In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, I took my first real steps in actually fighting back the alien menace. Not only did my troops ‘successfully’ retrieve one AVDENT scientist for the greater glory of XCOM, I also set two major plot lines in motion. On the one hand, an autopsy of the ADVENT Officer has clued us in to the existence of the alien ‘psionic internet’, a global wireless command network that distributes tactical data to ADVENT troops — and that doctor Tygan might be able to hack into. And on the other hand, it’s clear that it is up to XCOM to unify the scattered global resistance cells into an organized fighting force. We need our own communication network for that — something else Richard could be spending his valuable study time on. And, lest we forget, I also have a tech level and an organizational combat readiness state to keep up.
Possibilities, possibilities, possibilities. Which one of these threads am I going to pursue first?…
I pore over Avenger floor plans in the relative ‘comfort’ of my office. What to do, what to do. Doctor Tygan’s recent revelations about the alien network are, unsurprisingly, foremost on my mind. We’re going to need one of those Skulljacks if we’re gonna make progress there. But to build one of those, we’ll need the Proving Grounds facility — a secured and protected workshop for those projects Chief Engineer Shen is unwilling to let sit in the normal engineering bay. Which means we’ll need space. And supplies. And…
I call Chief Engineer Shen on the ship’s console-to-console comms. “Lily? You get a moment?”
“Sure, Commander,” Lily’s voice cracks from the little comm device. “What can I help you with?”
“Just wondering: what’s the Avenger’s status regarding floor space right now? Do we have any more room for new facilities? Or…”
“Sorry, Commander,” Lily pre-empts me. “All the space we had left is going towards the GTS. We’ll need to clear more debris if you want us to add more facilities. There’s a few spots on the top central floor that we can probably clear easily enough, if you want to assign an engineer to that.”
“Top floor only?” I ask. “What’s wrong with the lower floors?”
“Nothing’s ‘wrong’, not really. They’re just a bigger mess. More stuff to clear, which means more hazards. Can’t really okay sending a single person in there, those places are basically death traps. I mean, we’ll do it if we have to, you’re the boss and all that. But we’ll need more engineers than we currently have to bring the risk down to okay levels.”
“Okay,” I say. “But the top floors…”
“…we can totally do no problem,” Lily replies. “I can put Tucker on that right now, if you want. Will mean the GTS is gonna get behind schedule.”
“Keep me posted if anything changes.”
“Will do, Commander.” *click*
I call the bridge next. “Steve? It’s me. What’s the status of those Canadian supplies?”
“Looking good, Commander,” Steve replies. “I think we got just about everything. And not a single alien contact in sight.”
“Great, that’s what I wanted to hear. Suggestions for our next move?”
“Haven’t heard anything from any other resistance cells, I’m afraid. I think the best thing we can do right now is get back to the Mexican main HQ site, and set the Avenger’s systems to scanning mode. That’ll let us gather more intel on the aliens’ active plans.”
“Excellent. You have the bridge for now, then. I’m going to go into some important tactical considerations.”
“Aye-aye, Commander,” Steve replies, with a hint of a smile in his voice. “Do you want a wake-up call in a few hours?”
I smirk in response to nobody in particular. “Much obliged.”
Nothing drives home more clearly just how long I’ve been away than the Sectoids. I mean, the hover-technology and full-body holograms are pretty new too, but I’d always sort of expected to see those coming. These new Sectoids, though…
“The alien command never stopped developing the Sectoid after the war,” Richard says, as he walks me through his Sectoid autopsy report. “I’ve been given to understand they were weak and frail creatures during the first war, though I’ve never one of these older specimens up close.”
“I have,” I say, “and what you heard was right. They were basically space rats. But, like… psionic space rats.”
“Be that as it may,” Richard responds, “it’s clear the creatures have undergone tremendous development over the years. These ‘new’ Sectoids have incorporated an ever-greater proportion of human genetic material. This has imbued them with the increased size and strength that are obvious to see, as well as with enhanced psionic abilities — it is accepted consensus now in the scientific community that human beings have a strong genetic potential for psionic power.”
“Oh, really?” I look at the disgusting corpse. “I remember it mostly being down to luck.”
“With your rudimentary techniques from twenty years ago, I have no doubt that it was,” Richard responds, with only a hint of haughtiness. “But we have come a long way since then. In fact, with this new Sectoid sample to contrast to the older ones, I am certain I should be able to identify the exact genetic sequences involved in human psionic power, and the exact manipulations needed to activate them.”
“Psionics at will, huh? I’m interested. You got a timeframe on this?”
“I’m sorry to say I do not, Commander. I will need some Elerium crystals to properly perform these studies. If you can get your hands on some of those, I will be able to give a more detailed plan.”
“Humbug,” I grumble.
“You will like to hear, though,” Richard continues, “that our Sectoid study was not entirely without merit.”
I nod. “Great job again, doc. That just leaves us with one more project on the autopsy front, yeah? Please wrap that up when you can, and then we’ll do a new round of planning.”
I walk onto the bridge in something almost like a good mood. “Hey, Steve. You won’t believe what doctor Tygan’s been thinking of doing. On-demand psionics, can you believe it? That’ll be…”
“Oh, Commander!” Steve turns around. “No, don’t worry. I was just catching up with the Haven Alpha-Seven Denmother.” He gestures towards the woman on the screen, who curtly nods.
“You’re gonna have to walk me through what all of that means. And how are you even in contact? Didn’t we have a whole thing about that earlier?”
“Those of us who resist the alien occupation can’t really live in their cities anymore. Everything is monitored, and chipped, and implanted. So we live on the land, instead, in-between the cracks of the surveillance web. It’s a little low-tech, but… it’s a good living. And this connection is actually one of our few established secure connections. It’s difficult to get these up, particularly on a global scale, but it’s possible. Won’t do for ‘forging a unified resistance’, but…” Steve smiles briefly. “Well, what can I say? I just like checking in on these people every now and again. They’ve been through so much already. They deserve to know they’re not alone.”
“Softie,” I say with a smile. I can see the Denmother cracks up, too.
“Commander, Central,” one of the bridge crew suddenly speaks up. “We have a massive signal incoming from the ADVENT Network Tower. It’s… global. Sirs, I think you’ll want to see this.”
The main monitor is turned on, and sure enough, an ADVENT broadcast ‘graces’ our airtime. Their weird organization symbol and intro jingle quickly fade out, to be replaced by the serpentine Speaker.
“Fellow citizens,” the Speaker starts up. “For twenty years, the ADVENT Coalition has worked tirelessly to repair the ravages and injustices of the old world. Under our stewardship, our cities prosper, our people flourish, and our world heals.”
I yawn demonstratively as the Speaker continues his diatribe. “And yet, among us, there are still those who would refuse to acknowledge the truth! Who are determined to see all we have achieved crumble!”
“Central!” Another bridge tech speaks up. “Multiple radar contacts on approach to Haven Alpha-Seven.” Several red blips appear on the holo-globe; flying over the ocean at first, but quickly converging on…
“That must end,” the Speaker says, with a sudden harshness. “Even as I speak to you today, ADVENT peacekeepers are advancing into the outlying territories…”
Steve’s eyes go wide. He turns around and starts yelling at the resistance Denmother. “You’ve got incoming on approach! They’re right on top of you!”
But ADVENT’s powerful broadcasting signal is playing havoc on our little dinky radio. We keep seeing the Haven just fine, but audio doesn’t go beyond “Losing y…” and “…signal’s brea…”.
And because our video signal is still going strong, we get a front-row seat of ADVENT troop carriers descending on Haven Alpha-Seven. They open fire indiscriminately. People start falling left and right; men, woman, children, everyone. Houses catch fire. Shot impacts throw up dust plumes. And explosions rock the ground, over and over, at one point so close to the transmission station that it falls and hits the ground.
“We will ensure your continued safety and well-being throughout this crisis. With your cooperation, we will overcome these radical elements, and usher in another 20 years of peace and prosperity.”
The last thing we see before our camera feed goes dark is some sort of slimy, humanoid form rising over the devastated Haven.
Steve grabs me by the shoulders and almost shakes me back and forth. “Commander, those people don’t stand a chance! We have to intervene! We have to get a squad ready to deploy, before they… before it’s…” He takes a breath and tries to collect himself, though he can’t quite keep his voice from cracking. “I mean, intervening here will be a good way of showing resistance cells in the area that XCOM can be… can be relied upon. Commander. If you agree.”
“Steve.” I put my hand on one of his. “It’s alright. We’ll go help your friends. If we can. I’ll put our top squad on it.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
I actually take a few seconds to work my way around weapon upgrades before we take off. I can tell a difficult mission when I see one. Rita Wulf’s shotgun is upgraded with an ADVENT Stock, which causes missed shots to still one damage to the target. And I add a scope to Joshua Viel’s minigun, which — yes, I’m adding a scope to a minigun.
And then we’re ready to roll out.
Everything about this mission screams danger danger to me. The special intro, the narrative sense of urgency. But nothing sets off my Jarenth Senses more acutely than the screen I see when I select the mission site.
My fears are confirmed when the mission loads in. The special mission UI in the top left corner informs me in no uncertain terms that ‘rescuing civilians’ is the name of the game today. This is a terror mission! Except they’re called ‘ADVENT retaliations’ this time around. I guess the alien occupiers wouldn’t quite classify themselves as ‘terrorists’, huh? Functionally, though, it’s the same trick they pulled twenty years ago: they’re trying to intimidate their opposition through the threat of indiscriminate murder, and we’re trying to put a stop to that.
The Haven… gods, the Haven is already in shambles. There’s fire everywhere. And as prepared as these people obviously were for conflict — I’m seeing guns, ammo, weapons, and plans everywhere — they were obviously not ready for a large-scale ADVENT attack. I don’t really want to focus on the plasma-burned corpses all over the place… so let’s focus on the handful of living people desperately seeking safety and cover.
“Commander.” Steve again. “Current reports put about a dozen people in this area of the Haven. Everyone else… It might be best if we let everyone shelter inside the Skyranger, while our troops deal with the immediate ADVENT attack. We can start figuring out a long-term plan as soon as we get as many people as we can out of here on a safe and unmonitored flightpath.”
I nod. “Save civilians, kill aliens. I guess some things never really change, huh.”
The initial approach is straightforward enough. Textbook 20-years-ago, really. Squaddie Wulf rushes forward to save the one civilian trapped in the house closest to us. Because of the holes in the walls and windows, however, this puts her in direct line of sight of a classic Sectoid/ADVENT Trooper combo.
Sharpshooter Squaddie Neko takes his natural place on the roof, while Squaddies Viel and Barr swing around the corner to deal with the immediate threat.
As we run our saving-and-cleanup detail in this corner of the map, the alien forces in the other corner are (sadly) not sitting still. Almost every turn that passes, a flash of red light and a gargling scream marks the preventable death of another resistance member.
“We’re seeing heavy civilian casualties, Commander!” Steve says. “We have to stop this!” But as much as I morally agree with him, rushing the troops forward is just going to get everyone killed. I see no real option but to take it slow and steady… and hope that there’ll be enough civilians left to save when I make it that far.
The Sectoid does Sectoid things in the distance. And since it’s not shooting, or mind-controlling anyone… I just turned a three-health ADVENT Trooper into a six-health psi-zombie, didn’t I? Then, one turn later, it does actually pull a new-ish sort of trick out of its hat: a burst of directed psionic energy at Squaddie Wulf doesn’t serve to mind-control her, but it does drive her into that age-old quintessential XCOM state — panic.
Just how long is this panic going to last? One turn? Two? Three? Exactly as long, it turns out, as it takes for Squaddie Viel to frag-grenade the offending Sectoid into vapor.
So all’s well that starts well, I guess! I have Wulf and Viel move forward on open ground, while Barr takes more of a circuitous high road. Neko, finally, stays on his roof for a little while… but I finally have to concede that ‘getting down and helping people’ is the more important tactical concern here.
This turns out to be a mistake. Two mistakes, actually. When Squaddie Wulf surges forward, she accidentally triggers a second Sectoid/Trooper combo. And her with her back to the wrong wall! A quick smoke grenade from Viel defuses that situation fairly alright…
…but then the Sectoid decides it has to be clever about things.
One of my top snipers being mind-controlled is not my idea of a good time. We all saw what happened last time a Sectoid got into Frederick’s head. But Barr is too far away to influence things here, and I don’t know if Viel can even hit this Sectoid? It’d have been great if he had any frag grenades left to spare… I wonder whose bright idea it was to use all the heavy ordinance early in the mission?
‘Luckily’, I have a ‘clever’ plan. Squaddie Wulf is pretty nearby. I have her run up next to the Sectoid, in a flanking position. See, her shotgun normally only deals 4 to 6 damage — not enough to power through the Sectoid’s 8 hit points — but her flank gives her really good odds on a damage-boosting critical hit! I figure she has a good shot this way of blasting the Sectoid to mush in a single turn.
Of course, if you spotted the air quotes in that previous paragraph…
My clever plan does not work. The Sectoid does take a ton of damage, but not enough to drop it. Which means Squaddie Neko is still mind-controlled. And because I didn’t even put Wulf next to a car or something, she is completely out in the open — flanked from every direction by the air itself.
The results are, frankly, inevitable.
Proving that all good things come in threes, the death of Squaddie Wulf and the continued mind-control of Squaddie Neko are capped with Squaddie Viel having a panic attack. Something about seeing one of your friends die, and then having another friend shoot you at close range from under alien control, doesn’t sit well with him? He opts to pre-emptively spend his next turn cowering behind a rock — with his back turned towards Neko, still working for the alien side here. Things are just looking up for us right now.
Squaddie Barr is the only chance I still have of getting back on top of this. And for this to actually happen, she’s going to need to kill the Sectoid that’s keeping Squaddie Neko enthralled. Except that Sectoid is currently hiding behind a car, and in Viel’s smokescreen, and it’s essentially doing its best to make a horrible, unsettling, alien target of itself.
Squaddie Barr earns her MPV spot.
With the second Sectoid dead, Squaddie Neko is back on the side of the angels again. And once Squaddie Viel catches his breath and regains his nerves, the situation at large regains some needed semblance of maybe-possibly going my way. I’m down a good soldier, but we haven’t lost yet.
I mean, we haven’t won yet, either. The Sectoid’s Trooper companion is making life unreasonably difficult for Neko and Barr, dodging one low-percentage shot after another and generally being a dangerous nuisance. And don’t think I’ve forgotten about the off-screen civilian-killing, either: there’s at least one more alien unit wreaking havoc over there. Like it or not, I’m actually going to have to hustle to bring this one home alright. I’ve rescued three civilians to ADVENT’s three kills; if I don’t bring at least six people home alive, it won’t really be a victory. Not really.
Barr and Neko keep on suppressing the ADVENT Trooper, who’s taken to hiding behind a bus. Meanwhile, I’m making Viel run around and gather up civilians in the map’s back line. Don’t want any alien stray shots jeopardizing my chances of victory even further.
Run, Joshua, run. Get that civilian! And now we’re up to four. And hey, there’s another one near that tree. We’ll be at five once he gets that. And number six is cowering behind a nearby bus. The same bus the ADVENT Trooper is hiding behind, sure, but I’m really hoping that guy’ll stop being an issue in the nex-
Then, something unexpected happens. When I order Joshua next to the fifth civilian, the one hiding behind a tree, I fully expect the guy to run to the Skyranger like everyone else. But instead, a cutscene triggers. Wherein the ‘civilian’… melts, somehow?
I don’t really know how to describe it. One minute, there’s a normal-looking civilian there. The next, their entire form is subsumed by a strange, pink-ish bubbling goop. What in the?… And then, before my eyes, the goop expands, stretches upwards, and takes a new shape. Still a vaguely humanoid shape, but…
“What in the?…” I hear Steve echo my thoughts behind me. “That’s that creature we saw on the video feed!”
“Fascinating,” doctor Tygan’s voice blooms from the intercom. “It appears to be some sort of semi-solid amorphous entity. I’ve never seen any terrestrial creature adapt their physical form to this degree!”
“Goddamnit,” Steve grumbles. “We’d heard rumours about some kind of alien shape-shifter… I’m guessing this is it.”
I swivel my chair around to face Steve directly. “You heard rumours about shape-shifting aliens? And you didn’t think to tell me about this?”
“They were just rumours, Commander,” Steve snaps back. “We get dozens of alien rumours each week! And besides, we couldn’t have known they’d actually deploy them here!”
“You’re right, you’re right. Sorry. We’re all jumpy right now. No blame-pointing.” I swivel back to my command console. “Squaddie Viel! Time for a field experiment. Care to show us how shape-shifting mud monsters respond to a point-blank minigun barrage?”
Squaddie Viel’s cannon is currently empty. Congratulations if you spotted this on the previous screenshot. I certainly didn’t.
“Alright.” I try to keep the exasperation out of my voice. “Viel, get to a better cover position. We don’t know what this thing can do. Barr…”
“Also out, Commander,” the radio crackles.
“Alright. You reload as well, then. Neko. Please tell me you’re in a position to plug this ugly thing.”
The only response I get is a series of three sounds: the sound of a pistol being drawn, the sound of a pistol being fired, and a sound not unlike someone smacking a puddle of mud full-force with a baseball bat.
“Nice shot, Neko”, I say. “And be on the lookout, everyone! We don’t know what this particular species of alien can do yet, so-”
“Command’r,” Squaddie Neko interrupts me. “Its wounds are closing!”
I slam my desk again. “Are you for real?” But the video feed confirms Neko’s observation: the strange creature’s liquid flesh is already knitting itself back together. Slowly, almost gently; it takes a good few seconds for the healing to take effect, and some traces of damage are still visible. But still, it’s undeniably healing.
Oh! And it also walks over to Squaddie Viel — saunters over, almost — and slashes him with its giant jagged claws.
Viel survives the attack, barely. The experience does push him into another panic attack, though, and he’s back to cowering behind a tree before I can even intervene. Because that is what we need right now.
I hit the intercom button. “Doc! Richard. Any suggestions? Be quick here, there’s lives at stake.”
A few seconds of silence seem to drag on forever. Then: “Focus fire. Enough trauma in a short time should overwhelm the creatu-”
“Thanks, doc.” I switch comms to the troops again. “All units: target that ugly mud-man with everything you got!”
Squaddie Neko goes first. 75% chance… hit! His rifle pegs the monster for a respectable four damage. Which leaves us with…
With Viel panicking, the day-saving falls — again — to Squaddie Barr. I briefly consider using her frag grenade, but… no, that won’t work. Frag grenades do three or four damage, and that’s not enough. And I have no doubt this thing’ll finish off Viel if we let it live for another turn. On the other hand, Barr’s cannon might be able to finish the job… but her sub-50% hit chance is not filling me with confidence. With a 33% chance, on hit, of still not getting enough damage in. And if she misses now, we’re more or less right back where we started next turn.
Then again, what choice do I have? I can’t really afford to not try and save Viel. Barr, you’ve already done right by me once. Think you can pull that stunt a second time?
I wipe the sweat off my brow. And I see Steve slump into a chair from the corner of my eye. Goddamn aliens, man.
The rest of the mission honestly proceeds pretty mildly. With the two Sectoids and the mud-monster taken out, the only remaining threat — the ‘big bad off-screen alien menace’ that was killing civilians — is provided by three bog-standard ADVENT Troopers. They feel like speed bumps, comparatively. I still treat them with caution, because those magnetic rifles of theirs can leave a nasty bruise. But all the same, they all fall in the space of two turns.
The mood in the hangar bay is mixed, this time around. One the one hand, Squaddie Wulf’s death has made even more of an impact than last mission’s rookie. People knew Rita. And even hiding behind anonymity and grim detached-ness can only take you so far. Cooped up inside one ship for as long as we all are, people naturally start getting to know each other. We’re social animals, after all. And when one of us dies…
On the other hand, we did save a good number of lives. Resistance Haven Alpha-Seven is gone, obviously: even with the ADVENT forces defeated, the location is known, compromised. There’s no going back. But all the same, the shell-shocked people emerging from the Skyranger look… alive. Glad to be alive. And there is a hard-to-miss gratitude in their eyes. I see them looking at our soldiers, and their looks say, you walked through the fire to save a stranger.
Steve is taking it on himself to handle re-housing and relocation efforts for the small resistance community. Which leaves me with the final task of handing out promotions. Both Squaddies Viel and Barr have earned their advancement to Grenadier Corporal. For Viel, that promotion comes with access to extra blast padding for his armor, making him a little more resilient to alien attacks. And for Barr, an experimental upgrade to her cannon grants her the ability to ‘shred’ armor off of enemies with normal attacks.
I also decide to upgrade Corporal Barr’s minigun with a looted ADVENT magazine.
As I close out the day in my office, reflecting on the mission, I find that I’m honestly kind of… satisfied? I’d rather Rita Wulf hadn’t died, obviously But she knew what she signed up for when she joined XCOM. All of them did; all of us did. And all the horrible monsters and danger of death aside, this sort of thing? Defending innocent civilians from the terrors loosed by an alien superpower? This is the entire reason XCOM exists. This is why we’re here, this is what we’re good at. This is how we make the world a better place. And this is why we make the world a better place: because if you get right down to it, in this crazy future of psionics and shape-shifting monsters and tyrannical alien world-oppressors…
…we’re the only ones that can.