Long War Diaries: The Operatives
"Long War" and I are on a break.
My war against the aliens is dragging on, but I am slowly making progress. By accumulating new scientists and engineers, I've been able to advance the research and development of new weapons and armor, and my genetic-engineering and mech-building facilities are currently under construction.
I'm still having trouble keeping high-ranking squad members healthy and available, but I will soon have advanced beam weapons, improved fighter-plane capabilities and a slew of other soldier and equipment upgrades. If I can hold on for just another month, I suspect the tide will turn in my favor. But it will be a long, torturous month.
A big part of that torture is EXALT — the enemy humans who sympathize with the invading aliens. I've located the EXALT base. I have deployed a squad to destroy it. I have failed. I have failed seven times. I am being broken.
And so: I'm on a break.
Which makes this a perfect time to take a few steps back and share with you the highlights of my murderous assault on EXALT, so that you may know and understand exactly why, when it comes to EXALT, I don't want to merely win. I want to decisively end them.
In XCOM: Enemy Within's EXALT campaign, you must locate the EXALT base by slowly gathering intelligence on the places where it is not. You do this by sending "covert operatives," armed only with a pistol, on solo missions. The operative is dispatched to an area suspected to contain an EXALT base and then, some time later, signals they are ready for extraction. That's when you send in your XCOM squad.
The extraction missions come in two flavors. One, the "covert extraction," involves finding and protecting the operative as they hack two terminals, and then exfiltrating the combined group from the map. It's a bit more defensive than ordinary XCOM missions, but once the second terminal is hacked, it becomes a "clear the map" mission similar to the alien abductions.
The "data recovery" missions, however, are a completely different thing. In no other mission in any flavor of XCOM is your task to merely defend, and in a number of ways the XCOM soldiers and tactical mechanics are unsuited for the task. Until mechs and genetic powers enter the equation, the opportunities for supporting squad members are limited to smoke and medkits. If you're slow to develop the new tech (and ensuing defensive boost) like I have been in this campaign, the data recovery missions will be a unique and daunting challenge.
These are my bane. They are "king of the hill" type missions, where the player must defend two areas against waves of enemy forces. It is purely defensive, and the attacking enemy will have better weapons, more abilities and will vastly outnumber the XCOM squad. So, in other words: hell on earth.
I lost an entire squad in one data-recovery mission. It was on the construction-zone map. The mission parameters were the same as any other data recovery mission: Defend the "encryption" base form EXALT and, failing that, defend the "transmission" base.
The encryption station on the construction-zone map was in a small pit surrounded by construction vehicles. It seemed like an ideal defensive position, if I could get to it.
The trouble was that I could not get to it.
This was early in the campaign. I had unlocked the first armor upgrade, but did not yet have enough armor to equip my entire squad. I had only a few laser rifles.
The pit was towards the top of the map and slightly to the left. The "transmission" base was in a bus, to the right, and nearer to the bottom of the map. My squad deployed at the bottom center.
In these missions, the enemies go for the encryption station first, and then the transmitter. If you fail to defend the encryption station, they will shift their assault to the transmitter. If you fail to defend the transmitter, you lose.
My traditional strategy in these missions had been to defend the encryption station and keep the EXALT from even attempting the transmitter assault. "Long War" would punish me hard for this. In "Long War" the EXALT assault is fierce, and they make a beeline for the encryption station, often occupying and attempting to claim it before you can even see them. That's what happened here.
Before I had even closed half the distance to the pit, they were in it, and within two turns they had fully occupied it and set up a defensive position. As it turns out, I was right — that was a great defensive spot, but they were now using it against me.
After three turns I was able to mount an effective assault on the pit, but only half of my squad had made it that far forward — a rocketeer, a medic and an assault soldier. The situation was critical: Within another turn, the EXALT force would own the encryption station and discover the location of the transmitter. If I was going to succeed in my original strategy, I would need to attack, even at half strength. I decided to go for it.
My rocketeer took advantage of the EXALT being clustered in a relatively tight space in the pit and blew them right out of it. My medic and the assault soldier then occupied the pit and attempted to hold it while the rest of the squad — a sniper, an infantry, a gunner and the operative — caught up. It looked like I might just pull it off.
Then, in the next round, all hell broke loose. Fresh waves of EXALT came in from every direction, including directly between my two teams. The team in the pit was cut off, meanwhile the team still making its way forward was forced to set up a secondary defensive position near the bus.
Back in the pit, the medic bought it first, then the assault got creamed trying to make a run to join up with the second team. The rocketeer pulled an Alamo inside of a box truck next to the pit. He took out three of the EXALT with a grenade before they finally took him down. Within two turns fully half of my squad had bought it. The pit was lost.
This would be the beginning of the end. Any sane player would reload from a previous save, or else call it quits, but I was determined to play it out. I wanted to see how far I could push this mission toward the edge. I wanted to see how good a commander I could actually be. Turns out: not great.
Meanwhile the second team was similarly getting slaughtered. Within two more turns the sniper and gunner had died, leaving just the infantry and the operative huddled in the bus, squaring off against an attacking force of eight EXALT armed with laser rifles and laser sniper rifles. My men were surrounded and running out of ammo. It was like the Battle of Isandlwana, except on a bus instead of on the broad South African plain.
The operative was a support soldier with the smoke-grenade power. By the time his pistol was dry, he'd taken half of his hit points in damage. If he died, the mission would be a total failure, so I made the decision to order him back to the Skyranger. As a last-ditch effort at heroism, he popped a smoke grenade and dashed out the back of the bus. The infantry, protected somewhat by the smoke, would attempt to hold off the advancing EXALT so the operative could get to safety. And maybe, if he got lucky, he could even successfully defend the transmitter.
In "Long War," the new infantry class gets the ability to take a second action in a turn if its first action is to fire its weapon. So it can fire, then reload, fire, then move or fire again. This makes the infantry an aggressive attacker or defender, but also a really tempting target for the enemy. I lose more infantry than any other class for this reason. I also run them out of ammo a lot, as happened here.
The infantry managed to take out four of the advancing EXALT soldiers, and for a brief instant it appeared he might just survive. Then the choice: He had one action left and only one round left in his rifle. His pistol was completely empty. Should he take the shot and hope to reduce the enemy force by one more gun, or take the rest of the turn to reload? The decision still haunts me. I decided to take the shot.
The shot was a good one, but it only wounded the EXALT. On the next turn, that same EXALT managed to flank the infantry soldier and kill him. The infantryman, my last remaining extraction squad member, was dead.
His sacrifice was not in vain, however. The operative made it to the extraction zone, and escaped. A near total loss, but the squad had succeeded in rescuing its brother in arms, giving everything — up to and including their own lives — in the effort. The stuff of legend.
I could have reloaded this mission from scratch, but I decided to take the hit and learn a lesson from it. A better strategy in this scenario would have been to set up a defensive position at the bus from the outset, rather than attempt to sprint to the pit and separate my squad. Lesson learned — albeit at an unbelievable cost.
As the campaign against EXALT ground on, I would get a chance to exercise this newfound wisdom, and I would only partially succeed.
It was another data recovery, this time at a gas station. The encryption station was in a small courtyard cafe in the right corner of the map, the transmitter at the gas pumps in the left corner, with an auto shop and a convenience store between them. My squad entered the map in the bottom corner, in a parking lot with a few vehicles and road cones for cover.
By the time my squad deployed, a team of eight EXALT had already occupied the encryption station. For this deployment I had a S.H.I.V drone, an infantry, an engineer, a gunner, a medic, a rocketeer, a sniper and the operative (also a medic).
I kept my squad together, formed a defensive perimeter in the parking lot, and slowly moved toward the courtyard. Maintaining overlapping fields of fire, I was able to decimate the EXALT force without taking a single casualty. But it became clear they were not going to be dislodged from the courtyard. Fresh waves of reinforcements kept coming. I was running out of ammo, and a trickle of EXALT had started to appear near the pumps. I would have to displace and redirect.
The displacement was tricky. I had to disengage from the still-active EXALT force at the encryption station, meanwhile yet another wave of EXALT had come in directly from the pumps, and two EXALT had entered the map from my rear.
The S.H.I.V. was the first to bite it, but they usually are. The engineer croaked attempting to cover the right flank. The sniper, who had been at the rear, picking off EXALT one by one using squad sight, but ran out of ammo at a critical juncture and left the gunner open to getting flanked. The gunner bought it the next round.
Honestly, it was not looking good. But then I noticed the EXALT had not exploited the high ground. They were using the convenience store and auto shop to seal their flank, but the roofs of those structures were wide open. I could send a squad member or two up to and gain the flank and the high ground.
So that's exactly what I did. The medic and the infantry scaled to the roof of the convenience store to provide top cover for the rest of the squad, and in one round they had managed to take out half of the courtyard force between them. Meanwhile the rocketeer made a last ditch play to seal off the right flank and rocketed the entire area, destroying the encryption station — and the remaining EXALT forces there. I had suffered some losses, but I was now free to pivot to the pumps.
The tide was turning. (Cue 80s hair-metal montage.)
Meanwhile, there were four remaining EXALT at the pumps and my squad was mostly out of ammo and spread out. The remaining battle was tricky, but by keeping my soldiers in sight of each other and advancing slowly, I managed to keep the EXALT at bay and extract without any further casualties.
Success — but again, at a cost. And I still hadn't fully learned my lesson. Deploying to the pumps initially would have prevented me from having to displace and fight a multi-front battle. And it may have saved my engineer and rocketeer. But in "Long War" there are no perfect victories, at least not without repeated trial and error. I accepted the loss of my two squad members as the price of doing business, and the war continued.
I would not get another chance to try my luck in a data recovery mission. The next mission against EXALT — a covert recovery — proved to be the last. I brought my operative home from that mission with the location of the EXALT base in her hands.
The next battle will be for everything — after I finish this break.