In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, my impromptu introduction into Future Hacking led to the revelation of the aliens’ long-term game plan. The Avatar Project. It’s big, it’s bad, and it’s… well, secret. We don’t really have any idea what it is, yet. But what we do know is that, as far as humanity is concerned, it’s probably nothing good.
It’s up to XCOM, which is to say that it’s up to me, to find and stop this new alien scheme. But given the amount of security ADVENT is pouring into this, that might be easier said than done…
I’m perusing resistance documents in the relative privacy of my own office. We’re on the last day of a Texas supply run; I’m confident the Avenger can handle itself in these non-combat ops without my interference. Which gives me an excellent opportunity to read up on the details of the Avatar Project…
Except, there really aren’t any. The Councilman wasn’t exaggerating. The Avatar Project is referenced in almost every major document we encounter, but it’s never actually explained. It’s major, and it’s resource-intensive, but what is it? I’m starting to think most of ADVENT’s higher-ups don’t even know.
I put my document down and rub the bridge of my nose. Oof, how long have I been reading? What time is it? What day is it?
Maybe I ought to focus on the present for a moment. XCOM is… doing relatively well, given the circumstances. Medbay time notwithstanding, last mission’s exemplary results have put us in a pretty decent position. Sergeant Barr’s well-earned promotion means we now have the tactical know-how to start fielding five-soldier squads. I’ve decided to throw in a class on careful combat scavenging, too, for good measure.
Construction is going well, with both the Proving Grounds and the last top-level excavation going according to plan. Our first rookie is running through the Guerrilla Training School at a steady pace, and it’s looking like I’ll be handing out a first Official Ranger Diploma soon enough. And Steve only recently reminded me we don’t just have to get our people from combat zones and snatch-and-grabs: every month, a handful of hopefuls can be found at the resistance HQ in Mexico, waiting for us to finalize their training and take them on-board.
A familiar comm unit jangle announces that Steve’s about to intrude on my private time. “Commander, our salvaging mission was a success. What are your next orders? If you want to keep scanning for intel at the HQ, that’s always an option, but-”
“No, no,” I interrupt. “I don’t think we have the luxury of just sitting around anymore. It’s time to really take this show on the road. Let’s go look for more of the resistance.”
“That’s good to hear, Commander. Where do you want to start? Eastern United States, or West?”
“I’m on it, Commander. It’ll take us a few days to find them, though.”
“That’s alright,” I say. “That’ll give me some time to make up a nice diploma.”
“Oh, and before I forget: doctor Tygan asked me to ask you what he should study next.”
“Those mud-monsters.” I shudder at the memory. “The Faceless, I think the troops are calling them. Tell them to autopsy the one we brought back.”
“Will do, Commander.” A brief hesitant silence, and then, “I don’t have to… stick around for that, do I?”
“Oh god no. I don’t even expect you to go to the lab to tell him. That thing is stinking up the place something fierce. I don’t even understand how Richard deals with.”
“Took the words right from my mouth, Commander. I’ll let the doc know. Central out.”
Whether it’s serendipity, dumb luck, or just good timing, the aliens decide to lay low for the next few days. Or I guess it’s actually the larger resistance laying low, and that’s why we’re not getting any new leads. Listen: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that three days after the start of our scans, Steve reports positive contact with the Eastern United States resistance hub. An ambassador of sorts is selected, the Skyranger is sent out, and before we know it, we’re face-to-face with our newest allies in the fight against ADVENT.
“Yes!” Steve says, while another round of bridge applause goes up. “We’ve made the first step. Commander, I think this is the start of something good. We keep this up, and we’ll be ready to face ADVENT on equal terms before you know it.”
I smile. “Let’s not get that confident just yet. But yeah, I love it when a plan comes together. So, care to walk me through what we get from this?”
“Certainly,” Steve says, as he brings up a schematic overview on the holo-globe. “First and foremost, like we discussed, getting in touch with this cell helps us move our signal forward. From the Eastern US cell hub, doctor Tygan has calculated we can reach any cells operating out of Western Europe safely.”
“There’s also the more direct matter of XCOM support. Now that this region has been brought into the Resistance Council, they’ll supply us with… supplies, every month.”
“And finally… ” Steve taps a particular spot on the map, and it zooms in to show a small bunker-like facility. “…like we suspected, the Eastern US resistance cells have much more detailed intel on the location of the ADVENT blacksite. Enough for us to be able to find it, in fact.” He looks right at me. “We know where it is now. And the aliens don’t know that we know. We can send a squad on-site at your say-so.”
I shake my head. “Not yet. Not just yet. I know it’s important, and time-critical and all that. I’d just like… some little more time to prepare, that’s all. I don’t know if we’re quite equipped enough to deal with this right now. And as far as preparation is concerned, there’s more on the agenda, anyway.”
“Actually, Commander,” Steve says, “if preparation is what you’re worried about, I might have an even better idea.”
“Oh?” I sit up. “This isn’t about Richard’s ‘mimic beacon’ idea, is it? Because I already told him, we’re never going to find ‘volunteers’ to hunt down more of those Faceless things. He’s just going to have to wait until they come for us again.”
Steve wisely ignored my rambling. “One of the things our new friends told us…” Tap tap tap. “…is the time and location a scheduled ADVENT supply train is supposed to pass through the area. They were planning on sabotaging its path at a critical point, deny ADVENT some resources, and maybe take some for themselves. They were never actually going to be able to take the supplies, though, they just don’t have enough firepower to reliably fight back the on-site ADVENT guards.”
A smile creeps across his lips. “But we do.”
“Steve, are you telling me… we get to hold up a train? Please tell me you’re telling me we get to hold up a train.”
Steve winks at me conspiratorially. “Saddle up, pard’ner.”
The Skyranger touches down in a wooded area encapsulating a small thoroughfare. It’s very clearly not a railroad, but I’m willing to forgive Steve one little fib today. What can I say, I’m in a good mood.
“Who’d you send down?” Steve asks.
“Let’s see… wasn’t sure how difficult this is going to be, so I went with a mix of old and new. I sent Barr, Seabird, Neko, DeHaan, and one rookie.”
“‘DeHaan and one rookie’?” Steve asks. “Don’t you mean ‘two rookies’?”
I shake my head. “No. I understand why you guys instated that whole rookie rule, and it’s sort of ingrained by now anyway, so I’m willing to let that stand. But any soldier who goes through five whole days of Guerrilla Training School deserves to be taken seriously too, I think. Yeah, they haven’t seen combat yet, but they’ve got the same level of basic know-how as any blooded rookie. Besides…” I smirk, “it’d be damn meaningless to hand out a diploma without a given name on it, now would it?”
“Your prerogative, Commander,” Steve replies. I can tell he’s not really on-board with the idea. “I just hope you’re making the right call here. Book learning is good and all, but there’s no substitute for actually surviving your first firefight.”
The first few combat turns are spent trudging through the woods. It’s raining, and we have creeks to cross, so every last soldier is drenched before too long. I make a mental note to have some dry socks sent to the survivo- to the troops. Gotta stop pre-emptively thinking of them as dead men walking. That won’t do morale any good.
It gets clearer where we’re supposed to be headed once the squad hits the main road. Up in the distance, a quickly-assembled ADVENT control checkpoint is clearly visible. It looks quiet; whatever damage the local resistance did to get this supply train to halt, it’s on the other side of that checkpoint. All the better for us, I guess.
I set Corporal Neko up on the main road. It’s not really great as a sniper’s perch, but sight lines to the checkpoint building are great. And then I slowly send the rest of the squad forward. Where they eventually run into…
I point at the screen like a befuddled toddler. “That’s a snake.”
I grab my commlink and hit the lab’s quick-dial. “Richard, there’s a snake here. Why is there a snake here?”
“Ah, yes,” doctor Tygan’s warbled voice replies. “You must have met the alien our troops call ‘Viper’. Fascinating creatures. Would you believe they are what once was the Thin Men?”
“Get the fuck out of town.”
“It’s true! With the alien conquest of earth, the Thin Men slowly started reverting back to this, their original reptilian form. My hypothesis is that the alien leadership intentionally let this change happen. After all, what need is there for an infiltration unit in a force that has already defeated their enemies?”
“Really, doctor?” I say incredulously. “You think the aliens don’t need infiltration units anymore? Tell me, what autopsy are you interrupting again to take this call?”
“Like you asked, I’m working on the Fa-” Silence. Then, “Hmm, yes, I see your point. At any rate, these enormous snakes are really the species’ true self. Reports say that these forms are more combat-capable than the Thin Men, so stay alert.”
Stay alert? Sure, I can stay alert. I move everyone but Neko in a close position to the snake and its accompanying Trooper. Then I set everyone to Overwatch… except Barr, who gets the honour of firing the opening grenade.
The Trooper is killed immediately by the blast. The snake is rustled, but alive… but when it makes to slither for cover, Neko quickly corrects that oversight.
Which just leaves…
“Careful, Commander,” Lily near-yells over the intercom. “Stay clear of those ADVENT turrets. They pack a pretty big punch. And we’re still not entirely sure if they’re remotely triggered or fully automated.”
The turret decides to punctuate Lily’s warning by firing a wide volley at DeHaan’s tree-hideout. I decide to return the favour with salvoes from Barr and Neko. Its shot misses. Ours don’t.
With the immediate threat of enemy forces out of the way, I converge the squad on the little patrol-house just off the road. Rookie goes on one side, Seabird goes on the other side, Neko and Barr can climb up, an- oh, lovely, more enemies.
Hmm. This is actually not that great. Sure, it’s only two Troopers and a Stun Lancer. But with their cover-moves, they’ve made a good start at flanking me. Rookie in particular is standing in a pretty poor spot: if that one Trooper rounds the corner, it’ll be Flank City. I try to have DeHaan take it out from a distance, but that plan fails. Barr is out of moves, Neko is too far away, and Seabird is otherwise occupied, overwatch-ing her own angle of approach.
Sure, rookie himself is on overwatch. But given my luck with overwatch fire so far, am I really going to put my faith in this?
Well, I mean. I guess I am, because I have no choice!
My turn ends. The Trooper, true to prediction, vaults the guardrail and moves for the flank. In response, rookie breathes out, then in, raises his rifle, and blasts the Trooper to kingdom come.
DeHaan fares slightly less well, when a Stun Lancer attack brings him down to 2 HP and sends him panicking off behind a tree. But when Seabird comes to the rescue and Neko plugs the lone remaining trooper, the combat is over before it really begun.
And… well, that’s it, really.
I mean, the fight isn’t technically over yet. ADVENT’s transportation vehicles are guarded by one more patrol, a Sectoid/Stun Lancer/Trooper threesome. But while I would normally consider this a decent threat, reality just plays out… differently. The Sectoid falls almost immediately after being spotted, victim to a devastating rookie/Seabird/Barr overwatch fire super combo. The Stun Lancer moves forward to engage, but DeHaan and his shotgun redeem their earlier panic attack by dropping it in a single hit. And while the Trooper cleverly sticks to hard-to-reach cover, Sergeant Barr’s Suppression Fire ability locks it down nice and clean-like for the turn it takes for Seabird to close the gap and sword it a question.
And just like that, it’s mission accomplished. Nine enemies killed, versus one gravely wounded Squaddie DeHaan.
Particular credits go to today’s rookie, who admirably kept himself alive and unharmed throughout the whole thing. Who, I wonder, is hiding behind that imposing ski mask?
So what would make a good, clean alien-fighting mission even better? Massive rewards, that’s what! Steve wasn’t kidding when he said this raid would help our preparations. Not only do we recover a significant amount of supplies, but the crates are jam-packed with other rare goodies as well: stacks of Alien Alloys, and over two dozen Elerium Crystals. The latter are particularly valuable, because — you may remember — these are the last missing component for doctor Tygan’s psionics research. Are human-made psionic operatives within future arm’s reach? They might be.
But yeah! Overall, I’d say this mission was a smashing success. And best of all: no downsides! No sirree; I don’t foresee any way in which this raid is going to come back to bite us.
“Commander, we’ve made successful contact!” Steve smiles as he beckons me over to the main bridge monitor. I can see the Skyranger touching down in the Western United States resistance hub. It took us a while, and some more intel, but at this point we’ve made contact with all United States-based resistance cells. I’ve never felt ‘proud to be an American’, mostly because I am not actually one, but… I won’t lie, I can feel something starting to stir. Either patriotism, or twenty years of fast-food cheeseburgers catching up with me. But it’s probably patriotism.
Seriously, though, I’m feeling pretty good about myself. We’ve made good progress over the last few days! With this comms hub operational, we can now reach resistance cells housed in the ‘New Arctic’ — a northeastern region of Russia that I assume isn’t big for summer tourism. And as I’d hoped, doctor Tygan’s autopsy of the Stun Lancer has given us the plans needed to make better Ranger swords. Let’s see how ADVENT likes it when they’re on the receiving end of an electric sword attack.
The good doctor is currently hard at work studying the Elerium Crystals we brought him. It’s going to take a few weeks to really get to the bottom of things; human psionics has never been an easy field to master. But I’m confident that he-
“Commander!” Steve interrupts my train of thought. “Priority message from the Resistance Council! They’ve intercepted a lot high-ranking alien chatter over the past few days. The Avatar Project is advancing!”
“‘Advancing?'” I ask. “What the hell do you mean, ‘advancing’?”
“I mean,” Steve says, “the Project has taken significant steps forward. We don’t know how or what yet, but we can parse that the aliens hit a big milestone recently.”
“Just… how big?” I ask, with a tinge of worry.
“Don’t worry,” Steve says, “they’re still nothing near done. Nevertheless, we probably shouldn’t let this trend to go on for too-”
He’s interrupted by blinking lights from his command console. A quick tap-tap-tap causes a new message to displace the first. “Commander! Another message from the Council! They’ve also picked up new insight on ADVENT’s planned Dark Events. The Rural Checkpoints plan is still on, the aliens have restarted their hunt for the Avenger, and then there’s also something… secret.”
“Secret? What do you mean? I thought all these things were supposed to be secret.”
I sit up in my chair. “Well now. Can’t let a good secret like this go to waste, now can we? Crack that case.”
“Alright.” Another tap-tap-tap, and…
“Looks like ADVENT is planning to improve their soldiers’ armor, to keep up with our own tech advances,” Steve says. He studies the screen carefully. “Not a bad idea, to be honest. Maybe we should look into that too.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll add it to the pile,” I say, sounding slightly more dismissive than intended. “In the meantime, we can’t do anything against these Events until we figure out how and where to counter them, right? So no reason for stress. I say we sit back, relax for a moment, and continue preparing for the bla-”
Another alarm goes off on Steve’s console. “Commander! A third message from the Resistance Council! They’ve spotted a high-ranking ADVENT VIP in a poorly-guarded location, and are calling on us for extraction.”
I throw up my hands. “Oh come on! There really is no rest for the weary, is there?”
“‘Fraid not, Commander,” Steve replies amusedly. “We really kicked the beehive with that supply train raid. And I wouldn’t be surprised if ADVENT knows about our growing resistance collective as well. They’re scared, Commander. They don’t know what’s going on, and they don’t know where and when to expect us, and that makes them scared. And that fear gives them wings, but it also…” He points at the mission target in New Mexico. “…makes them sloppy.”
“Scared of us, huh. Well then.” I crack my knuckles, one at a time. Left first, right second. Crack, crack. “Let’s go play boogeyman.”