In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM, I did a bunch of lasts. Last Abduction mission, last regular mission. Last time exploding cars will get the better of me. Last time exploding cars did get the better of me. And, of course, last time Tim ‘Bishop’ Paradox was considered an active, happy, alive human being.
The end of that episode was met with the completion of the Gollop Chamber, the special facility housing the alien Psi-Link. The amount of effort I had to go to in order to construct it, the strict requirements for its use and the big, shiny purple button that just appeared on my Command HUD all point in the same direction: one way or another, it’s time to end this.
I dawdle around for a few more days, allowing upgrades to finish and soldiers to heal. There’ll be no time for that after I click that button, because there’ll be no more time. Well, no in-game passage of time.
Eventually, though, that final step can no longer be post-poned.
Cutscene. As Dr. Vahlen narrates our progress thus far — a little pointless, given that I’ve experienced all that stuff first-hand, but hey — we watch Colonel Komrade ‘Devil Dog’ Krellen, highest-ranking XCOM soldier and only active psionic operative, walk through a corridor.
Finally, he alone enters the Gollop Chamber. The floating purple ball, the core of the Psi-Link, immediately reacts to his approach. It is ready. He is ready. Am I ready?
As Krellen moves to interface with the device, visions start to flash. Of aliens, of warfare; of abducted humans, undergoing awful experiments. And then, a voice: raspy, withered in tone, yet authorative. A voice, and an image, clearer than anything else.
Krellen closes his eyes. Fade to black.
Fade back in. Things are different for Krellen, now. For one thing, he appears to be standing inside an alien craft.
No, not just an alien craft: the alien craft. The massive craft. The Temple Ship, he knows it’s called… though he does not know how he knows.
Is this real? It feels real, but then again, it doesn’t. How did he get here? In full combat gear, no less.
He looks around, finds he’s not alone: five other soldiers — squadmates, colleagues, friends — stand at attention. Present, yet ever-so-slightly off.
John Tovik and Rita Wulf are there, close by, back-to-back. It’s actually hard to tell them apart: they almost seem to overlap sometimes, trading places, looking more and more like each other and yet distinctly different. Counterparts, the unbidden term comes; or maybe more parts of a whole.
Pink Putty is there, simultaneously grim and gruff and excited about the prospect. He looks tough, it’s hard to describe; a rock-hard exterior coupled with the twin desires to protect and to harm.
Jacob Viel is there, figeting, agitated, seemingly hovering slightly off the ground. The alien craft’s lighting makes his features out very angular. It seems at odds with his energetic behaviour, but then again, it doesn’t.
And finally, Elmo Wever is there, both barely and clearly. He looks almost insubstantial at times, like you blink and he could be gone, but at the same time there’s the inescapable feeling that this entire mission might end up resting on his shoulders.
A voice reverberates inside the craft, or maybe it reverberates in Krellen’s mind. It’s the same voice from before. The alien commander? It speaks of failure, of trials and waiting, and of the final success that Krellen, the ‘New One’ represents.
It speaks of a gauntlet.
It seems there is only one way to go. Krellen moves forward, and the squad moves with him; not in unison, per se, but in concert. In that way they’ve always done, they’ve practiced over and over again. In that way he’d expect them to move.
It’s not long before the first aliens are encountered.
The voice speaks of the Sectoids, calling them ‘brilliant’, yet frail cowards. The first failure. They pose little threat to the squad, which catches them out of cover and flat-footed. Oddly, though, these Sectoids differ in one crucial aspect: upon death, they dissolve into a vortex of psionic energy.
More psionic fire in the distance. It is outside of Krellen’s — of the squad’s — vision range, but it promises nothing good.
It is a promise quickly delivered upon by the familiar hum of the Cyberdisc.
The voice calls the Cyberdisc an experiment, ‘two subjects with glaring weaknesses brought together’. Is it talking about the Disc and its attendant Drones? Or about the Disc itself? Krellen remembers the autopsy briefing: the Cyberdisc was not stricly mechanical, not strictly organic, but something neither-here-nor-there.
As before, the Discs prove dangerous. As before, this is mainly because of their element of surprise. As before, once on equal footing, they fall quickly.
They, too, disappear in psionic energy, the same way they appeared.
Let’s not pretend they weren’t at all dangerous, of course. The ethereal Wever has his work cut out for him.
With the Discs, the Sectoids and the Drones… ‘dead’, Krellen/squad moves on. Beyond the starting area lies a multi-level series of hallways, connected by gravity lifts.
The voice speaks of Floaters, an evolutionary failure given mechanical strength, right as I spot them at the end of the hallway. Coincidence? Likely not.
Floaters, and their Heavy counterparts, man the various walkways, but as before pose little match for the soldiers. It is at this point, however, that Krellen notices that his squad-fellows are not the only ones who were changed in the transition: deep in his subconscious lies hidden a new psionic power, one far beyond the capacities thought capable in humans.
He reaches deep, pulls forward, projects, and…
As the Heavy Floater dies in an unparalleled storm of psionic energy, the voice approves.
As with the Sectoids and the Discs, the death of the Floaters bring forth a new foe: the skittering purple Chryssalids. The voice speaks of how they were uplifted insects, mindless and incapable of psionic potential, yet all the more dangerous for it.
It’s true that Chryssalids were dangerous once: Krellen himself was a part of the half-doomed team that saw their full destructive potential in action. But that was then, and this is now: we’ve progressed, and they’ve stagnated.
The coast, as they say, is clear.
In a small engine room, the path forward is barred by Thin Men: those strange humanoid creatures, bred by the aliens as infiltrators yet made to serve as front-line soldiers. Still, they would pass for human at a distance.
Still, their main source of danger is their poisonous spit, and the advent of the environmentally-regulated Titan Armor has removed even that as a factor of consideration.
Krellen has just enough time to remember he isn’t actually wearing Titan Armor right now before the noxious green cloud envelops him whole.
They die quickly enough, however. Onward.
A mere one room over, Krellen encounters a combination of aliens everyone in the squad has learned to dread: Mutons, both the regular kind and the blood-crazed Berserkers. The voice praises them as an ‘easily controlled breed’, ‘capable of brilliance, of independence’, yet ‘never more than primitive warriors’.
They are somewhat vulnerable to psionic interference, though.
Both of the offensive and defensive kind.
The battle is dangerous, but short. Are the Mutons’ plasma grenades their most potent weapon because Krellen remembers it to be so, or does Krellen remember the grenades so strongly for their potency? Whatever the case, the squad survives, battered but alive, where the Mutons fall.
It is not to last, however. For in a hollow just beyond this room — this platform, it turns out — sit two of the aliens’ most advanced death-dealing machines: the Sectopods.
It is here where the first member of the squad falls: Rita Wulf, too close to Krellen for her own good, is hit with the fatal backlash of the Sectopod’s chest cannon. The voice takes this moment to question ‘the New One’s worthiness’.
The voice sings a different tune, however, when Wever and Putty go up-close-and-personal and take the machines out from point blank range. Wever is the one to strike both killing blows, bringing his Sectopod Kill Count up to three.
Pattern recognition is overlooked during the celebration, however. And of course, more aliens appear to supplant the fallen ones. Muton Elites, the ultimate Mutons, with clear open shots on Wever and Putty.
Wever is lucky.
Pink Putty goes down, but not out; as if he would ever consign himself to be killed on impact. But although Elmo Wever, squad medic extraordinaire, is nearby, his Medkit has long since run out of charges. There’s nothing anyone can do.
The Muton Elites meet their end, and with that, the path is open once more. But the squad — but Krellen — is bruised, battered and bleeding. He and they cannot take much more of this.
It is a shame that the final room, the Temple Ship’s cockpit, is more than up for the challenge.
The voice blathers on, about failures and the Ethereal Ones and ascension. Krellen doesn’t hear it. The situation is clearly, immediately, overpoweringly hopeless. The alien master, the Uber Ethereal, flanked by two Muton Elite bodyguards, accompanied by two ‘regular’ Ethereals. Each of those elements would be a challenge to the squad in its current state.
The Muton Elites fall to plasma sniper fire, but this is a hollow gesture. The Ethereals take over Wever, then Tovik…
…and the last thing Krellen sees is a bolt of pure psionic energy, headed his way.
Krellen’s eyes snap open.
Back in the Gollop Chamber, in XCOM HQ. Everyone still alive. Everyone on the cusp of that final assault.
Random dream? Psionic vision? Karmatic warning? Krellen doesn’t know, but whatever the case:
He’s seen what mistakes can be made, and he’s experienced the consequences. It won’t go like that in reality.
(Future Jarenth’s note: Did you know that if you mess up the final assault, even on Ironman, the game offers you a do-over? I certainly didn’t. Not that this is in any way relevant to our current situation; just thought I’d offer you an amusing anecdote.)