In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, you can say what you want about the aliens — they sure know how to break an uncertainty spell! I wanted a clear and unambiguously ‘good’ mission, and for my sins, ADVENT gave me one. Another retaliation strike, to be precise. And it is on the threat of innocent, under-equipped resistance fighters getting mowed down by alien monsters that the Avenger is currently flying around at the speed of Not Fast Enough, trying to reach an important destination before it’s too late…
“Commander, are you sure you gave me the right coordinates?” Steve is at the Avenger’s helm, quizzically looking at his nav console. He flies this thing, did I tell you that? I figured he’d have, like, subordinates for that. But no, turns out there’s nobody ol’ CO Bradford trusts better at the controls of XCOM’s flying HQ than himself.”
“Absolutely,” I reassure him. “We’ve got the time for a little detour, yeah?”
“Well…” Steve responds hesitantly. “Yes, I suppose we have some time before everyone in New Earth Valley is dead. But…”
“Then it’s settled,” I cut him off. “We’re stopping by the Black Market contact point first.”
“Can I ask why we’re doing this?” Steve says.
“Simple,” I say. “This is ADVENT’s second retaliation strike against us, right? They got us with their trick last time, that Faceless monster. But now we know that that thing exists. They can’t surprise us with that anymore.”
“Meaning,” I pick up on Steve’s trailing question, “they’ll probably try something else to surprise us with, won’t they?”
Realization blooms on Steve’s face. I nod. “Yeah, exactly. I don’t know what they’re going to try, but I’d prefer to be ready.”
I toss him a small datapad. On it is our XCOM inventory: all the fancy alloys, weapon upgrades, and assorted alien corpses we’ve collected. Several items are marked. “Here’s the list of what we can reasonably sell. Can you start the negotiations? I want to talk to Lily about what we can actually do.”
Lily answers my call after a few seconds. “Yeah, Commander? What can I do you for?”
“Got a question for you,” I say. “Assuming we get the resources for it, how long would it take you and your team to carry out any of those weapon projects?”
“The mag guns?” Lily replies. “Not long, really, maybe… half an hour? We’ve got the plans written down and everything, we just need the parts.”
“Thanks. Alright then, what should we go for? How about…” I browse the list for a few seconds. “Let’s… go for one of those mag rifles, I guess. We can almost get two pistols for what we have, but pistols. And a rifle’s good for Specialists and rookies, so that’s probably-”
“With all due respect, Commander,” Lily interrupts my musing, “but I don’t think you’re reading my spec sheet right. I’m not saying we need that much resources to build one gun. I know that’s how you and my dad did it back in the day, but we’ve gotten better at handling alien tech since that. You get us enough goodies, we can convert all our guns of that type into mag weapons.”
“Oh. Oh! Oh! Hold on a sec.”
(I’d been wondering why ‘the one Arc Blade I made’ seemed to automatically swap between Rangers.)
I sprint over to Steve, who’s in the middle of dealing with the Black Market. “Steve! Change of plans. Remember how I said that list was everything we can ‘reasonably’ sell? Scrap that idea, we’re going wholesale. Sell all the corpses we have that don’t directly build into something. And a few Elerium crystals too. And send them some intel for their special supplies package, too.”
True to her word, forty-five minutes later Lily’s team delivers the first official XCOM-brand magnetic weapons. Mag rifles for the Specialists, mag pistols for the Sharpshooters, and special ‘shard guns’ for our Rangers to wreak havoc with. Like our old Alloy Cannons, but less destructive. No new sniper rifles and autocannons yet: to hear Richard tell it, we need to advance our understanding of magnetic weaponry even farther before we can get to that. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel much better about this new load-out.
With squad selected and weapons crafted and distributed, all that’s left is deciding each soldier’s loadout. I go over the inventory with Steve. “Medkits for Twintails and Gilbraith, that’s a no-brainer. Viel gets one frag grenade and one smoke grenade…”
“…because we want things to stay intact this time?” Steve finishes the thought with a snicker.
“Neko can bring his battle scanners, those could be useful for finding civilians. And for Jones…”
I hum and haw over the last choice for a while. What I want is to give Jones the nanoscale armor underlay, because I know what happens to Rangers in this army. But what I think I should give Jones is…
“…let’s give her the Skulljack.”
“Are you sure, Commander?” Steve asks. “Dunno if a battlefield like this would be a great place for that.”
I shrug. “No, I’m not sure. Maybe you’re right. But with all the time passing… we’ve been letting this alien network business go on for too long, I think. It feels wrong to just let that sit. And we can always find a good reason not to bring the Skulljack; there’s always gonna be a medkit or a grenade that might be more valuable. I think we just have to take the plunge. Worst case scenario…”
“…Jones takes damage that could have been prevented by the armor or healed by a medkit and she dies,” Steve replies.
I frown at him. “Steve, you’re not being the friend I need right now.”
The Skyranger comes to a hovering stop over the boreal forests of Alberta, Canada. The ‘New Earth Valley’ resistance haven is based here. Well, was based here; even if we save all these people and fight back ADVENT, the location is forevermore compromised.
“Alright, troops,” I start briefing when everyone has their feet on the ground, “you know the drill with this one. We came in hot and ADVENT’s waiting for us, so don’t expect any concealment. Er, except for Jones, I guess.”
“Carefully spread out, and start looking for hostiles to engage and civilians to rescue. And be on your toes! There’s no te-”
“Commander, we got contacts!” Viel interrupts my orders.
“Really? Really.” I switch the comm frequency to the Skyranger’s. “Firebrand, did you really drop our troops off less than five meters from an alien patrol? There honestly wasn’t any better place to put them down?”
“Sorry, Commander,” Firebrand replies, apologetically. “I tend to not watch the ground much when I’m makin’ these drops. Radar and airborne tangos are more my thing.”
I try to sigh inaudibly. “That’s alright, Firebrand, didn’t mean to go off on you. Bad things happen. You stay safe out there, alright?” I switch back to the squad comms. “Viel, I hope you’re in cover at this point. What are we looking at?”
“Something big, green, and ugly, sir,” Viel replies. “I think it might be a Muton!”
I look at Steve. He nods, and says, “Yup, that’s a Muton alright. They’ve changed over the years. These ones are a little smaller, more agile. Less lights on their armor. We haven’t seen any in a while, though. They’re still the aliens’ front-line combat troops; fact that they’re here means that ADVENT must really be taking us seriously.”
“I’d really rather wish they didn’t.” I turn my attention back to the battlefield. “Alright troops, hit that thing with priority. Try to stay in cover at all times. And…” I get sudden flashbacks to Leeds, and to exploding truck cabs. “…don’t clump up too much if you can help it! If these things still like plasma grenades as much as they used to…”
That swooshing green *boom* will always be a sound of my nightmares. Now Viel is lightly damaged and his armor is shredded, and Neko is heavily hurt and literally on fire. And oh, hey — the Stun Lancer just ran up and stun-zapped Twintails into half-death.
We’re one minute onto the battlefield.
In the distance, Scottie Scott gets killed.
I reach under my glasses to rub my eyes, and then slam a fist down on my console desk. “Okay. I’m already tired of this. Neko! Get up close and take out that Stun Lancer harassing Twintails. Let’s see what that new mag pistol can do. Twintails! Try to make Neko less on fire after he saves you. And Viel! Not even you can miss that big of a fucking target.”
A blam, a hiss, and a whirr of bullets later, the situation is more or less back under control. The Muton’s still standing, but that’s alright. Let’s see how it likes an extra large serving of Arc Blade to the face. Jones’ stealth is broken anyway. I order her to attack, and she gleefully obeys, sprinting over to the Muton and leaping into the air for a devastating overhead-
The Muton almost lazily raises one of its armored arms and swats away the sword attack like it’s nothing. It then follows up that block with a swing from its own Gears of War-esque serrated plasma cannon, a swing that Corporal Jones only barely manages to avoid.
“Well,” I hear Steve mutter from close-by, “that’s new. They’re not just agile for show.”
“That’s fascinating and all,” I say, “but I’m officially putting a stop to this. Lieutenant Twintails, you still have that guaranteed-hit electro-drone?”
I clap my hands once in front of the mic. “Great work everyone. Let’s keep going. I wish we had more time to sit back and recuperate here, but people are getting killed out there.”
It doesn’t take us too long to find a second group of enemies. Which is to say, when the next turn rolls around, it takes me one move command. Below the ledge where our party camps, two Stun Lancers and a Viper — the murderers of Scottie Scott — hold court.
I can’t actually hit the ADVENT forces from up here too well. But that’s alright: they’re more than happy to come up! The Viper slithers up to and around Jones, constricting her. One of the Stun Lancers leaps up, runs at Viel, and barely misses a stunning sword attack. And the other Stun Lancer also leaps up, and then… takes cover.
Now, I appreciate that this situation doesn’t look very good. Two Stun Lancers in the middle of my group and a Viper murder-hugging Corporal Jones was not what I was hoping to write about at this point. But it’s not actually as bad as it seems. It’s more of a puzzle, really; almost a domino chain, waiting for me to collapse the whole threat with the right push.
I mean, don’t get me wrong: if I don’t get all these aliens killed before this turn ends, that is no bueno for team XCOM. But all the same, they couldn’t have set themselves up better for me. Viel and Twintails can take out the Stun Lancer that has a free bead on everyone…
This removes the main threat to Neko and Gilbraith, leaving them free to focus on the Viper that’s killing Jones…
And Jones, once released, obviously has to regain her status as Number One Swords-Danger.
Four minutes in at this point. Five aliens lie dead on our rocky perch, versus only a handful of (serious) injuries for the squad. And while four civilians have already been killed, the one we did grab is a step in the right direction. I carefully let out the breath I didn’t notice I was holding. We can do this.
“Alright, everyone. I need you to split up a little and find some people to rescue. Jones, Neko, you look over near that fancy mobile jammer. Neko, use your battle scanners. That should help us find people and aliens. And maybe it’ll help weed out the phony people too? That sounds like something it could do.”
“The rest of you, move towards that building. I’m pretty sure I saw like, three or four people bunched up outside.”
“And remember,” I add, as Twintails, Viel, and Gilbraith make their way to a ridge overlooking the haven’s main building, “be careful when approaching anyone. It’s likely ADVENT seeded more Faceless here. Always make sure you have backup, never approach anyone alone. These monsters are masters of disguise, and they’ve demonstrated they’re willing to wait until you get close before changing.”
As if purely motivated out of spite for me, one of the three human figures near the building below morphs into a Faceless almost as soon as Twintails walks into sight range.
Instead of doing the thing I worry about — slaughtering the other civilians before we can reach them — the Faceless runs up to where Twintails and Gilbraith are standing. Then, instead of doing the thing I really worry about — disemboweling my vulnerable flanked soldiers with its giant monster claws — it just… stands there.
And — hey, you know what happens to a four-meter tall monster of melting flesh and sentient blubber when it’s hit by magnetically accelerated projectile rounds?
What happens next is a strange lull in the immediate threats. No enemies directly present themselves, so I send Jones (under Neko’s watchful eye) to retrieve the civilians from beyond the mobile jammer truck — which Steve is more than happy to tell me about, probably as a way of deflecting his own nerves. And Twintails, Gilbraith, and Viel make their way around the main compound.
For a few minutes, nothing much happens. That’s good, but it’s also not: I know for a fact there are still ADVENT forces out there, both because we’ve heard civilians get killed by magnetic rifle fire and because chatter indicates they still have a presence here. And because the mission’s not over yet, I guess, but let’s not get this meta this soon.
Neko’s second battle scanner finally shows up that there’s a last ADVENT patrol hiding inside the core compound. A Stun Lancer, another Stun Lancer, and…
“All troops,” I bark, “engage and defeat those Stun Lancers, but do not kill the Officer if you can at all help it! We need it alive for Jones to do her thing.”
The first part of that statement is almost easier done than said. The Stun Lancers seem determined to make easily-hated nuisances of themselves: one takes a swing-and-a-miss at Viel, while the other runs all the way outside to slash at Jones — who I probably shouldn’t have named as my own VIP for this mission.
Keeping the Officer alive is… trickier, though.
I mean, it’s not necessarily hard. All we have to do is not shoot at it. Which means a lot of Hunkering Down and no Overwatch commands. No, the tricky part is getting to the Officer, who seems determined to not stick in one place for too long. It runs around the building, setting up overwatches at inconvenient places and taking potshots at Twintails as she goes to rescue the last civilians in easy reach. It’d be so much easier to just blast it… but when has ‘easy’ ever factored into XCOM missions?
Worse, it proves really difficult to actually use the Skulljack. I gave it to Jones thinking she could just run up and use it. But unlike the sword she’s so handy with, the Skulljack can only be used if she’s right next to the Officer with an action to spare. Which practically means being within one normal movement range at the end of her turn… which means danger. There’s not really any great place for a soldier to hide close-by that doesn’t also let the enemy flank them easily. And Jones is pretty hurt as-is. Viel’s smoke grenades and the two Specialists’ Aid Protocols help, of course. But I still have terrifying visions of the Officer finding one of Jones’ hiding places, casually walking around her cover, and killing her from point-blank range…
But it works! A slow-and-steady walk around the outside of the building finally puts Jones within striking range. The Officer’s inevitable attack goes wide, thank Nuffle. And then she’s right next to it, and I select the option…
I close my eyes, breathe in, breathe out, open them again, and push the button.
And Corporal Jones just nails it.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the Skulljack, to be honest. I had no idea how it would work, what it would be like? But when I give Jones the order, she extends the glowing blue blade, rears back her arm, and uppercuts the Officer right in the goddamn chin. A *thunk* and a wet crunch signify that Jones’ aim was true. And then, before I have I time to assess whether or not I should be feeling sick about this, doctor Tygan excitedly starts chattering over the intercom.
“It worked, Commander! We’re on the verge of gaining complete access to the alien data network. I have dedicated our systems to processing whatever we will find, but do act fast — it is only a matter of time before the aliens will detect our intrusion.”
I nod to nobody in particular. “You heard the man, Corporal Jones.”
“Amazing work, Commander!” doctor Tygan says. “We now have access to a central alien network codex. Now all that is needed is…”
He falls quiet for a moment. “Huh. That is… strange.”
“What is strange, Richard? Talk to us here.”
“This data is… the network codex data is not just encrypted electronically and psionically, but also… physically? This data isn’t just ‘in the network’, it is encapsulated somewhere. And… I think that capsule is currently on the move?”
Another few-second silence. Finally, Richard resumes, “Commander, please tell the troops to be very careful! Our intrusion in the network has set something in motion. And I would not be surprised if that something is on its way to the main intrusion point at this very-”
And then two unexpected things happen. First, one of the ‘civilians’ on the compound roof rather umpromptedly sheds their Faceless disguise. It’s one of the civilians Neko’s Battle Scanner picked up, too, so I guess that teaches us that these scanners don’t actually pick up on giant mud monsters.
I’m a little too preoccupied with occurrence two to really pay attention to that, though. Because the second thing that happens is that an enormous purple vortex of psionic energy whirls into existence a handful of meters from Jones’ current location.
The purple energy concentrates, then explodes harmlessly. But when the psionic smoke clears, in its place is… something.
“What in the?…” Steve’s confusion mirrors my own. We get a better look at the creature as it runs up to Jones’ and Twintails’ hiding places. It’s… like a computer glitch given human form. It has a golden humanoid body made of sparkling, shifting data. Its ‘hair’ is a flapping void of smoke and darkness. And joining the two together, piercing mechanical eyes peer forth from a robotic skull.
“Commander,” Richard is the first to regain his faculties, “that creature appears to be the physical incarnation of the alien data codex we have tried to access. It might be accurate to say that it is the Codex, given form. I surmise that it is here to physically protect its data — itself — from the attempted intrusion.”
“Some firewall,” I mutter.
“However,” Richard continues, “now that this Codex is on the battlefield, this presents a unique opportunity. If your troops can neutralize or kill the creature, and recover its mechanical components, we will have an actual physical data store to investigate.”
“Understood,” Steve barks. “Troops, weapons hot, we’ve got our target.”
The turn immediately after the Codex’ arrival is tense. It is super close to Corporal Jones, who is still recovering from her successful Skulljack. Has she survived this difficult hacking dance, only to get killed by an alien we literally couldn’t have prepared for? If the Codex walks around the wall and flanks her…
The Codex does a different thing, though. The Codex actually teleports.
“Fascinating,” Richard mumbles over the intercom. “The creature actually seems to exist in a state of flux across multiple dimensions. Imagine what we could do with…” I’m glad he’s not the only one immediately daydreaming over teleporting powers of our own. But we’ve got more immediate worries for now: the Codex…
The Codex has a gun, we can tell. But instead of using it, the Codex raises its hands and does a psionic thing. An orb of purple energy appears near and over Lieutenant Twintails, quickly contracting to a single point. It doesn’t seem to do anything at first, but I hear her voice over the radio moments later. “Commander, whatever that was — it jammed my gun! Ammo’s inert, I’ll have to reload.”
“Jones,” I bark, “looks like we got a slippery pacifist on our hands here. Can you show little miss hard-to-look-at here some of the upsides of melee weapons?”
“Aye-aye, Commander.” Jones leaps from her hiding place and runs towards the Codex. She unsheathes her sword, swings at the creature, and…
Success! The telltale swinging noise tells me Jones’ attack connected, and a distinct crackling noise makes it even better: for the first time since we’ve crafted them, one of our Arc Blades has stunned an enemy.
Good hits from Neko and Gilbraith quickly drop the Codex after that; its strange digital body stops its constant glitching as it falls over, reducing the creature from a terrifying unknowable thing to just a dead humanoid with glowing golden skin. And once the last of the Faceless is taken care of, that’s it for this particular mission.
I wouldn’t want to call this mission an unqualified success: of the five people that went out, four of them return Gravely Wounded. Only now-Corporal Gilbraith, the newest addition to my Specialist Medic crew, actually walks away from the Skyranger. He’s one of two soldiers to receive a promotion from this; Sergeant Jones, clear and present source of all plot advancement in this mission, is now officially my highest-ever Ranger and the first one of her line to get a nickname.
But everyone did return home in one piece. And we killed some aliens, saved some people, and get ourselves…
Well. What did we get ourselves?
I turn the robotic skull over in my hands. It’s the only thing left of the Codex creature: the rest of its digital body has slowly dissipated over time. It hasn’t even left any trace in doctor Tygan’s lab. Not for Richard’s lack of trying, of course.
“It’s fascinating, isn’t it, Commander?” Richard asks. I see him staring at the skull with a mix of trepidation and glee. Like he can’t wait to get his hands on this thing, but he’s still worried about what he’ll find out when he does.
I nod. “It really is. All the alien secrets that must be locked inside this…”
“Every time we think we get what the aliens are doing,” Steve says, “they trip us up again. A digital data guardian. It’s…” Lost for word, he just shakes his head. Then he hands me a datapad; the one I gave him earlier, repurposed. “Well, whatever this things was or did or knew, it was clearly important to ADVENT. Important to the Avatar Project. We’re seeing reports that Project progress is in disarray again.”
He smirks. “Gotta hand it to you, Commander. I wasn’t sure about this, but we really one-two-punched ’em where it hurts.”
“So,” Steve says, as he claps a hand on my shoulder — but, like, softly, so that I don’t drop the alien brain by accident. “You followed your hunch and we kicked the aliens in the face because of it. You feeling any better now? Did that kick you out of your slump? Because we’re gonna need a lot more of those bright ideas if we’re going to win this thing.”
A smile slowly spreads across my face. I hand the brain to Richard.
“It did, yeah. Thank you. And I think… I think I know what we should do next.”
“And that is?”
“Focus.” My smile blooms into a full-blown grin. “And fight back.”