XCOM 2: Lucky Men & Lousy Hackers

I’m playing and diarising XCOM 2 on Commander difficulty in Iron Man mode, using characters based on the staff of RPS, replaced by readers as and when they die or go out of action. Full explanation and intro here, download the characters for your own game here.

Important lessons learned: Alice is a dangerously incompetent hacker, Pip can’t run very far and Adam is a dirty, dirty boy.

Our second mission is Operation Ice Valley – something of a theme forming there – which is a VIP retrieval mission in fancy future-city. With everyone on the team now a squaddie (a Corporal, in Graham’s case) I’m feeling a little less vulnerable. Sadly it all goes wrong immediately, when newly-minted Specialist Alice has a catastrophe while trying to hack an Advent CCTV tower.

Not only does she fail to knock the thing offline, not only does this alert Advent to our presence, but our one true cyberpunk also ends up granting every enemy on the mission a boost to movement range and armour. THANKS EVER SO ALICE

It’s a war of attrition from that point on, as we inch carefully forwards while the mission timer ticks away frighteningly.

(A voice suddenly speaks from behind the fourth wall: when people talk about XCOM 2 being ‘too hard’, what they really mean is these timers – a pressure to push forwards and take risks, out of terror that the clock will run out. Key to being capable at this game is understanding how to mitigate that pressure. E.g. limiting how far out you send your units in order that they don’t wake up a pack of aliens; careful overwatch defence grids; calculating exactly how many turns it will take one soldier to reach the goal; using the bulk of your squad to tie the aliens up while one takes the longer, safer route around; picking skill unlocks that can put someone into concealment for just this purpose; the use of the Mimic beacon to distract enemy fire; destroying scenery to create line of sight; shredding armour with explosives; but most of all, having a plan rather than a desperate rush).

Thanks to Alice’s fumbled hack, the enemies are better-armoured, and none of my soldiers can now take out any of them alone. The distances are great too, so they’re shooting from long-range and missing far too often. Graham and Alice both take hits, but live on. Adam is able to rescue the VIP, lost in a small labryinth of offices, while Pip and Graham provide cover from the rooftops. But the timer’s almost up, and another Advent dropship just arrived…

It is a near thing. A very near thing. We manage to clean up all the enemies, but the evac is moments away and Pip has a long, long way left to run. I fear the worst.

It is a very near thing. Had Pip needed to run even, say, five metres further, we’d have left her behind. But we didn’t! Welcome aboard, Pip! Second mission successful, but both Graham and Alice are hospitalised for a few weeks.

It’s all Alice’s fault, of course. If she hadn’t screwed up that hack…

This means that, for our next mission, we need reinforcements. Please welcome John “Papa Bear” Walker to the fold. He’s accompanied by the first recruit from outside the RPS staff, a reader-turned-freedom fighter named Risingson.

(A voice speaks from behind the fourth wall: the reader’s RPS username was in fact just ‘Risingson’, but sadly XCOM 2 does not allow soldiers to have single names. So, in the event that the next name chosen at random from this list of readers is one-word, their first name will be Ian. Hence, welcome Ian Risingson. I expect to be fielding a great many Ians before this diary is done.)

I give Ian Risingson some nice yellow’n’orange armour, because rising sun, and then we’re off to Operation Doom Tower, which is to rescue some resistance civilians from those Advent rotters. It is a mission that will present us with us first non-Advent, non-Sectoid threat. It is a mission that will see certain death pay a visit to Adam Smith.

In order for this mission to be a success, we must ensure the safety of at least six civilians in addition to eradicating any enemies. Given that Advent are busy blowing everyone away somewhere off in the distance, I prioritise rescuing anyone near to where our mission begins. It’s going pretty well, bar a brief but efficient entanglement with some Advent goons, when I get cocky and send Adam running straight up to an apparent civilian and this happens.

Oh.

Oh dear. A shapeshifter.

There’s no time left to run away, and everyone else on the squad is either too far away or too tied up with their own search & rescue operations. There is simply no way to stop this Faceless abomination from gouging away. So long, Adam.

Oh!

Oh wow!

As the thing gathers itself for another attack, Pip softens it up with a long-range sniper shot, allowing Adam to finish it off with a mighty sword-strike. It’s a miracle. He won’t get off so lightly next time.

In fact he does get off so lightly next time, risking a run while an Avatar soldier in Overwatch, but the blighter misses. This is deeply improbable. How is Adam doing this?

Oh.

Oh, gross.

He’s sleeping with Sectoids. No wonder the aliens are being so forgiving.

The job’s nearly done, but there’s just time for poor old Risingson, who has otherwise distinguished herself with a couple of clean kills, to take a shot to the belly.

She’ll live, but we won’t see her for a while. Which means that, next time around, I’m up.

That’s another successful mission. I… hadn’t banked on this. Maybe – a voice speaks from behind the fourth wall – I’m reasonably proficient at this game? Say it ain’t so.

I’m also without doubt setting myself up for a fall, but at least that will better suit my dramatic purposes. I’ve played – Oh God – 30 hours of XCOM 2 on Veteran mode, and ahead of that I’ve played XCOM 1’s campaign through I believe five times, so I’m not exactly going into XCOM 2’s second-hardest difficulty as a greenhorn. Even so, the internet-wide wailing about how unforgiving this sequel is made me expect a slaughterhouse on Commander even though I strongly I believe that anyone moaning about Veteran is just not very good at XCOM. I mean, look at these stats – only 11% of all Commander missions wind up as victories. Guh?

Granted, it’s very early days: I’ve only faced Sectoids, Advent chaps and Psy-Zombies, all of whom can be felled by two accurate standard-weapon shots. Actually, there was one turret, but I used a grenade launcher to shred its armour first. But as soon as a Muton turns up, the game is going to change: my squad’s doing well but my research isn’t, plus I’ve squandered all my cash. Any kind of improved weapon or armour is a long, long way off.

Next time: another reader signs up, I insert myself into the fray and John can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

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71 Comments

  1. TenzorMatic says:

    I think you’re misinterpreting the stats. Of all successful missions, 11% are played in commander difficulty. (That’s why, if you add those 4 columns up, it equals 100%).

    I always enjoy reading these types of articles, keep em up.

  2. AkivaDaphydd says:

    If the list of “Readers turned Freedom Fighters” is still open to grow, Akiva and Daphydd are separate! *lol*

    And Adam is a Naughty, Naughty man!

  3. Horg says:

    I feel the correct mentality to approaching retaliation missions is to assume there are 13 faceless with two more faceless hidden among them, and plan accordingly.

    • king0zymandias says:

      The easiest way to do these missions is to just completely ignore the civilians and focus on finishing all the aliens as quickly as possible. The longer this mission goes on, the more civilians are going to die.

      • Horg says:

        I have lost a retaliation doing that, if the pods are spread out they can meet their kill quota before you can find them all. Also if you completely ignore the civs then you are more likely to have to fight two faceless simultaneously once all the pods are dead. It’s better to get at least one out of the way when you are ready for it.

      • Tsumei says:

        My strategy has been to kill and clear areas; But I often do it by settling in good positions, high ground, full cover etc. And then rushing a ranger out to spot the enemies so they aggro and run into the killzone.

        PARTICULARLY useful with chrysalids around.

        • Pofruin says:

          No one uses battle scaners? They find pods without trigering them and unmask facless dudes.

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            Andy_Panthro says:

            and I think they reveal Chrysallids too.

          • carewolf says:

            Of course not. In game that actively punishes you for scouting, the last think you want is extra sight.

            I didn’t know they AGAIN broke on of their own mechanics, to make the battle scanner useful instead of suicidal.

  4. preshrunk_cyberpunk says:

    I humbly suggest myself to replace your resident hacker.

  5. cakeisalie says:

    My issue with the over reliance on timed missions, is while it does help address one of the key failings of of the previous game (ie the lack of tactical depth required for success), it conveniently masks the weak and highly predictable AI.

    • AimHere says:

      Bad AI in a single player strategy game is almost inevitable – it’s the rule rather than the exception. Finding a way to improve the gameplay AND cover up the AI problem seems like a good deal to me.

    • C0llic says:

      You may have a point, but the net result for me is a more interesting game where I’m forced to take risks, and a generally more exciting and engaging experience. In the face of that, the reasons why those things are true doesn’t matter to me.

      I will also say that enemy AI is more interesting and varied than the XCOM of old. For example, Vipers will stay back and annoy you with pulls and poison, sectiods will hide in the back and are very dangerous in large groups when you can’t stop them from using their psi stuff. Other troops behave differently as well, and they are much smarter; not always running your overwatch when they don’t have to for example.

      It’s quite a large improvement from the first game really.

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    Aerothorn says:

    Man, I wish I had thought of this so I could be Thoran Aerothorn or something exceedingly silly.

  7. Turkey says:

    Never seen the shapeshifter before. That’s a dope looking monster.

    • Coming Second says:

      You will. One of the most frequently activated dark events is those things randomly replacing civilians in *any* mission that has them.

      • RedViv says:

        My most frequent is bugs, bugs, bugs everywhere. Here have three bugs in this mission, with more bugs next to the civilians. Oh they killed one of them, here are ANOTHER THREE MORE BUGS.
        It’s like someone turned this stretch of my game into an entire campaign of the tanker mission.

    • int says:

      He looks so sad he’s melting. That makes me sad.

    • April March says:

      They just remind me of the shapeshifters from Oglaf.

      This strip is SFW, but I wouldn’t click it at work if I were you: link to oglaf.com

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      They are introduced in the cut-scene before your first retaliation mission are they not?

      • C0llic says:

        They are. You may not actually encounter them then though ( I didn’t immediately on my first run).

  8. Geewhizbatman says:

    Now that is an alien booty. Move over Kerrigan, there’s a new pin up girl in town!

  9. BlackeyeVuk says:

    Alec, word of advice.
    If you see three Vipers, with your sneaky-sneak thingy down, you are dead.

    Cuz Vipers move,grapple and bond in ONE move up to 15 tiles, across walls,levels,and or/good cover and whatnot. Which is in my opinion total BS. Oh and third one usually just spit poison which renders one unit unplayable with 30% drop in accuracy and having 3-4 tiles only to move, in many cases(nowhere else is good defensive position) will render unit useless.
    But, good luck man, you’ll needed. Personally, what you do is fools errand at this point.
    Oh and you have about 5 months until avatar is finished. Even if you try to take facilities or two.

    • Ufofighter says:

      Flashbang and they will only shoot you, or Mimic Beacon to buy one free turn. Mimic beacons are practically gamebreaking in this game, I’m in the middle of a Legendary run right now and they are the “get out of jail, free” card of XCOM 2.

    • Faze2 says:

      Totally agree- flashbangs and mimic beacons are the key to the early game on Ironman. I roll with 2 FB and no medkit from the start.

      Later in the game, Acid/incendiary grenades are good too. Basically, if the target is disoriented and/or burning, all they can do is move or shoot. They can’t even reload.

      If you see vipers, FB them, aid protocol the guy who tossed the grenade and move the rest of your guys back into an OW trap. Boom, dead vipers.

      • C0llic says:

        Flashbangs are essential. They are indispensable against vipers and sectiods, and another nasty you meet not too far along. Mimics are equally great, but if you’re unlucky, you may not get the materials you need for them as quickly as you would like.

        • Ufofighter says:

          The thing about mimics is that if you manage to throw it so the beacon “flanks” the aliens they will usually change their alingment towards it, sometimes even ignoring your soldiers. So it’s not only a free turn but usually better shooting options later.

          My rangers put them in altar between missions.

  10. Ufofighter says:

    Difficulty in Commander level has some spikes, mostly when you are in the brink of getting new Armor/Weapons but are stuck with the older ones for whatever reason. Even worse if you can’t delay the Factoy/Blacksite mission anymore.

    By the way I’ve discovered that soldiers left behind in VIP missions can appear later for rescue, it’s been a bloody mission but Bob “Snake” Plissken is back in business.

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    heretic says:

    Alec please update your spreadsheet with the new entries! :D

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    Fitzmogwai says:

    Hey Alec, if you decide to add first names into the spreadsheet after the fact, use Owen for mine please. Thank you! (I still expect to die on my first mission.)

  13. BriaerosAU says:

    At first i too, loathed the timed mission. Now they are my favorite. Balancing pushing forward but not too fast, last turn heroics and running gun battles all the way to the evac zone. Anything that makes me step outside my tactics comfort zone.

    • Faze2 says:

      Most memorable Xcom2 moment so far- Sniper named after me KOed by stun lancer, 1 team member dead from an unlucky crit while in high cover, VIP still unrecovered, 2 turns to go. Ranger smacks out the VIP, picks him up, heavy grabs the sniper and everyone hauls ass for the extraction point, running through overwatch fire, exiting with only 1 team member lost and all objectives completed.

      Now THAT was exciting.

      Too much of EU/EW involved inching forward metagaming the mechanics of activation and overwatch, really glad to see timed missions in Xcom2.

      • dangerlift says:

        …or, given the time limits, changing the playing field by using the terrain to your advantage.

        In my situation I knew where the baddies were – all conveniently located in a room with the VIP holding cell just off to the side.

        Rather than be ambushed on my way in, I set everyone up in overwatch, blew a hole through the wall and caught them all with their pants down. With the exception of an unlucky specialist – copping a missile barrage to the face – everyone made it to the EVAC zone safe and sound.

    • BorgiaCamarones says:

      I don’t get the complaints about the timers, although it wouldn’t hurt to make them more interesting like in Invisible, Inc., where each stage of the timer brought incremental bonuses for the enemy.

  14. neoncat says:

    Likewise, you may may split my name into “neon” and “cat”. ^_^

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    Elusiv3Pastry says:

    I’m fine with timed mission slaughter, though I do wish the VIP missions gave me just *one* extra turn.

    • dangerlift says:

      VIP missions usually have more than enough turns, 12 by my count. It’s the ghastly ‘hack this’ or ‘protect that’ which will often torment you with a measly 8 turns.

      • Kitsunin says:

        I’m quite positive the VIP capture/kill (not rescue, which funny enough I find tends to be the easiest) missions are the most difficult mission type by a considerable margin. Unlike the hack or protect missions which really only require you to get to the objective by the time limit, you have to accomplish everything in the map within the 12 turns.

        I’ve realized that killing the VIP is often the smarter move in these, it tends to be way too close to be able to waste like like three of one of your units’ turns on the VIP.

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      Andy_Panthro says:

      There’s a mod in the steam workshop now that adds an extra 2 turns to most missions.

  16. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Wow, when Adam burst around that corner, I bet he wasn’t planning to bump into Miranda Lawson from Mass Effect.

  17. Faze2 says:

    Lightning Strike is a strong pickup early for those 12 turn VIP extractions.

  18. rexx.sabotage says:

    Ugh RPS (Alec especially), is terrible about getting me over-hyped to play a game. It’s so bad that I meh’d out of finishing MGS V, how sad is that?

  19. Geebs says:

    Ok, I know this is might be a bit controversial, but:

    I think it’s absolutely bloody TERRIBLE that Firaxis have decided that the way to make their character models look Totally Badass is to give the option to have them perma-smoking. They’re perpetuating a stereotype from the beginning of last century which was promoted by people who knew perfectly well that their product was a health risk and carried on selling it anyway.

    Advertising cigarettes is rightly banned in more forward-thinking countries. Putting this sort of thing in a game supports the agenda of evil jerks.

    It sends totally the wrong message and frankly they should be ashamed of themselves.

    • Sin Vega says:

      But shooting dudes is totally okay?

      • MD says:

        The difference is that making cigarettes cool is definitely an effective way to increase smoking rates. Whereas the pretend violence -> actual violence link is still pretty dubious (and intuitively at least, games like xcom are nowhere near the most worrying in that respect).

        • MD says:

          Also, even if the violence isn’t okay, I don’t think that makes it silly to focus on the smoking. A backlash against cigarettes in games could plausibly make a difference, whereas complaining about the violence would be pissing in the wind.

        • Kala says:

          welp, the dudes in question are aliens… which yeah, in general might be xenophobic BUT if they’re coming to invade and colonize our fictional world, then shooting those fictional dudes is fair enough, really.

          (they’ve got it coming)

      • Geebs says:

        Cigarettes contribute to vastly more deaths than firearms. For example, in the UK, cigarettes contribute to 100,000 deaths per year. The number of firearm deaths per year in the UK is about 0.2 / 100,000 * 64,000,000 = 128.

        So yeah, smoking is worse than guns. Glorifying smoking to a bunch of adolescents is worse still.

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      cpt_freakout says:

      Guns are super good for your health, you know.

    • Ufofighter says:

      And I was missing the customization option of pipes…

    • Blastaz says:

      Would have more of a point if the smoking didn’t make your characters look so totally badass…

      More professional alien hunters choose Camels than any other cigarette.

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        aleander says:

        But smoking makes your character look “badass” precisely because of the marketing. It’s not like cigarette smoke is an equivalent of busted bum pheromone or something. We do have a choice of skipping them, and using the same marketing techniques to make cigarettes look lame, just stop putting them on cowboys, and put them on lazy, corrupt politicians that die early in the show due to choking on a donut.

    • Rorschach617 says:

      You are looking at the cigarettes as a shorthand for “look, I’m cool.” That is your interpretation. Another equally-valid interpretation is “look, I am stressed out from having to save the planet with the kind of people who miss point-blank shots and screw up basic hacking jobs. Lung cancer is not going to kill me.”

      • Geebs says:

        They should at least put in a mechanic whereby a smoking character moves one fewer squares due to chronic carbon monoxide poisoning and impending COPD, or accidentally burns themselves mid-mission. Having it be purely cosmetic is somehow even worse.

        • Kitsunin says:

          I know, right? My first thought seeing the cigarette was “That’s so irresponsible, you’re going to have an asthma attack right when earth needs you most!”

        • Ivan says:

          I know this is super-unrelated to the discussion at large about portrayals of smoking in media and culture blah blah blah (by the way, as an aside, remember when that was tackled in The Dark Tower? Boy, that was silly. But anyway…)

          The grenadier actually has a skill far down in the tree that will set himself on fire. No COPD or smoke inhalation required. I’m pretty sure it’s a bug, but I’ve used the skill twice and he’s set himself on fire twice, during a tough story mission (the toughest yet for me), so… yay self-immolation?

    • Faze2 says:

      Wow, who appointed you the moral arbiter of humanity?

      Relax, if you don’t like it, don’t have your fantasy soldiers smoke.

      Meanwhile, my soldiers will continue smokin em if they got em, because if you have a good chance of being blown to pieces by a plasma gun tomorrow, who gives a **** about your lungs in 20 years?

    • Sydsken says:

      I read that in the voice of Helen Lovejoy and suddenly it all made sense.

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      kfix says:

      Yeah actually I agree. They are doing it for the “cool” look, and it is unnecessary. Well said.

  20. Tsumei says:

    Hacking has so far mostly disappointed me. I did get one Specialist to gain a +20 to her hacking stat however, so I plan to re-train her in hacking-baddies skill and see if she’s useful now that she is plainly far better than anyone else at it.

    I suppose Hacking is a thing that can greatly benefit you if you manage to mitigate the risk of it though, since you can gain permanent bonuses through success; even for the campaign at large.

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      Sihoiba says:

      I’ve had ridiculous luck hacking enemies for control (getting lots of 40odd% hack to work), hacked Sectopods, Mechs and Suits are fantastic. Or even just shutting them down entirely for 2 turns is fine (shutting down tends to be about 50% easier than gaining control)

  21. Shake Appeal says:

    PSA: You can leave First Name as a blank space if you want to use RPS readers’ usernames without an unfortunate “Ian” lolling about in front of them.

  22. Qazinsky says:

    I just want to take a moment to congratulate Risingson on the first successful embarkment. By taking a bullet during your first mission, I feel like you represent “RPS’ Active Body of Bold and Lauded Ensigns” (R.A.B.B.L.E for short) in a good way!

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    amateurviking says:

    One of my specialists has had a couple of the the +20 hacking bonuses. That combined with the skull miner thing and the uber-gremlin basically made them into the best hacker ever ™. Totally defined my strategy in the late game – hacking a mech and sending it out front is the best thing. Takes a tonne of pressure off and they can do some serious damage to boot!

    Suspect I am not going to get away with it on Commander difficulty though.

  24. Simplex says:

    “I mean, look at these stats – only 11% of all Commander missions wind up as victories. Guh?”
    Guh, indeed. You misinterpreted those stats. Go to the stats page again and sum all the percentages. Coincidence?