XCOM 2’s Concealment Mechanic Changes Everything

Procedural maps, randomised weapons and chain-smoking soldiers. In XCOM 2 [official site], the rules have changed. One seemingly minor addition to the tactical combat might have the greatest impact of all though. In our recent hands-on, we had a chance to test out the new concealment mechanic. It removes one of XCOM’s few frustrations and creates an entirely new scouting phase as each mission begins.

Remember how the aliens always had the jump on you in XCOM? You’d stick to cover, make sure that none of your agents exposed themselves, and hope to get the drop on the bastards, and then scream at the monitor when one of those animations kicked in as soon as you sighted a gang of Ets. They scattered and scurried for cover, again and again, until you accepted that they’d probably seen the Skyranger coming, and that your sneaky tactics were all for naught.

That’s no longer the case.

In keeping with XCOM’s new role as a hidden organisation, trying to bring down the alien authorities from the shadows, your squads can now take advantage of cover to conceal themselves, as well as to hide behind once spotted. The new mechanic that allows for stealthy approaches and planning goes by the name Concealment and it’s a perfect example of Firaxis’ careful marriage of systems and themes.

Your squads would be fairly terrible clandestine agents if the aliens always knew they were in the area. To reflect the guerrilla warfare campaign that you’re waging, while addressing that stolen march that was a cause of such frustration in the first game, your squad members are concealed at the beginning of each mission.

That means you can move everyone into position, placing snipers on roofs to provide coverage and setting up ambushes for patrolling aliens. As long as you’re not spotted and don’t make too much noise (firing a gun, for example), you’ll be able to scout out the area and get a bead on enemy positions and movements.

When you fire your first shot, any XCOM operatives with line of sight on aliens or Advent soldiers will fire in sequence. That gives you the ability to take down an entire enemy squad in one action but the tactical advantage is a slight thing in comparison to the power that the earlier reconnaissance provides. Being able to see enemy movements before they’re aware of your presence not only gives an insight into the way they patrol and guard locations, it also ensures that you feel a sense of control over the battlefield than was the case in Enemy Unknown.

The scouting works in combination with the procedural maps. The sense of the unknown that they provide, the fact that the precise layout can never be known in advance, means that retaining concealed status for as long as possible can be very advantageous. Even a brief session with the game demonstrated the importance of scoping out as much terrain as possible, and that’s at odds with the first XCOM, in which missions usually entailed creeping from one encounter to the next.

Here, it’s entirely possible to avoid encounters until finding the one that works best as your first point of contact in any given situation. Effectively, you’re picking your point of insertion and angle of attack, rather than sticking to the path laid out by a level designer.

I’d thought that concealment might not be effective unless the setup of a mission were crafted to support it, or that it’d feel like a special ability to be utilised when conditions are ideal. Now that I’ve played the game, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Concealment and the stealthy approach are a key part of the redesigned tactical layer of XCOM 2 and are central to the way that the mechanics fit with the theme of resistance and retaliation.

If concealment had been restricted to a specific class, it would have been rarely used, or one of those apparently optional skills that turn out to be an essential component of victory. As it is, Firaxis have made it a cornerstone of their sequel and it’s one more way in which XCOM 2 has been fundamentally altered rather than simply expanded.

61 Comments

  1. Chris Cunningham says:

    “XCOM 2 has a proper visibility mechanic, like you’d expect, instead of the teleporting ambush bullshit from the first one”.

    • DrollRemark says:

      It was never the teleporting* I had an issue with in the old XCOM, it was more the fucking free move they got after discovery. It ruined any attempts to set up flanks beforehand, and was just generally completely unfair. Why do they get to all run to full cover and my soldiers are stuck with whatever they have?

      *Wasn’t this just them moving to the end of their movement range in one go anyway? It’s not like the aliens bounced around the map at random.

      • Chris Cunningham says:

        Teleporting is a natural consequence of treating unrevealed aliens as Space Hulk-still blips with their own mechanics (specifically, no need to actually walk around, and no physical representation until revealed). Firaxis repeatedly hacked around the more egrecious problems this caused (mostly mobs suddenly appearing right in the middle of one’s squad after someone gets LOS on some random nearby tile) but it’s still present to an extent because that’s just how unseen aliens are modelled.

      • Horg says:

        ”*Wasn’t this just them moving to the end of their movement range in one go anyway? It’s not like the aliens bounced around the map at random.”

        No, they actually did teleport between fixed activation points in XCOM EU and EW. It’s probably the biggest problem with the base game that Long War mostly fixes. The free move to cover isn’t so annoying when you can set up ambushes in wait for alien groups that actually patrol the map instead of warping around on their turn.

      • wcq says:

        A sequence of events from my last Classic Ironman playthrough:

        – Harbor map, dug in with sniper in position behind my squad.
        – Mechtoid appears with two sectoids.
        – Sectoid performs mind shield on mechtoid.
        – I kill the sectoid with my sniper.
        – Mechtoid panics and retreats to fog of war.
        – END TURN
        – Mechtoid jumps out from BEHIND my squad. Currently flanking: EVERYBODY.

        Thankfully I managed to kill it without losing my sniper. I think I would have broken my keyboard in half otherwise.

        • Hmm-Hmm. says:

          One would have expected they’d at least made a minimal distance they’d have to be from your group before being allowed to teleport. Because that’s just silly.

          • wcq says:

            I don’t even know how that managed to happen. The enemies aren’t supposed to be able to teleport after they’ve been “activated”… or that’s what I thought, anyway.

          • Horg says:

            Aliens ignore the rules of physics if you can’t see them, even Long War couldn’t fix that completely. I had a couple of strange interactions with Sectoids that ran off into the fog of war. One of them literally vanished from the map, my soldiers had sight on 100% of the terrain and it was just gone, but was still flagged as alive so I couldn’t end the mission. I think it might have done some sort of impossible move inside a cover object while it was in fog, but luckily a restart made it spawn in the open again. Another time, same map, I had a Sectoid pinned inside a small room with one closed door. When my soldiers breached the room, the Sectoid was gone but the door was still closed, so it probably ignores collision with walls if you can’t see it.

          • Hunchback says:

            The only logical explanation is that the aliens are actual quantum objects that exist as a wave/cloud of possible locations, only fixed once observed. When they get out of sight their actual location becomes a possibility again thus allowing them to re-appear in another point in space.
            Firaxis have done a good job modeling quantum physics, without even knowing it. *ponder*

        • lenin says:

          I remember a few times that my operatives were about the breach the control room (next turn) and my sniper was on the other side of the map in his archangel suit. Then behind I saw another UFO (don’t ask me how it got there) and in front of the UFO was an ethereal with 2 heavy mutons beside it. My Sniper so nearly died. I wasn’t sure if its a glitch or a rare occurrence or what ever. It happened to me a couple of times,once with the sniper and another when In was hunting for the last alien (i already killed the ethereal in the main UFO).

  2. anHorse says:

    A tbs game just came out with a visibility mechanic and RPS trashed it :)

    Giving the enemies a fucking free move no matter what was something EU should’ve got way more stick for than it did. I’m sure I read some reviews where it didn’t even get mentioned

    • NukeWithG says:

      How are they “trashing” it? It’s merely a report on a new mechanic in the game that has dramatic effects on how the game flows. In fact, they say that it works better than they thought it would with the map generation.

    • Frank says:

      Yeah, except they didn’t trash it.

  3. Artea says:

    Finally, it has implemented something the original X-COM managed to do more than two decades ago.

    • c-Row says:

      If you are talking about simple LOS this system appears to be slightly more advanced in comparison. I don’t remember being able to walk through a sectoid’s line of sight in the first game and being mistaken as a standard civilian.

      • Artea says:

        I meant enemies that patrolled around during their turns, or in other words, operated by the same rules as the player characters did.

        • Archonsod says:

          The aliens didn’t obey the same rules the player did in the original Xcom. They didn’t need line of sight for starters …

          • rmsgrey says:

            Strictly speaking you don’t need LoS in the original XCOM either – you could force-fire on any square on the map where you had line of fire and potentially hit an unseen alien there – what the aliens did was remembered where your men were once they’d seen them.

    • Shake Appeal says:

      Long War does this. Go play Long War. Stop griping about something that was never broken that has already been “fixed” anyway.

      • Artea says:

        If it was never broken, why are you recommending a mod that fixes something that was apparently not broken?

        • Hex says:

          The Long War addresses the issue being discussed, which Shake Appeal (and myself, among others) hesitate to recognize as a problem. Hence the use of inverted commas.

          In vanilla XCom, I learned to frequently arrange for aliens to place themselves in a flanked position, via clever positioning at the time of enemy-squad activation.

          It’s pretty neat when it works.

      • Raoul Duke says:

        Hilarious – “it wasn’t broken, you just have to install a very extensive community made patch to fix it”.

  4. Prolar Bear says:

    I want this.

  5. dethtoll says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for a game that wasn’t Deus Ex, Fallout or Metal Gear.

  6. mishagale says:

    I think it’s worth noting that Enemy Unknown/Within did have a stealth mechanic, of a sort. As annoying as the free move the aliens got was, if you spotted them with a soldier who was in stealth mode, they stayed in their clustered formation. You could then lob a grenade or a rocket at them before they could scatter.

    • Bull0 says:

      You could also use battle scanners. Snipers also had squadsight, so if you set one up with a good field of view in overwatch then they could often take a reaction shot when the enemy group spawned.

      I’ve never understood the criticism really, the game isn’t about finding the aliens and killing them before they’ve spotted you, it’s about moving and fighting tactically once you’re engaged so it’s balanced around that. Besides which, the game even gave you some scouting tools to kill them before they’ve spotted you anyway.

      • Bull0 says:

        Enemy Within’s MECs also mitigated the need for optimum cover positioning on enemy discovery if you found it a particular problem since they didn’t need to be in cover.

      • Chris Cunningham says:

        Well, that’s the new XCOM in a nutshell: plenty of tactics, zero strategy. There’s no point in having a holistic view of the map and acting like a real-life squad: instead it’s all about blinding stumbling into ambushes and then dashing about like a turn-based Gears of War.

        Plenty of people enjoyed this, but the game that inspired it was as deep strategically as it was tactically.

        • Shake Appeal says:

          This is patently untrue. In fact, one of the biggest problems with the game is that the limited map pool allows you to learn and then abuse strategies for each map. Again, Long War addresses this for the most part by opening up the pool, changing starting points, letting pods spawn more or less anywhere, and forcing pods to patrol properly for the most part.

          But even in vanilla, blindly stumbling into ambushes is not what you are supposed to do. :(

          • khomotso says:

            I’ve played and enjoyed many games of Long War, and I think you’re missing the point.

            Partly because I don’t think this article would be appropriately framed by setting up a heavily modded version of the earlier game as the basis of comparison. I love Long War, but trotting it out in these discussions is off base.

            And partly because even with Long War the enemy forces had a preternatural ability to be immediately alert to your entire squad with the flip of a switch, and what stealth play there was still required special limited-use skills rather than being endemic to the way all the characters interacted with the gameworld.

            The new one is going to be different. And different in a way which Long War hinted at but couldn’t fully realize. I’m all for it.

        • Bull0 says:

          Yeah, they’re different games. I’d have thought that was obvious.

      • khomotso says:

        Stealth isn’t just about killing them before they spot you, it’s about being able to make choices for your points of engagement. More choices, more play.

  7. Shake Appeal says:

    I’m really, really sick of people complaining about the “free” move. The game was beautifully balanced to create interesting, active firefights, and there are so many ways to outthink and manipulate that move into cover anyway. This new Concealment phase goes even further in that regard, so hooray.

    Look, X-COM was fantastic for many reasons. Not all of those reasons made it into XCOM, but XCOM deliberately chose to put all the focus on decisions (where and when to move, which actions to take, in what sequence) rather than execution (fiddling with TUs or spending twenty turns making sure you don’t get overwatched by the last lone sectoid in the back of the map). In doing so, it made the whole thing freer, faster-paced and less fussy. Long War then all but perfected the damn thing. Go play Long War!

    On the other hand, if you really, really want to play X-COM, there are a wealth of ways to do that. Or you can just play Xenonauts, which is also excellent in its own right.

    • Chris Cunningham says:

      Which is obviously why the sequel is, erm, changing it.

      • Shake Appeal says:

        Except it, erm, isn’t. It’s changing the set-up phase, but pods activated once Concealment is broken still get a free scamper to cover.

      • Shake Appeal says:

        Except it, erm, isn’t. Pods revealed after concealment is broken still scamper.

    • anHorse says:

      “put all the focus on decisions”

      Nah

      The discovery mechanic free move makes the game almost entirely about reactive play.

      After the enemy scrambles into my troops I’m not making a decision I’m just taking the best course of action immediately available to me.
      Is that fun gameplay? Absolutely but it’s not interesting gameplay since you are merely taking the optimal path. There’s no real thinking or consideration required.

      Vanilla XCOM EU’s strategy mainly consists of the player learning how to exploit this mechanic rather than the player thinking about what possible actions an enemy force may take and how best to set up for those.

    • khomotso says:

      Except that it’s not just about the free turn. It’s also about creating a new avenue of play that was largely marginalized even in Long War: scouting. Long War did a lot to try to open up scouting play, but it was always constrained by the original game, and had to resort to some brittle and gimmicky mechanics.

    • Replikant says:

      Playing XCOM had ohne basic rule: Don’t move more than one soldier into the fog of war in one turn and only at the start of the turn. Behause of group aggroing and free movement. Very gamey and just not a good mechanic to balance encouters with.

      • vegeta1998 says:

        Absolutely, it was anti-fun. Really stoked about this fix.

        • fenchurch says:

          Most levels are easily beaten once you figure out how to game the fog of war. (i.e. moving one character only). Any other tactical decision is second to this one.

          I don’t get it why nobody seems to complain about this. It’s still broken in that regard. XCOM2 suffers from EXACTLY the same bad scouting mechanics.

    • EhexT says:

      “In doing so, it made the whole thing freer, faster-paced and less fussy.”

      No it didn’t. It not only didn’t it did the EXACT OPPOSITE. The free move means, in order to not get screwed over by the enemy being able to break the basic rule of turn based games, that the best way to play is to only move one character into the FoW and if you didn’t encounter enemies overwatch everyone and end your turn. The free move forced you to either play badly or play incredibly boring.

      And that shit is still in the sequel it seems. Hopefully this time the mod tools mean it can actually be removed instead of having to hack the game into shape around that awful core piece of bad design.

      • AyeBraine says:

        As a person who played Long War reasonably good at mid-to-high difficulties, and also likes to watch real masters play on videos, I disagree. This dichotomy (“it’s broken, so you either play recklessly, or play in an exploitative, gamey, slow and boring manner”) is wrong.

        I found that the more successful results are achieved by playing dynamically, weighing risk and reward, with emphasis on recon and intel – only in this case you have to know where enemies AREN’T (or are, but with tech like scanners and/or legit clues like sounds and open doors and windows). This translates to a rather quick style which always risks to tip over into reckless territory, which is exactly the challenge.

        Best players (people who are unanimously regarded as best like Beagle) do not play at a “gamey” snail’s pace like you described, apart from very, very disadvantageous situations with very bad intel. In most cases, all soldiers use a half-move every turn, constantly reconfiguring to meet a potential activation. Even dashes are sometimes used out-of-combat, as a weighed risk.

      • NephilimNexus says:

        You guys do know that you can mod the alien free move out of the game, right?

    • Raoul Duke says:

      The game was beautifully balanced to create interesting, active firefights
      No, it wasn’t. It was only ‘balanced’ if you only used half your movement points for every soldier every turn, because you had to make sure they inched forward in cover every move and always had a reaction shot up their sleeve. Otherwise you might ‘see’ a chryssalid with your last move of a turn, and suddenly your entire squad is murdered by three of the bastards getting two free moves.

      Just really, really lazy design.

      Less lazy design would be that the aliens obey the same rules as the player, but that this includes setting up overwatch positions, trying to flank and the like once they realise that XCOM is in the area.

      I mean, you’re defending a game that lets you set up a perfect defensive position having carried out a sweep to protect your flanks, only to have 4-6 random enemies spawn directly behind your squad and shoot them in the back. It doesn’t get any cheaper than that.

  8. Gap Gen says:

    This change sounds pretty good. It wasn’t necessarily the activation of one group that I had a problem with, but the fact that my mobility was limited in case I activated another group with my flanking force. If I moved my units too far I’d probably end up training more mutons, so I ended up just hunkering down in the area and killing what enemies were active at that point before moving on to activate more enemies that somehow missed all the rocket launchers and plasma rounds levelling the building next door.

    • mike2R says:

      Yeah, this exactly. They give you the wonderful assault class with run and gun out of the box, and then made using it the way I wanted to the wrong choice in most situations.

      It isn’t the aliens cheating at all. It’s the player that gets the cheat, in that aliens don’t activate when they really should be fully aware that there is a fight going on, and then gets forced into a particular type of behaviour to wring the most out of this advantage, since the game is balanced around it.

      Even if the basic model is unchanged, with groups of aliens completely ignoring everything until they see an XCOM soldier, the better situational awareness that it looks like you’ll get in XCOM 2 might make this a non-issue. So definitely sounds hopeful.

    • AyeBraine says:

      That’s why 70% of success in XCOM on harder difficulties hinged on knowing where enemies AREN’T. Like proper science means getting negative results to even consider positive ones, engaging without knowing where to fall back or advance laterally was very risky. I would dare to guess that was what gave XCOM such a strong feeling of a positioning game – literally “seeing more” was always a risk, but also a vital necessity.

  9. Josh W says:

    Now this is one area where I feel like the game has embraced late game xcom tactics. As people mentioned above, the capacity to get stealth that enemy within implemented, plus grapples and battlescanners, allowed lots of opportunities to pin units down without cover, or pull off a string of overwatch ambushes as they revealed themselves.

    The problem with this was that enemy movement was not consistent enough to properly take advantage of this, and stealth mostly operated on single turns, on setting up specific ambushes. I completely agree about the effect of these changes (although of course, I haven’t actually played the game).

    It seems to me that making enemy movement more rigorous, and loosening up scouting play would allow people to do what they were doing in enemy within, but more consistently and as less of a weird semi-game breaking trick.

  10. Fobok says:

    Thank you! The lack of situational awareness and stealth is what really bugs me about the first game. I love the game, don’t get me wrong, but this just plain sounds so much better.

  11. AyeBraine says:

    Personally, I don’t agree with the criticism of “free move” or “scamper mechanic” of first new XCOM. Scamper mechanic helped enemies feel more competent and alive, and made smart pre-positioning much more important.

    Simply put, you had to gain such a position that the cover and lines of sight it provides are better than enemy’s cover and lines of sight. If the aliens froze like rabbits in a headlight at the moment of contact, you would almost always have the advantage of having better cover, wouldn’t you? The fact that the incredibly intricate Long War, crafted for tactical mastery, conserved that mechanic, is telling (even though I’m aware it’s also very difficult to remove).

    All in all, XCOM was the only game I’ve played where I really honestly used the word “intel” in my mind all the time, and not because I’ve read too many Tom Clancy novels. It was just that thing I needed, sometimes desperately and urgently, to simply not die by ambush or flank. And it was because when you activate, you meet a proactive competent enemy, not a half-blind dumbass guard from a stealth game.

    • EhexT says:

      Except the free move means you can’t know the enemy sightlines and cover – because they get to move. If they didn’t get a free move, they would have been programmed properly in the first place instead of being abstracted into the fog of war aether and teleporting around. Which means you wouldn’t encounter them out of cover constantly (in their designated out-of-cover patrol nodes) but in cover from their properly simulated cover-to-cover moves.

      It’s not like this is all theory – we’ve had plenty of X-Com-likes that didn’t do awful teleporting “pods” of enemies but simulated them even when in fog of war, and it worked perfectly without giving them a free move (and by also not taking away their ability to shoot on their own turn when they discover you during it, which is equally awful design).

      • AyeBraine says:

        No, I will have to disagree. You have to know potential sight lines and potential cover for potential enemy. This is basically what tactics are about. In real life (I’m NOT comparing XCOM to real life, but invoking it because tactics come from real life), so, in real life, the hardest challenge on a battlefield is always finding out where the hell is the enemy. Humans, cars and even goddamned tanks are very hard to see if they don’t want to be seen.

        Therefore, when formulating tactics, an officer has two reference points: terrain and intel. Intel is mostly nebulous – it just tells him what kind of forces he might encounter hiding in the terrain. So the deciding factor is the terrain itself, because it gives a limited number of solutions for this potential unseen enemy.

        If we return to the (completely videogamey) XCOM, we see that scamper mechanic and roving enemy squads provide exactly this. An XCOM player constantly updates their battle plan, relying on the terrain. So the method of operation itself can’t conceptually rely on catching enemy out of cover. It always considers what the enemy’s debut will be, and that will be the initial cover layout (or lack of it: in a beneficially orchestrated situation, aliens have shitty cover – that’s the point).

        Then, you imply that enemy should move from cover to cover, as if he was already in a firefight. Fortunately, XCOM doesn’t work like this. It is a series of firefights, or skirmishes, between a small agressor force and a patrolling force (which also reasonably reflects realistic scenarios). Moreover, it is a series of firefights where YOU have initiative, so you have the advantage. The only question is how far you are able to push it.

        Ideally, you choose the engagement scenario. Even if you don’t know exactly where the enemy is (which is the point of tactics), you position and plan for his most likely course of action, with a couple backup plans for other courses of action. Enemy scamper in XCOM is completely consistent with a “disperse, take cover” action a patrol would take. They never get more than a half-move in a scamper (unlike, say, in original Wasteland 2). It is the same action you would take in case of sudden contact. To say it’s unfair is kind of arguing against sequential moves in chess, when you always play whites, and also have five times as much move/piece variety as your opponent. Simply put, it works.

        I may be biased, but I certainly prefer XCOM to “xcom-likes”, and part of its appeal lies exactly in the fundamental role of terrain, LOS and cover. It is the cornerstone of the game, not just a mechanic affecting accuracy rolls.

        Finally, I would separate the issue of teleporting pods from the discussion of XCOM fundametals. I of course encountered teleporting pods, but it was quite rare and more of an unpleasant surprise than a game-breaking bug. Anyway, it’s not part of the core game principle. Most of the time, you find a pod in a place it was for several turns. I insist that pods do not teleport constantly and are not abstract. Top-notch players meaningfully deduce their positions and movement directions from sound and other clues, and at least 80% of the time it’s consistent. Then, they press the advantage I outlined above. Which is, for me, is where the fun is.

      • AyeBraine says:

        In so many words: XCOM patrolling/scamper mechanic is not broken or random. It sets up an exchange of tactical moves as honed as chess. The initial positioning of both is as important as a debut. You CAN catch the aliens with their pants down, and CAN force them into a very shitty position.

  12. DailyFrankPeter says:

    Isn’t it essentially “mimetic skin” but by default?

  13. Raoul Duke says:

    I choose to treat this as an admission that they were wrong in the first game.

    Maybe by XCOM “3” (aka, “6”) they will go back to time units, remove soldier classes, and get rid of that lame thing where the alien weapons explode when you kill them.

    I was going to continue a playthrough of XCOM: EW but this has convinced me to hold off. I was getting sick of my squad getting murdered by magically spawning thin men, magical invisible squids and chryssalids getting a free double move right at the end of my turn.

    • Shake Appeal says:

      Except, once again, scamper is still in XCOM 2. Because it’s a good mechanic in its context.

      TUs are awful. If you want them, Xenonauts has them.