In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, my daring daylight robbery of an ADVENT supply convoy made the alien forces sort of angry. I know, right? Nobody could’ve predicted this outcome. Now the Avatar Project is nearing the halfway mark, and we’ve got Dark Events and terrible alien plans coming out the woodwork. Jeez, you pull a high-profile resistance attack one time.
It’s not all bad news, though. Increased alien plotting means increased alien chatter. And increased alien chatter means we get better leads on where to go and what to do to hit them where it hurts. And wouldn’t you know it? Hitting the aliens where it hurts is precisely what we plan on doing right now…
Picture, if you will. The ADVENT Central Area in Tijuana, Mexico. One of the more fancy, high-tech areas in the city; ADVENT houses all its administration and its human collaborators in areas like these. Decades of clever propaganda have instilled in people the belief that no enemies of the occupation would ever dare attack one of these impenetrable sanctuaries. Even ADVENT itself has started to believe the lie of their invincibility… meaning security has loosened over the years. Which is exactly how a determined troop transport craft could easily slip through the radar nets, avoid the few functioning anti-air embankments, and drop a small squad of operatives right in the heart of the alien power…
The time: late afternoon, six PM, when the working world slowly winds down. The scene: a rainy, cloudy, drab city center. The feeling: it’s quiet. Too quiet. Almost as if…
“Commander?” Steve snaps his fingers in front of my face, once, then twice. “Commander, are you with us? It looked like you were a million miles away for a moment.”
“Oh, sorry.” I shake my head. “I was doing narration in my mind.”
“Oooookay,” Steve replies. “Well, if you’re done with that, Firebrand just reported that our squad is on the ground.”
“Do we have a bead on the target yet?”
“Affirmative, Commander, we’ve located the ADVENT VIP. He’s guarded, but security could be tighter. If we can hack it, we should assault the office, take our the guards, and extract with the subdued VIP in tow.”
“…’If we can hack it’? I thought the VIP extraction was the goal of this mission. Is there an alternate scenario for if we can’t hack it?”
“Well…” Steve replies, suddenly a little hesitant. “It’d be best to bring in the VIP alive, he has a lot of intel XCOM can really use. But if that’s not plausible… the Councilman was pretty clear: if we can’t get that intel, we can at least make sure that the aliens don’t get it either.”
“Which means…” I let the question trail. In response, Steve mimes putting finger-guns on his temple and pulling the trigger.
“So let me get this straight,” I say. “You’re saying that the best way to build our global resistance — to win the hearts and minds of the global population and to counteract decades of ADVENT propaganda that paint XCOM as a xenophobic terrorist organization — is to send a heavily armed assassination squad after a human target?”
“Only in the worst case!” Steve objects, haltingly. “If everything goes as planning, it’s a heavily armed kidna-…”
He starts and stops a few times before finally continuing, “Listen, I don’t like it any more than you do. But the Councilman said this was a vital target, alright? And he hasn’t steered us wrong before.”
“All the same,” I say, “remind me to never loan the Councilman any money.”
Initial insertion goes smoothly enough. Intel suggests that the target is guarded by at least one Viper — by which I mean the fog of war around the VIP cleared for a second and I could see one — so we proceed with some caution. But, all the same, not with too much caution: as much as ADVENT’s defenses in this area can be rushed past and avoided, they are still defenses. Interception forces are on-route; Firebrand tells us she’s bugging out in twelve minutes, and that anyone still on the ground at that point better learn to appreciate the taste of ADVENT prison gruel.
Similarly, ADVENT’s ground defenses may be light, but they’re meaningful. Look at this fancy mechanized jerk:
On the other hand, that same illusion of security that didn’t actually keep us out is at play here too. See these vision-casting light posts, for instance?
These things can be hacked. To disable them, and also for a variety of fun and benefits. Obviously, this’d be difficult to do without getting spotted — what with that whole cone-of-vision thing at all. But Lily helpfully points that- Okay, Lily helpfully reminds me that a GREMLIN drone can be a remote hacking tool — I forget things, okay — and then points out that they can totally reach the vision posts without triggering the alarm.
Where the mission-critical computer of yesteryear had a ‘guaranteed’ effects and two optional bonuses, this light post only has two ‘bonus’ effects — both of which can fail. They’re good effects: in this particular case, I can either reduce all enemies’ Will by half (45% to get that right), or have the squad regain all spent action points (if we manage to land the 14% chance). But if we don’t get this hack right, we pay the price: our cover is blown, and all nearby enemies are alerted to our position.
With confidence in their superior wills, the squad moves forward. I toy with the idea of ‘avoiding’ the robot suit and Troopers, but… Nah, that’s never going to work. Maybe if I can get far away enough that everyone is out of their vision cone again? But even then, we’re only one wrong move away from bringing a whole flanking patrol down on our heads. Better to deal with this problem immediately, I think. And hope we don’t scare the VIP. I wonder if he even suspects he’s our target?
I do try to set up most of the squad in a forward position before springing out first attack. No sense in wasting that free positioning time. We can deal with this these guys, and then immediately surge forward to cap-
And then my clever planning falls apart immediately when the patrolling squad rounds an unexpected turn and catching my troops completely out of position.
The MEC is alerted, the Stun Lancer is alerted, and a Viper and another Stun Lancer on the other side of the building are alerted. And just like that, we’ve gone from the ‘careful sneaking around and setting up plans’ phase of the mission, to the phase of the mission where I loudly mutter…
The mood on the Avenger’s bridge is hushed. It usually is, any time we’re watching a mission that’s still in the concealment phase. Like… nobody wants to make a sound, when our troops are sneaking out and about. But there’s a crackling sense of electricity in the air. It’s rare that the aliens catch us this unawares. People are surprised, and worried. What’s going to happen here? If we don’t react correctly, and quickly, this mission might be over before it really begins. Even Steve’s normally calm professionalism is slow to respond.
Luckily, there is one person on this bridge with the hard-earned wherewithal to quickly react to Bad Ship Happening.
“Barr, Gardes!” I bark into the microphone. “Frag that group now, while they’re still clustered! Neko, drop that robot if it isn’t scrap already! And rookie, Gilbraith, get in position to subdue that VIP. On the double!”
A few seconds of frantic gunfire and explosions later, the first responder group lies scattered on the ground, two scorch marks marking the place where dual frag grenades expressed the sentiments of FUCK and THIS.
And rookie’s dramatic entrance into the VIP’s office has nicely been complemented with Gilbraith’s GREMLIN support. The little robots can do more than ‘just’ hack from a distance, it seems: the first trick every Specialist learns is sending the drone to run defensive interference on a friendly soldier of their choice.
The bridge as a whole breathes a collective sigh of relief. We’re in charge again. For now. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re in charge.
Really, though, it’s not like we’re in a great place. Those ADVENT Stun Lancers can run, really far, and still have enough oomph left to whack Squaddie Gardes for sizable damage and a Disorientation effect (which limits his range of movement). And the Viper guard is committed to proving its genetic Thin Men connection: it hiss-roars, rears back, and spits a cloud of that disgusting poison at the biggest cluster of soldiers it get hit. Gardes is in the middle of this as well; today, I hesitantly note, is not his day.
All the same, their new ‘giant powerful snake’ forms have given the Vipers some new tricks as well. The resident Viper neatly demonstrates this by slithering up to my vanguard rookie, then slithering around her and constricting her in a choking embrace.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: a snake constricting a human soldier, that sounds like a tricky situation! It’s going to require a delicate touch and some careful aim to defuse this mess. So can Sergeant Barr murder that snake with her autocannon without so much as even grazing the rookie?
“Great job, Commander,” Steve says. “We take out any last defenders, and we can subdue the VIP and get him out of here.”
“And we subdue him… how?” I ask. “We have something that gets him to come quietly? Blackmail or something? Or maybe Richard and Lily made some of device that stuns him into compliance?”
“Good,” Steve says. “Pick ’em up, get ’em to the extraction point, and we can drop the curtain on this day. And quickly, if we can, before…”
“Alright, troops,” I say into the microphone. “We got bogeys inbound on your position. Still a few more minutes until forced evac, so no need to do anything rushed. Neko, get up on the roof here. Rookie, move that VIP to a good place. Gardes, Barr, Gilbraith, get in a defensi-”
“Command’r!” Neko’s Australian accent cuts through my chatter. “Hostiles on the roof here!”
“You’re fucking with me?!” I yell into the microphone. “There’s troops on the roof there that didn’t join the battle? What the fuck were they doing up there, playing goddamn hide-and-seek?”
“Alright, new plan. Rookie, you g-”
I’m interrupted by the sound of the Viper dropping down from the roof and slithering into the ground floor building. Because who needs higher ground, am I right?”
“Rookie,” I resume, “you go up on the roof and help Lieutenant Neko out. The rest of you, take care of that goddamn snake. ASAP. Make it quick, before…”
My thought process is cut short again by the tell-tale sound of a Stun Lancer sword zapping and stunning an XCOM soldier.
Let’s recap. There is a Viper inside the building most of my troops are in. It should be a piece of cake to kill, except nobody — not even Barr seems to be able to hit it. There’s a Stun Lancer on the roof, murder-threatening Neko. Two more Stun Lancers and an Officer have just touched down, and they’ll be on us within seconds. Gardes is panicking from a bad case of alien poison. Oh, and the rookie I sent up the roof to help Neko? She got poisoned too. She got poisoned from standing too close to Squaddie Gardes when he was poisoned, which is the single most nonsensical way for poison to spread. And yet, here we are.
“And we were doing so well,” I sigh to nobody in particular.
“Hope you got more of those tricks up your sleeve, Commander,” Steve says. “We have five more minutes ’till forced evac, that Viper’s doing a nasty flank, and unless you get that rookie to a medkit soon, she’s dead.”
“I know, I know.” I grab my microphone. “Rookie, listen up. I need you to…”
Hesitation. More hesitation. Then a sigh. “I need you to get that Stun Lancer off of Neko. He can’t take another hit like that. And you got the flank here. Go save him.”
“Will do, Commander,” a tired voice replies, followed by a familiar click. I look at Steve from the corner of my eye; he silently mouths I hope you’re making the right call here.
“Commander!” Squaddie Gilbraith’s voice cuts through my reverie. “We got another situa-aargh!” I swivel back to the monitor in time to spot that the Vipers were holding back another trick: the one still on the battlefield rears back, unhinges its jaw, and then… doesn’t spit poison, but instead, ejects a meters-long tongue towards Gilbraith. The tongue pierces straight through his armor and some of his flesh, before retracting back – with Gilbraith in tow! He ends up right next to the Viper, which wastes no time in wrapping him in its loving Death Embrace.
Well then. Anyone got any idea for how to get us out of this mess? Gilbraith obviously can’t save himself. Neko’s got a poor angle for hitting the Viper… and besides, I kind of want him keeping an eye — and a reticule — on the Stun Lancers. I just feel that one of those assholes is going to run to the wall, climb up a drainpipe, and kill Neko flat-out if I don’t Overwatch them into submission. And Barr is too far away, and empty. And, as Steve is currently helpfully indicating by pointing to our handy mission timer, we’ve got only four minutes until ADVENT fighters get here. Meaning that still-unconscious VIP is going to need to get hauled to the exit zone starting now.
Which just leaves…
“Gardes, buddy, pal,” I try a different tactic. “I know you’re in a bad spot and you’re scared of that alien poison and all. But if you don’t get yourself to-fucking-gether, that nice Squaddie Gilbraith who healed you earlier is gonna get crushed to death by a giant monster snake. And you don’t want that, do you?”
And, just like that, a terrible situation becomes manageable again. Neko and the newly-freed Gilbraith take out one Stun Lancer, and Gardes drops the other…
And then the entire squad just… hoofs it. The last remaining ADVENT Officer is left in what I assume is utter confusion, as the team of armed insurgents that killed all his colleagues and supporting staff just grab onto ropes descending from the sky and disappear into non-existence.
Mission over. Gilbraith, Neko, Gardes, and Barr return home the conquering heroes. The conquering beat-up heroes: all four of them barely manage to stumble out of the Skyranger, and I foresee weeks of medbay time for all of them. But at least they made it back.
The promotion ‘ceremonies’ for Neko and Gardes are brief. Neko gains the Sharpshooter power ‘Deadeye’, essentially a called headshot by any other name. And Gardes follows in Viel’s safety-first footsteps of getting extra blast padding. We can’t all be Barr, after all; I’m starting to suspect maybe only Barr can pull off being Barr. And then, the four are carted off. To a hot meal and a soft bed.
And as for the fifth returnee…
Within the hour, a small scout plane from the Resistance Council takes the VIP to an undisclosed location. I send the Councilman a message through our secured channel, asking if he can at least guarantee me that she’ll be treated with Geneva Conventions wartime dignity.
He doesn’t respond.
“Commander,” Steve says, as he walks onto the bridge. He’s all smiles. It’s been a few day since that last mission, where we almost watched several of our close friends die. Amazing what distance does to the mood.
“Got some good news for you!”
“Yeah, I heard about the Proving Grounds being done,” I reply. “It’s some pretty decent engineering! I already told Lily to start work on one of those Skulljack things. So we should be good on that before we know it.”
“No, no,” Steve shakes his head. “That’s good to hear, but no. This is something else entirely.”
“Oh?” I sit up.
“I made contact with another large resistance faction in North America,” Steve says. He spins the holo-globe around and zooms in on a particular spot in the Canadian Northwest Territories. “This is a… different group from the Council. Less organized, but even better capable of staying undetected. And while they weren’t interested in joining us outright, they do want to help fight the alien oppression. They just want to help in what they call ‘their own way’.”
“And what way is that?” I ask.
Steve smiles slyly. “Commerce.”
“Alright,” I say, looking at the screen before me. “Alright.” And then, after a few seconds of silence, “I don’t get it.”
“We collect a lot of loot from our missions, right,” Steve explains. “Supplies and intel, sure, but also corpses and Elerium cores and datapads and stuff. And those are useful, sure, but… maybe sometimes what we need isn’t more dead Sectoids, but more supplies. That’s what the Black Market can help us with. They know the buyers, and we’re the seller.”
“They can sell some really useful stuff, too. More supplies, rare alien materials… they have contacts with potential alien defectors, and ways of getting them out that don’t involve armed extraction. And those same contacts can even get us ADVENT research notes and secrets, which I’m sure doctor Tygan can use to good effect in our own work.”
“Before you get all spend-happy, though,” Steve warns, “be aware that the Black Market isn’t interested in our supplies. They deal in intel. And don’t forget that we need intel too. The global resistance isn’t gonna find itself.”
I nod. “Thanks for the heads-up. But we have plenty intel as-is. And I’m sure Richard will be just thrilled if we get him classified ADVENT files on human psionics and magnetic weapons.”
“That might actually get a rise out of him, yeah,” Steve says. “Well, you’re the man with the plan here.”
“Oh,” I say, “speaking of plans, wasn’t the first level-two excavation supposed to be done today?”
Steve nods, then turns to leave. “I’ll get these plans to Richard if you want to check in with her.”
Lily’s face appears on the viewscreen after a few minutes of ringing her connection. “Oh, hey Commander. Sorry ’bout the wait. We just had to wrap up some last-minute material collapse. But that’s done! Proud to tell you that the Avenger’s second-floor Main Deck One is now open for business.”
“That’s great!” I say. “And with that Black Market thing we’re good for supplies, too. So, tell me, what can we build in there? I was hoping mayb-”
“Power relay,” Lily cuts me off.
“We need a new power relay. The whole ship’s currently running off the main generator, that big glowbox in Tygan’s lab. But… it’s good, but it’s not infinite. And frankly, we’re taxing this boat to the limit as-is. We put anything else on her, power fluctuations get real bad, and we might lose power to a critical anti-grav unit during an ocean flight or something.”
“You’re sure about this?” I ask.
“Sorry, Commander,” Lily says, “but I have to pull rank here. Or, like, pull function. I can’t greenlight building anything that’s not a new power relay. Won’t do it.”
I raise my hands placatingly. “Alright, alright. You’re the chief engineer! Power relay it is.”
She smiles. “Thanks, Commander. I’ll let you know when it’s finished, and then we can look into building something else.”
“Big day today, isn’t it, Commander?” Richard says. I am, once again, in his lab. I spend a lot of time here, listening to Richard’s latest findings. I had some techs put in a comfy chair for me.
“Sure is,” I smile.
“I won’t take up much of your time, then. You’ll be happy to hear that the ADVENT files we received from the ‘Black Market’ were indeed as valuable as you had intuited. With their help, and with the use of the chip I removed from you and several Elerium crystals recovered from our supply train raid, I was finally able to devise a way to reliably unlock psionic potential in human test subjects. I’ll spare you the details, but I am confident that the Devlin Process is highly effective, safe, and essentially foolproof.”
I chuckle. “‘The Devlin process’? He’d have liked that, I think.”
“The name was Central’s idea,” Richard says. “I’m given to understand you both knew the first human psionic?”
I nod. “He was… quite a man.”
Richard brings up some schematics. “I have drafted blueprints for the specialized facility we would need to start putting the process in practice. If you speak with Chief Engineer Shen, I’m sure she can tell you the resources required to construct this facility aboard the Avenger.”
“Power, I bet,” I mutter, as I get up from my cozy chair.
“At any rate, Commander, I suspect you’ll want me to investigate the ADVENT files on magnetic weaponry next? I project it will take us about a week to integrate the plans found therein into our own ballistic weapons program.”
“Please do, doctor. I didn’t get you those files for nothing. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
Richard nods. “I understand, Commander. You have places to be, and I have reports to read. You’ll be informed about any progress.”
I power-walk to the Avenger bridge. Wouldn’t want to miss the big moment! It’s taken us a few days, and more than a few resources, but…
“Ah, Commander!” Steve waves me over. “Right on time. The radio relay is just about to go operational.”
We watch on a monitor as resistance technicians in the camp not far from us perform their final fiddling with the equipment around their radio tower. Fancy equipment. On doctor Tygan’s specs and on my direction, we’ve outfitted the Western United States resistance communications hub with upgraded radio equipment.
Finally, the final switch is flipped, and the radio relay blooms to life. Both visually, in that a bunch of lights on it flip on, and mechanically. Steve confers with several Avenger bridge technicians, then gives me a thumbs-up.
“It’s working, Commander! The new radio relay is up and running. It’ll be much easier to make contact with the New Arctic cells this way. And as a bonus, the new equipment also makes it much easier for this hub to coordinate operations and supply raids. We ought to see a significant increase in the amount of supplies they can get to us, because of this.”
I start a demonstrative applause that’s quickly copied across the bridge. “Great job, everyone!”
“I also got an interesting message from the Black Market,” Steve continues. “They’re really interested in what we’re doing here too. Enhanced radio communications among resistance cells makes their jobs easier too, I’m guessing. So as a show of good faith, they’re decided to offer us better intel prices on anything they sell.”
The applause festivities are cut short when Steve’s console beeps. Once, twice, thrice. Emergency Council message. He reads the message on his small screen, and I can see his good mood plummet.
“What is it?”
“Commander, you might wanna see this.” He beckons me over. “Resistance Council sent word that the prisoner talked. Showed us the location of another alien facility dedicated to the Avatar Project. We think the aliens might’ve built it recently, but there’s really no way to be sure.”
“Alright,” I say, as Steve pulls up a map. “So where is it? We just did the whole ‘upgrade the western connection’ dance, so it’d be uncharacteristically cool if you told me that facility was found in Siberia or something.”
Steve shakes his head. “Sorry, Commander. West Africa.”
We both sit down. Steve is still shaking his head, slower this time. “This isn’t good, Commander. Those facilities are a big boost to the progress of the Avatar Project. We leave them alone, they’re gonna start spinning out of control. And we haven’t really landed a single blow against the Project yet.”
I nod. “You’re right. We need to stop this thing, and we’re not doing that. And we can’t go after this facility until we get our reach all the way to West Africa. Which is… a future plan, if we’re optimistic. But there is one move we can make right now. A little overdue, to be honest.”
Steve looks at me. “I take it you mean…”
I nod again. “It’s time we take down that blacksite.”