In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, a potentially disastrous mission was turned into a moment of unexpected triumph. Thanks to gut, planning, and a good Skulljack to-hit roll, we rolled out of ADVENT’s second retaliation strike with a full team of soldiers, the gratitude of the Western United States region, and a brand-new lead on the aliens’ plans. It was a victory that we all needed, but it was particularly a victory that I needed. I’d been a little worried about my ability to lead XCOM to timely victory, but nothing boosts your confidence like doing exactly that in a great way.
So, what’ll I do with this newfound courage and resolve? For the answer to that, we now turn to my early-morning office…
“XCOM central command,” I say to Steve, Lily, and Richard, “thank you for coming.” The three of them are standing at attention in my office. They all look a little confused: it’s not often I call formal staff meetings like this. But there’s some things I should say that are long overdue.
None of them speak up, so I continue. “As you all may or may not have noticed, I’ve been… lacking a little, recently, in my role as Commander. I’ve been down in the dumps, let’s not mince any words, and I’ve let it affect my performance.” I drum my fingers on my desk a little. “Now, the three of you have shown admirable initiative in prodding me along and keeping this place running; I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that XCOM is still flying as well as it is because of that. But recent events have inspired me to get my own act back together more. Hence, this meeting.”
I look at Richard. “Chief scientist doctor Tygan. Richard. You are an incredible asset to the XCOM organization, and we wouldn’t be where we are right now without your exemplary work.”
“Thank you, Commander,” Richard replies. He’s blushing a little. “But… if you do not mind my asking, why this high praise now. You are not planning on letting me go from XCOM, are you?”
I try to fight back a snort. “Ha! Do I look like I want to lose this war? No, Richard, your position here is safe, don’t worry. Good work just deserves to be acknowledged sometimes, I think. And you’ve been doing great work here.”
Richard just smiles at that, and nods.
“Now, I haven’t really been keeping up with your team’s work as much as I should have. I like to say I was ‘overwhelmed by responsibility’, but the more likely truth is that I didn’t fully understand what you were telling me. Not because of your reports, you do your best to put everything in layman’s terms! I just haven’t been taking the time to really read through them.”
I bring up a research overview on my computer monitor. “Obviously, I’ve taken that time now, before calling this meeting. And I’ve written up a research planning for the immediate future. Contingent on your insight of course, but…” I tap a few buttons. “Here. The first thing I’d like you to do after finishing up that turret analysis, is crack the decryption on that ADVENT datapad we found. We could really use the intel stored on that thing.”
Richard nods. “That sounds like a clever idea, Commander. I’ll add it to the schedule.”
“Once you’re done with that,” I continue, “I’d like you and your team to start working on the Plated Armor project. I realize that our dearth of scientists makes that a long-form project, but we really need that better armor. Really have needed it for a while, now; probably something we really should’ve tackled earlier. But better Nate than lever.”
“Never mind.” I wave my hands dismissively, then turn to look at Lily. “Chief Engineer Shen. Lily. You, too, are an incredible asset to the XCOM organization, and we wouldn’t be where we are right now without your skill and know-how.”
“Ah, thanks, Commander,” Lily replies. Her posture is much more relaxed than before; she’s never been one to care for rank and formality.
“You’ve been absolutely right in calling me out on my poor Avenger-building decisions,” I continue, “and I hope you’ll keep doing so if ever necessary. For now, though, I sat down and drew up some plans that I think should work out.”
Another tap-tap-tap brings up Avenger floorplans. “One of the two level-two rooms I had your team work on is almost excavated, isn’t that right?” Nod nod. “I’d like you to use that space to build an Advanced Warfare Center. We really need better medical facilities.”
“Will do, Commander. I don’t think we have the power for that right now, but I can assign Tucker to permanent Power Relay duty. That ought to boost our output enough.”
I nod. “Please do. Also, assign one engineer to the AWC project, and the last two to excavating that the second room. And once that’s done… do you think we have enough juice left over to build one of those workshops?”
Lily slowly starts grinning. “I’ll tell Tucker she better make sure we have enough.”
“Great. And, oh yeah — how’s that ammunition project in the Proving Grounds coming along? If I read your report correctly, that should be just about done, is that right?”
“Finished an hour ago, Commander. I was busy writing it up when you called the meeting. We’ve made something I think you might like.”
“‘Venom rounds’, huh? Yeah, you’re right, that does look interesting. I’ll see if we can’t field-test those on our latest mission.” I put the report down. “As for the present: you told me your team had similar plans for enhanced grenades, yes?”
“Sure do, Commander. You want us to get started on one of those? I can get Olsen on that as soon as the digging’s done.”
“Please do,” I say with a grin. Then, I turn to Steve. “Central Officer Bradford. Steve. You are…”
“…an incredible asset to the XCOM organization?” He finishes my thought with a smirk.
“And we would very literally not be where we are without your efforts, Mister Avenger Pilot,” I say. “But yes, obviously, XCOM owes an immense debt of gratitude to you in particular. I owe you a debt of gratitude: you’ve been supportive whenever I needed that and critical whenever I was on the verge of making mistakes. And I sincerely hope that you’ll remain XCOM’s functional and moral compass until we’ve beaten the last of these alien invaders off our planet.”
“And beyond, Commander,” Steve says warmly.
Tap-tap the third, and the screen now shows the world map. “We need to get to West Africa soon, I’m more convinced of that now than ever. The Avatar Project just keeps going, and we need on top of it before this spirals out of control.”
“Couldn’t agree more.”
“First thing I want you to do,” I say as I point to the map, “is make contact with the Western European resistance as soon as we can. I suggest we keep the Avenger in the Mexican HQ for scanning until we get enough intel, either from scanning or from Richard’s decryption work. Then we make contact with…”
I look over at Lily quickly. “The new comms hub is finished, right? How much capacity does that give us?”
“The base hub, just one more connection,” Lily says, “so that puts us at four. I can put one engineer in it to boost it to six, and we can upgrade the system for another engineer slot to eight if you want.”
“Right. Four’s good enough for now.” I turn to Steve again. “How soon can you get us in touch with Western Europe?”
“Starting from now? Should be a week or two, I think. One week to get the intel, and one week to find them, that sounds plausible.”
“And how is ADVENT responding to all of this? I didn’t get a chance to read your latest Dark Event synopsis, but I’m gonna go ahead and assume it’s nothing we like.”
“Well…” Steve says, “that’s one of those bad news-good news situations. Bad news is, yes, ADVENT is planning more Dark Events. We’ve got confirmation on two: another hunting UFO, and… well, a really nasty plan that involves more of those Faceless. And then there’s a third plan that we haven’t even uncovered yet.”
“And the good news?” I ask.
“Good news is, we’re following up on related leads right now. We can probably pre-empt one of these things again. I’ll let you know when we know more; should be a few days before our contacts check in.”
“Great.” I get up. “And, once again, thanks to all of you. You all do great work. I couldn’t have asked for better people to save Earth from an alien invasion with.”
“The leads came in, Commander,” Steve says. The Avenger is currently doing scanning runs over Western Europe; two more days, projected, and we should be able to find the local resistance hub. Couldn’t have picked a better time to get interrupted.
“What’ve we got?”
“Nothing on the aliens’ secret event, sorry to say. But we did get a solid lead on something interesting: a secret ADVENT report, very hush-hush, that supposedly describes all the details of their Faceless plan. Long and the short of it, they’re planning on inserting Faceless sleeper agents on key positions around the world. But that report describes exactly where they’ll be put. We find that out, we can avoid them easily.”
“Sounds good to me,” I say. “Let’s roll out.”
One hour later, the Skyranger touches down over ‘Blood Park’, another Los Angeles slum. I don’t know why ADVENT’s so keen on storing all their secret data here? And, once again, it doesn’t really look like a slum. But hey, what do I know?
“Command, be advised,” Firebrand’s voice crackles over the radio, “I managed to put Menace 1-5 down unseen, but I think I twigged some proximity alarm on the descent. Chatter’s spiking, mostly around the ADVENT building.”
“Confirmed, Firebrand,” Steve replies. “Looks like ADVENT was worried we might be coming. From what we can read, the data we need is in an electronically locked data vault. But-”
“Let me guess,” I interrupt him. “We’re under some sort of time limit again? Self-erasing software? ADVENT bombardment? The Big Quake is finally coming and it’s coming in ten minutes?”
“…Self-detonating charges on the vault,” Steve says sheepishly. “And eight minutes.”
“Alright, troops, move out. Frederick, you take the rooftop. The rest of you, swing around that building. Watch the streets and stick to cover. You all know the drill by now.”
We run into our first encounter before long, a Muton-Sectoid combo spotted by Frederick. And I’m… not really worried about this? I mean, sure, Mutons are scary and Sectoids are annoying. But we’re in a good position here, we can neatly get the drop on them, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing else immediately nearby. We should — should be able to make this a pretty clean ambush.
Or, alternatively, I could have Gilbraith hack the nearby ADVENT lightpost. Which I still don’t know what they’re called, but I can’t not think of them as ‘lightposts’ at this point. It’s a risky venture: fail, and not only do we lose our cover advantage, but ‘all enemies gain a defense and mobility boost’. But…
“A lead on an ADVENT facility?” I say incredulously. “From one of these random slum lightposts? Wow, the normal ADVENT network is just a sieve, isn’t it?”
Steve shrugs. “Long as it works in our favour, I’m not gonna give them any sysadmin tips.”
I tell Gilbraith to go for it. Maximum confidence! He initiates the hack, and the bar keeps going up… and up… and up…
The bar stops just short of the mark. So close.
“Good hustle anyway, Gilbraith,” I say over comms as alarms start blaring and ADVENT chatter spikes, “some of the best hacking I’ve ever seen! We’ll get it next time.” I’m internally cursing an unfair world, sure, but the troops don’t need to hear that. They’ve got plenty on their plate as-is.
A fast, defense-boosted Muton in cover is markedly less fun to deal with than a normal unawares Muton. But while I can’t take back the results of the failed hack, I can get that Muton out of cover fairly easily.
Alright. Two minutes in and we’ve cleared the first patrol and made some decent headway — the building holding the ADVENT data vault is practically within reach. Sergeant Frederick has some burn marks to show for it, but that’s nothing we can’t handle.
We’re honestly in a really good position here, actually. There’s no obstructions between Frederick’s high perch, and the lower-elevation ADVENT compound. Which gives him great line of sight, sure, but (more importantly) also lets him lob his Battle Scanners with abandon. I won’t have to do the whole slow-and-steady-creepup if I know what’s coming, after all… and sure enough, a second patrol is revealed to be waiting for us in the compound courtyard.
It doesn’t quite prove possible to get everyone in a good ambush position without the patrol twigging that we’re here. Yes, I could have held everyone back to give Frederick a free shot. But these guys were clustered together so nicely! I really wanted to introduce them to the business end of Barr’s frag grenade. But then in-between the end of my last move and Grenade City they decide to move around a little, and, well, you know where that goes.
No matter. They’re an Officer and two Stun Lancers. Frederick drops one of the annoying sworders from up high, while DeHaan and Barr tag-team the second one. As for the Officer, it’s the only one of the three to actually put itself in good cover. Which could end up being a pain, sure enough…
…but then I remember what it is that Sergeant Viel does best.
“Great job, Commander, Menace,” Steve says. “Three minutes left on the clock and DeHaan’s in easy reach of the vault. Wrap this up quick so we can get an early lunch?”
I rush DeHaan to the vault, select the hacking action… and then hesitate. “No, wait. Change of plans. Gilbraith, you get in here and do it instead.”
“Gilbraith?” Steve asks. “Why Gilbraith? It’ll take him two minutes to get there, and DeHaan’s pretty exposed in there. Are you trying to get him ambushed or something?”
“I’m sending Gilbraith in because Gilbraith’s the better hacker,” I reply. “That lightpost had some pretty good stuff for us to get at. Maybe this vault will too? I think that’s worth the risk and the wait, just in case.”
“Your call, Commander,” Steve says. “I just hope you’re right abo-”
And then Gilbraith brings up the hacking screen and we both fall silent.
Steve whistles appreciatively after a second or two. “Well. Shen, Tygan, are you seeing this?”
“Crystal, Central,” Lily answers. “Not bad. If we can push ADVENT’s Dark Events back by a few weeks, that’ll give us a hell of a lot more breathing room.”
“On the other hand,” Richard chimes in, “these additional files on ADVENT’s own armor will most certainly cut weeks off our own armor research time. Either way, I agree that this is an impressive find.”
“And a difficult one,” Steve says. “They’re both valuable outcomes. Hate to be the one making this call; I’m sure Jarenth must be all kinds of conflicted ri-”
“Gilbraith,” I bark into the microphone, completely ignoring the discussion going on around me, “you get me that research time reduction and I guarantee I will personally hand you the first suit of whatever fancy armor we end up making.”
On the other end of the line, the familiar hacking noise chimes in, builds up, and culminates in a happy *ping*. And then Gilbraith replies, “Size L please, Commander. White’s my colour.”
“Whoo!” Steve claps loudly, and a few bridge technicians follow suit. I am grinning like a doofus. “Amazing work, Corporal Gilbraith. Now just wrap up that last group ‘o Sectoids and you can all come home.”
The aforementioned last group proves to be a little more resilient than I’d like, though. Unlike everything else we’ve fought so far, these fuckers are inside and dug in. Frederick has poor line of sight, Viel and Barr are too far away to do much of anything, and Gilbraith exhausted his options with that super-hack. Only DeHaan has any mojo left this turn. But when I send him outside to find the entirely unguarded and undefended Sectoid and sword it a question…
And that ain’t good.
Two Sectoids run outside in anger. They both take up cover positions and lay into DeHaan with their plasma guns. One of them misses. The other doesn’t.
DeHaan survives the hit, but it leaves him panicked. He speed-climbs up the side of the compound, blindly fires his shard gun, and then has a quiet cowering freak-out behind a fancy control antenna.
Oh, and the third Sectoid neatly tries to pre-empt my clever plan of sending Gilbraith up to heal and protect DeHaan.
I sight, and flip my comm frequency to a specific channel. “Sergeant Barr. I hate to always lean on you like this, it’s a lot of stress and responsibility you never asked for. But am I correct in assuming you have a plan to deal with this situation?”
“I do, Commander,” Barr’s barely-noticeable Russian accent springs into life. “Don’t know if you noticed, but DeHaan got a good overwatch hit in on one of those Sectoids. And it’s that Sectoid that took over Gilbraith.”
And then, after a second, “And it just so happens that that Sectoid is standing next to an open window.”
With the mind-control broken, Gilbraith can patch up DeHaan. And with the walls broken, the Sectoids’ cover is much less formidable. They try to strike back with a classic Double Psi-Zombie Flank Attack…
…but be honest, do you really think that that’s gonna help? Gilbraith perforates one of the Sectoids from close range, and DeHaan…
“Sorry, Commander,” DeHaan yells in a shaky voice, as the Sectoid runs away to futilely harass Barr. “Dunno why they’re so hard to hit.”
“Not your fault, soldier, it’s that hack effect that makes them tougher.” I try very hard to keep my tired exasperation out of my voice. “And maybe swords just aren’t your jam today, huh? Try seeing if that shard gun does you any more favours.”
And hey! Mission complete. We got the files that counter ADVENT’s Faceless initiative, we got some extra files that’ll help get our armor research finished faster, and nobody died. I’m always happy when that’s an outcome. Frederick and DeHaan are both Gravely Wounded, but that’s a status I much prefer over ‘Actually Dead For Real’.
Promotions for everyone that isn’t Frederick! I’m not even gonna try rationalizing why he’s the only one left out. Gilbraith goes further down the Medic Specialist path with Revival Protocol. DeHaan… I was going to craft him into a new Blademaster, but I can’t in good conscience make him rely on his sword any more after this mission. Phantom it is. And both Barr and Viel reach the Lieutenant level of Grenadier. For Lieutenant Barr, that means the classic holo-targeting upgrade: anything she doesn’t kill outright — assuming we ever run into something like that — will be easier to murder for the rest of the squad. And Lieutenant Viel unlocks himself some Heavy Ordinance, which means he’ll always carry two of one particular grenade into battle.
Steve walks up to me as the ceremony, such as it is, dies down. “That was some excellent decision-making out there, Commander. And you’ll be glad to hear we got what we came from. The Dark Event files check out: we’ll be able to avoid their Faceless infiltrators with ease. And I introduced that new scientist to doctor Tygan just now.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Good job Team Us! It’s really starting to look like we’re doing okay, huh?”
“I think that calls for a celebration, Commander. Capitalize on that good morale. Any ideas?”
I smile. “How about a nice class field trip to Paris? I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”