Jarenth Plays XCOM: Enemy Unknown — Episode 25: Bell Curve

In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM, I used a routine mission as an excuse to round out my captured-alien collection. I own all the ones I know of that are capturable now. No news on whether or not Chryssalids, Drones and Cyberdiscs will ever become capturable; part of me hopes so, but another part of me doesn’t want to have to deal with sending another soldier into Chryssalid melee range for as long as I live.

More importantly, the results I got from interrogating the new Heavy Floater alien put a serious dent in the time required to develop a new type of fighter craft; one that should, hopefully, be capable of catching up to and bringing down that Overseer UFO. And since the Council has just docked me serious performance points for letting it slip so often — though that didn’t seem to translate to lost funding, as far as I can tell — I now have a personal stake of sorts in getting this project done.

You’ll be replaced soon, *regular planes*!

Alright, breaking character for a bit: this episode is going be a little meta again. Instead of my usual one-mission-per-episode thing, this episode will cover a period of game time equivalent to four missions; none of those missions will be done play-by-play style like usual.

See, it’s like this: I can tell we’ve entered the stretch of gameplay known as ‘fuck all is really happening‘. I have to take down the Overseer UFO to progress, but in order to do that, the following things have to happen:

  • I have to finish researching the New Fighter Craft, which is actually called the Firestorm. This will actually be done really quickly… about now, in fact.

    I love the smell of progress in the morning.

  • I have to build at least one Firestorm. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since these things both are expensive and require fancy components.

    So that represents *at least* one more month of waiting.

  • Once the first Firestorm is built, I will learn / have learned that it’s automatically deployed in the hangar corresponding to the continent I have my main base on. Because that’s where it’s built. I can transfer the Firestorms to other continents, but that takes additional time. And I’ll pretty much have to transfer them, because the Overseer UFO can show up everywhere. And as cool as the Firestorm is, its operational range is limited.

    It is *quite* cool, though.

  • And finally, once I actually get lucky and the Overseer UFO shows up on a continent with Firestorm coverage, I’ll actually have to be able to take it down. I’ve been given to understand that the Firestorm’s main advantage will be in its tracking capabilities — i.e., it’ll have more than three seconds to engage the Overseer UFO — but I have a feeling regular Avalanche Missiles aren’t going to cut it. Because of this, I’ll have to outfit my Firestorm(s) with advanced weaponry, like a Plasma Cannon or the (yet to be researched) EMP Cannon.

It shoots EMPs.

Really, regular weaponry just doesn’t pack enough of a punch.

Not that I would know anything about this.

What all of this adds up to is a lot of time. A little over a month in in-game time, in fact: the first screenshot of this episode is dated September 1st, while the last will be October 13th. Go on, scroll down if you want to verify it.

Of course, a lot can happen in a month. Research, base building, a Council meeting. And aliens, of course. The invaders strike four times over the course of these fourty-three days, in fact: one abduction, two UFOs, and a Council mission.

Now, I could probably have stretched this out into four entire episodes. Five, if I’d been feeling particularly tricky. But as I was playing, I figured I could use these four missions combined to talk about one aspect of XCOM in general that irks me sometime: the wildly fluctuating difficulty.

Let’s start at the top. Four missions I promised you, four missions you shall receive. The first came to me not soon after finishing the Firestorm research project — the same day, in fact — in the form of a ‘Large Scout’-type UFO landing for in China for harvesting purposes.

Now that the Hyperwave Array is operational, I can get exact troop numbers and compositions for every downed or landed UFO.

I sent out a fairly standard squad for this mission: Colonels Krellen and Tovik and Captain DeCamp as the muscle, and Sergeant Putty, Lieutenant Sanderson and Psychic Squaddie Jones as the learners. At this point in the game, I have enough moola to comfortably outfit everyone with at least decent stuff.

i.e. Most people have sweet armors and weapons now.

Now, in this playthrough, UFO missions have generally been fairly straightforward as far as difficulty was concerned: not easy, per se, but certainly not very hard. This mission seemed to start out as no exception, though it threw me a curve ball by introducing a new type of alien.

Yes, of course it’s a new type of Muton.

Dr. Shen says what everyone’s thinking.

This screenshot just cracks me up. I can’t help but imagine that terrifying Muton Elite warrior go DERP DERP DERP.

While the addition of these new, Heavy-Plasma-toting Muton Elites seemed dangerous, in reality I was more than equipped to handle them. Colonel Tovik was wearing the first operational suit of Ghost Armor, which apparently allows the wearer to go completely invisible ‘until the start of your next turn’. I wonder how troops got briefed on that?

What’s that? You can’t see Colonel Tovik in this picture? That would be because he’s *invisible*!

Okay, he was just off-camera. This is what invisibility actually looks like.

Oddly, using that ghost mode blackens his hair sometimes.

Ghost Armor has rejuvenating possibilities? Research, you’ve outdone yourself again!

OVerall, this mission’s difficulty level was ‘average’. It had some close calls, like that time Lieutenant Sanderson took a torso full of alien plasma…

It was about as painful as it looks.

…but that was just bad luck and some poor tactics. A lot of the combat in XCOM is decided by that, by positioning and dice rolls, and while I know many people are incredibly put off by that, I find I personally don’t mind very much. Bad stuff happens. The key issue for missions like this is that it never feels like the game is being overtly unbalanced. For every lucky shot the aliens hit, I get a well-positioned rocket or alien grenade to wreck their day.

Don’t mess with Lieutenant Sanderson.

Overall, a decent mission: tense, neatly balanced, winnable without cheap tricks. The kind of mission I really enjoyed playing. Also, I finally got to see what Major rank looks like for Supports:

Like so.

The second mission, a Supply Barge-class UFO with the same mission, went pretty much the same as the first…

Can *you* spot the differences?

…with the principal exception that I got Corporal Jones killed. Yes, that’s the second Jones I got killed. It was my own damn fault, though: he was low on health, I stupidly brought him to the front lines, and I forgot that Heavy Floaters have alien grenades and a propensity for using said grenades to target clusters of enemies to the preference of everything else.

And I even gave him actual armor for this mission.

He did, however, get to do a very cool thing: killing a Cyberdisc in a single hit by detonating the alien power core it was sitting next to.

Yippi-ka-yay, motherfucker.

I also learned that the Ghost Armor’s invisibility does fun things to a soldier’s crit chance.

This kind of fun things.

Oh, and I ran into a new type of alien: a Sectopod! It’s basically a big walker mech. I was worried for a second when I met it, because of this…

It looks tough, is what I’m trying to convey.

…but then, and I swear this is true, I had Sanderson Flush it out of cover, and it walked out of sight. And stayed out of sight. For several turns. Giving me enough time to clean up the remaining aliens easily. Afterwards, when I ran into what I can only refer to as its sulking spot, I killed it in a single turn. So it might be super dangerous, I don’t know.

I guess this was supposed to be a scary thing? I still don’t really know what it does.

Overall, still a good mission. Would’ve preferred Corporal Jones had lived to reap the fruits of his promotions, particularly because he was one of my only three psychics, but it’s war. Casualties happen.

The third mission I received was a Council mssion. A new type of Council mission, in fact: ‘Asset Recovery’, wherein the aliens were trying to… steal encrypted data? Really? Anyway, the rewards were good, and you don’t say no to the Council anyway.

People who say no to the Council end up… missing.

Now, the thing about Council mission is this: they tend to be super easy. Remember that bomb-defusal thing? It had only Thin Men. All Council missions have been like this so far. My confidence was still a little shaky, so I only brought one low-level guy along for this ride…

By popular demand.

…but I could’ve brought six, easily. It was just Thin Men again.

All over the place, like a goddamned infestation.

The goal of Asset Recovery seems to be to just kill everything that moves, and don’t explode the ‘asset’. It’s basically an early-game abduction mission, except sans the creepy gooped-up humans and inclus a six-man squad clad in space armor and armed with plasma weapons. It was basically the cakest of walks.

That’s enough damage to kill *five* Thin Men.

As for my reward…

Because of poor screenshotting: the Heavy Major rank skill reduced all damage taken by 2, when in cover and not flanked.

So from those three missions, you might get the impression that I’m well-equipped enough to handle anything. I certainly did. And then a routine Abduction mission appeared over Egypt, and half my squad died.

50% of these people will not be seen again.

It’s the cars, man. I’ve made this observation before, but cars are goddamn killing machines in this game. You use them as cover, they act as cover, they catch on fire, and boom. So when I saw that large bridge filled with cars, I really just should have turned tail. Let the aliens have this stupid place.

No, but for real. What was the strategic value of this shithole again?

Broader than just the cars alone, though, the map you’re in influences the difficulty to an incredibly degree. The world’s easiest Terror Mission became that way because it was a large, open map filled with slow melee enemies. UFO maps tend to have wide areas, but relatively little cover; the indoors Council Mission had plenty of cover and flanking options. And this map…

This map is a very narrow corridor filled with bombs for cover. There’s little room to flank aliens, or flee from them, and it’s incredibly easy to accidentally aggro multiple groups at a time. It’s still partially my fault, but in this case it feels less like an honest mistake and more like the game stacking the deck against me something fierce. There’s no good place to hole up in this map: it’s all long ranges and explosive cover, and the aliens’ often superior accuracy just feels cheaty in that regard.

Which is how after three rather successful missions in a row, Captain Sanderson was gunned down without even having the opportunity to return fire…

They just came out of nowhere.

…Captain Jonely met his end at the fluorescent green plasma storm of an alien grenade…

I honestly thought he and Krellen were far enough apart to not trigger it.

…and Major DeCamp, one of my only two Supports and last, best hope for healing, was killed by a Muton Elite that literally ran into view out of nowhere, eschewing cover and its own survival for a chance to kill one of mine.

Look at where it’s standing! Tell me that’s not a suicide charge.

Yes, she was ‘critically injured’. She was also carrying the medkits. And it did look, for a second, like I’d be able to save her by finishing the mission in time… but I didn’t. This mission probably would have been its own story if I had. But alas.

Would’ve been a really cool story, but it was not to be.

In the spirit of war, though, I did replace her pretty quickly.

Welcome to the force, soldier. Ignore the bloodstains on your new medkit.

Sometimes the chips fall your way. Sometimes they don’t. And sometimes, they chips are goddamn exploding cars, and this analogy falls apart pretty rapidly. Point is: sometimes XCOM’s difficulty feels right on, but sometimes it swings either way. Too easy feels like a wasted opportunity; too hard can kill your squad pretty easily and leaves you feeling rotten and cheated. Both extremes are rare, but I’d have preferred them to not occur at all.

And that, personnel-wise, is where we stand right now. As for other Let’s Play news: I launched some satellites, over Canada and five-Panic Egypt, netting me the +30%-money Africa Bonus in the meantime.

It’s not bad.

I did a whole mess of research, so let me just give you the list:

  • Firestorm
  • EMP Cannon
  • Muton Elite Autopsy (Plasma Weapon research credit)
  • Archangel Armor
  • Alloy Cannon
  • Sectopod Autopsy (advanced construction project)
  • Plasma Cannon

And last, but not least, I ran into a whole new type of UFO: the super-massive Battleship. It appeared over the United States, though, where I was only packing three missile-armed Interceptors. And, well…

Yeah, that was one of those ‘no chance in hell’ situations.

And that brings us to the present, where the Overseer UFO has just been spotted for the fourteenth time. Over Europe. Where DEMON-1, my first Firestorm-class vessel, has just been retrofitted with a high-powered EMP Cannon.

Time to end this nonsense.

Time to take that sucker down.

Next episode: I take that sucker down.

10 comments

  1. Eeesh. Sometimes the RNG just seems to say “fuck you, and the Skyranger you rode in on”.

    Also, getting a Battleship before you even shot down the Overseer, that’s harsh. I only managed to get to end-game once, and the Battleship didn’t show up until I was almost ready to do the final mission.

    1. You can get battleships before the Alien Base mission. Just depends on how hard you turtle/how far your research is lagging behind.

      1. Assault + Titan + Chitin all day, every day. Hitpoints are the best, considering that’s essentially all you have.

    1. That you would die eventually was more or less a given. I’d just preferred it to have happened in a less eminently preventable way.

      1. I’m guessing that the following is NOT the case:
        After you win the game, you can browse the “where are they now?” archives, detailing the lives of your soldiers after they retire from the project. Those who took a lot of hits and spent much time in the infirmary have reduced life expectancy, and may not make it to old age. The willpower damaged continue to struggle with PTSS and guilt. As commander of the base, you outlive most of the soldiers, but eventually die of stomach ulcer related complications. The last scene is your funeral, which focuses on your neglected family and only mentions a few words about your involvement in the defense of the planet. Game over.

  2. Africa is the best starting continent. It gives a bonus to *everything*.
    -China saves you a few bucks at best in the first few months; the high-ranking upgrades can wait until after you get a shit ton of Sats up in the air, and the Foundry is mid-to-lategame.
    -Europe and USA get you flat-out less money than Africa; Africa scales with Sats, which you buy with money, of which you have more.
    -South America allows for faster research… Which money also does anyways.

    ———-
    “This mission probably would have been its own story if I had. But alas.” is essentially repeated in the mouse-over text of the following picture.

    ———-
    The car map is a jerk. When I know I’m lagging behind, I go behind the truck to the right of the landing zone. It’s the edge of the map, and it’s enormous. Helps stop accidental aggro. Of course, if you’re facing grenade-hurling enemies (who cheat by throwing them like twice as far as you can), it mostly bones you because it’s a narrow corridor. Ie. jerk map. Blegh.
    I don’t really care much for the exploding cars though. It’s only 3 damage in a one-tile radius, and if the aliens set off the car, you always get a turn to move.

    That said, if you run (fly) with 6 snipers with Squad Sight, it’s the easiest map aside from the Terror Mission map of two collapsed bridges.

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