In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, the notorious ADVENT blacksite was engaged — and conquered. That’s right: no fancy weapons, no space-age armors, no psionics. Just good old-fashioned tactics and grit. Granted, it did cost the life of Corporal Seabird, first named soldier in the game and general all-around badass. Second soldier to die, and second Ranger too; I’m starting to think that might be a dangerous class to be in?
Regardless, we did win. The facility was taken down, the Avatar Project was knocked down a peg, and a fancy glowing vial now rests in a safe in doctor Tygan’s lab. Great work all around! And you’d think, maybe, that this would give the aliens some cause for pause? A little time-out to take stock of their situation? Sadly, nothing is further from the truth…
The soldiers’ quarters are a bustle of activity. The mood is at once excited and subdued. The loss of Corporal Seabird is keenly felt: her energy and friendly demeanor made her popular, and she’s been an officer of XCOM for as long as most of the soldiers serving now can remember. Steve told me she was even a part of the mission that extracted me; in a way, I owe her everything. But at the same time, the fact that four people did make it to a secret alien facility and back — with spooky treasures in tow — is obviously a Big Thing. Even the lesser-wounded soldiers, the one who can afford to walk around — Neko, Gardes, DeHaan, and Gilbraith — are there. Viel and Twintails are the center of attention, telling stories. Well, it’s mostly Viel doing the talking; probably exaggerating his heroics and his injuries, as he does.
The excitement hushes as I walk into the room. Of course it does. I’m their commanding officer, after all; when does my showing up ever signify a good thing? I make a mental note to hang out with these people off-duty more often. I’d like to not just be the guy who shows up to order them to their probably deaths.
Of course, that is the reason I’m here right now…
“Troops,” I say. The room quiets down completely, and I pause for a few seconds. Then, “I won’t sugarcoat it. We’ve got a few important ADVENT activity leads, time-critical. I know we’re all still decompressing from today, but I’m gonna need a few of you to go out there.”
Credit where credit’s due: apart from a few quiet sighs and a few dropping smiles, nobody overtly complains. They’re professionals, this crew. I seize the initiative:
“I know you’re tired. Trust me, I do. We all need a break. But make no mistake: that’s what the aliens are counting on. They’re trying to overpower us, overwhelm us. That’s always been their only trick. They had the technology and the surprise during the first war, and now they’re throwing numbers at us. They think that if they just throw monsters at us, wave after wave, they can grind us down. They think we’re just going to give up at some point, go sit in a corner, and let them win.”
I pause a few seconds, for effect, then smirk. “Well I wasn’t planning on letting that happen. What about you folks? Are we just gonna sit here, maybe lie in bed all day, suck our thumbs a little? Or are we gonna go out there, and show ADVENT just how much XCOM is ready to rumble!?”
Fists and voices are raised in unison. “Hoorah!”
I smile broadly. “That’s what I was hoping to hear. Soldiers like you, the aliens are gonna regret ever messing with.”
I walk over to Volatar, still the center of the room. “Corporal Twintails. I’m sorry to have to ask this of you in particular, but right now you’re the only high-ranking officer that’s capable of walking unassisted.” I hear Viel sputter, and some other people snicker. “I need you to head this away squad. Show some of the new recruits what it takes to get in and out of an ADVENT site alive. Can you do that?”
A silent nod. I clap her on the shoulder. “Great! I knew I could count on you.” I look around the room and point at a few others, “Gottfried, Jones, and… you two rookies. It’s your lucky day. You get to learn from the best. And the rest of you…” I look around again, making eye contact with as many people as I can, “…maybe do lie in bed a little? I need you on your feet if you’re gonna be heroes.” That gets me a few chuckles.
“Speaking of heroes…” I reach into a pocket, grab something, then futz around near Twintails’ collar for a bit. When I finally step back, hanging from her armor is a small triangular piece of cloth, long and thin. The words REAL BADASS have been written on with felt. A shiny bottlecap dangles from the bottom point.
“Couldn’t get a better one on short notice,” I say, grinning, while the rest of the room burst into applause. “I’ll make sure we have a nicer medal the next time you save the day.”
“So what are we looking at here?” I ask, as the Skyranger starts making a final descent. “I caught that it was another signal-related thing, but I sort of writing an inspirational speech in my head when you explained it.”
“Probably good that you’re asking now, then,” Steve smirks. “It’s ‘another signal thing’, yeah. Local resistance operative has managed to hack into a section of the ADVENT network. Just the electronic part, so it’s nothing too secretive. But one very interesting thing that — I honestly don’t know why it wasn’t encrypted better? Is the specs for the special armor ADVENT is planning to build.”
“You mean that Dark Event?”
Steve nods. “That one. If we get our hands on those specs, we can identify the strength and weak points and teach our troops to aim around it. That’ll basically make it useless — if ADVENT even goes through with it after we get those plans.”
“Wow. And that from some random yahoo hacking into the network? I think I understand why they like that psionic one better.” I shrug. “So, is this the same deal as last time? ADVENT on the way, he encrypted the data, we need to get it before the computer wipes?”
“No, no, this one’s different. This guy actually managed to set up a basic signal transmitter, keyed to the Eastern US Resistance Hub. It’s already transmitting the data to us. Should be another…” He checks a screen. “…hour or so, before we have everything.”
“Oh. That’s… convenient. What’s the problem, then?”
“The problem,” Steve says pointedly, “is that ADVENT has also found the location of that transmitter. And they’ve send a unit in to destroy it.”
“So…” I slowly say, “the tables are turned now? We defend, and they attack? Does that mean we get time to set up? Scatter some groups of soldiers everywhere? Set up automated super turrets? That’d be real nice for once.”
“Sorry, Commander,” Steve shakes his head. “ADVENT’s already in the area. Our job is to chase them out before they trash that transmitter. They probably won’t be able to send a second unit in before it completes. But you will like to hear that the man who set all this up is still in the area, hiding from the patrols. If we take them all out and save his transmitter, we can probably convince him to join up with us.”
“Guy can jury-rig his own transmitter, I’m sure there’s room for him in Engineering,” I say. And then, into the comms, “Alright troops, you heard Central. Hurry up and save that transmitter!”
The squad doesn’t make it ten steps beyond the rainy midnight playground before opportunity first knocks. “Commander,” Twintails reports over the radio, “we’ve spotted one of those ADVENT posts. I can probably hack it to feed us targeting data, make the fights a little easier. Permission to attempt?”
I yawn demonstratively. “Wow, targeting data. I wish these hacks would be interesting for once. But sure, go ahead. Don’t see a good reason to-”
A screeching sound fills the comms for a few seconds, followed by Twintails’ slightly panicked voice when it stops. “Commander, the hack failed! I repeat, the hack failed!”
“Oh, great. Now what happens?”
I facepalm, hopefully not loud enough to be audible over the mic — but probably so. There’s only one person to blame for this call.
Granted, the actual fight isn’t that bad. Only a Trooper, an Officer, and a Stun Lancer emerge from the ship. Still a force to be reckoned with, sure, but in the same way that a potential oil fire in the kitchen is something to keep in mind — you don’t actually expect the whole thing to suddenly catch on fire.
Unfortunately, I then do what’s essentially the XCOM equivalent of throwing water on that oil fire: I order some of my troops into uncharted territory during the fight. In the direction of the transmitter, no less; we’re not made of time for this mission.
And suddenly we’re flanked.
Again, it’s not a particularly bad flank. Just one more Trooper and Officer. And with most of my soldiers close to the impromptu alien drop-zone, the incoming squad is taken care of quickly enough. It’s just a whole lot of time, and incoming damage, that I’d have preferred not to have to deal with.
All in all, the ambush and patrol squad combination takes me four turns to clear. And two medkits charges, both applied to Johanna.
It’s four turns we’re not really supposed to have. While this mission isn’t on as strict and definite a timer as the others, the fact that the transmitter health is a clear and present loss state makes it all the more tense. What happens if the aliens bring more units in? They could just pile on a squad or three, and I’d lose in a single turn with no counterplay.
Which is what makes it so strange that the aliens suddenly stop shooting it. No, really! From one turn to the next, there’s suddenly… no flying plasma bolts to the transmitter. I didn’t even get closer or anything! I can’t parse what’s happening here; did they just all realize they left the stove on?
I creep my units closer, picking up some very nice-looking loot in the process.
Or, well, ‘creep’. Twintails, Jones, and one rookie carefully go around the house. As for Gottfried and the other rookie? No time for all that non-fancy stuff: I send all of them up the drainpipe of the nearest house, one shimmy after the next. All the advantages of height and better sight lines, combined with absolutely no cover from incoming alien fire!
It’s Gottfried who spots the alien party inside the house that also holds the transmitter. Again, I have absolutely no clue why they’re just standing around there. Between the two Troopers and the Sectoid that I knew would be there (the plasma pistol blast effects were a dead giveaway), that transmitter should be rights be toast. But hey: gift horse, shut up.
Hey, you know a fun thing about Troopers?
Hey, you know an unfunny thing about Sectoids?
Okay, it’s a panic effect, not a mind-control effect. It figures; resorting to psionic garbage is really the only way that the aliens were gonna get Sergeant Twintails to break.
When we move in to secure the house, one final ADVENT patrol walks into view. A Trooper, a Stun Lancer, and — of course — a final Sectoid. And while I’d love to be able to tell you that this turns into a tense and exciting standoff, it… really just doesn’t? The Trooper falls, the Stun Lancer falls, and the Sectoid… takes the admittedly interesting move of running into the house, summoning a psi-zombie, and then having the psi-zombie attack the transmitter.
And just like that, it’s mission complete. No more hostiles in the immediate vicinity. The squad sticks around for the remaining half hour of transfer time, then catches an unexpectedly leisurely ride home. No deaths to mourn, no failures to regret; just one Gravely Wounded Johanna Gottfried and one fancy new ‘1.38 enemies attacked per turn’ record to be smug about.
Promotions all around! Corporal Gottfried picks up the much-needed ranged-medkit GREMLIM, while Corporal Jones specs into the Shadow Ranger tree with the Phantom power, letting her stay concealed for longer even after the rest of the squad is found out. The rookies reveal themselves as Specialist Pusey, and Ranger McNutcase.
And Twintails, less the undisputed hero of this outing but nevertheless still great, is my first soldier to be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. She gains access to either a instant field scanning power, or — hey, there’s the triple medkit!
Oh, and that loot that I found? The Advanced Laser Sight upgrades a gun with +10% critical hit chance, ‘better if you get closer to the target’. That’s a shotgun upgrade if I’ve ever seen one. And the two PCSes, ‘Superior Conditioning’ and ‘Advanced Conditioning’ give respectively +3 and +2 HP to their wielders. I give these two Corporal Jones and Lieutenant Twintails, respectively, reasoning that the former is a Ranger who needs the survivability, and the latter is a war hero who I’d like to have around for longer.
And then, with promotions and upgrades all out of the way, I let the troops go for some well-deserved R&R. For real, this time. If ADVENT shows up with another force today… well, I’m just boned if that happens. It’s almost liberating to realize! ‘There’s basically nothing you can do, mission-wise, for the next three days’.
It leaves me free to focus on some of my other worries…
“I think that what we should do is-” “No, it’d be smarter to focus on-” “In my opinion, our best course of action would be to-”
It’s chaos in my office. Not an hour ago, the Engineering team put the finishing touches on the Avenger’s new Power Relay. It doesn’t output much; I was hoping for more than the three measly units of power we’ve gotten. But combined with our modest supply haul, it’s enough to build and power a new facility in the empty top deck. Steve, Lily, and Richard each have ideas about what we should do with that possibility space, and they’ve all enthusiastically come up to my office to tell me about them… at the same time. Now excitement and tensions are running high, and so they’re ‘arguing’ in my office — at each other, obviously, because I can’t get a word in edgewise. Seriously, they might actually start shouting if I don’t do something.
I open a low drawer in my desk, grab my secret Argument Ender, point it at my squabbling officers, and push the activation button. The room falls quiet pretty quickly after that — if you don’t count the echo of the reverberating honk noise. And people thought I was crazy when I specifically requested an air horn in the last supply drop.
I put the horn down with a little slam. “Good. It has come to my attention that you all have suggestions for the further development of our fine Avenger. A suggestion of my own would be that you tell me about those plans. One at a time. Sound like a good idea?”
I see nods from all of them. Richard is actually blushing a little. Steve is the first to speak up. “Sorry, Commander. I guess we got a little carried away there, huh.”
I sit back. “De rien. It’s good to be enthusiastic. So why don’t you tell me about your plan?”
“Well,” Steve says, shaking off the residual embarrassment, “I was thinking we could use the space to build and Advanced Warfare Center. You’ve seen the plans, yeah? It’s a combination soldier training school and medical center. I really mostly care about that last part. We’ve got so many wounded soldiers after every mission. If we don’t get on top of recuperation, there’s gonna come a time when we don’t have anyone to send out.”
I nod. “Yeah, I can see that. Been worrying about it myself, honestly. Thank you, Steve.” I look over at Lily. “Lily. What was your suggestion?”
“I was thinking that space might be a decent place to build a workshop,” Lily replies. “That’s a cheap facility, not too heavy on the power either. But if we put some engineers in a dedicated place, we can have them use special GREMLINS to operate more of the ship at the same time. I appreciate what you’ve been doing for staffing, Commander, but there’s only so much we can do without the right tools.”
I nod again. “That makes sense. Thank you.” Finally, I look at Richard. “Richard. I assume you’ll be telling me I saved the best for last?” I say with a smile.
“To be fair, Commander,” Richard says, still a little embarrassed-like, “there is a lot of wisdom in both Chief Engineer Shen and Central Officer Bradford’s plans. I… apologize, for being unwilling to listen earlier. As for my suggestion… I had thought that this opportunity would be perfect to finalize the construction of a Psionic Lab. I suspect XCOM could really benefit from trained, psionically empowered operatives.”
I nod a third time. “I agree with that assessment, it would probably help us. Thank you, Richard.”
A few seconds pass in silence. Finally, Steve speaks up. “Er… Commander? So which one’ll it be?”
I lower my head into my hands and sigh. “Honestly, Steve, I have no fucking clue. They’re all good ideas! How can I pick just one of ’em? Which one’s the best choice? It’s impossible.”
I breathe in deeply and sigh again. “I really wish this was an easier choice. All I want to do is get our Avenger to that Avatar facility in West Africa as soon as possible. But I don’t think any of your plans help with that, huh.”
Another short silence is broken by Lily. “Actually, Commander… if you want to make more resistance contacts quick, it’s probably an easier choice than you think. The Avenger’s communications systems weren’t originally made for all this simultaneous traffic, so they’re overtaxed as it is. If you want to get more connections in without dropping the old ones, we kind of need a facility for that.”
“Really?” I perk up a little. “Well, that’s… convenient, I think. Why am I only hearing about this now?”
“Honestly, Commander, I didn’t think it’d come up so soon. I thought we’d get a better foothold in America first. I was gonna tell you sooner or later.”
I make a dismissing motion with my hand. “Again, de rien. I’m glad you told me now. That resolves the issue, then, doesn’t it? Sorry to put all of your plans on ice, but resistance communications take precedence.”
“Now, if you’ll all excuse me…” I repeat my hand gesture. Luckily, all three of them take the hint.
When Steve comes to check up on me, three days later, I haven’t actually left my office much. Or… at all, really? My bedroom and shower (such as they are) are connected to the office. And my meals get delivered to my desk if I ask for them. I… did ask for food recently, didn’t I? I don’t think I feel hungry, but that might just be distraction.
“Oh, hey, Steve. What’s up?”
“Commander…” Steve sounds a little hesitant. “Er, Shen sent me. She asked if-”
“Is this about the Skulljack?” I interrupt him. “I’ve seen that report, yeah. It looks great. I have no doubt it’ll do… whatever it does. Jack some skulls. It’s gonna be great at that.”
“That’s good, Commander,” Steve says, “but I don’t think you’ve told her if you want anything else done in the Proving Grounds?”
“Oh! Yeah, you’re right, I forgot. They had these… plans, right, for experimental ammo and grenades? Do that one. One of those ones. The ammo one. Cook up some cool bullets.”
“Sure, I’ll relay that.”
“Great.” I turn my attention back to the file I was reading.
Steve pointedly clears his throat. “Commander, that’s… not actually the reason Shen asked me to talk to you.”
“Oh? Then what is?”
“Well… she says you told her to excavate two decks on the second floor? And to assign one engineer to each project?”
“It’s just that, the way Shen tells it, if we assign those two engineers to the same deck, they’ll have it done in half the time. And then they can do the next one. So they’d still both be done after the same amount of time, but we’d get access to one of them much sooner.”
“Oh.” I find myself blushing a little. “Yeah, okay, that’s a much better plan. Tell her to do that. And tell her I said it was a much better plan. She can have that one, she’s earned it.”
I make to grab my file again, but Steve isn’t moving. “What? Sorry, was there more?”
“Doctor Tygan also asked me to talk to you,” Steve says. “R&D is almost done finalizing their magnetic weapon prototypes. And that’s good, but… you haven’t given him any follow-up work yet. He tells me you usually give him a few days’ heads-up on the next project. And since it’s really looking like they’ll be done testing in the afternoon…”
“Yeah, you’re right, I…” I quickly grab Richard’s pile of project proposals and leaf through them. “Er, tell him to look at those ADVENT auto-turrets. Those look like something we’d want to…” I slowly mumble off into space.
“Commander,” Steve asks, “are you… alright?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose, and let out a breath which slowly becomes a drawn-out sigh. “No, Steve. No, I’m not ‘alright’. I am…”
I swivel my computer monitor around. “Here, look at this.” Steve gets closer, and together we look at a tiny, overloaded world map.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I finally say. “There’s just… so much happening. The aliens are doing things everywhere, the Avatar Project keeps advancing… The resistance is throwing option after option at us, which is nice! But I don’t know which one’s the right one to follow up on! We have to stop this Avatar Project, and we don’t know how, and all the things we can do may or may not be useful! And if they’re not…”
“Here, look at this. I just had us spend six days trying to recruit a resistance engineer. Was that good? Was that clever? Was that an immense waste of time?”
“And at least that one was obvious enough,” I continue. “What do we do next? Get intel? Get supplies? They’re both useful! But then there’s that ADVENT Dark Event that was finalized two days ago, those rural checkpoints they set up. That’s going to impact at least one of our supply drops. Does that mean we shouldn’t go for supplies right now? Try to wait it out? Or should we try to get on top of it as soon as possible? Send some resistance cells through to try and figure out workarounds?”
“I just…” I rub the bridge of my nose again.
Steve walks around the desk and puts his hand on my shoulder. “Commander. Jarenth. Relax. You’re going good.”
I look up at him. “You think so?”
He smiles. “I think so. I get that… all this can be overwhelming, I really do. I’ve been in your seat for a while, remember? But XCOM hasn’t been doing this well in twenty years. You might not think you know what you’re doing, but I do. You’ll figure this out.”
I smile and put my hand on mine. “Thanks, Steve, that means a lot to me.”
“I’m here if you need to talk.”
“I appreciate that.” I sigh again, a little lighter this time. “It’s just frustrating, I guess. So much uncertainty. I just wish there was some straightforwardly good thing we could-”
I clasp my hands over my mouth, but it’s too late. Steve’s comm unit starts blinking, and I can see his mood shift from mild amusement to angry stress as he reads it.
“Message from the Resistance Council, Commander. ADVENT is carrying out another retaliation strike. Troops are approaching a Western US resistance haven as we speak.”
“Well,” I say, as I start to get up. “At least that should be three, right?”
“Never mind.” I crack my knuckles. “Let’s go save some people.”