#XCOM2 – Upgrades Around

More Pew Pew

I was able to finish up research on all the plasma weapons, though it took a bit to get the supplies (cash) to build them.  I’ll take the sniper rifle as an example.  The first gun was a 4-6 damage weapon, the Plasma is 6-10.  Combined with a particular set of perks, the largest normal hit I’ve had was 17, which is enough to take out nearly every enemy in a single shot.  So where my group of rookies would have had issues taking out 3 enemies, I can now take on 6 without too much worry.  Heck, I cleared a recent map in 4 turns, 1 of which was spent actually finding the enemy.  It’s a massive change in strategy.

Shadow Hunter

Well, more specifically the Ranger.  I have one that’s set up to be a melee fighter who seems to be all but unkillable.  She has great mobility, awesome damage potential, and one particular skill that makes her immune to damage if she lands a killing blow for 1 attack. That last item means she can chain kill an entire group, solo.

The downside is that I didn’t know what skills were in the class while levelling.  I opted for a team-based approach, where she would be slightly ahead of the team, acting as a scout.  There’s nothing wrong with that playstyle mind you, as it allows me to be pretty aggressive.

That said, I’m going to train another one and focus on the shadow line of skills.  The majority of missions are time-based and being able to move in the shadows to complete objectives would be a massive boost to productivity.  I’ll try a single one out and if that work, I think I’ll train 2-3 more to make a B squad.  With smart stealth movement, I should be able to complete the VIP missions, and X4 missions in a couple turns.  The abduction and relay missions would be ambush bonanzas.

Long Game

The Avatar project is at 9/12 now.  I had been blocked from progress due to the lack of comm relays, and I was blocked on that due to lack of power, and I was blocked on that with a lack of rooms to build in.  I had seen the limitation early enough but it’s 10 days to dig out the room, and another 10-15 to build what I need, with all engineers on hand.  That took a while.  Now I’m at 11 relays available, enough to start exploring more missions to bring that Avatar project score down.

And I think that’s one of the quirks of XCOM, in that it has a lot of stretches of preparation and then major plateaus of progress.  Going from regular weapons to Gauss weapons was weeks of research but made a massive difference in my ability to take down Advent forces.  Plasma weapons took even longer and that has allowed me to safely run through 2/3rd of the enemies.  I still don’t have a Psionic combatant ready for battle as he’s still training.  I’d be curious to see him in action, given the planned skillset I want for him (and past experience in XCOM1).

And the progress itself is limited.  I only have so many researchers and engineers to do work.  I only have so many supplies and intel to trade, only so many cores, crystals and alloys to build with.  Even with a ton of stuff unlocked, I can’t build it all, I don’t have the resources.  The good news is that I don’t feel punished with that limit.  Each decision is simply a step to the next plateau and there are very few decisions that I would call “bad” or wasteful.  Sure, you can have bad timing like I did with the comms relays, but a bad call in the long-game is quite hard to do.  And that’s a rare achievement for a game today.

#XCOM2 – Aliens Abundant

I’ve spent a fair chunk with XCOM2 so far, enough to have the Archon enemy show up on a recent mission and I’ve just unlocked Plasma rifles.  I think that’s a fair chunk of progress.

First off, the game is good, if not great.  A lot of improvements are found over the Enemy Within expansion and some key pieces of the Long War mod have been added for flavor.  The overworld map interface has been updated, so that you always have something to do rather than just run out the clock.  When a player gets injured on a mission, they sit out a very long time (which can be drastically reduced with the appropriate shop in the ship).  Most missions have a timer attached, which forces you to move forward, without really knowing what’s up ahead.  All these combined make for a significant risk/reward decision on every move.

I’ll give an example.  One recent mission had be counter an Advent attack on a rebel base.  These missions always have you rescue at least 6 people out of 13, and also require you to clear the map of enemies.  There’s no counter to the mission but the aliens will kill at least 1 person per turn if not discovered, and even when discovered will often go out of their way to hit a friendly.  This means that you have 7 turns or less to find every enemy on the map, or you fail a part of the mission.  Sometimes this works out and you find the enemies in small groups.  Other times it turns into a game of dominoes.

This particular mission I found two Mutons on turn 2 and they had a Berserker run away from view.  I take the first two down and while the enemies are moving the Berserker comes back and an Advent MEC shows up with 2 support in tow.  It takes 2 chain shots (double shots really) to take down the Beserker and I successfully hack into the MEC to take control.  Well, that MEC now has additional field of vision and triggers one group of section+support and another group of 2 Muton and a Berserker.  By the end of turn 3, I have found everyone on the map and I have 3 characters (of 6) that have used their turns. Did I mention I was hunkered down inside a gas station too?

Things ended up OK, with just 2 soldiers wounded.  I was lucky in that I had spent time/money on improving my gear and loadout.  If I had the gear of the previous mission I would have been washed out.

The game is full of these types of moments, where you think things are going OK and then it piles more onto the plate.  And all the time you’re thinking “just one more turn”.

Base Building

Base progress is limited to two factors – scientists and engineers.  The first do all the research and the latter excavate rooms, build new ones, and provide bonus to operating rooms.  You can acquire either through missions, through the monthly HQ store (go to home base to find them), or through the Black Market.  You need as many as you can get, particularly engineers.

Power consumption is a problem and to get all rooms to work as you want them to, you need 3 power plants, two of which on the special Coil Rooms, with upgrades. That’s 6 engineers working full time on those rooms.  I only have 6 total, so that’s a problem I’m trying to sort out.

Random Numbers

I’m sure it’s nostalgia talking but the original XCOM in the 90s had an aiming system that seemed to work more than not.  If it said 90% chance, then you were going to hit 90% of the time.  The reboot had turn-locked rolls in place, where once you started a player-controlled round, the odds of every shot were pre-determined.  (This is easy to prove as reloading a save and retaking the shot has the same results).

XCOM2 seems to have tweaked aiming a fair bit, where the odds are more in your favor than not and misses are infrequent enough to avoid frustration.  The enemy has similar aim penalties to you, so it does feel generally balanced.  That doesn’t mean you don’t find situations that make you scream though.  Cripes, I had an Archon stunned with 2 people point blank who missed and grazed the guy.  The heck?

Hacking and Skulljacking (a sort of unpleasant battle mind-probe) both have RNG as well, with multiple outcomes possible, based on chance and skill.  Aside from 1 item that’s class restricted, I haven’t found another way to increase that ability.  It’s frustrating to continually see a 10-20% chance of success, even after a dozen missions.  I need to figure that out…

Enemies Abundant

There are about 15 enemy types I’ve found so far, of varying degrees of challenge.  Where the previous game was either a Sectoid or Mutoid map, this one has multiple types per map, usually a dozen individuals per.

The Advent troops are military-like, though the Stun version is annoying as high hell due to his massive range.  Sectoids, so far, have a weak mind attack and ability to summon zombies.  Mutons are smarter than Advent troops and immune to melee attacks.  Faceless take the shape of normal humans until you get too close. Vipers can pull you into melee range and choke you to death.  MECs can shoot a rocket barrage and have decent armor.  Codex split into two when attacked, can teleport (which prevents Overwatch from working) and have a bullcrap AE attack that removes all ammo and blows up in a turn.  They are very annoying.

All combined, they pose an interesting challenge in every fight.  One group you might be able to pick off, another you may need to hack and melee down.  There’s always a priority target too, so there’s choice in the decisions.  The AI is also reasonably smart, making some fights difficult to predict.

End Goal

After a couple missions you encounter the Avatar project, with is the enigmatic goal the aliens are trying to achieve in 12 steps.  They move 1 step closer per month (sometimes 2) and you counteract progress by completing specific missions.  Think of it as a game clock, where you need to complete all your progress before they reach victory.  The issue is that you have no idea what progress is required on your end until you’ve completed your first play through.  When you’re given the choice between researching better armor or moving that game progress, which is the right choice?

So far, I’ve opted for personal research and player upgrades and deferred a lot of the high level goal progress.  My Avatar bar is at 7/12 and I’ve been able to keep it at that spot for a few months now. I know in previous games, Plasma weapons were the top of the chain, and I’ve just unlocked the first batch.  I don’t have any Psionic crew yet, though one’s in training.

Overall

Clearly, I like the game.  It’s an improvement over the previous iteration and the expansion.  There are some minor gripes (hiding information to make decisions is the biggest) but the general pace and feel of the game is excellent.  It requires a stability patch as I’ve had the game crash a dozen times so far, but there are no in-game bugs that I’ve found.  The highlights are the randomly generated maps, a better overworld map, the countdown clock on missions, improved skill trees, stealth/melee upgrades, and the overall risk/reward structure found in nearly every part of the game.   Highly recommended.

When Will This Month End

I have mentioned over the years how much I despise the month of February and this year doesn’t feel much different.  Well, aside from the fact that winter seems to be leaving quite a bit early.  It’s a ho-hum month of blah, stuck at the tail end of the holiday season and before the March break.  The middle child month I suppose, certainly because the only days of note are for scams romantics or drunks.  Or maybe both, depending on how you’re feeling.  Ah well.

Three Body Problem

Continuing my Hugo journey, I picked up Three Body Problem, a sci-fi novel from a rather popular Chinese author.  Of course it’s a trilogy, it’s sci-fi.  I’ve finished the first book and moved onto the second.

I generally try to avoid translated material, as the nuances of a given language rarely ever translate properly.  I speak 2 languages fluently and understand chunks of a few others, and stuff just doesn’t move over.  You lose the flavor and nuance of that culture.  This is a clearly evident in the books.  It’s written at a high school level mastery of English, which I think is quite appropriate.  But when you compare to the vividness of English-first sci-fi, you’re left wanting more.  The story is solid, with some neat twists within.  It’s not hard to follow either.

The general premise is that scientific research is going haywire and scientists are freaking out.  There’s a hidden organization that needs to be infiltrated by a scientist and the stuff he uncovers changes the reality for all humans.  The final quarter starts to stretch the imagination, in particular in the description of sophons.  At a very basic level, the question is “what happens if we can’t move past the quantum mechanics wall”?  A story that is rooted in relativistic physics is more fiction related than science-fiction, but the ideas mesh well.

The second book deals with the aftermath of the first book’s discovery and how humanity has to deal with the idea of a no-win situation for their progeny.  If you’re read Childhood’s End by Clarke, then you have an idea where this is going.

I can’t seem to find a translated ebook version of the 3rd book yet, so we’ll see where I end up after the 2nd one.  I’m rather liking moving from recent, down to the golden age.  I have read a fair chunk of Heinlein, Clark, Asimov, Dick, Herbert, Gibson, Niven, and Bradbury.  Having that as a basis, it really makes you appreciate the foundations they’ve built for today’s authors.

XCOM2

I don’t get how GMG makes money.  I had a 25% voucher for XCOM2 on Steam through GMG.  Dan Stapleton is my go-to reviewer for strategy games and if he’s happy, then it’s a done deal.  My understanding is that it’s XCOM refined with lessons learned from both Enemy Within and the Long War mod.

Enemy Within was a great addition, since it forced you to keep moving rather than play a defensive style.  It also added a lot of customization options, which meant that I was no longer running 5 snipers.  The Long War mod…that’s just a whole other topic.  You can call it a remake of a remake I guess, since it took all the basics of the game and tweaked the balance in order to make much more strategic.  Placing the right resources at the right time, being able to recover from un-winnable decisions (like losing a country’s funding), and just extending the entire session to something epic.

Given the early reviews are extremely positive, this seems like a done deal.

One Series Down

Book Complete

I’ve completed the Ancillary series (Justice, Sword, and Mercy).  They all clock in around 400 pages, which is a solid size for sci-fi I find.  As with most series, the first book is the best of the bunch as the stakes are the clearest.  The setting is hard to grasp in book number one, but it becomes more of a background in the 2nd and 3rd books.

While I already talked about the first one at length, I want to expand on the last two.  Justice is set on a single station, so it feels more like the DS9 series as compared to the TNG before it.  It deals with managing the station’s residents after years of neglect, and the politics therein.  It’s more of a setup for the 3rd, truth be told.

Mercy is the final book  and has a whole lot of hurry up and wait involved.  It’s neat to see some military strategy in this, since it’s completely lacking in the first two, even though the entire setting is in the military.  The dialogue is better here, where the writer seems to be more comfortable with her characters.  The arch-villain is quite pathetic however, a shadow of herself from the first book.  She gets trapped in a technicality and all the brilliance and planning she had completed for 2,000 years before this falls to pieces in mere moments.

I would have thought that the 2nd and 3rd books could have been combined to a single book.  There’s a fair amount of cuts that could have been made to increase the pace and therefore the stakes.  A trilogy in 2-parts, I guess.

I do want to say that it takes the concept of AI to a different level, where they appear to have more personality than the human characters.  An extension of Gibson and Asimov to a believable place.  Perhaps it’s my penchant for cold logic but the sheer amount of flaws found in every human as compared to the AI is quite staggering.  The altruism is clearly opposed to the selfish behaviors, which drastically eliminates any shades of grey.

Overall, I’d recommend the first novel but suggest skipping the latter two.

Shipping Complete

My woes with USPS have ended!  I received the package yesterday, without any notifications.  It say in a warehouse for over a week without any progress, then in 6 hours was at my door.  I think I’ve learned my lesson here and will instead use a company that ships internationally on a regular basis.

That said, the 30 washes I ordered all came in a small box.  They are in small plastic bottles (20ml), similar in size to what you’d get eye drops in.  The Testors washes are 15ml, and Citadel are 24ml, so I’m in a decent middle spot.  Did I mention Secret Weapon washes are $3 compared to Citadel’s $9?

Now that I have all the paints I need, I’m going to start up my Trandoshan hunter miniatures.  They have a fair amount of color to them, with a lot of texture – perfect for washes.  Once those are done, all that’s left is the heroes and Darth.  Should only be a few weeks to clear it all out.

 

How Long ’til It Ships

Shipping Woes

Second part of the shipping rant.  As I mentioned before, I ordered some Secret Weapon washes on the 15th, late Friday.  I received a notification on the 18th that they had packaged it and the 19th that it had shipped.  I didn’t order from Amazon, so I expected a delay in getting the order all set up.  Secret Weapon is a small-ish shop and they don’t have people actively working weekends.  No biggie.

But USPS?  The first scan was at 7pm on the 19th, 12 hours after they received the package.  It then took 2 hours to move a few blocks down the road in Sacramento.  A few hours later it ended up in San Fran.  Ok, I’m thinking this is a major shipping route, no big deal, it should move again.

Nothing until the 22nd, and then it’s found its way to LA, early in the day.  Then nothing.  Apparently USPS doesn’t work weekends.

In the meantime, I ordered a microSD card on the 19th, shipped last night, and it’s going to be at my door tomorrow.  And it’s not directly from Amazon either, one of the sellers instead.

Did I mention that I paid for the Secret Weapon shipping and the SD card was free shipping?  So 2 days free shipping (once shipped) and we’re 6 days and counting for USPS.

Minor Hockey

My dad’s cousin’s kid (there’s some technical term for that, thrice-removed?) was in town for a hockey tournament.  He’s only a few years older than my own kids, just how family works when it’s on another branch, I guess.  Anyhoot, we ended up heading out to watch the game with some other members of the family.

I miss minor hockey. I coached it for a few years and it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.  It’s fun to see kids develop their skills, and have fun while doing it.  Most of them on the ice had giant smiles, which is really what it’s all about.

I spent most of my childhood in arenas.  Either I was playing, my 3 siblings were, or my dad was running the association.  Up until the age of 15, I’m sure I spent half as much time in a rink as I did in school.  I play 3 times a week now, and I think it has more to do with the feeling of belonging in a rink than I previously believed.

I don’t want to push my kids into hockey but it’s one of the few sports I have any actual interest in.  I can play most any sport, as can my wife, but when you’re given the choice, I’ll pick hockey.  We’ll see what the years bring our way.

Android Games

There are a few I’m trying out, aside from reading books that is.

Time Clickers is an incremental game, with clear plateaus for progress.  There’s no real meta to the game and I’m sitting at about 1 million cubes (~40 restarts I guess).  It also drains the battery quite fast, which is an odd one to figure out.

Star Trek Timelines is another.  The UI is neat enough, though pretty cluttered.  It’s very similar to any card/team based game, though there’s no strategy involved, just the computer throwing dice for you.  If it wasn’t Star Trek, I wouldn’t even bother, as there are plenty of games that do a better job mechanically.  It’s the art/setting that works.

Soda Dungeon is the final one.  It’s an infinite dungeon / incremental game with pixel based art.  The first run is a challenge, but after that you get some passives that make a world of difference.  There’s also dungeon loot while progressing, and some element of luck getting the appropriate gear to move forward.  I do like that it has a semi-intelligent auto-play feature. This will likely replace Time Clickers in the daily checks.

Making Tiny Things

Decorating Tiny Things

Late last week I ended up ordering some extra items for my miniature painting hobby.  I had some old flock around but wanted to expand my base covering material.  There are remarkably few options when it comes to base building, with the Army Painter seemingly the best bet.  I was taking a look at their Battlefield line and decided to pick up some grass(flock), stone, rocks and tufts.  I received it in the mail on Tuesday (see next rant) and started applying it to the minis I had already painted.

You forget how much glue is actually required to make stuff stick.  I was a little light on my first couple passes, but learned quickly enough.  The base builds make up for a lot of the messes in painting I had with some of the earlier models.  I really need to get some pictures, at least some sort of progress update on the work.  The rocks and tufts looks really neat, and for my first time trying to get them to work, I was pleasantly surprised at the ease.  The only tough lesson learned is that the base foundation color should be earth toned rather than white, as even with ridiculous amounts of glue, you don’t get 100% coverage.

Painting Tiny Things

As much as I love the painting, I’ve come to conclude that my paint needs more options.  I tried to make my own flesh wash and it came out all wrong.  I am far from an expert but having better tools makes a world of difference, so I went on the lookout for washes.

A wash is simply thinned down paint.  I could mix my own, and I have, but the results never turned out proper.  There are quite a few options out there, though mainly Citadel, Reaper, P3 and Secret Weapon.  Those are also in the order of highest cost to lowest, with Citadel costing more than double what Secret Weapon does.  It was the main reason I stopped painting actually, Citadel prices are just ridiculous.  A Warhammer army will set you back $500 easily.

I read a bunch of reviews, videos, and what not, then ended up picking Secret Weapon washes.  The 30 paint kit.  I’m still waiting for it to show up but based on what I’ve seen, it should make my painting go twice as fast and be twice as nice.

Shipping

Canada is an interesting country.  Something like 80% of the population lives within a 2 hour drive of the border.  This drastically improves shipping lanes as it’s mostly an east-west affair.  Canada Post has dramatically improved their shipping capabilities, to a point of near absurd efficiency.  I mentioned I ordered the base building mats on Friday?  Well, that was Friday at 8pm, the shipping from the company (MeepleMart, amazeballs) went out on Sunday morning.  I had it in my mailbox on Tuesday morning.  Amazon Canada also uses Canada Post and has near identical shipping times.  Unless it’s an emergency purchase, or I’m buying food, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to buy things in a store anymore.

And yet (you knew that was coming) the shipping from the US is near on par with ordering from China for delivery times.  I had order a laptop earlier last year, it took a whole month for it to ship from California to my door.  The washes I’ve ordered are through USPS and though I received notice from the vendor it shipped on Sunday, nothing happened until Wednesday and then nothing again for 2 days.  It can’t be like this for people who actually live in the US right?  If you live in Podunk, I get it, but not one of the largest cities in your country?  Why the heck does it take so long to ship from San Diego to any Canadian distribution center?  And then why does it sit around for days without anyone doing anything?

I guess I’m just spoiled in service quality up here in my igloo.

 

Hugo and Me

Transport

Driving is more than the act of sitting in a vehicle, it involves actual movement.  Living in Canada in the winter, the capital no less, means that there’s not much driving to be had, so I end up taking the bus to and from work.  I don’t particularly like the bus as I can spend 20 minutes waiting for the damn thing to arrive, only to be packed like sardines, but it is a greener option and less costly overall.  When things do end up just right, I get a seat and can get some reading done.

Reading Goals

Murf had mentioned this late last year, getting some heavy reading done with a particular focus on the Hugo Awards. That works out, since I have quite a liking to the sci-fi genre.  I used to read quite heavily on my e-reader, though over time I found it less and less practical compared to having a tablet.  So I’ve loaded up some software and started at it.

I will say this about sci-fi, and fantasy even, authors have a love for trilogies.  I don’t get what people are so fascinated about the number 3, but it seems like everything is linked to something else.  The downside to this is that you have trouble moving between series and feel some sort of obligation to finish it (if possible) or end up waiting years between the books to close some cliffhangers.  Robert Jordan and GRR Martin are notorious culprits in the length of writing, though quite nicely offset by the quality.

Back on track.  I wasn’t quite sure where to start with the Hugos, either the golden age or the new age.  Then I started looking at the titles and realized that I’ve already read a fair chunk of the older stuff.  Clark, Asimov, Dick, Heinlein, Niven, Card…heck, without realizing it I’ve probably read 20 of them on the list already.  So I’m going to move from the newest to the oldest, skipping those I’ve already done.  If all works out, I should have 20 novels done by the year, though that will likely include books in the series rather than just from the list.  Some of them will be long to get through, such as Robinson’s Mars series but other’s I’ve already done, like Herbert’s Dune series.

Ancillary Justice

While I know the Three Body Problem should be first, I noticed that the Ancillary series was already there twice, so I started with the first one, Ancillary Justice.

Set in space, with a very high tech empire bent on conquest and annexation, the story deals with a ship AI who’s been stranded in a single body and is looking for revenge.  Ancillaries are corpse soldiers, captured enemies who get implants that allows for the ship AI to take possession of their body.  Not a hive mind as much as a bunch of puppets.

The book is most notable for its parallels to the Romans.  Conquest, culture assimilation, language, citizens, emperor and quite a bit more come out from the background.  There’s actually quite a bit found here that’s already been explored in the Foundation series, though this one certainly has more action within the pages.  The second piece that makes this series stand out is that the main culture is gender neutral.  I speak French, and as with most latin-based tongues, it’s heavily focused on gender.  A ball is feminine, while a book is masculine.  English really only focuses on pronouns (he/she), so there’s certainly less of a gap to be had, but it’s still hard to read through a book where the word “she” is used for both males and females.  It makes is hard to visualize the character’s attributes, but otherwise has little impact on the story.

Truly good sci-fi has technology as a setting and not so much part of the plot, which for the majority of the book is the case.  It’s the people that matter and their decisions, and they are all generally relatable.  The hardest part to get your head around is the concept of many bodies but a single mind, and the impact that has on society.  I’ve been in sci-fi for a long time, so the hive-mind mentality isn’t too far-fetched but I’m sure for a lot of folks, it’s a hurdle.  It does bring some interesting ideas to the table, certainly near the mid-point and the plot twist (well, you can see most of it coming), which I think is why it won the Hugo.  It’s not a perfect 5/7, but it’s certainly a solid read.

Now onto Ancillary Sword, then Ancillary Mercy.