XCOM 2 Alien Analysis: Spectre

HP: 11/13/14/16
Armor: 0
Defense: 0
Dodge: 10/20/20/20
Aim: 65/65/80/80
Mobility: 15 (10/20)
Damage: 4-5 (+2)
Shred: 0
Crit Chance: 0/0/15%/15%
Will: 100
Psi: 100

Is susceptible to Bluescreen Rounds and EMP Grenades, but is otherwise not treated as a robot. Primary weapon has unlimited ammo.

Just like a Codex, yep. It's interesting that this is a distinctive profile XCOM 2 uses more than once. It makes me wonder if XCOM 3 will expand on the idea and give us an entire series of 'digital lifeforms' or something of the sort.

Immune to all damage over time effects, and immune to Mind Control and Panic.

Surprisingly, you can properly Stun Spectres, even though they have a very similar profile to a Codex. It's really just Mind Control and Panic they're immune to, like an ADVENT General. Most enemies with these immunities are immune to all mental effects, including eg Disorientation.

Unlike a Codex, the immunity to damage over time isn't a mercy. Acid wouldn't be very useful against them, but Burn and Poison would both help a lot, and of course it means they're not susceptible to Dragon and Venom Rounds boosting damage on hit. They are susceptible to Bluescreen Rounds and a given run may end up with Bluescreen Rounds built before seeing its first Spectre, most readily by getting an early Mechanized Defenses but honestly even a more 'normal' run can manage it if you prioritize it. Spectres are tough enough this is both really good to have on hand and yet also less helpful than you might hope -being able to set them on fire to disable their special abilities would be legitimately temping if it was an option.

On the other hand, they're tough and Cover-using, so grenades-wise you'd generally want to use Frag/Plasma Grenades anyway, if you were going to blow grenades on them at all, so on the whole their immunity to damage over time effects is only mildly important and only because you should have Dragon/Venom Rounds equipped on people in general.

The relevancy of their immunity to Mind Control and Panic is, of course, dependent primarily on whether you bring a Psi Operative or not. If you do, it means Insanity can't be targeted at them and you can't Dominate them or get anything but a Schism trigger atop a Void Rift use. If you don't... it basically doesn't matter. You'd otherwise have to bring a SPARK or Skirmisher with their respective Panic-my-attacker abilities and have the Spectre actually bother to shoot at either of them. This is a pretty long-shot scenario, given how high-level those skills are and how unlikely it is a Spectre will actually shoot at either. So unless you're, like, doing a gimmick all-SPARK run, you can basically ignore these mental immunities if you didn't bring a Psi Operative.

Again, they are not immune to Disorientation. It's not actually that useful against them, but it does work. Feel free to toss a Flashbang if you're in a tricky situation involving a Spectre. (It will, however, never be inflicted by Void Rift triggering an Insanity attempt, sadly)

Is a flying unit, allowing it to reach locations without regard for intervening terrain. Additionally, the unit will not change position if the terrain it is 'standing' on is destroyed entirely?

This is the primary reason I covered the Archon before the Spectre, even though Spectres show up before Archons; because Archons are probably most players' introduction to XCOM 2 flight, not Spectres.

Unlike Archons, Spectres don't do any of this emulating-Cover-bonus stuff. They need actual Cover to avoid being shot to death by your squad, which is interesting as they're the only flight-capable enemy that cares about Cover in XCOM 2. This makes their flight access slightly more interesting than the other two fliers, as a Spectre will sometimes fly its way to High Cover a ground-bound enemy wouldn't have been able to reach from its initial position. This is especially relevant in urban environments, where they'll sometimes fly right up into a second-story window in spite of the AI's general dislike of high ground.

They're also notable for being the flight-capable enemy most likely to take advantage of their flight capability for a nasty flanking shot. All the flight-capable enemies prefer using their abilities over attacking, but Specters are the only one that can readily show up in groups. Archons can show up in groups, but it's uncommon and more importantly Battle Frenzy can be exploited to prevent them from shooting. Spectres don't have an equivalent way to discourage them from shooting, and like a lot of enemies with a special ability focus Spectres aren't allowed to spam their abilities. The final result is you can end up encountering a three-Spectre pod, kill one, have another Shadowbind somebody, and then the third goes for a flanking shot, and this can happen relatively readily.

Lightning Reflexes
Forces the first reaction attack in a turn to miss it.

Okay, so when I said the Heavy Mec was the last example of the game actively punishing Overwatch ambushes, that was slightly misleading, as Lightning Reflexes does, in fact, count Overwatch ambush fire as evadable. (Also note that 'first per turn' counts your turn as separate from the enemy turn: a Spectre can eat two Overwatch shots, one during your turn when it activates, and another in the enemy turn!) Furthermore, a non-obvious layer grows out of something I've mentioned before that the game doesn't: that when I said firing from Concealment ignores the target's Dodge stat, that doesn't include Overwatch ambushes! Only the soldier who breaks Concealment actually gets that particular benefit. As such, trying to Overwatch ambush a Spectre is a bit of a trap, as it'll eat one shot guaranteed and any further shots are alarmingly likely to end up Dodged if your squad doesn't have fairly unlikely amounts of Aim all-around. 

Still less horrible a punishment than Heavy Mecs just ignoring ambushes entirely, mind, which is part of why I somewhat forgot to count Spectres when making that declaration.

Spectres having Lightning Reflexes provides by far the most blatant example of the game being perfectly happy to have its animation for multiple Overwatches occur in a completely different order from its internal resolution: it's very normal for a Spectre caught by multiple Overwatches to have the second or third one get the Lightning Reflexes! popup, potentially while having the first shot animated hitting. This is pretty unfortunate, as it can lead to a learning player wondering if maybe the Spectre's Lightning Reflexes differs from their own, such as wondering if maybe it blocks the first shot that would otherwise have hit instead of the first shot, period. (Up until the game animates a first-shot-first-hit, of course) But no, it's just the game's animation logic differing pretty strongly from its internal resolution.

The good news is that usually a pod of multiple Spectres stumbling into your squad's Overwatch wall won't waste your shots at maximum efficiency. Generally, one Spectre will absorb all fire until dead, interrupted (eg by a Bolt Caster Stun), or out of Overwatch to absorb, with Overwatch only moving to the next Spectre if the first one dies or is interrupted. Only rarely will conditions contrive for multiple Spectres to Lightning Reflexes away multiple attacks with no deaths, generally requiring rough terrain that breaks up line of sight in an erratic way. (eg firing through windows)

On the other hand, Lightning Reflexes does, in fact, apply to all reaction attack effects. That includes Bladestorm. It includes Bladestorm even when backed by the Katana or on a Templar. So don't try the Bladestorm-as-finisher trick on a Spectre, not unless you can commit two guaranteed hits to the one Spectre. (So basically one Katana Ranger and a Templar, or two Templar in a run that started with Templar and lucked into both having Bladestorm)

This is especially important given their love of Shadowbind...

Overall, though, Lightning Reflexes is one of the few bits of War of the Chosen content I pretty strongly dislike. It's yet another weird punishment to attempting Overwatch ambushes, it randomly curtails the effectiveness of trying to catch inactive pods with Overwatch without actually giving a real reason to stop such behavior, as a side effect it makes Specialists on average a bit less appealing/effective (Because Guardian is useless if your first shot gets eaten by Lightning Reflexes, and Ever Vigilant can amount to uncontrollably wasting ammo), and I don't really feel it adds anything to the Spectre's threat profile that's actually interesting. It's especially aggravating how it intersects with their susceptibility to Bluescreen Rounds, making said susceptibility weirdly swingy via obtuse factors the player has no reason to particularly pay attention to. That is, if your Bluescreen Rounds soldier happens to be the one that takes the first shot, that's a huge drop in expected damage as compared to them being second or later, and normally there's no reason to try to construct an Overwatch wall to control who shoots first.

This functions like player Concealment, does not end the Spectre's turn, and increases its Mobility by 25%, but has a cooldown of 2 turns. The Spectre will never be detected in motion, only when both stopped and flanked.

Note that Lost and Retaliation mission Resistance soldiers will break Vanish, and Spectres only attempt to hide themselves from your soldiers. Thus, if Lost or Resistance soldiers are present, it's not unusual for a Spectre to Vanish and then immediately lose its Concealment during the Alien turn.

Also, if you glossed over the ability description, note that your soldiers are apparently all human-shaped tiger beetles, having to come to a complete stop before they can pay attention to their environment: where an enemy whose starting point and destination both lack a clean line to a Concealed soldier will nonetheless spot your soldier if any of the tiles they pass through provides a clean line of sight, your own soldiers (And Lost and Resistance soldiers) will only reveal a Spectre if their final position is flanking it. As such, you shouldn't consider an area scanned simply because a soldier passed through it, and should instead focus on making sure soldier end positions flank as many positions as possible if you're attempting to hunt for a Vanished Spectre.

Vanish itself is a nice little attempt to properly increase the relevancy of Scanning Protocol and Battle Scanners, as unlike base-game stealth mechanics you will always know when a Spectre is invisible nearby and have a rough idea of its current location, and thus a Scanning Protocol is virtually guaranteed to catch it and a decently-aimed Battle Scanner will also reveal it. I don't think it's a very effective attempt due to details of Spectre AI and the importance of killing Spectres before they get the chance to Vanish, but I appreciate the attempt itself regardless, and buying Scanning Protocol on some of your Specialists as a just-in-case isn't particularly painful so it's not like it's irrelevant of an attempt. Just... less relevant than I think was intended.

Note that Spectres always decloak before performing any kind of aggressive action. They can't shoot, Shadowbind, or use Horror on your soldiers without revealing themselves. This makes it a little less important to have detection tools than you might expect.

Also note that Vanish eats an action point, but doesn't end the Spectre's turn. A Spectre that has just Vanished is only still at the spot you last saw it if Tactical Analysis ate its second action point. As such, while it is possible to reveal a Spectre by lobbing explosives at it, you shouldn't usually bother trying. If you do have Tactical Analysis, though, tossing a grenade where the Spectre was last seen is a great plan!

You might expect Vanish to be used as an escape hatch when Spectres freak out because you wiped the rest of their pod in one turn, but nah. I'm not even sure they can freak out and run; I've never seen it happen, but I also tend to take them out first so it wouldn't be an easy thing for me to see. Regardless, they use Vanish for two purposes: to set up a flanking attack one turn later, and to stall for the purposes of...

A move-and-melee attack that unavoidably renders the target Unconscious while generating a copy that has their stats, skills, and gear. The Spectre gets a free move action after performing the Shadowbind. Destroying the Shadow will immediately awaken the soldier, letting them perform a full turn. Killing the Spectre that performed the Shadowbind will also destroy the Shadow, awakening the soldier. This has a local cooldown of 2 turns and a global cooldown of 1 turn; only one Shadowbind can occur per turn.

... this.

Shadowbind is the Spectre's primary thing. A newly-activated Spectre will more or less always go for the Shadowbind as their first action if it's possible to do at all, which in practice if a Spectre is alive it can probably go for a Shadowbind: they're fast, fly, and only SPARKs are immune to Shadowbind. so in the vast majority of realistic conditions an active Spectre means one that can Shadowbind. Even Tactical Analysis is pretty unlikely to take the option away from them.

It's also the key thing that places Spectres firmly as complicator enemies instead of direct threats, as Shadowbind isn't an immediate threat: it takes one soldier out of action, but if you take out their Shadow/the originating Spectre they'll immediately wake up, ready to take their full turn, so it can be almost completely harmless. 'Almost' because, as I've noted before, other soldiers take a Will hit as if the Shadowbound soldier had died. Amusingly, the victim doesn't suffer any Will loss, and will often be the one who calls out that someone died, simultaneous to crying out in agony. Oops.

Also note that your standing soldiers also suffer Will loss from the Shadow spawning, like any newly-spotted enemy. Spectres really are hard on your soldiers' Will.

Anyway, the one significant caveat to this lack-of-immediate-threat point is the consideration of passive reaction attack effects, such as Bladestorm. In particular, if you bring a soldier with Ever Vigilant and Covering Fire equipped with a Stock, you can end up with an Overwatching enemy who will react to virtually any action with a shot that's 100% guaranteed to do at least a little damage. I actually consider this to be a bit of a final nail in the coffin for Covering Fire, as it's extremely low-value in general and then when Spectres are running around it can backfire and get your people hurt unnecessarily! You could argue Ever Vigilant is the more important part of the problem, and that wouldn't even be untrue, but Ever Vigilant is at least actually helping regularly otherwise, and there's a much wider variety of ways to bypass a regular Ever Vigilant than one backed by Covering Fire.

That said, if you decide to just avoid Ever Vigilant entirely in War of the Chosen, that wouldn't be a bad decision. I don't avoid it completely, myself, but I'll readily admit I often don't bother to buy it from the Training Center when it's on offer, partly due to this issue.

Bladestorm and Retribution technically have this as a concern as well, but I'd be surprised if anyone ever got trapped with it as an unavoidable problem. Shadows run off to Cover when first generated and don't want to be flanked, so they're not going to drop themselves next to one of your soldiers if they can avoid it. It'd require a pretty strange situation for a Shadow to feel compelled to run next to someone... and even if it happened, you'd likely just be able to have soldiers outside the Bladestorm strike zone clear the Shadow out one way or another. Just be careful to not path past a Bladestorm Shadow, and certainly don't try to melee it if you can avoid it!

Note that gear cloning extends to Weapon Attachments and PCSes. Also note that the game doesn't properly communicate some of this; if the Shadow has a Hair Trigger, it's allowed to go off, but there won't be a Hair Trigger activation popup, you'll just get the Shadow firing and then continuing its turn without explanation.

Amusingly, if a Spectre Shadowbinds a Reaper with Target Definition, and then the resulting Shadow spots any Lost, this will mark them for your benefit!

While Shadows borrow primarily from the victim for determining their profile, there's some exceptions. For one thing, a Shadow is always Cover-using even if the victim is not; this won't crop up in normal play very readily, but if you Dominate a Sectoid and have it animate a Psi Zombie, it's possible for a Spectre to Shadowbind the resulting Psi Zombie, and the resulting Shadow will scamper for Cover and flanking it will give you +40 to crit chance. For another, they don't care about the soldier's current HP: a near-dead soldier doesn't result in a 1-HP Shadow. Surprisingly, these exceptions do not include causing the Shadow to take bonus damage from Bluescreen Rounds or the like. Even more surprising is they do inherit your Breakthrough benefits. (eg boosted damage on Shotguns) I haven't tested the full range of potential weirdness here, and AI considerations render things even murkier in that for example I don't know if a Reaper being Shadowbound could result in the Shadow, er, entering Shadow, and starting to invisibly snipe your soldiers. Mechanically, I'm pretty sure it could happen, but AI-wise it hasn't cropped up in my own runs and the AI is pretty erratic about this stuff. I similarly don't know if Shadows can use eg Medikits to heal their ADVENT buddies. You might as well assume the worst...

... because honestly, you should be doing that anyway.

Shadows are, in the mid-to-late game, some of the nastiest enemies of the game. An experienced soldier with good gear is far and away more lethal than whatever enemies are running around, generally speaking, and while the Shadow is unlikely to be exceptionally durable it's still a bunch of HP the Spectre conjured from nowhere that optimally you don't bother to pour fire into at all. The ideal goal is to simply kill the Spectre, which is a durable target, and is quite fond of using its post-Shadowbind move to duck into good Cover away from the main of your forces and really fond of Vanishing if it gets another turn... and of course you're down a soldier to contribute if you aren't willing to burn Awakening Protocol or Restoration to wake them... which you should basically never do. I mean, sure, if your squad happens to need a Restoration anyway, go ahead and take advantage of it waking up the Shadowbound soldier, but otherwise those are bad solutions. Among other points, they both end the user's turn, so you're just changing which soldier is helping to deal with the Spectre, not increasing the overall number of soldiers fighting that turn.

Anyway, point is Spectres are an extremely high priority target in spite of their status as a delayed threat, because the Shadow they make is alarmingly likely to be able to instantly kill one or more squad members if given the chance to act, and it's safest to just wipe out the Spectre as quick as you can to avoid this scenario having a chance to arise. And this gets more true as your squad gets more powerful, not less, unlike most other priority enemies.

That said, sometimes you'll get lucky and a Spectre will Shadowbind a wounded soldier, thus actually protecting them from other enemies throughout that turn since enemies won't deliberately target Unconscious soldiers. This is one reason why Spectres, though very, very dangerous if left unchecked, shouldn't automatically be the very top of your priority list.

A ranged psychic attack that does 3 damage, heals the Spectre by the damage done, and siphons a bunch of Will while causing the target to unavoidably Panic. Cooldown of 1 turn.

It's almost a technicality that Spectres have Horror, because they're really reluctant to actually use it, so much so you can easily go multiple entire runs without it ever being used. They prefer Shadowbind first, Vanish as their second-highest priority, usually fall back on shooting if they're not doing either of those, and only rarely remember their ability to chew on your soldiers' delicious souls. The one caveat is that, weirdly, Tactical Analysis seems to push them to use Horror more readily. Not 100% consistently or anything, but a lot more often than normal. I'm not entirely sure why.

And no, Horror doesn't actually perform a Psi-on-Will check for... any purpose. Not for hitting, not for the damage, and not for inducing Panic. They just all unavoidably happen, and honestly Spectres playing optimally would generally be better off going for Horror over Shadowbind. They both reliably take a soldier out of the fight, but where Shadowbind can be cured by killing the Shadow or Spectre, Horror's inducement of Panic requires the more specialized tools of Stand By Me, Solace, or having had a Mindshield on the soldier in the first place so they don't Panic. And then Horror also hurts the soldier, heals the Spectre if it's injured, and makes the soldier more susceptible to Will-testing effects/ensures the soldier is going to need rest after the mission, where the only effect of Shadowbind that can't be promptly canceled by killing the Shadow/Spectre is the minor Will loss your other soldiers suffer.

This is one case where I don't think the devs were deliberately making the AI sub-optimal to make the game easier. On paper, Shadowbind sounds a lot more dangerous than Horror, and in practice its upper potential danger really is a lot higher. It's just the player can usually avoid getting anywhere near that worst-case scenario, whereas 100% reliably preventing Spectres from ever acting is a lot harder, and in part thanks to them prioritizing Shadowbind is not an ideal goal anyway. An active Heavy Mec should generally be your first priority, because it will pretty reliably try to do unavoidable damage and the Spectre won't. That kind of consideration means that, even though Shadowbind means Spectres are a dangerous, high-priority target, they're generally not one worth killing on the very first turn unless you've handled all other threats with actions to spare.

That is, if Spectres switched priority on Horror and Shadowbind, it would be a lot more urgent to prevent Spectres from acting entirely, but ending up with one running about unchecked for a couple of turns would actually be a lot less threatening than doing so in the current situation of them prioritizing Shadowbind instead.

Spectres are probably the single most complicated enemy in the entire game.

At least, out of regular enemies.

They're also one of the more obvious examples of pod leader/follower mechanics in action. In the base game, Codices are allowed to lead other enemies, and will do so in the mid-early game once you've pushed them into normal rotation, but a Codex will never be lead by another enemy unless it's a fellow Codex. In the late game, this leads to all-Codex pods conspicuously showing up regularly, contrasting with how most late-game pods are made of three different enemies. This makes sense for narrative reasons I'll be getting into in a later post...

Anyway, then in War of the Chosen you suddenly start seeing Spectres leading Codices, while Codices are still barred from being led by other enemies. In the late game, Spectre-led pods are more or less always a Spectre leading other Spectres and/or Codices, which is an interesting change, and notably ups the importance of Bluescreen Rounds and EMP Grenades in War of the Chosen since the late game is even more prone to being populated by digital enemies and it overall starts sooner to boot. This is also something that makes me think the devs' concept of Codices shifted in the transition to War of the Chosen, but that's still for a later post.

Spectres are also noteworthy for being the only regular enemy that you can't take control of at all: immunity to psionic control is normally achieved by being a robot susceptible to hacking. Psi Zombies are the only other arguable exception, and that comes with the qualifier that you can take control of a Sectoid and then use Psi Reanimate to end up in control of a Psi Zombie anyway. Every other enemy that's simply impossible for the player to control (Outside multiplayer) is some manner of special enemy, be it some manner of 'boss' enemy (eg Chosen, Alien Rulers) or an ADVENT General. (Which are pretty obviously immune for gameplay reasons, not narrative representation reasons) I'm curious whether the Spectre's immunity to control is gameplay or thematics; I could see it being a simple solution for resolving Mind Control/Shadowbind interactions (To wit: there are no interactions) and nothing more, but given the Spectre's narrative concepts I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's supposed to be a representation of in-universe fact.

Lightning Reflexes aside, Spectres are probably my favorite new enemy, simply because they're a refined form of the complicator enemy design: a lot of complicator enemies suffer from the fact that they're so easy to kill that the possibility of them delivering on their threat has little practical relevance. (eg Sectoids) On top of that, said threat is often relatively mild anyway, or possible to substantially neuter other ways. (eg Shieldbearers successfully putting up their shield can be laughed off with Bluescreen Rounds and/or EMP Grenades) Spectres successfully hit that sweet spot of being tough enough to kill they can plausibly deliver on their threat, fragile enough it's not completely unreasonable to kill them before they do so, and dangerous enough with said threat that it's genuinely very, very bad to leave them alone for multiple turns in a row.

In conjunction with how Spectres lack any of the new-concept-jank War of the Chosen's other enemies suffer from (eg Lost are a great concept, very good for the game, but the execution really needed a lot more refinement), they're very straightforwardly good for the game.

Even Lightning Reflexes being another strike against the utility of Overwatch ambushes doesn't bother me that much. War of the Chosen broadly shies away from emphasizing Overwatch ambushes: none of your new classes particularly benefits from Overwatch ambush mechanics (Except high-level Skirmishers who have Waylay), Lost are blatantly counterproductive to try to ambush, Chosen are impossible to ambush... Purifiers and Priests are more or less the only new content that isn't hostile to Overwatch ambush. It's also worth pointing out the DLC missions (From Shen's Last Gift and Alien Hunters) are pretty contrary to Overwatch ambushes in their own ways. Taken altogether, I suspect XCOM 3 will throw out Overwatch ambushes entirely: the devs pretty clearly didn't like the impact it has on the game. That's totally understandable, too; I love Concealment as part of the game's overall goal of stopping the hyper-slow Overwatch advances of the prior game, but the weird tension of trying to sneak around for an optimal ambush target is incredibly unfun and not remotely something the game is actually designed for.

Unusually, Spectres are a non-ADVENT unit, but actually have an Elite version. This is, in fact, unique to them if we don't include the Chosen under the umbrella of 'non-ADVENT unit with multiple tiers', and is interesting from the meta standpoint of suggesting that XCOM 3 is liable to be more generous about passing out multiple tiers to enemy types. No more issues like 'Vipers are an important enemy that vanishes past the early game because they have no elite forms' would be nice.

Anyway, here it is:

HP: 15/20/22/25
Armor: 0
Defense: 0
Dodge: 15/25/25/25
Aim: 80
Mobility: 15 (10/20)
Damage: 6-7 (+2)
Shred: 0
Crit Chance: 0/0/15%/15%
Will: 100
Psi: 100

Is susceptible to Bluescreen Rounds and EMP Grenades, but is otherwise not treated as a robot.

You might've noticed when I was covering the basic Spectre's abilities that none of them called for using that 100 Psi stat. Yeah, the Elite Spectre doesn't change that at all. It's a bit weird. I suspect it's to do with War of the Chosen's general rushed nature, but not entirely certain. I wouldn't be completely surprised if Spectres were given a positive Psi score to make it easier for the devs to find conceptually-psionic enemies when digging around in the code, or something in that general vein, as a possible alternative explanation.

But mostly I suspect they were given a placeholder Psi score by virtue of having been spitballed as a psionic enemy -which they are, conceptually- and then it never got taken away before the game got kicked out the door.

Immune to all damage over time effects, and immune to Mind Control and Panic.

Not any new implications here.

Is a flying unit, allowing it to reach locations without regard for intervening terrain. Additionally, the unit will not change position if the terrain it is 'standing' on is destroyed entirely.

Nor here.

Lightning Reflexes
Forces the first reaction attack in a turn to miss it.

Mechanically, there's nothing new here, so let's talk about an element of the way Spectres animate: they don't walk or run places, always breaking up into a swarm before starting to move and then reforming into their humanoid form when coming to a stop. They have animations for walking, and weirdly enough a Reaper tracking them with Target Definition will cause out-of-sight Spectres to visualize with walking animations... even when flying through the air... but they don't normally use them.

That's pretty weird, but what I'm actually driving at is that I'm pretty sure Lightning Reflexes is meant to represent protection provided by them breaking up into their little swarm when moving. I'm not sure if it's meant to represent the swarm just being an evasive target or represent shots going right through the swarm without doing damage, but either way it's a little interesting. Not interesting enough for me to like Lightning Reflexes being on them, but still interesting.

This functions like player Concealment, does not end the Spectre's turn, and increases its Mobility by 25%, but has a cooldown of 2 turns. The Spectre will never be detected in motion, only when both stopped and flanked.

Not really meaningfully different.

A move-and-melee attack that unavoidably renders the target Unconscious while generating a copy that has their stats, skills, and gear. The Spectre gets a free move action after performing the Shadowbind. Destroying the Shadow will immediately awaken the soldier, letting them perform a full turn. Killing the Spectre that performed the Shadowbind will also destroy the Shadow, awakening the soldier. This has a local cooldown of 2 turns and a global cooldown of 1 turn; only one Shadowbind can occur per turn.

Shadowbind being the Spectre's primary tool means it makes sense that the Elite Spectre is primarily tougher than a basic Spectre. (Particularly on the upper two difficulties, where basic Spectres get bumped up to 80 Aim and so the switch to Elite doesn't make them any more accurate) Being tougher is enough all by itself to make Shadowbind more of a threat, and it'd be difficult to scale Shadowbind per se in a sensible way.

A ranged psychic attack that does 3 damage, heals the Spectre by the damage done, and siphons a bunch of Will while causing the target to unavoidably Panic. Cooldown of 1 turn.

Yes, the Elite Spectre's Horror isn't any better than the basic Spectre's.

Indeed, none of the Elite Spectre's abilities are any different from the basic Spectre's. I'm not sure if that's a product of War of the Chosen being rushed or the devs just being comfortable having an elite form that doesn't scale up special abilities. I'd honestly be fine with the latter scenario: I feel it's pretty often a mistake when a game conceptually commits to multi-tier enemies and having everything scale up with tiers, as often there are components of specific enemies that basically auto-scale, where boosting them at later tiers is unnecessary and in fact is pulling them ahead where the design clearly intends for boosting enemies to be about keeping them competitive with the player.

It's only Horror in specific where it seems a bit strange that it didn't get boosted at all.

So yeah, Elite Spectres are a surprisingly mild upgrade on regular Spectres, particularly if you're playing on the upper difficulties where regular Spectres already have 80 Aim. Not that Spectres fire their gun very often anyway, but still. A solid HP spike, plus more damage on their gun, but no new abilities, their (irrelevant) Psi stat is unchanged, Dodge is higher but by such a small amount you can't tell the difference in real play... the HP boost is really the only part that tends to impact things, making it a lot harder to alpha strike them and thus bypass all their capabilities.

Which leaves me little to say about the Elite Spectre in particular. Try to have Bluescreen Rounds online before the switch happens? But really you'll want to do that anyway for a bunch of other reasons...

The Spectre's Autopsy is neat for reasons I'll be getting into in just a minute, but mechanically? It's a bit underwhelming. It just gives access to the ability to spend Spectre corpses on one-time-period Items for entering Concealment. This isn't useless, but it's pretty narrow, and fairly redundant with just bringing Reapers or even Rangers into missions. You could maybe take advantage of it to do gimmicky, unnecessary and not very helpful or practical in real terms things like 'have the entire squad sneak through the first part of a Chosen Stronghold'. So unless you are extremely confident that you will want one of these for a specific purpose?

Pass. Prioritize other researches.

This is a bit of a recurring issue with the new Autopsies. I have mixed feelings about it; on the one hand, one of my complaints with Enemy Within (And, to a much lesser extent, XCOM 2's other DLC) is there's a notable element of 'pay to win' instead of 'pay to have a more interesting game with more content', and it's nice to be able to say that the new enemy types stay away from that; none of them is an easy mode enemy that gives some big boon for Autopsying. On the other hand, the Autopsy benefits are pretty consistently so underwhelming it's dubious whether they're worth pursuing at all, making them a bit of a waste of developer resources and not really adding anything to the player's experience.

The Spectre's payoff in particular doesn't even try to do anything interesting or address in a targeted way a design problem. If Reapers hadn't been added by War of the Chosen, and the Item wasn't one-use-period, I might've interpreted it as an attempt to make scouting more viable, but as-is it's just... pretty pointless. Alas.

Also a mildly unfortunate point is that Tygan will insist in the text version of the Autopsy that your troops have never managed to recover a Spectre intact... when the Autopsy depicts Tygan cutting into an intact Spectre, and the Spectre death animation is just standard ragdolling instead of Codex-style vanishing much of their mass. I imagine the rushed nature of War of the Chosen is at least partly to blame here... though admittedly the base game has some pretty awkward issues of this sort we'll be getting to later, as well, and the base game, while it has some cut content and whatnot, has never given me the impression it was rushed per se. So maybe Autopsies were just a bit of a blind spot for the dev team.

Whatever the reason: whoops!

Less whoops but still whoops is that for some reason blood is visible on the autopsy table. You can at least rationalize that as being blood from other Autopsies Tygan hasn't gotten around to cleaning...


Spectres are notable for a meta-layer reason.

When you first encounter a Spectre, Tygan does his usual thing of jumping to a ridiculous stereotypical-scifi theory for what is going on with them. In this case, he wildly asserts that it's a nanobot cloud. In turn, when you get the corpse description and initial Autopsy cinematic/description, Tygan keeps pushing this arbitrary theory.

But... when you finish the Autopsy, Tygan admits that he actually has no idea what is going on with the Spectre, with a somewhat defensive comment to the effect of 'but it could be nanites!' thrown in.

There's a few layers to why this is notable.

Layer one is that one of the recurring low-key big problems with Firaxis' games -and I don't just mean their XCOM games, this stuff shows up in eg Sid Meir's Alpha Centauri- is the whole thing I got into with the Codex of 'scientific' characters jumping to completely insane conclusions off of zero evidence and yet invariably being validated by the narrative as 100% correct. And... here's a case of the game very deliberately contradicting that! It's like the devs are finally getting an idea of what science looks like in their scifi games that have a heavy focus on scientific research!

Layer two is how the Spectre fits into a broader, subtle trend with XCOM 2; back in the prior game, one of the big narrative problems is that anytime the game said 'psychic' or any variation of that, you might as well have replaced it with 'magic', because there was no way to reconcile the majority of what we saw with 'I use my mind to interface with other minds', or even with stock telekinesis. (eg Psi Lance and Rift had their damage affected by the target's Will, but worked on robots and in fact were more effective against robots) Sure, the game presented these abilities as mentally-oriented effects, but I don't care that the Sectoid's magic spell was called 'Mind Merge', there's no way to translate 'I psychically commune with another mind' into 'I can survive direct bullet hits that would normally kill me, and repeated application will get rid of my wounds' without admitting this is just straight-up magic.

Enemy Within made this wackily worse, with Mechtoids outright having a technologically-based shield that activated when they were targeted with Mind Merge, no evidence of a recognition that this is all very nonsensical.

And... then XCOM 2 is actually embracing the point that its 'psychic powers' are really just wizardry. Not only that, but the base-game ending indicates Ethereals are some kind of interdimensional critters instead of interstellar invaders, and further implies that 'psychic powers' somehow come from this other dimension; suddenly Ethereals aren't a natural-for-our-universe alien species that happened to evolve/stumble into the secret of totally-not-wizardry, but are some kind of transdimensional space wizards channeling magical energy from a dimension where magic is just naturally a thing. That's a lot better a setup than pretending the space wizards are scifi psychics!

And whatever the Ethereals are on the run from, it apparently also comes from their dimension...

The whole thing feels like the devs are setting up for XCOM 3 to be more of a 'scifi meets fantasy' dealy, one that makes a lot of the nonsensicalness of the prior game retroactively function just fine and we can just dismiss Vahlen's inane opinions as being the result of her thinking 'psychic powers' as an explanation for magic is less of a blow to her Scientist Cred than admitting we're dealing with space wizards. (It should be noted that a lot of pop culture engages in this exact line of reasoning, where you can tell the creators wanted to write magic, but for whatever reason didn't want to admit to writing magic, and so insisted their magic wasn't magic it was Science. Point being that real people do this and Vahlen retroactively being such a person instead of objectively correct would be very logical and even a bit clever!)

Spectres build on this even further; while Tygan wants to cram them into a scifi aesthetic with his dubious 'nanobot swarm' theory, the gameplay and terminology strongly implies Spectres are something closer to a horrific demon that happens to take a form that doesn't look out of place in a scifi game. (And carry a scifi gun) In fact, my initial (Groaning) reaction was to comment that the 'problem' with the Spectre was that its mechanics really belonged in a fantasy game...

... which actually works quite nicely, since the game does heavily imply the Spectre is more of a fantasy context creature rather than a scifi-stereotypical entity. Shadowbind isn't some nonsensical nanobot clone that for no scientific reason keeps its originator KOed until destroyed and has no ontological inertia; it's the Spectre doing something more mystical, like, say, binding the soldier's shadow to its will, hey, exactly like the name says! And this KOs the soldier because mystical logic means your shadow is metaphysically an important part of you instead of a way of describing reduced light in an area caused by you blocking the light. (It's too bad they didn't make Shadowbound soldiers stop casting a shadow: that would have been an amazingly cool clue to add in)

Most notable is how Horror does Psi damage and steals some health in the process. Psychic robots are generally avoided by scifi, and when they do happen you certainly wouldn't see a lifesucking horror robot devouring people's soul vital energies and undoing damage through that.

Also noteworthy about Spectres is that they're a really significant deviation from the pattern I noted in the Viper post: Spectres seem, at first glance, like a fairly boring stock scifi trope that has no real connection to aliens, just using aliens as an excuse for hyper-advanced technology, but as you dig deeper it seems they're actually some manner of really weird (transdimensional) alien. War of the Chosen doesn't touch upon Spectre culture or anything, and unfortunately they're one of the only alien types with zero representation in Chimera Squad, but the possibility is noteworthy.

Spectres, more than anything else in War of the Chosen, have me genuinely curious where the team is going to take the series for the next proper entry.

Aesthetically, I'm surprised at how much I like the Spectre's design. I particularly like how the glowing lines running down its 'face' are evocative of both eyes and a mouth while, of course, being neither, but the design also does a nice job of selling the 'Tygan thinks it's a robot assembled from nanites but it's actually some kind of psychic demon monster' thing. I especially like and am pleasantly surprised by them getting their own 'blood' effect, instead of using the stock robot sparking effect: instead, Spectres spray black/green bits of themselves, appropriate to whatever exactly is going on with them. Even the Autopsy uses this effect!

I only have one-and-a-half issues with the aesthetic end of things. The first one is a missed opportunity, or more accurately an inconsistently applied opportunity: that part of the creep factor of Spectres is that at first glance you might mistake them for a human-type figure in armor and all... up until they break up into their swarm form. Some portion of players will actually get that first experience by walking into sight of a Spectre, at which point it activates and breaks into its swarm form, but a lot of other players must have had it roll into sight in its swarm form and reassemble into its humanoid form as their introduction. On the other hand, I'm not thinking of a quick, easy solution that fits to the context, so ultimately this is a pretty minor complaint.

The one-half issue is that of how, like Faceless, Spectres only have the two forms. I class this as half an issue, because unlike Faceless I'm not sure Spectres are supposed to be versatile shapeshifters. Scifi tropes about nanite swarms point to 'yes', but a big part of the Spectre's concept is that it only looks like a nanite swarm, with the game heavily implying it's some manner of Void demon that just happens to be vaguely like a nanite swarm in appearance and vulnerability to specific anti-digital tools. If XCOM 3 comes along and has the latest Scientist Character babble about their quantum nonsense shows Spectres only have two forms they can access/construct, then I'm 100% fine with Spectres only having two forms in War of the Chosen. And given part of what I like about War of the Chosen's handling of the Spectre is Tygan behaving like an actual scientist by going 'my first theories were all wrong, so I dunno what this is', which in War of the Chosen's framework demands the game never get around to answering the question... I'm fine with such an answer not showing up until a later game. I'll only become retroactively annoyed if XCOM 3 comes along, has Spectres, and events make it clear Spectres not only are versatile shapeshifters in that game but are supposed to have been versatile shapeshifters in War of the Chosen's timeframe. (That is, if XCOM 3 has characters talking about how Spectres 'didn't used to be that versatile', that's fine too)

Put another way, depending on how XCOM 3 plays out I may well consider the Spectre's aesthetics essentially perfect, aside the occasional wait time issue. (That is, their break-up/reform animation sometimes slows turns down, which can get really annoying when a pod of Spectres activates)


Next time, we return to the base game to cover the Chryssalid's return.

See you then.


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