XCOM 2 Alien Analysis: ADVENT Stun Lancer


Basic
HP: 4/6/7/8
Armor: 0
Defense: 0
Dodge: 0
Aim: 65
Mobility: 12/14/14/14 (8/16 on Rookie, 9/18 on other difficulties)
Damage: 3-4 (+2)
Shred: 0
Crit Chance: 0/15%/15%/15%
Will: 50/60/60/60
Tech: 125

Stun Lance
A move-and-melee attack with 75 Aim, 2-4 Damage (+2 on crit), and a chance to Stun, Disorient, or even knock Unconscious the target.

Stun Lancers are the player's introduction to the fact that melee enemies are actually pretty dangerous in XCOM 2, unlike the prior game. Primarily by virtue of move-and-melee being the default, now, and thus eg a Basic Stun Lancer's 14 Mobility is really comparable to something bonkers like 27 Mobility in the prior game, in terms of ability to get to a target while still melee attacking it that turn. Though admittedly they can miss, where melee in the prior game was unavoidable, but 'can definitely attack, might miss' is a huge improvement over 'would assuredly hit, but has absolutely no chance of getting to attack' in terms of ability to threaten.

Though it's actually a little funny how obsessive the Basic Stun Lancer is about trying to melee your forces, as their gun has better average damage. On the other hand, it's not as bad as it might first seem, since their melee attack has bonus side effects and AI units don't get Aim climb up close so it's not like a Stun Lancer who is in your face is more likely to hit with their gun than with their melee attack. It's basically only if they have height advantage over a target in the open that their gun would be unambiguously smarter to use, so really it's probably for the best that they go for melee obsessively. Still a little funny, though.

That said, Stun Lancers will use their gun if they can't reach melee on any of your troops in a given turn, which can crop up from you lowering their Mobility, or having Tactical Analysis eat one of their action points, or just being in a map situation like having a river between you and them. But if they can reach someone to melee them? Melee it is. On the face of it this might make them seem very predictable, but melee mechanics make it a lot harder to manipulate and predict targeting: a Trooper, when presented with four soldiers, one of whom is in Low Cover while the others are in High, will pretty predictably target the soldier in Low Cover if no confounding factors like Mark Target apply. A Stun Lancer's accuracy-per-target is a lot harder to manipulate, and their high Mobility means it's rare for you to be able to control which target is in reach. That said, their obsessive need to melee can be predictably leveraged in the right situation, such as if there's only one path for a melee attack to reach your forces: then you can drop a Bladestorm Ranger/Templar in the way and the Stun Lancer will predictably run right into the Bladestorm.

Their melee obsession also means they rarely survive for more than one turn, as the AI doesn't bother to try to end in Cover when performing melee. (This is a contributing factor to it being difficult to manipulate/predict their targeting: if they endeavored to end in good Cover relative to the rest of the squad, you could use that to readily guess and control who they'll target) This is curious, since if the player clicks a move-and-melee attack button (eg click Slash's icon, instead of right-clicking an enemy to initiate a Slash) the game will always have the initial targeting location be adjacent to Cover if possible, including that the game attempts to have it positioned to protect from the unit being attacked if that's an option; they've got the code to semi-competently understand how to melee in relative safety already built into the game. Why isn't it being recycled for melee enemies?

To be fair, most melee-capable enemies don't use Cover anyway, but it still bugs me, and it's a big contributor to Stun Lancers being really easy to kill. They'll run for Cover when first activated, of course, but once they're making attack runs they're probably going to end up standing in the open and dead in short order.

Now, it might sound like Stun Lancers are a non-threatening, low-priority enemy, but this isn't really true at all. They're actually one of the most seriously threatening enemies in the game; in practice they're one of the most accurate enemies since melee ignores Cover, they can randomly knock a soldier Unconscious even if the soldier was guaranteed to survive the hit, and basic Stun Lancers in particular are bizarrely durable when you consider they're a follower-type enemy and start showing up in the same timeframe Basic Troopers are still normal. Outside Rookie difficulty, a Basic Stun Lancer is roughly twice as durable as a Basic ADVENT Trooper, comparable to eg Officers, Sectoids, or Vipers, who early on are restricted to leading pods and thus are never more than one per pod. Basic Troopers need one successful shot to kill from most Conventional primary weapons, two at most from even a Pistol. Stun Lancers can be killed in one shot, but even down on Regular difficulty it requires a high roll or crit from Cannons, Sniper Rifles, or Shotguns, and on Commander or Legendary it just plain demands a crit is involved unless you got lucky with Ammo from a very early Rumor. (As in, one of your first three Rumors generated)

As such, in the very early game where missions can have pods like 'Sectoid and two Troopers' coexisting with pods like 'Officer and two Stun Lancers', pod total HP and by extension difficulty is bizarrely variable. The former will require a four-man squad hit every shot, but every shot hitting will generally result in the entire pod being dead, even on Legendary. The latter will require a four-man squad hit every shot, but also require at least two crits in there, or else you can only assure the Stun Lancers die, leaving their pod leader to potentially get in damage. Even Blademaster Rangers can't reliably kill them above Regular difficulty unless you have the Hunter's Axe, and even with the Hunter's Axe Legendary Stun Lancers will survive a bit less than 1/3rd of the time, and Specialists in particular can require three shots to kill a Basic Stun Lancer above Regular difficulty.

This is an easily-overlooked point of contrast between XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen: War of the Chosen lets Stun Lancers show up just as early, and keeps them just as tough, and leaves them as followers instead of pod leaders, but it more or less completely eliminates double Stun Lancer pods. A three-soldier pod with a Stun Lancer in War of the Chosen will have the other follower be a Trooper or a Purifier, very reliably. This is important, because early double Stun Lancers are a bizarre spike in durability, with Stun Lancers themselves being designed so RNG is far more important than your choices in determining outcomes; they're too fast to arrange to for it to be reasonable to be out of melee reach in 99% of circumstances, after all. You can Flashbang them to stop them from going for the melee strike, sure, but that exacerbates how long they take to die (Because they'll actually stay in Cover, and also you gave up an attacking opportunity by throwing the Flashbang), leading to more shots being taken at you, and Disorientation is not as much of an Aim penalty as one might hope.

War of the Chosen eliminating double Stun Lancer pods (Mostly: they can still happen, but it's rare) does a lot to make the early game experience rooted more strongly in player skill instead of RNG.

On the topic of double Stun Lancer pods, it's worth pointing out that Stun Lancers are nearly unique for starting out as being exclusively a follower-type enemy and yet later being promoted to being allowed to lead pods. Most enemies that are properly integrated into the pod system at all are either mandatorily always pod leaders or start out that way and transition to being allowed to be followers. Most of the handful of exceptions instead enter rotation able to fill both slots, such as Troopers right away getting to lead and be lead. Indeed, I'm reasonably confident the only other exception that functions like the Stun Lancer is the Purifier added by War of the Chosen, which also starts out locked to being a follower in normal missions and then transitions to also being allowed to lead pods. I'm curious why the Stun Lancer and Purifier get this quality, as its conspicuously strange and I've never been able to puzzle out a reasonable purpose to it. Indeed, part of why it's so frustrating that in the base game Stun Lancers can double up right away is that it's a design rule-breaker: why aren't they starting out as pod leader-exclusive like nearly everybody else? It's such a glaring inconsistency I'd assume it was a glitch or other oversight, but the early game is generally the most heavily-tested portion of a game like this, and 'Stun Lancers as followers including getting to double up' is not the kind of error that's easy to overlook just playing the game. So... it seems like it has to be intentional, in spite of breaking an otherwise-consistent design rule and seriously messing up the difficulty curve of the early game?

I dunno, maybe a last-minute change caused it and they didn't notice before the game shipped, or one of the post-release patches accidentally introduced it? It's strange, whatever the case.

On a different note, Stun Lancers are unique when it comes to Retaliation missions, in that every other enemy of the game is either an obligate melee attacker or will never use melee for out-of-sight executions of civilians, even if they have access to a melee attack. Stun Lancers alone are allowed to do either. They strongly prefer to go for melee strikes on civilians, which matters for two connected reasons: firstly, it means Stun Lancer-led pods are more prone than most pod leaders to stumbling into your forces as part of an attack on a civilian you can see, and secondly Stun Lancer-led pods will almost always end up unusually separated as a result of these attacks on civilians, where you may activate the pod and end up with at least one pod member still completely out of line of sight immediately post-activation. This is usually a temporary affair, as the pod will consolidate after an attack over the next turn or two if you don't activate them, but if a specific Stun Lancer pod leader just keeps being selected to kill civilians, the separation can end up persisting across multiple turns, and indeed getting more dramatic, such that the pod leader is halfway across the map from the rest of their own pod!

There's one other enemy where this separation can happen in Retaliation missions, and I'll point them out when we get to them, but for whatever exact reason I've seen it be particularly dramatic much more often with Stun Lancers.

Anyway, the fact that Stun Lancers have both forms of civilian execution available is important in part because each style has certain weaknesses: other melee pod leaders have overall less of a threat zone to kill civilians within compared to ranged attackers because movement+firing range is pretty consistently a wider radius than even the fastest of Dashing move-and-melee attacks. (... aside the Assassin, but Chosen virtually always ignore civilians) Conversely, ranged executions have to respect line of sight/line of fire rules: a melee execution can occur on a civilian no enemy unit had sight on when the attack was plotted out, such as a civilian hidden indoors, while a ranged execution can only occur if the pod leader has a line of fire after their initial movement -and while I'm unsure of the exact details, it's clear inactive pods either don't know where civilians are to actively hunt for them or are somehow impaired when it comes to forward planning of their moves for purposes of civilian-hunting. (You can see this relatively readily yourself by scouting with a Reaper; you'll inevitably end up seeing inactive pods making decisions that result in no line of fire on a civilian, even if they're the last inactive pod on the map and had the ability to get a line of fire on a civilian)

There is, unfortunately, not a ton you can do with this info -it's not like the Shadow Chamber lets you know which enemies are designated as pod leaders- but you can eg spot two different pods with your Reaper and deliberately choose to engage the one led by a Stun Lancer first to increase the odds that no inactive pod attacks any civilians in a given turn.


Heavy
HP: 7/7/8/10
Armor: 1
Defense: 10/0/10/10
Dodge: 0/25/25/25
Aim: 65
Mobility: 13/14/15/15 (8/17 on Rookie, 9/18 on Regular, 10/20 on Commander/Legendary)
Damage: 4-5 (+3)
Shred: 0
Crit Chance: 0/15%/15%/15%
Will: 50/70/70/70
Tech: 125

Yes, Heavy Stun Lancers have 0 Defense on Regular.  This is almost certainly an oversight.

Stun Lance
A move-and-melee attack with 75 Aim, 5-7 Damage (+3 on crit), and a chance to Stun, Disorient, or even knock Unconscious the target.

A point of note: the Stun Lancer's melee attack is actually performing a Strength test, where the randomized outcome is determined in the same way that Mindspin's is; ie a lower Strength soldier is more likely to be knocked Unconscious by a hit than a higher-Strength one, performing a comparison between the Stun Lancer's Strength and the target's Strength. This is... kind of a pointless mechanic. Heavy and Elite Stun Lancers have just as much Strength as basic ones do (40), and aside SPARKs starting from 0 Strength player units all start from 40 Strength and gain at most 3 from leveling. So yeah, sure, your higher-level soldiers are a little more resistant to being Disoriented/Stunned/knocked Unconscious, but as far as I'm aware the effect is not so significant as to be readily noticeable in actual play.

On an animation note, Stun Lance has always struck me as a strange, unintuitive animation. Everything about the visual design of the Stun Lance itself really makes it seem like something that would be slapped or slammed into the target, like a club, possibly opening up the side bits on impact (Put another way: I'd basically expect Ranger Sword animations to be recycled for Stun Lancers), but the actual attack animation has the Stun Lancer thrusting it tip-first like a foil. (Which is a unique animation, incidentally; they made it specifically for Stun Lance, they didn't recycle some other animation, where recycling could explain the strangeness) I think the logic might be that the tip is essentially that of a 'stun gun', but it looks very strange in practice, not helped by the tendency for the visuals to not line up properly; a Stun Lancer only rarely ends up visually impacting their target. I assume the devs were attempting to avoid the visual jank of overshooting a target, but it looks wrong regardless.

If it is meant to be basically a stun gun at the end up a rod, this also just raises questions about what the opening-up behavior is meant to be about. If the Stun Lance was being slapped into a target, I'd assume the closed behavior was an 'off' state where it can't accidentally zap people and the open state was to let the electricity actually arc into the target when hitting them with the side of the baton. Poking it end-first makes the open state just confusing.

Seriously, look at that. I think it might be spraying some kinda gas? Or maybe that's just a visual affect not meant to represent anything in-universe, I dunno.

It's all very confusing. Did one person design the model, intending the Stun Lancer to slap the baton into the target, and then another person animated it without proper communication happening? Does it open up purely to Look Cool, where the final confusing animation is 100% intended? Did they originally animate it using a recycling of Ranger Slashes, but not like the visuals of it going through targets and then kludge together this animation with little thought to how it comes across? I feel like something must've gone wrong here, but I'm honestly not sure what in particular could be the root issue.

In any event, Heavy Stun Lancers are effectively much less of a threat than Basic ones, as unlike Basic Stun Lancers they're not a massive durability spike compared to other follower-type enemies that show up in the same timeframe. Advanced Troopers, for example, have the same HP or 1 less (Depending on difficulty), and Heavy Stun Lancers having 25 Dodge (Except on Rookie...), 1 Armor, and 10 Defense (Except on Regular...) just plain doesn't produce the same sort of massive spike in difficulty killing them that Basic Stun Lancers being around twice the HP of basic Troopers does. For one thing, point-blank Shotgun blasts only care about the Armor part of that; an appropriately leveled Ranger will have enough base Aim they should always have perfect accuracy on even a target with 10 innate Defense so long as they're in its face, at which point Dodge isn't allowed to trigger either. For another, while it still often takes two hits to kill them, this is more widely true of enemies in general by the time Heavy Stun Lancers are a thing, and among other points is counterbalanced by the fact that you almost certainly have the ability to field 5 soldiers in a mission instead of 4 by the time Heavy Stun Lancers are running around.

Also helping in the base game is that enemy variety has reached the point that you're not regularly seeing double Stun Lancer pods in the first place. You're much more likely to see eg an Officer leading a Stun Lancer and a Shieldbearer. In such a case you can prioritize the Stun Lancer, then the Officer, and probably nobody gets hurt because the Shieldbearer probably puts up a shield instead of shooting at anyone. And since you should have 5 soldiers, someone can miss without it messing this up, or if nobody misses you even get to do some damage to the Shieldbearer.

This isn't to say Heavy Stun Lancers are non-threats: you should still treat them as priority targets. But circumstances are a lot less likely to conspire such that pure RNG is the primary determiner in whether they're no problem or a very serious problem. 

Also, notice that unlike the Basic Stun Lancer their rifle is actually unambiguously weaker than their melee strike. It's a lot more clearly worthwhile to consider Flashbanging or setting on fire a Heavy Stun Lancer than a Basic one, since forcing them to switch to their rifle lowers their maximum potential damage by 2 points, instead of raising their minimum damage by 1 point.

It's also worth pointing out explicitly that in 99% of circumstances you should assume a Stun Lancer -regardless of tier- can melee anyone it wants if your squad isn't heavily spread out. If you're not playing on Rookie, every tier of Stun Lancer can cover a minimum of 18 tiles (Ignoring that non-orthogonal movement is a little weird), 20 once you're looking at Heavy Stun Lancers on the 'real' difficulties (Commander and Legendary), which in conjunction with how aggressive they are about charging toward your squad as part of pod activation is generally more than enough to reach every member of your squad. Terrain can break this up, but XCOM 2 largely endeavors to construct maps so this isn't so: Avatar Project Facilities can have a large, impassible river that stretches halfway across part of the map, but this is an uncommon terrain feature even on Avatar Project Facilities, and most mission types are completely unable to produce such large, impassible gaps. (With one of the main exceptions being, as far as I'm aware, a mission type completely unwilling to generate Stun Lancers: the second-to-late mission of the game) Most of the time, even stretches of high ground have so many climb points that it's difficult to actually prevent them from having a path to your soldiers.

You can use effects to lower their Mobility, but this is less relevant than you might think. Disorienting them is a nice little Mobility penalty, but it also completely disables their melee attack so the Mobility penalty per se is actually a bit irrelevant to the point. You can Poison them, but the -4 Mobility penalty is rarely enough to do more than take away maybe one or two options, and since the game doesn't provide any tools for previewing enemy movement (And, bafflingly, there's no mod for such that I can find) it can be difficult to eyeball whether Poisoning a Stun Lancer will at least prevent it from hitting a specific soldier you desperately don't want hit. (Such as because it's your Revival Protocol Specialist) And, uh, that's your options, so... you can't meaningfully stack Mobility penalties to cripple their ability to perform melee attacks.

It's a little disappointing this particular bit of tactical utility just... isn't really existent.

Tactical Analysis makes things slightly better, in that Stun Lancers are still often able to reach somebody if you activate the pod yourself, but by a close enough margin that Poisoning them is actually pretty likely to change that into 'can't reach anyone'. If you have Tactical Analysis, you can get away with Poisoning a freshly-activated-in-your-turn Stun Lancer and then ignoring them for one turn, if you would rather focus on some other threat. Usually, at least. So that's another one of those subtle-but-very-appreciated improvements to the design War of the Chosen brings to the table.


Elite
HP: 8/10/12/15
Armor: 1/0/1/1
Defense: 0/10/10/10
Dodge: 0/20/25/25
Aim: 65/65/70/70
Mobility: 14/14/15/15 (9/18 on Rookie/Regular, 10/20 on Commander/Legendary)
Damage: 5-6 (+4)
Shred: 0
Crit Chance: 0/15%/15%/15%
Will: 50/70/70/70
Tech: 125

Yes, Elite Lancers are missing their Armor and have lower Dodge than Heavy Lancers on Regular difficulty. This is really obviously a pair of oversights.

This kind of oversight is sufficiently common at Regular that it is, in conjunction with secondary evidence like how the cheating-for-the-player is distributed, a big part of why I'm confident the devs focused on Commander as the true baseline, with Regular being an easy mode and Rookie being a super-easy mode, even though various elements of the code position Regular as the baseline.

After all, if they were regularly playtesting at Regular, they should've been catching things like Elites inexplicably not having Armor on Regular and Heavies not having Defense at Regular. I can understand overlooking the Dodge inconsistency since nothing about the in-game interface allows you to actually see a unit's Dodge stat in combat, but Armor is impossible to miss and Defense is pretty hard to miss too. The most obvious explanation is that the team simply wasn't playing at Regular.

Stun Lance
A move-and-melee attack with 75/75/80/80 Aim, 8-10 Damage (+4 on crit), and a chance to Stun, Disorient, or even knock Unconscious the target.

Here's a bit of mechanics oddness that is primarily pertinent to Stun Lancers: in the event that a unit initiates a melee attack, and partway through becomes afflicted with an affect that disables its melee attack, the action will be interrupted but it will have all the action points it was spending refunded.

In other words, if a Stun Lancer with 2 action points charges one of your soldiers, and then gets hit by Dragon Rounds-backed Overwatch fire, and survives, the Stun Lancer will be free to move somewhere else and fire their rifle.

Particularly strange and frustrating is that the the mechanics of this refunding are such that this will generally act as a free Mobility boost for the turn. That is, the Stun Lancer will advance some number of tiles, get shot, stop moving and get 2 action points back, and begin their new set of actions from wherever it is they stopped, not from wherever they began, even if they actually moved more than one action point's worth of distance before being set on fire.

This can also sometimes happen by the Stun Lancer walking through a fire on the ground, but this is much rarer: the AI endeavors to not path through hazards, and it's surprisingly rare for their AI to break and walk through a hazard gratuitously. Much rarer than you might expect given how readily the game will auto-path through hazards when you are considering a move, even when when it's completely unnecessary for reaching your destination within a single action point. And of course if you're playing around with mods, it can potentially crop up other ways -maybe you have a mod installed that includes a way for Overwatch fire to inflict Disorientation, for example.

Strictly speaking, this action point refunding behavior applies to other enemies -and I think even the player, though it's been a while since I tested it so I might be misremembering, will update this space if I re-test it- but Stun Lancers are the only enemy it really matters to. Only a handful of enemies have move-and-melee attacks at all, and the rest of them either retain full access to melee attacks no matter what (eg the Assassin, dedicated melee enemies in War of the Chosen in general), or are completely disabled by being set on fire/becoming Disoriented. (eg dedicated melee enemies in the base game) Catching a base-game Chryssalid with Dragon Rounds Overwatch will at most result in it promptly wandering around aimlessly with its refunded action points, not in, you know, doing something else of use.

This bit of strangeness has the very odd effect of introducing a weird risk in actually trying to make use of Incendiary Grenades, Dragon Rounds, Flamethrowers, or Hellfire Projectors in missions containing Stun Lancers, as you may end up causing a Stun Lancer to abort their melee strike in favor of taking a flanking shot from good Cover. It's not quite so significant as to justify avoiding bringing or using such tools just because Stun Lancers are present as it requires a fairly rare contrivance of circumstances to come up at all, but it's an unpleasant surprise to eg have an out-of-position soldier with Dragon Rounds go into Overwatch in hopes of catching the Stun Lancer on the way in and have the final result be that you didn't prevent them from dealing damage and they're actually in a difficult-to-flank position now. I suspect some poor programmer was just trying to work out a solution to an edge case scenario ("How does the game resolve use of an ability if it was disabled in the middle of attempting to use it?"), slapped in this solution as a good-enough bandaid, and then the fact that it comes up so rarely let it slip through playtesting, because this is so obviously bonkers from a game design standpoint I have difficulty imagining the team put it in as design-intended behavior.

Supporting this theory is that the game does not cope well with it on an animation level. A typical result is the Stun Lancer arriving at their victim and playing out their melee attack animation while the victim plays an 'attack missed me' animation (While no damage/miss info popup occurs), and then the Stun Lancer rapidly sliding back to their 'real' position of being in the middle of moving toward Cover post-refunding. Among other points, this often obscures where the interrupt point occurred within the engine's physical logic, with the animations completely failing to align with what internally happened: this is made very obvious in the rare event of the interrupt being caused by a Stun Lancer running through a fire, as the snap-back strangeness will not visually reflect the part where their attack was interrupted by the fire they ran through, even if it's obvious which exact tile must've interrupted their melee attack because it's literally the only tile in the area that's on fire.

The only other animation jank that's comparably broken I've seen is Purifiers exploding during Overwatch while Undying Loyalty turns them into a zombie, which has similar snap-back strangeness. (... and then can hang for twenty minutes as the game struggles to reconcile what's supposed to be happening, visually, so this Purifier issue is much more broken than refunded action points from canceled move-and-melee attacks...) Which is, itself, an edge case scenario requiring an alignment of factors that will only rarely align, much like this move-and-melee cancellation/interruption.

It's... a pretty frustrating thing, and surprisingly as far as I'm aware there's no mod to act as a fan-patch. I guess most players are clueless this is a thing, too, such that no one got frustrated enough to try to mod up a fix? Or at least no one with the relevant skills and so on.

In any event, narratively the Stun Lancer is one of those rare moments of the game recognizing that ADVENT's 'peacekeepers' need to seem plausibly peacekeeper-y to civilians, with Bradford talking about Stun Lancers being a non-lethal crowd control unit, and this being somewhat reflected in gameplay via their melee strike being able to take a target out of the fight permanently without it specifically having to be a kill. (Knocking units Unconscious)

The execution is a bit janky all-around, unfortunately. For the gameplay representation element, you've got the point that Basic Stun Lancers are perfectly able to kill early-game soldiers in a single hit if they get a crit, while having it guaranteed (Outside Rookie difficulty) that they'll have a 20% chance for a hit to be a crit (15 is 20% of 75), not to mention actual civilians always dying in one hit, making it a little strange to suggest the Stun Lance is a less-than-lethal weapon. Also a bit of a flaw in this regard is the lack of representation for enemies eg capturing live soldiers -it would've been particularly cool if War of the Chosen had done something to make regular enemies able to Kidnap disabled soldiers mid-mission, such as if Officers could pick up your Unconscious soldiers and evac via calling in an aerial transport, with this presumably feeding Knowledge to whichever Chosen owns the territory this happened in. War of the Chosen is already hugely ambitious and ended up in a rushed, incomplete state, so I don't feel particularly disappointed by this in regards to War of the Chosen, but it's a bit more frustrating that the base game doesn't have any evidence of an attempt to represent such. (Which is particularly striking given how many artifacts remain providing indicators of plans that didn't get implemented)

The aesthetic end of things is also janky. The Stun Lancer's weapon is, in usual ADVENT fashion, designed to look rather menacing, crackling with red electricity and in its open shape looking like a series of jagged hooks or similar. On closer inspection one can tell they're actually more rounded shapes that likely can't cut or hook into flesh, but the at-a-glance appearance is still pretty unfortunate, and ADVENT really should be more PR-conscious, realistically speaking.

The final bit of jank has to do with Bradford's introduction to Stun Lancers, where he seems to imply that Stun Lancers don't get used for non-lethal crowd control anymore. It's sufficiently ambiguous in wording that he might, for example, mean that protests and whatnot are rare nowadays by virtue of your average ADVENT citizen thinking everything is hunky-dory, but various contextual factors make me suspect this is intended to be Bradford indicating a ramping up of the police state oppression -that Stun Lancers KOing protesters has stopped in the sense that ADVENT's response to such is a lot more likely to be lethal, which seems... inconsistent with how the finale is clearly premised on the average citizen having no idea how awful ADVENT really is. If that is the intent, I'm pretty confused by it. And if it's not the intent... the game could've done a better job of communicating whatever it is Bradford is supposed to mean.

It does arguably make how lethal they are less of a janky element, in that one could take it as an indication that Stun Lances have had their power output way ramped up or otherwise been made vastly more lethal compared to ADVENT's early days, reconciling 'this seems rather lethal' with 'and yet it used to be used in a non-lethal way', but the way this information is conveyed makes me genuinely unsure if that's meant to be the idea at work, or if something else is going on here.

Mechanically, the Elite Stun Lancer is generally the point at which you properly care about the side effects on their melee attack. You should have durable enough troops to reliably survive hits by the time Elite Stun Lancers are a thing, Elite Stun Lancers themselves have a solid package of protections that makes it difficult to fully reliably kill them, and they show up late enough they're quite likely to be escorting enemies that are overall more urgently dire threats than the Elite Stun Lancers. The net result is that it's quite plausible to burn most of your team's effort on eg killing the Sectopod leading the pod, then failing to get lucky enough with the remainder of the squad to finish off the Elite Stun Lancer palling around with the Sectopd, and so the Elite Stun Lancer attacks someone who actually survives being hit and then the Stun Lancer rolls lucky on the Strength test, KOing their target. This kind of concern is a big part of why I consider it essential in the base game to have at least one Specialist ready to wake people up, preferably two just in case the Specialist is the one that goes down.

This is less essential in War of the Chosen due to Stun Lancers being a little less common and a lot easier to reliably deal with if you have an elite team, but you may still wish to prioritize arranging reliable access to to Specialists with Revival Protocol just in case, especially if you're relatively new to the game. Or still struggling to reliably avoid pulling multiple pods.

Returning to the Strength test point: this seems pretty strong evidence of a concept that never got properly developed, given how the current mechanic is strangely pointless even though Insanity and Mindspin are examples of this exact mechanic being used in a meaningful way. In conjunction with a few other bits like how Hacking was handled, I have to wonder if maybe XCOM 2 was intended at some point to be a bit more like classic X-COM in terms of having soldier capabilities defined more by statistical parameters. Maybe Strength would've tied into carrying capacity, for example, with gear having a weight stat that could leave a soldier overloaded, and/or the body-carrying mechanic being connected to it. Or maybe something in the vein of Covert Op stat grinding was intended (And would've included Strength, in this hypothetical, to be clear), but didn't get implemented before release?

It just seems unlikely that the Strength stat was genuinely implemented to be used in this extremely limited, not particularly meaningful way.


The Stun Lancer Autopsy is notable for directly unlocking the ability to upgrade the Ranger's melee weaponry to the second tier. This gives an early-game edge to melee Rangers compared to Rangers that shoot things, since it's much faster to Autopsy a Stun Lancer than it is to research Magnetic Weapons. In the base game, double Stun Lancers being everywhere means you usually hit the Instant threshold sufficiently quickly you don't even need to bother to set aside research time for it, too!

War of the Chosen extends this to unlocking the Skirmisher's magnetic-tier Ripjack, though this is less substantial since Ripjack strikes aren't nearly as spammable as Ranger Slashes. But hey, the Ionic Ripjack is dirt-cheap to buy and you'll want to unlock it because upgrading Swords is so nice. More significant of an issue is that it will almost always take much longer to get the Instant threshold than in the base game, and it's debatable whether the Stun Lancer Autopsy unlocks are worth specifically spending lab time on, especially since War of the Chosen has made Slashing Rangers less dominatingly useful in the early game anyway, such as via the Lost. I personally do usually get the Autopsy done early in War of the Chosen... but not necessarily before completing Magnetic Weapons.

If for some reason you're completely ignoring Rangers and Skirmishers -so a gimmick run or a modded run, realistically speaking- the Stun Lancer Autopsy doesn't do anything you care about and should be ignored. I mean, you might as well Instant Autopsy it when that happens, just to clean up the lab's UI a little, but in mechanics terms? No other benefits.

------------------------------------

Aesthetically, Stun Lancers are a bit of a misstep.

Up close, such as in these screenshots, it's pretty easy to tell them apart from ADVENT Troopers. Their helmet has the glass bowl with red lighting strongly tinting its edges, their armor has a sleeker look overall, they're more a dark blue with red highlights than an actual black, and of course they've got a glowing sword/stun baton.

In actual gameplay?

Not so much.

First of all, they're animated basically identically when it comes to running around, hopping over Cover, hiding in Cover, etc. (Put another way: they only animate differently for the pod reveal animation and when specifically performing their melee attack) Second of all, most in-game lighting conditions obscure that they're dark blue instead of straight-up black, making it easy to miss even if you already know about it. Third, the helmet difference isn't actually obvious at the birds-eye level, with it being easy to end up only really seeing that the main of it is dark and not see the red. (A point exacerbated by the fact that Troopers actually also have some red to their helmet -they have tiny eye-slits that glow red, though they're invisible from most angles due to how tiny they are) Fourth, the baton sits on their back by default, and often ends up obscured for one reason or another, and it only actually glows when in an open state. (ie during the pod reveal animation and when actively attacking with it) Fifth is that they carry the exact same kind of rifle as regular Troopers; as opposed to a pistol or some such. (I specifically mention a pistol because as this mod mentions, there actually is an ADVENT pistol model in the code, even though no enemy uses such)

The final result is that it's frustratingly easy to overlook that one of those ADVENT Troopers you just activated is actually a much more dangerous Stun Lancer. This gets worse as the game progresses; at Basic, Stun Lancers are readily picked out by their inflated HP, making the aesthetic similarities not really a problem at all. (Well, except for new players who won't have enemy HP memorized...) At higher HP values (eg Advanced Troopers vs Basic or Heavy Stun Lancers, Elite Troopers vs Elite Stun Lancers), it gets a lot harder to casually identify differences in HP.

Incidentally, while the new HP meter is visually 'cleaner', it's really a substantial downgrade in functionality over the prior game's. The prior game made it effortless to eyeball an enemy's HP total once you understood each stack of height represented a 5 HP block; one line? 5 HP or less. 2 lines? 6-10. Three lines? 11-15. Etc. Easy, quick to read, useful.

Whereas in XCOM 2, the more HP something has the harder it gets to identify how much it has. The game can stack up bars instead of compressing the HP meter even further, but it only does this in special cases, by which I mean for Alien Rulers and Chosen. This isn't having enough HP triggering the effect: if you play with Beta Strike on, this leading to some regular enemies being as tough as lower-tier Chosen doesn't cause their HP meters to stack up like with Chosen. So with tougher regular enemies it can be a serious problem to eyeball how many HP they have, even without Beta Strike.

The game partially mitigates this through the preview of HP loss when considering a given attack, but the game consistently shows you the highest possible damage roll. Once you're doing 10+ damage a shot and it's a struggle to actually eyeball whether an enemy is 10 HP (Guaranteed kill! Go for it!) or 11 HP (Maybe! This is risky!), the HP preview starts becoming a trap, leading you to believe something is a kill that probably won't be. This is particularly egregious with multi-shot abilities like Rapid Fire, Chain Shot, or Fan Fire, as they end up with even wider possible ranges and are vastly less likely to actually get their maximum roll, which is doubly-problematic since they pretty much by definition are some of your hardest-hitting abilities!

There are mods to correct this behavior, causing the flashing portion to represent minimum damage instead of maximum, but it's frustrating that even into War of the Chosen this bad behavior still exists, and I'm genuinely surprised I can't find a mod that switches the HP meter back to the Enemy Unknown/Within style of HP meter visual stacking, given how many mods exist to port forward or recreate various elements from Enemy Unknown/Within.

Anyway, I actually do like the ADVENT Stun Lancer's aesthetic, to be honest, if I ignore the context it's placed in, but the fact that they look so similar in real play to Troopers really is a fairly large error. They really should've had their glass bowl helmet be in a cheery blue, or something, to more readily mark them out as a different enemy type.

On a different mechanical note, one oddity regarding Stun Lancers has to do with the final mission. The final mission has a very strange, abnormal set of pod generation rules, with super-sized pods, Faceless potentially running about openly, some enemies normally constricted to 1 copy per pod showing up with multiple copies... and one of the bits of uniqueness here is that ADVVENT humanoid troops are excluded from the list. No Troopers, Officers, Shieldbearers, or Purifiers in War of the Chosen.

But then Stun Lancers will sometimes show up in the base game. Indeed, the first screenshot of this post is showing an Elite Stun Lancer from the final mission.

I'm pretty sure this is some manner of oversight, particularly since War of the Chosen has altered the final mission so they don't show up. (Priests have replaced them for potentially showing up in the final mission, but I'm pretty sure that is deliberate. They show up too consistently at a specific step to be liable to be an oversight) It's worth noting that in War of the Chosen's Savage Sitrep they're prone to showing up attending Berserkers if you get the Sitrep in a certain mid-early window; this suggests that Stun Lancers may share some internal designation normally only used by the Retaliation-exclusive aliens, which may be why the base game's version of the final mission has this oddity.

Anyway, narratively Stun Lancers are one of the earliest examples of the game introducing the notion of Ethereal genetic manipulation explicitly. The Autopsy has Tygan talking about how Stun Lancers are a stronger, faster form of ADVENT than Troopers are -a fact supported by the mechanics, where they have higher Mobility and tons more HP- and it's indicated that Stun Lancers were actually one of the first strains of ADVENT soldier produced, where regular Troopers came later and yet were made less effective. Tygan speculates that maybe the Ethereals are husbanding some kind of resource for their modifications -which I think is meant to be an allusion to Meld, which would be consistent with ADVENT units having orange blood, but it's ambiguous and there's no other allusions I've noticed- but the main point of interest here is the implication that the Ethereals have downgraded the quality of ADVENT troops as time has gone on.

In the base game, it's... a bit too light on its own, and Tygan bringing up the possibility of Meld costs being higher for stronger troops is particularly killer to this, but you can tell it's meant to be an implication that the Ethereals don't want ADVENT soldiers to be at their peak. It's one of the few bits from the base game that I liked right away as an attempt at illustrating the personality of the Ethereal regime, and very much in line with how many governmental bodies throughout history have run into the problem that they simultaneously want a powerful army to threaten their enemies with but don't want said army able to threaten the government it answers to, a paradoxical, untenable pair of desires that has resulted in a lot of drama throughout history.

Even better, War of the Chosen lets the player see the Ethereal leadership's personality up-close, and it's completely in line with this implication, where we get to see the Ethereals pretty much actively sabotage even their ostensibly most favored of subordinates. And then they act like their minions are incompetent when they can't get their jobs done under such conditions. It's especially impressive given how little War of the Chosen actually adds, in terms of directly depicting the Ethereals. They only really get two new cinemas, after all. (Well, technically there's three variations on the second cinema, but the difference is extremely slight, just shuffling around which two of three different one-word lines and accompanying brief animation gets used)

It's also the primary bit of info that makes ADVENT unit progression ambiguously semi-canonical, in that one can look at this data point and assume that ADVENT forces are being beefed up by the Ethereals in response to X-COM's ongoing success. The game never directly suggests such a thing, and various subtle elements of the narrative handling seem to imply you're really meant to treat the highest tier of ADVENT forces as the only canonical one, but still.

Anyway, the actual notion of Stun Lancers being the Ethereal equivalent of sandbag rounds and whatnot is, unfortunately, a bit thin in practice, functioning primarily as an excuse for an early, non-Alien melee threat. The game has no mechanics for representing eg civilians being KOed and carted off to be made into Ethereal medical slushies, it has no plot beats involving civilian protesters who are faced with massed Stun Lancers, and the game never really gets around to suggesting a reason for the specific decision of evil-looking shock batons over various other tools. Indeed, Stun Lancers never show up in even a single pre-rendered cinema, which is conspicuously strange. You'd think Stun Lancers would be seen guarding gene therapy clinics, manning security checkpoints, and otherwise handling duties that have any significant potential for fights with unarmed civilians. Instead, we get Troopers, Officers, Mecs, and that's it for the pre-rendered cinemas.

It makes me wonder if Stun Lancers were a relatively late addition, or their concept changed substantially over time, or if the development team just... didn't think about Stun Lancers much in general.

There's potential to the Stun Lancer concept, but it's potential that isn't really realized, and the final execution is more than a bit confusing, even ignoring the usual 'ADVENT shouldn't look this evil in-universe' problems. Among other points, the 'close-range electric stun' concept could be taken as a bit of a dark parallel to the Arc Thrower from the prior game, but alas, if that is the intent nothing is done with it, not even to hint that it's the intent.

At least their gameplay is solid enough in War of the Chosen.

----------------------------------------

Next time, we move on to the first Retaliation-exclusive enemy: Faceless.

See you then.

Comments

  1. I'm glad I am not the only one that was hugely disappointed by the change to the HP UI. They had a great way to show health in EU, and then they abandoned it?

    The lancer weapon looks like a macuahuitl, when deployed. Still no reason why they do a thrusting rather than slashing attack with it, but I feel like that might have been the inspiration.

    I think you say everything there is to say about lancers from a gameplay point of view, nothing to add there. It's cool that the "stunning" mechanic makes them stay relevant as a threat throughout the campaign, but without the unfairness that a one-shot kill move would have.

    I actually fought 8 lancers (2 pods) in the last mission in my last campaign, with WotC. So it seems like WotC didn't fix that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A macuahuitl as inspiration is... possible? I suspect they were primarily looking at real stun batons and just wanted it to be evil-looking and animate in a substantial way when in use, instead of just clubbing people with it, but it's difficult to be sure given how strange the whole thing is. It would certainly be cool if that was an inspiration, and the Stun Lancer's design is somewhat reminiscent of eg a jaguar warrior's outfit, once you account for the futuristic aesthetic and lack of an animal motif to it, so now that I'm thinking about it from that angle it's a bit more plausible than I first thought.

      I do like how Stun per se gives Stun Lancers the ability to stay strongly relevant throughout the game, but am not so much a fan of the potential for Unconsciousness, since that's only fixable by a Specialist with Awakening Protocol (Or Restoration), making it indistinguishable from death from a tactical perspective if you don't have one or have used up the very limited charge count. I'll be talking more about it when we get to Berserkers, but I think the game was a little too liberal with instant Unconsciousness, given how limited your tools for curing it are and how big a hit to your squad's performance having someone go down is, particularly in forced-evac missions, doubly so if they have a timer. I think maybe they were trying to retain the prior game's willingness to kill people at the drop of a hat for a while, but removing the long-term losses involved, but the final result... doesn't add up in XCOM 2's design.

      Hmmm. That's particularly strange as the first part of the final mission consistently endeavors to prevent repeats of enemy types across pods -if one pod has Berserkers, you're normally not going to find another pod that has Berserkers, and so on with each individual enemy type until you hit the second part. (I intermittently see Mecs get doubled up on, via one set escorting Sectopods and another set being the massive Mecs-and-Heavy-Mecs pod, but almost never see other enemy types do so) Do you remember whether they teleported into the second part, or were just wandering about the first part?

      Delete
    2. They were in the first part. It was the third pod (one of those even got one of my soldiers unconscious, but luckily I had restoration), and the other just after the fake human rooms, before the final sectopod pod. No other ADVENT in either part of the last mission, outside the huge MEC pod you mention and one set of priest reinforcements in the last part.

      Delete
    3. Oh, and one pod with one or two purifiers, I think? You’re right in that almost no other enemy got doubled on, outside the final sectopod pod, which had two andromedons and a muton with it, despite fighting pods with both earlier. I don’t recall fighting any berserkers though, which was a bit surprising since a big pod of/with them would have been no less relevant a threat than a pod of lancers.

      Maybe it was some sort of bug with the pod generation.

      Delete
    4. Interesting. And yeah, I suspect the final mission's pod generation is a little buggy, or not thoroughly playtested, or something, partyl just because it uses completely unique pod mechanics and so that wouldn't be surprising, and partly because of stuff like sometimes -and only sometimes- having pods that pretty undersized compared to the final mission's usual standards. (I've gotten 'pair of Berserkers' as a pod in the first part on three or four different runs, even though pods in the final mission tend to treat six enemies as a small pod)

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular Posts