #3 (supersoldiers)... more about that later.

Summary: DON'T RELOAD! If you can't resist, play with Ironman mode on. If you rage quit on Ironman, go play with Barbie instead.

PS: as a funny fact, if you decide to allow reload anyway (I don't blame you)... consider turning save scumming ON. Basically both options are cheesy, but here's my explanation why:
 - With save scumming OFF - every time you reload, everything will be the same... so you can reload until you develop a perfect recipe for the problem at hand.
 - With save scumming ON - every time you reload, everything will be different... so your original problem will disappear... but at least it may be replaced by a different, maybe even harder problem

---

2. Abuse of psionics... as I mentioned before, you can win every mission by having a handful of psi-freaks while hardly moving from the safety of the skyranger.

I will not give you any specific advice here, one man's meat is another man's poison... so decide for yourselves, what do you want to do about it.

For inspiration: I am taking no more than 2-3 psi-amps on any given mission. And even then I am using mind control "with care".

Summary: Give aliens a chance ffs... you'll enjoy the game more, trust me!

---

3. Supersoldiers... are soldiers, which have survived 20+ missions and their stats have increased significantly (e.g. strength = 60+, firing accuracy = 90+, psi skill = 60+, etc.)

With several of these, you can run around with rocket launcher, three rockets, heavy plasma, five alien grenades, medi-kit and psi-amp... while every shot will be a hit, every throw a kill and every mind control a success. A lot of fun, if you're playing for the first time... afterwards... not so much.

If you follow the above and below recommendations (i.e. don't reload and don't abuse), such soldiers should not exist!

Soldiers have a life expectancy between 1 and 20 missions. Supersoldiers break the balance of the game. "Allow them to die" for the planet, with honour.

You can get supersoldiers in an even cheesier way than honest battle experience (honest only on their side of course, mostly abusive on your side).
You can (ab)use active "training", for example mind control and disarm a muton, and shoot at him at point blank range until you're out of bullets in your pistol; or even better put him in a circle of soldiers and let them reaction fire and train reactions too. Or mind control him many times to improve psi skills.

Does this feel right? Don't answer, it was just a rhetorical question...

Furthermore, there are several settings in OpenXcom, which can also increase your soldier's life expectancy a lot and I recommend to turn them off.
First is the "alternate movement methods"... being able to "run" for cover is a life saver; so is the ability to "strafe" around corners. Keep it turned off.
Second is the TFTD damage formula. Basically original has 0-200% damage spread on shooting weapons, whereas TFTD has 50-150%. And while minimum of 50% may sound like it makes the game harder (because unarmored rookies don't survive by pure luck), it is really the upper boundary, which is problematic. With 150% max damage the aliens can barely do any damage to you in power armor facing their direction. I would appreciate having 50-200% roll, or double 0-100% roll... which seem the most fair to me... but since we don't have them, take the 0-200% roll (not the 50-150% roll).

Summary: Every soldier has a right to die.

PS: Lastly, everyone who played this game at least 2-3 times knows that 10 random soldiers in power armour with heavy plasmas on autofire can win any non-Ethereal mission. For proof look at BattleBunny's latest LP (first part of it).

Therefore, although I recommend not to use any new fancy OpenXcom options, I do STRONGLY recommend turning on this non-standard option called "UFO extender accuracy"... I honestly can't imagine playing without it anymore. Btw. if you're wondering why is it in this section... it allows the soldiers to miss, which decreases their life expectancy. Also, without it, you have almost no reason to use aimed shots.

---

4. Abuse of explosives... I hope it's not a surprise for you, if I tell you that explosives (grenades, rocket launchers, etc.) are the most powerful weapons in the game. Lots of damage, accurate throwing, small weight, bad resistances of aliens, throwing possible even from cover, grenade relay.... and many more reasons.

Now, I am not telling you to stop using explosives... but at least don't make them even more powerful than they are supposed to be.
There are several settings in OpenXcom, which transform explosives from the best weapon in the game into game-breaking uber-weapons:
 - instant grenades - keep turned off
 - pre-primed grenades - keep turned off (even for non-lethal, such as smokes)
 - explosion height - keep at 0 (zero)

Already one of these settings breaks the game (IMO), all three are just ridiculous.

Summary: Not everything that looks cool is really cool.

---

5. Abuse of AI... AI is stupid! If AI was not stupid, you would lose every time. Since AI is stupid already, don't take too much advantage of its stupidity.

Again, there are dozens of examples, but I will name only a single one, which is ABUSED most frequently:

When you land with a loud Skyranger, common sense tells you that all nearby aliens would be waiting for you to stick your head out of the craft and shoot you in the face (or if you throw a smoke first, shoot blindly at you... which unfortunately AI is too stupid to do). And they do!! All aliens start with full time units on turn 1 and on Superhuman difficulty they are even all turned towards you. That was a conscious game design decision. Please read the last sentence once more. If you didn't read that sentence again, please return back and really read it one more time! Thank you.

If you skip action on the first turn, aliens (driven by the stupid AI) will start running around "aimlessly" (or killing civilians in terror missions) and spend their time units, making it a LOT easier for you in the second turn...  effectively losing the combat advantage the game designers have given them. And this will increase your soldier's life expectancy, which will lead to more supersoldiers... and same old story again...

I personally would even re-classify this exploit from cheesy to cheaty... but I will leave it up to you.

Summary: Don't just wait on turn 1! Fight and look for cover...

---

Final summary:
 - don't confuse the words "longer" and "harder"
 - don't reload
 - don't abuse any tactics, which lead to easy victory (whatever that may be for you)
 - EDIT (thanks NeptunesNookGames): don't wait until it's day... always take off immediately and play night missions too

Cheers,
Meridian

Disclaimer: Everything above is just my opinion, not scientifically proven facts... you are allowed to disagree... I don't mind if you do, I don't care either.
« Last Edit: July 15, 2015, 08:32:18 am by Meridian »

Offline DracoGriffin

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #1 on: July 14, 2015, 08:58:31 pm »
Other "hardmode" options: Spend researched items and Alien weapon self-destruction.

Now using explosives is more of a liability, albeit a "guaranteed" kill. Incentivizes high-risk, moderate-gain capturing to advance tech, accumulate weapons, and/or sell for profit.

Less or no loot to sell off (other than UFO salvage) makes the early game a bit more tricky to afford, as well.

Offline jgatkinsn

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #2 on: July 14, 2015, 09:14:01 pm »
Also, turn on Aliens pick up weapons in the settings. That way the panicked aliens can still be dangerous after they calm down and pick up their weapon again.  I find that "seeing" dropped weapons in closed room and no LOS anymore a bit of a cheat to the location of alien whereabouts as well.
« Last Edit: July 14, 2015, 09:19:23 pm by jgatkinsn »

Offline Arthanor

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #3 on: July 14, 2015, 09:20:32 pm »
Interesting post. As you said, it's something people are bound to agree with in parts, and disagree with other parts.

Some times, making the game "easier" is worth it for immersion: Explosions are not 2D, nor are they cylindrical though (so not explosion height 3 either..).

Another thing: although longer is not necessarily harder, if you slow down XCom progress but not the aliens', then the early game is objectively harder (ex.: it's harder to fight snakemen with ballistic weapons than it is with lasers, or even plasma). It indeed changes nothing in the end game though (unless it changes the itemLevel at which you would attempt Cydonia because you are going later).

I agree with pretty much everything else, especially abusing the AI and training. Although it is a good strategy to wait turn 1, (or to disarm and take pot shots at a muton), it feels entirely wrong.

Offline NeptunesNookGames

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #4 on: July 15, 2015, 02:56:13 am »
One that I find quite cheesy/cheaty is using an interceptor to prolong terror sites, giving you a daytime mission rather than a night.
   I agree with everything else, if I had my pick on what options to add I would like to see a "no human psionics", I've never been a fan and it just seems so OP.  The whole story behind X-Com is about "fighting a losing battle on Earth", we even supposedly send our Avenger to Cydonia because things have gone so terrible that it's basically our last hope.  But by the time you get to that point of the game you can very easily win every fight with Psionics (heavy plasmas & flying suits are a big part of that too).

  Have you ever tried the "Weapon Self Destruction" option?  Seems like it could really crank up the difficulty as well.

Offline Meridian

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #5 on: July 15, 2015, 08:34:42 am »
One that I find quite cheesy/cheaty is using an interceptor to prolong terror sites, giving you a daytime mission rather than a night.

Thanks, forgot about that one. I have updated the first post.

Offline Dioxine

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #6 on: July 15, 2015, 10:38:22 am »
Agreed on most points; although I think that 3d explosions and alt movement give more to the game than they take away - in other words, I think the price (game getting easier) is worth paying.

The second issue touches on the issue of supersoldiers, though. I am on the fence with this. Sure - reloading is straight cheating. Training abuse is cheating too. In both cases the player pays with his own time and effort, so like most cheats, in the end, the player only cheats himself... And I agree that every soldier has the right of dying with honor. But what if they don't die? After all, it's one of core game concepts - we want the soldiers to survive to get better stats. Not even from the standpoint of the game being easier then, but from the standpoint of RPG - seeing them grow is a reward in itself. Sure removing the aspect of growth would make the game more fair, but also much more boring...

The best option, perhaps, would be retirement. Because seriously, how many missions would humanity demand from its defender? Surviving 20, 30 missions is more than enough to be called a hero. An open-ended contract (implied 0% chance of survival) would realistically be very harmful to morale. But as of now, a kicked-out soldier is not even kept in the Memorial. It would be much more fun if you could retire a soldier with honors if his record would be kept in some "hall of heroes" of sorts. Because supersoldiers, too, get boring after a while and fresh blood is always fun - new names, new faces, new stories.

Alternatively, there could be the need to re-negotiate contracts with experienced soldiers, each new contract being more and more expensive. This would increase the incentive to retire a soldier (but would keep the option for "calling for heroes" - drawing from the retired ranks at a very high cost).

The latter idea is basically moot in a standard game, though, where you're provided with all the money you'll ever need and then some.
« Last Edit: July 15, 2015, 10:41:22 am by Dioxine »

Offline Meridian

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #7 on: July 15, 2015, 11:05:59 am »
Agreed on most points; although I think that 3d explosions and alt movement give more to the game than they take away - in other words, I think the price (game getting easier) is worth paying.

Agreed, I play with alternate movement too... it's fun. I was just answering the question, how to make the game harder.

The second issue touches on the issue of supersoldiers, though. I am on the fence with this. Sure - reloading is straight cheating. Training abuse is cheating too. In both cases the player pays with his own time and effort, so like most cheats, in the end, the player only cheats himself... And I agree that every soldier has the right of dying with honor. But what if they don't die? After all, it's one of core game concepts - we want the soldiers to survive to get better stats. Not even from the standpoint of the game being easier then, but from the standpoint of RPG - seeing them grow is a reward in itself. Sure removing the aspect of growth would make the game more fair, but also much more boring...

About RPG... I am not saying RPG elements don't belong to the game... they certainly do... every game nowadays is a genre-mix. It makes for more memorable moments, deeper immersion, etc. I remember how I was angry they introduced heroes into Warcraft III... but it made the game better. And my all time most favourite game HoMM 3 also has RPG elements, although being a strategy game. What I want to say is that Xcom should stay a strategy game with RPG elements (like HoMM 3) and not become RPG game with strategy elements (like M&M 6). I know... the analogy is completely overexaggerated, just wanted to illustrate the point... some people really do play only with 8 starting soldiers from beginning to end, reloading at every death (I did it myself many years ago... with 4 soldiers... and I was wondering why I get no promotions even to sargeants... and then suddenly their stats were bigger than 255 and overflown to 0... imagine the kid's frustration at that point :-)

The best option, perhaps, would be retirement. Because seriously, how many missions would humanity demand from its defender? Surviving 20, 30 missions is more than enough to be called a hero. An open-ended contract (implied 0% chance of survival) would realistically be very harmful to morale. But as of now, a kicked-out soldier is not even kept in the Memorial. It would be much more fun if you could retire a soldier with honors if his record would be kept in some "hall of heroes" of sorts. Because supersoldiers, too, get boring after a while and fresh blood is always fun - new names, new faces, new stories.

Alternatively, there could be the need to re-negotiate contracts with experienced soldiers, each new contract being more and more expensive. This would increase the incentive to retire a soldier (but would keep the option for "calling for heroes" - drawing from the retired ranks at a very high cost).

The latter idea is basically moot in a standard game, though, where you're provided with all the money you'll ever need and then some.

I quite like the concept from Long War, where the soldiers suffer from fatigue. So you can't take your supersoldiers-to-be on 20 missions in a row... but only every third mission maybe. Which makes 60 missions to improve to supersoldier status... which is long enough so that it's not worth abusing... maybe except in PirateZ where 60 missions is still only the beginning of the game :D wink wink

Offline Dioxine

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #8 on: July 15, 2015, 11:57:45 am »
I quite like the concept from Long War, where the soldiers suffer from fatigue. So you can't take your supersoldiers-to-be on 20 missions in a row... but only every third mission maybe. Which makes 60 missions to improve to supersoldier status... which is long enough so that it's not worth abusing... maybe except in PirateZ where 60 missions is still only the beginning of the game :D wink wink

Particularies may vary, but that Fatigue concept is a really good idea. Soldiers deserve vacation! (historical example: even in Stalingrad's hell, both sides were sending their soldiers home every now and then... Every soldier was guaranteed a vacation after a set time in combat; quite scientifically so, because after around 40-60 days in the combat zone without breaks, soldier's efficiency starts a terminal fall towards vegetable state).

There was a Polish game in XCom genre, called Reservoir Dogs; the mercenaries there suffered from combat fatigue and stress, and it was neccessary to either stop relying on them for a long period of time (tough predicament as the game was only 15 missions long or so), or give them PAAARTY (lots of alcohol and hookers, some mercs prefered hard drugs instead, good if you had mercs with mutual relationships as they didn't need hookers to "heal the combat fatigue", but losing one of them often meant losing both...)

So as I said, particulars may vary and even if 60 missions in Piratez is just enough to get to the mid game (or so the saying goes), the risk is ever-present, and the Combat Fatigue recovery time could be elongated (along with adding facilities that help to remove it... you need only about 4 combat bases in Piratez, tops, so you could have a "holiday" base - I'd very much have entertainment facilities in my mod!)

As far as modding goes, I tried to curtail some, if not most, of the exploits you've mentioned. Smoke abuse was curtailed with high smoke damage. Grenades abuse was curtailed by adding Stamina cost to every throw, equal to item's Weight *2 (and making explosives generally much more expensive, but this is more about game length, not difficulty per se). The psionics got heavily gutted.

I think if there was that Combat Fatigue mechanism, then, as long as you also learn to let go (and let soldiers die when their time comes), would be enough of a compromise to keep RPG-like supersoldiers and don't let the game to get too easy at the same time.

Offline yrizoud

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #9 on: July 15, 2015, 01:15:05 pm »
UFO has always had the problem that it goes suddenly from xcom-hard to easy-mode depending on a few breakthroughs :
- power armor
- heavy plasma
- laser cannon cash cow
- the moment when your psi trainees, after 10 battles of failing everytime, suddenly get a 50-75% success (I may be wrong, but I've always felt it was very sudden)
- hyperwave decoder

Personally I don't worry too much about the very-end-game balance, because it's up to the player to decide when he's ready to tackle Mars.

I agree that every balancing attempt should rely first on iron-man, or nearly iron-man : I still see the issue that no matter how good you play, if your base is attacked while your full skyranger is in flight half across the globe, it's really a low blow and a campaign-stopper.

Offline Dioxine

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #10 on: July 15, 2015, 02:02:11 pm »
Hyperwave decoder? Really?
Laser cannon? It allows you to go from filthy rich to obstinate rich, makes little difference.
Power Armor? It still won't protect you from Blaster, Heavy Plasma, Chryssalid, Reaper. And by month 7, everyone is totting heavy plasma.
Heavy Plasma indeed but you can have it by month 3. And laser rifles aren't bad either.
Agreed on Psi, this is caused by how the formula works (you're indeed helpless when your psi skill is 30 or lower, but, at some point, the exponential growth of psi mastery violently breaks through the steady lines of psi defence the Aliens have).

Offline yrizoud

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #11 on: July 15, 2015, 03:08:00 pm »
Hyperwave decoder : Well, I'm always very relieved to get absolute detection AND know target area (useful with slow aircrafts to aim ahead) AND know in advance the alien race (do they fly? do they psi?)
Laser cannon : Filthy rich ? I don't know how you do... With the time of building bases and workshops and the investment in engineers, money doesn't really start flowing before month 5 or 6 - and this is by using lasers, which are 4 times more profitable than motion scanners.
Power armor : Makes psi attacks much less dangerous, because your soldiers can easily survive their own bullets, grenades and lasers and fire. I'm not saying the armor is total immunity, but the moment you get them, a lot of the attacks which would one-shot your soldiers or send them to hospital for 50 days are completely avoided instead.

Offline Dioxine

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #12 on: July 15, 2015, 04:27:09 pm »
Not saying that Power Armor & HWD are useless; just that they're hardly game-changers. For alien race recognition, you will know when you land near their crashed ship anyway. For radar coverage, you will have several radar bases by April so not much love lost. As for the cash, you will have tons of it unless you bloat your budget (start buying and losing many HWPs, keep more than 2 Interceptors + 1 Skyranger before you get the rent-less Firestorm, keep more than 100 scientists). The 6M+ starting budget is enough for 50 scientists (1.5M), 50 engineers (1.2 M), 3 craft (1.7 M), 25 soldiers (0.5 M) and base upkeep (another 0.5 M or so). With 1-2M budget increases every month after that, you can easily expand and still make tons of money.

Offline yrizoud

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #13 on: July 15, 2015, 06:00:51 pm »
Well, hyperwave decoder is a game-changer to me...
In first turns of battle, knowing the alien race helps can scout more efficiently (any flyers?)
During pre-battle, I can equip low-damage weapons if I'm facing sectoids, big guns if I'm facing mutons.

In fact, before taking off, I will even consider which soldiers to send for a specific menace : only psi-tested troops are worth going against psionic sectoids, while psi-weaks veterans can safely defend against floaters/snakemen/mutons. And ethereals are so dangerous that it's really worth balancing the pros/cons of doing the land mission at all (I'll often shoot them over water :) )

Offline hellrazor

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Re: What do I do to make the game more challenging?
« Reply #14 on: July 15, 2015, 07:37:20 pm »
Therefore, although I recommend not to use any new fancy OpenXcom options, I do STRONGLY recommend turning on this non-standard option called "UFO extender accuracy"... I honestly can't imagine playing without it anymore. Btw. if you're wondering why is it in this section... it allows the soldiers to miss, which decreases their life expectancy. Also, without it, you have almost no reason to use aimed shots.

I Actually think that UFO Extender Accuracy makes the game easier. It reduces snapaim for aliens, and Snapshot is the only mode in which they fire back.
Also Autoshot become incredible useless, even in close quarter combat.
Those aspects alone make me avoid useing it.

Also Meridian you forgot one aspect:
Recruit screening for stats.
You can sack every soldier with stats you do not like.
Which i tend to do, i only let the elite of the elite fight.
« Last Edit: July 15, 2015, 07:41:39 pm by hellrazor »