This DLC pack introduces the most dangerous game.
Just when I felt I’d gotten a handle on using the complex rules of XCOM 2’s combat to my advantage, XCOM 2: Alien Hunters has gone and turned them against me. This DLC pack brings in three new major enemies that don’t just soak up more damage, they tilt fundamental concepts of combat in their favor enough to threaten even experienced commanders. Fighting them takes some entirely new tactical thinking, and some new weaponry, which makes this DLC a net positive even though it creates some balance and replayability questions.
After being triggered by a tense story mission that both partially answered a lingering question about XCOM lore and presented a surprising type of fight that hadn’t been seen yet in XCOM 2, Ruler aliens crash the party in random missions (even those with timed objectives) to make XCOM’s job much more difficult. These three beefed-up variations on the Viper, the Berserker, and the Archon have terrifyingly powerful abilities and multi-row health bars that dwarf even the Sectopod. That’d be absurdly damage-spongy, except these aliens are cleverly built as multi-stage battles: they’ll retreat off the map when you knock off a certain amount of their health (which doesn’t regenerate) to return at random in a later mission. That makes them survivable, but learning to fight them is like learning to walk all over again.
Every time you do anything, the Ruler has a chance to wreck you.
When a Ruler shows up, I feel like I’m playing a separate turn-based tactics game within every turn of this. Suddenly time isn’t frozen while you perform actions like reloading or moving to cover – every time you do anything (except for free actions like Lightning Hands) the Ruler has a chance to wreck you. As someone who’s beaten the campaign on Commander difficulty with Iron Man enabled, these Ruler aliens had me resorting to save-scumming again to figure out how to counter an enemy who can kill my soldiers in the middle of my turn.
Outflanking them is impossible, because you moving means they move immediately afterward. Overwatch isn’t useful because it’s immediately triggered, and usually invokes an aim penalty. You have to think about which soldier to move first, because whoever’s closest to the monster is probably going to have a bad time. It’s a head-scratcher of a problem.
The Berserker Queen gave me the most trouble.
These are by far the nastiest enemies XCOM has ever faced.
The edge is taken off a little because Rulers have will often knock soldiers unconscious rather than kill them outright, but they’re still absolutely vicious to fight and will very likely inflict casualties. I was able to take down the first Ruler without much of an issue, but the second put me back on my heels and made me glad I didn’t try this on Iron Man mode. Especially when fighting them alongside a pod of conventional aliens, these are by far the nastiest enemies XCOM has ever faced.
To help counter them, Alien Hunters straight-up hands us some new firepower right near the beginning of a new game, basically for free. I’m not wild about the way that happens – not only does it feel tacked on, but as someone who’s played dozens of campaigns (some quite short-lived, some long) a new event that occurs the same way every single time I play through is the opposite of what I’m looking for in new XCOM 2 content. It’s uniformity rather than the variety that’s been the focus of XCOM 2 thus far.
The Viper King makes me want an Indiana Jones voice pack mod. “Why did it have to be snakes?”
On the other hand, these one-of-a-kind weapons are definitely good fun to use. The most interesting one comes with a tradeoff: the crossbow-like Bolt Caster, which allows you to equip any soldier with a high-damage, high-accuracy gun that can only fire once before reloading (incidentally, that’s something you might not be eager to do when fighting a Ruler). Because it can’t be modded (only upgraded when you unlock the next weapon tier) you’re stuck with that reload restriction, which impacts mobility – but I love being able to hand it to a rookie and watch them rack up kills.
It looks pretty cool to have two glowing axes slung across a Ranger’s back.
There’s also a set of high-powered axes that replaces a Ranger’s sword. It’s mostly just a damage upgrade for one Ranger at a time, which would be disappointing on its own except that you can also use a one-time-per-mission ability to hurl an ax at an enemy as a free move, giving that Ranger a big burst of damage that can be split between two targets. This weapon didn’t really change the way I played, but created some new opportunities that came in handy – and it looks pretty cool to have two glowing axes slung across a Ranger’s back.
For Sharpshooters, there’s an intriguing ShadowKeeper pistol that does increased damage and comes with a one-time-per-mission shot that guarantees a hit on any target. If that target is killed, the user goes back into concealment. The nuance of this weapon makes it especially useful to a Sharpshooter who goes down the pistoleer path (especially once you hit Face Off) though the fact that it’s only good for one specific type of character makes it less interesting and versatile than the others.
If you want the gift of flight, you’ll have to go through him.
Finally, we get a Freeze Grenade that can immobilize targets in a small radius for multiple turns – an incredibly potent ability that seems tailor-made to prevent Ruler aliens from escaping before you can score another hit or two, and thereby forcing you to think about conserving the soldier carrying it until the last possible moment. When not fighting Rulers, of course, it becomes an absurdly powerful way to taking the most dangerous alien out of the fight.
You’ll be able to hollow out their corpses and wear their skin as a cloak.
If you should manage to take down a Ruler alien, you’ll be able to essentially hollow out their corpses and have one of your soldiers wear their skins as a cloak – and gain extremely useful abilities in the process. The Archon, for example, lets you build a suit that can briefly fly – something that hasn’t existed at all in XCOM 2 until now – and the Berserker suit gives any soldier a one-time melee attack. The Viper suit, while powerful in its ability to freeze a single target and use grappling-hook abilities, looks a bit ridiculous. For anybody who enjoys XCOM 2’s ragtag military vibe, having someone walk around the battlefield in a goofy Serpentor cosplay outfit sticks out like a sore thumb.
Someone showed up for their Village People audition.
Each of the new weapons and armor pieces is irreplaceable – if the soldier carrying them is killed and their body isn’t recovered, they’re gone for good. That risk adds some tension, but of course you’d be foolish not to take them on virtually every mission where you’re taking a soldier who can equip them – with the exception of timed, forced-evacuation missions where you might not have time to recover a body.
Having beaten the new content on Commander difficulty, I’m a little concerned about Alien Hunters’ impact on XCOM 2’s balance in the long term. We get a significant power boost right away from these new weapons – and we need it to help deal with the major mid-game threat of the Rulers – but once they’re dead we’re even more powerful thanks to the abilities from the three carcass suits and the new guns, and the aliens have no late-game answer for that. So relative to the vanilla game, what we’re left with is a campaign that starts easy, gets hard, and then gets (relatively) easy again – and that’s not the smooth and rewarding escalation in difficulty I’d like to see.
A final note on that story mission: I ran into some significant bugs, where a character who was supposed to accompany me simply didn’t show up, and afterwards I somehow had the Squad Size II upgrade despite not yet paying for it or even unlocking it. It wasn’t game-breaking, but I don’t think that was supposed to happen. On the bright side, that mission can be disabled for subsequent playthroughs without disabling all of Alien Hunters, which will be good for replay variety.