Making the Game Harder/Modding

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No Alien Psionics

There comes a point when your troops and tactics are so Psi-resistant that disabling Alien Psionics actually makes the game harder, because all the the Aliens are at least trying to kill you with a Heavy Plasma or a Blaster Launcher instead of wasting their time with futile Psi attacks. If you have reached this point, even in relation to Ethereals, disable all Psionics. This can be done via XcomUtil.

Weaker Human Psionics

As the XCOM franchise evolved into X-COM:Apocalypse, it was revealed that humans are intrinsically weaker than aliens, particularly Sectoids, at Psionics. Humans in Apocalypse can never become more than weak to mediocre Psi operators. Perhaps design and play experience with EU and TFTD suggested this idea to the Apocalypse designers. In EU and TFTD, Psionics / MC is yet another example of something that humans almost instantly learn to do much better than the aliens, even though the aliens have been doing it for millions of years and built their culture around it. (Other examples: UFOs/USOs, craft plasma/sonic weapons, Psi/MC tactics, wearing body armour, picking things up after being panicked/stunned... the list goes on.)

It would perhaps be more 'realistic', and certainly scary and challenging, if human Psi/MC Strength and Skill were capped much lower than aliens, for example, capped at 50 each. Various mods allow changes to skill caps. You could simply sack anyone with Psi/MC Strength higher than 50. What would be cleverer would be a mod that either generates human Psi/MC Strength in a lower range (0=50 instead of 0-100), or that applies a 50% penalty to Psi/MC success calculations for any XCOM-controlled units (humans, or human-controlled aliens).

Ranged Base Accuracy

If you are using the Collectors Edition of the game, consider making use of Seb76's loader and activate the ranged base accuracy settings. This adds new rules to shooting so that weapons will only work as advertised under a certain range, depending on the class of the weapon. Beyond these ranges, the shots start to get wilder. So while they can still hit, the odds of them hitting are reduced.

For those with other editions and can not make use of the loader, you can artificially set the ranges yourself and pick the type of shots based on the distance between you and the target.

Self-raised Funds Only

An inversion of the above. When starting a new game, use a game editor (or hex edit DIPLOM.DAT) to hack all funding countries into NOT providing ANY money. That is, all countries set to successfully infiltrated so you receive your starting funds, your starting base - and that's all the monetary support you can look forward to! You can still hire personnel, requisition equipment, build bases or base facilities, etc. but from where you get the money for it is up to you.

This way, you will be forced to live off of what you can scavenge from the battlefield and as it can barely (if even) cover your expenses, building another base or expanding your research division into even one fully staffed lab will be nigh impossible. You'll really need to watch your losses in the early months. Eventually you will probably make up for the missing money by selling Laser Cannons but setting up a large-scale manufacturing operation will still remain impossible and losing even one base will deal a near-crippling blow to your operations.

Aliens Own Earth

In this scenario you start the game as normal, but the Aliens are in a very dominant position with over 20 bases already established on Earth. Survival is extremely difficult! This scenario takes a bit of work to setup before you can play, but definitely poses a serious challenge.

Don't Use Beneficial XComUtil Options

Many XComUtil options (or similar options from other 'game enhancers' or variant games) make the game easier to win. As XComUtil was designed to make the game harder, it's a shame that the options that make the game easier are not flagged up more conspicuously.

Improved Starting Base

This actually hands you $4.5 million on a plate. In fact, it's far better than $4.5 million in cash, because the stuff you would buy with the $4.5 million is already built and/or in situ in your base. This option gives you a 1-2 month head start on the aliens, who don't get any advantages. So while the intent is to alleviate boring and repetitive play for experienced players, the net effect is to reduce the challenge.

Alternate Starting Base

This option is much less of a boon, but it still in effect hands you the $800K it would cost to reorganise your normal (badly layed out) starting base. And you get to do useful things with your base instead, during the month it would've take to reorganise it. Still, this is only a minor buff, and not a big deal compared to the Improved Starting Base. And the initial base layout is infuriating.

Improved Tanks

Players often forget that they routinely take this option to give human-technology tank chassis the same armour level as the hybrid, alien-alloy-armoured tank chassis. This has a big difference on the viability of the starting tanks (Cannon Tank, Rocket Tank, Laser Tank). Scott Jones believed that these HWPs were not viable without this mod. Perhaps he was right. Nonetheless, if you use this option, you are making the early game significantly easier. Assuming you believe an HWP is better than 4 soldiers - and if you don't believe that, you shouldn't care about using this option anyway.

Improved Weapons

This option improves the Pistol, Heavy Laser, and High Explosive. The Heavy Laser mod is fairly subtle and is intended to make "an otherwise useless item, useful". It does not create an uber-weapon. The Pistol improvement is arguably unnecessary as the Pistol is arguably already the most powerful starting weapon, something that was not appreciated when XComUtil was written. The High Explosive buff is downright unbalancing since it allows UFO outer hulls to be penetrated at the very start of the game, totally changing the tactics of the Battlescape in a way that the Alien AI is not prepared for, and can't respond to. If you do select this option, use it only for the Heavy Laser mod, and refrain from using Pistol autofire, and definitely refrain from using HE as an entry charge to blast holes in UFOs.

In TFTD this option gives Gauss weapons unlimited ammunition. There is still a running argument about whether Gauss weapons are worth bothering with (Skipping Gauss Weapons). So using this option might be justified. But clearly it still gives an advantage to XCom, at least until weapons better than Gauss are available. So if you want the game to be harder, don't use it.

Other Options To Avoid

  • Automatically Screen for Psi Ability
  • Fight All Battles In Daylight
  • Fighter aircraft can carry troops / HWPs
  • Skyranger can mount air to air weapons
  • Troops have all-round visibility from inside transports

Actually these last three aren't even options, prior to XComUtil 9.6, they are defaults. Turning them off is hard - just don't use weapons on transports or troops/HWPs on fighters. The all round visibility is not such a big deal, but if you turn it off, you will make the game harder again.

Use XComUtil Features

XcomUtil is a game enhancer that was actually designed to make the game harder, although many of its features can be used the other way around.

XcuSetup configuration

When you run XcuSetup to install XComUtil a number of queries will be asked regarding which features you'll want to implement. The responses to the prompts given below will make the game harder.

  • Do you want to use the improved starting base? (No)

With the improved starting base you start with an Alien Containment already built, your radar is upgraded and you'll start with additional scientists and engineers. It will also be designed to maximize defense. Mainly this is just to avoid boredom and frustration, but it is also an advantage.

  • Do you want to use the alternate starting base? (No)

This retains the optimal defensive layout but doesn't add the extra facilities/personnel. Again, mainly to avoid frustration but if you say No you reduce your advantage and increase the challenge. At the very least you have the headache and expense of reorganising your base layout through construction and demolition.

  • Do you want to use the improved Tanks/Weapons? (No to both)

You forgo having tracked tanks with the armour levels of advanced hover tanks, and slightly improved Pistols and Heavy Lasers. You also forgo a crucial advantage which is the ability to crack open UFO external hulls with High Explosive - you definitely don't want that if you are looking for a harder game!

  • Do you want to use the new laser weapons? (Yes)

With this option chosen your lasers will require Elerium to be built (supposedly to act as power cells). This also prevents you from building plasma weapons (but not clips), thus preventing you from selling Plasma Pistols and Plasma Rifles since the aliens will stop using those. It also makes Laser Cannons and Fusion Launchers a lot less attractive to sell because of the time required to build them and the Elerium/Alien Alloys necessary for their construction. Be prepared for the blow on your finances...

  • Do you want research help from captured aliens? (Yes! Yes! Yes!)

To make the game REALLY hard try this feature. First, it will increase the research times of most items tenfold or more, especially regarding the alien technologies. Instead of having to wait days or a week for a certain technology the time will increase to months. With a little bad luck you will be stuck to lasers and no armor when the Mutons and Ethereals start showing up. Second, the only way to speed research (other than having 250 scientists on all bases) is to capture live aliens, forcing you to bring a few Stun Rods for all missions. It is not required to have an Alien Containment present to receive the research help but remember it only reduces the time of the research being done at your starting base.

Scott Jones' Scenarios

Scott T Jones, the original maker of XComUtil, placed some interesting scenarios on the XcomUtil site. Note that many of these scenarios do not actually require the use of XComUtil.

Xenophobe

Don't try to capture or interrogate any aliens, and sell all alien artifacts immediately. Don't build Alien Containment. You can not win this scenario in the normal sense, since you can never discover how go to Mars (or even that you need to go there). You simply play it until you don't want to play it any more.

Bean Counter

This scenario takes its name from the beaurocratic "bean counters" who drive us crazy with their constant cost cutting measures. You are not allowed to destroy anything, since that wastes profits. You are not allowed to shoot down any UFOs, since that destroys valuable artifacts that can be sold. You cannot use any explosives or any weapon that uses a clip or ammunition, since those would have to be replaced. You are only allowed to use reusable items, like lasers, flares, stun rods, and psi-amps.

Explosive

Limit yourself to only explosive weapons. This scenario forces you to learn tactics that protect you from your own weapons. It is virtually the opposite of the Bean Counter scenario.

Photophobe

You must not fight any battle in full daylight. If you land at a battle and an aura of light isn't visible around your soldiers, you must leave immediately. This scenario is very interesting and teaches you how to fight at night. It is much harder to win, but it can still be won because it is dark on Mars.

Technophobe

Sack all of your scientists and engineers at the start of the game. You must sell all alien artifacts immediately. If you cannot buy the item, you cannot use it.

This scenario forces you to learn how to use conventional weapons against the aliens. You can not win this scenario in the normal sense, since you can never go to Mars. You simply play it until you don't want to play it any more.

Neo-Pacifist

You are a Pacifist and cannot directly take the life of any living thing, even an alien. You cannot shoot down any UFO, because aliens might be killed. You cannot use any weapon that can kill an alien, even via reaction fire. Aliens who die during interrogation or because of lack of space in the alien containment facility are someone else's problem, so your conscience is clear.

The only lethal weapons that you can use are grenades, but you must still give the aliens a chance to escape. In this way, the alien causes its own death. For example, an alien next to an armed explosive with a long fuse can save it self by moving away, while an alien next to an armed Proximity Grenade can save itself by not moving away.

Even with these restrictions, the game can still be won by mind controlling an alien on Mars and having him stand next to an armed Proximity Grenade which was placed next to the master brain. Once this is ready, you release your control and wait for the alien to move, ending the game.

Single-Base Hawaiian

Games where you only have one base are not that different from normal games, unless that base is located in Hawaii. This scenario is very difficult and requires a different strategy. The challenge is that you have almost no radar coverage over any significant land mass. You must keep Skyrangers constantly on patrol over areas that are likely to have alien activity. Since combat is rare, you can not afford to skip any battles. This scenario teaches you how to use the graphs to gather information about areas in which you have no radar.

No Skyrangers

This scenario takes away your large, long range troop carrier, the Skyranger. Ideally, you should also eliminate the Lightning and the Avenger (except for the assault on Mars). Ground operations are conducted only with the small numbers of Soldiers that XComUtil allows you to place on board Interceptors (6 troops or 1 HWP + 2 troops) or Firestorms (10 troops or 1 HWP + 6 troops). This is quite difficult because you do not have enough men to allow for mistakes and the short range of your ships forces you to miss some terror sites. (This requires at least version 6.0 of XcomUtil.)

Shootdown

This scenario is an even harder variation of the No Skyrangers scenario. It not only takes away your large, long range troop carrier, but it also demands that you shoot down every ship you assault. This is extremely difficult, because you almost never capture any Elerium from ships that have been shot down.