Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tales from the Blizzard, Part II - Skill and Randomness in Hearthstone and StarCraft

Blizzcon is my favourite e-sports event, primarily because it is the annual apex of the e-sports I most avidly follow, notably StarCraft 2 and WoW Arena. Hearthstone can now also be added to that list, although after seeing that titanic battle between former champions SoS (Blizzcon 2013) and Life (Blizzcon 2014) in the Starcraft 2 grand final the gameplay in HS seems a little shallow by comparison. It was amazing watching Life play in first person mode, and to see how fast he was issuing commands, moving his cursor, swapping from screen to screen and multi-tasking - it was like watching a computer rather than a human at play. At the highest level watching a SC2 professional at play is akin to watching a piano grandmaster performing a symphony. The skill required to manage both micro and macro levels of play is simply amazing to watch. This is the reason why I consider StarCraft 2 to be the apex of e-sports, and why I consider the professionals who play it to be the best of their field.

The final chapter of the SC2 trilogy - Legacy of the Void.

For me, the StarCraft and Hearthstone tournaments starkly illustrated the dichotomy between a purely skill-based game (StarCraft 2) and a game which incorporates randomness as an intrinsic part of its gameplay (Hearthstone). Nothing that happens in StarCraft 2 is random. Units won't go anywhere unless ordered to by human agency. When I play StarCraft 2 I lose because I either screwed up (failure of skill on my part) or my opponent outplayed me (they outskilled me) through better micro (fine unit control, number of actions per minute, twitch, etc.), macro (build order, base layout, tech choices, etc.) or strategy (scouting, initial strategy, counter-strategy, adaptation, improvisation, etc.). There is no RNG here. The factors which determine winning or losing are completely deterministic, either by my actions or by opponents.

Hearthstone by comparison, has randomness in its heart. I can play a hand of Hearthstone optimally and still lose from a freakish RNG result. You can play SC optimally and still lose, too, but the key difference is that the reason why you lost is that your opponent out-skilled you, not because they pulled a Mal'Ganis card out of their ass (1 in 15 chance) after playing a Bane of Doom card and making themselves immune to your killing blow. HS is not completely random - player agency is present in deck creation and play order, and this is where the skill in HS lies. Initial hand, draw order, and random effects from cards all lie in the domain of RNG, however, and something about losing thanks to RNG, especially when you know you have been playing well, just drives me up the wall. HS's random elements doesn't mean it lacks skill - the best players of Hearthstone apply probability and statistics to be successful in the game. This is also why they have to play a large number of games, in order to even out the randomness which can dramatically tilt the result of single matches.

Currently sitting at rank 8. My win rate is over 55% using a combination of Fatigue Druid, Aggro Druid and Dragon Priest, but I would still need to play around 450 games to get to Legendary in one month. That's 15 games a day, winning 8-9 of them. 15 games times 15 minutes (average time for a game for me) equals 3 hours and 45 minutes daily.

HS is just not deterministic the way StarCraft 2 is, and its inherent randomness probably means that no HS world champion will ever claim multiple titles in the same way SoS did in this year's Blizzcon championship. Skill based games are more predictable than random games. Both Life and SoS are previous StarCraft 2 Blizzcon champions, but last year's Hearthstone champion Firebat failed to even qualify for the regionals in 2015. This would not be from lack of skill on his part - it's because the random elements of the game make repeated outcomes (winning a tournament) dependent on variables beyond a player's control. The fact that the same group of HS players regularly appear at the top of the ladder shows that there is a discrete skill set which governs success in HS. The fact that the very top guys keep changing, however, seems to suggest that the RNG dominates the game - to put it another way, skill only takes you so far, and the rest is dependent on luck. The top 8 Hearthstone finalists of Blizzcon in 2015 are completely different to the top 8 finalists of Blizzcon in 2014. By contrast, four StarCraft 2 quarterfinalists in 2014 (Life, Classic, herO and Innovation) returned in 2015 and the eventual champion in 2015 (SoS) was the Blizzcon champion in 2013.
Otsuka is the 2015 HS champion and he deserves props for that achievement. In addition to being able to play the odds you also have to be a determined grinder, and if you're rocking a 55% win rate it is estimated that you would need to play around 400-500 games to attain Legendary rank. After that Otsuka would have had to win the tournaments to qualify for Blizzcon, then win the actual Blizzcon championships itself. There's a famous saying in boxing that you aren't really the champion until you defend your title, however, and I think it applies equally well to HS. If we see repeat players appearing in the top 8 of Blizzcon next year it will go a long way in legitimizing HS as a skill-based e-sport rather than a crap shoot at the highest level. There's a reason why Korean and Chinese players interviewed at Blizzcon look down their noses at HS as a game - they don't rate it as a game of skill, especially in comparison to MOBAs and SC2. This is also probably the reason why Blizzard is trying to "balance" the game by splitting it into two different formats. If Otsuka or Firebat, or any of the top 8 of 2014 and 2015 come back however, for Blizzcon 2016 - well, there might be something to the game after all. Poker and Magic The Gathering have both had repeat world champions, and the success of these repeat champions is incontestable proof that there is more to these games than just drawing cards. Time will tell if someone can do the same for Hearthstone.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Belated Happy New Year

I'm back.

Not being the most prolific blogger at the best of times, I made a resolution last year to post twice a month as an exercise in self-discipline. When I hit that magic "24" post mark in October last year I abruptly stopped posting, thinking to myself, "Well, mission accomplished" for the year. Actually, in truth I also burned myself out writing reams and reams of fan fiction for no good reason at all, other than a vague recollection that it seemed like a good idea at the time. I found out to my horror that an average Long War game in X-Com can take over 200 missions to complete, and I was chugging out one post per mission in a naïve and quixotic quest to chronicle my games. Going at my current run rate it would have taken me another eight years to finish documenting the games, assuming that I won the campaign, of course.

Hell, no.

Being the person I am, of course, I refused to acknowledge that I had bitten off much, much more than I could chew. Rather than being rational and saying "bollocks to this" I deluded myself into thinking that I was taking time off to mull over plot points and somehow fit existing current events into the preposterous framework of an alien invasion, and as a result my blogging came to a fizzing, sputtering halt. I gave myself until February 2016 - the release date of the X-Com sequel - to finish my foray into fan fiction. Another delusion, and one that would have been easily identified by anyone other than myself. It's amazing the myopia that descends upon us when it comes to self-reflection. Our perception can be razor sharp when it comes to others, but turn that mirror onto ourselves and the reflection becomes deformed and diffused, kind of like those fun house mirrors from the carnivals of old. Or perhaps it's just me?

I've freed myself of the temporary madness of my incursion into fan fiction, hence this post. I like writing for the sake of writing, and like most skills I know that it is a perishable one which will deteriorate and atrophy from lack of use. I'm going to finish the X-Com yarn I'm spinning because I like it, derivative and hackneyed as it is. It's almost as fun to write about my virtual soldiers as it is to play with them in the game, and so I will keep chugging on. But it won't be at the expense of other writings and other topics. I'm shooting for 36 posts this year, at an average run rate of three posts per month. My output has steadily grown over the years - 10 posts in 2013, 18 in 2014 and 24 in 2015. I don't ever want to get to Blaugust levels of output, where people are churning out stuff just for the sake of making a daily quota. I suspect a number between 24 and 36 will be the happy medium for me, but I won't find out until I try, however, so hence the experiment.
2016 is now here, and with it comes the promise of new and exciting worlds to experience. The games I'm looking forward to this year are X-Com 2, the new Deus Ex and the new Mass Effect. On the MMO front I'm looking forward to Camelot Unchained and Crowfall.  I'm being pressured to purchase a PS4 and play Destiny with some mates back in Oz, so I guess that could technically qualify as an MMO. I suspect I will spend a lot of time in Crowfall however, and I'm thinking of joining Scree's guild Obsidian when the game approaches launch date. That's of course if Scree is willing to have me, given that we've had spats over TESO in the past. I don't play WoW or TESO anymore, because the people I played both games with have moved on from MMOs. Irony of ironies, I'm not a Killer under the Bartle typology of gamer types despite all my posturing and huffing and puffing in posts long past. It turns out I'm a Socializer after all, and if I can't PvP with my friends and family then I simply won't play. There are better things to do. Ironically in the absence of MMOs I have returned to judo after an absence of almost a decade, and am re-discovering the simple joy in being thrown around and being lain on by fat, overweight Japanese men with bad breath. I've also started aikido out of curiosity and am juggling the two martial arts in my schedule, which leaves precious little time for gaming. I'm still an avid reader of gaming blogs, always finding time in my day to go to my favourite sites, skim the titles, and click on the ones that seem interesting. I'll always be a gamer, and even though my activity in this field is at an all time low it will always be an enduring love of mine. One spark is all that it'll take to rekindle it, and then I can see myself hunching over the keyboard until the wee hours of the morning playing some title whose combination of gameplay, story and audio visual elements have entrapped in me in that familiar, comfortable and sometimes self-destructive embrace.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Long War, Part VII - Global Unrest


X-Com had no way of ascertaining the size and scope of the alien threat. Telescopic observation seemed to point to Mars as the aliens' base of operations - astronomers tracked the aliens coming and going from Mars with their instruments, but thus far could not determine the aliens' precise strength and numbers. The aliens kept the bulk of their fleet hidden behind the far side of Mars, but what was most troubling were photographs taken by the Hubble Telescope which suggested more and more alien craft were arriving from deep space. While public concern had abated somewhat by the aliens' pathetic showing on the ground to date, military commands all over the world knew that the aliens had not yet shown their full strength. They were extremely concerned at the prospect of the aliens deploying nuclear weapons or their advanced equivalent. If the aliens wanted to nuke the Earth from orbit, there was nothing anyone could do about it. The fact that they had not suggested that they were after something else.

These mechanical pods were launched from the UFOs and immediately released a gas that could solidify into a sticky, web-like substance which immobilised luckless humans in the vicinity.

Occupation and conquest were mooted as possible reasons, but the conduct of the aliens did not appear to corroborate this hypothesis. An equivalent terrestrial campaign would entail fighters establishing air superiority, followed by a bombing campaign which would take out radar installations, air fields and supporting infrastructure. Armour and infantry would then move in to capture strategic positions and destroy enemy resistance with air support. The aliens did none of these things. They clearly had air superiority, but left ground radar installations and air fields - both high value strategic targets in conventional warfare - unmolested. Their ground incursions were pathetically inept, and the sectoid themselves were no match for well-trained human infantry. The one thing that humans knew for certain was that the enemy abducted people wherever they landed. The aliens went about this in two ways. The first involved landing squads of aliens who acted as grab teams. In this situation the aliens only made off with a few individuals before departing. The other way entailed launching mechanical pods from the UFO which emitted some kind of green substance that incapacitated and immobilised humans nearby. The captives would then picked up by a complement of drones who carried the immobilised humans back to their craft. There were also unconfirmed reports of humans willingly boarding alien craft of their own accord, but this was dismissed as preposterous.

While the aliens evaded or punished any attempts at air interception they seemed to let their ground troops fend for themselves. They never lent air support to their ground missions, and if a ground team was wiped out the UFO simply didn't return. Sectoids never seemed to exhibit distress when one of their number went down. and they were mostly silent on the battlefield. Their mode of communication remained a mystery. In all the time the aliens had been present not once had they attempted to establish communications or respond to human overtures. This fact alone confirmed for most that their intentions were malevolent.

Civilians trying desperately to escape the tendrils of the alien abduction pods.

In response to the abductions civilians armed themselves and barricaded their homes, and neighbourhood watches were established which disseminated UFO sightings much like tornado warnings in the American Midwest. Security forces in every nation created rapid response groups similar to X-Com which could then be deployed to anywhere in the country at short notice. Having taken tremendous losses, air forces all over the world ceased trying to shoot down the UFOs. Only the modified F-35s fielded by the US and X-Com seemed to have a chance at shooting down the enemy craft, and even then a squadron of US F-35s was badly mauled when trying to engage a large UFO off the east coast of America. Now standard procedure was to shadow the UFOs while air assault troops waited on stand-by. Once the landing site was determined the air assault forces would deploy to engage the sectoids on the ground. This measure was hugely successful in the months of March and April 2016, and the number of abductions dropped dramatically.

Second Kill

On 23 March 2016 satellite XS-1 detected two UFOs in the vicinity of Osaka, Japan. This would take the total number of UFOs sighted in this area to five. Prior to the Osaka incident researchers had assumed that the aliens were content to take whatever humans they could find, but the single-minded focus on Osaka seemed to indicate otherwise. The aliens were clearly looking for something. Once again General Iwata ordered the F-35s scrambled, and soon "Monk" Kanamin and "Grounder" Tanner were streaking through the air in pursuit of UFO-3, while "Lazer" Gibson and "Q-Tip" Murphy chased after UFO-4. UFO-3 was another scout class UFO, but it put up more of a fight than its previous compatriot. Both F-35s did not fire their missiles, but instead throttled in to engage at gun range. When they closed in the UFO began to jink and juke in an unpredictable manner while returning fire with plasma bolts discharged from its hull. Kanamin was able to land several hits with his 20mm cannon, but was also hit in return. He was forced to disengage and return to base. Tanner pressed the attack, raking the UFO with cannon fire as it pursued the fleeing Kanamin. Much to his delight the UFO began to spiral downwards, and once again Central was filled with overjoyed men and women as it crashed into the ground north of Osaka.

The mood in Central soon sobered, however, when UFO-4 proved to be a much more formidable adversary. UFO-4 was significantly bigger than UFO-3, but that did not seem to compromise its speed and agility. Gibson and Murphy could not get a bead on the UFO, and it in turn displayed excellent ACM (air combat manoeuvring) skills, placing itself behind both pilots on separate occasions. Its plasma guns pounded the F-35s, and both pilots had to withdraw with their craft heavily damaged. Satellite tracking showed the UFO land and disgorge a squad of aliens at Nagai Stadium in downtown Osaka before pulling away skyward once more. Soon 119 was filled with frantic calls by civilians, but one stood out in particular and was flagged for further analysis by listening post monitors. It was a call by Chiharu Kimura, the Japanese woman who was present at the first contact event and at the firefight in Osaka two weeks earlier. Kimura was terrified that the aliens were fixated on abducting her and her daughter, and based on the events of the last month, the X-Com researchers were inclined to agree with her.

Operation Black Moon, Osaka, Japan (Mission 6)

Faced with two fires Bradford decided to deploy a squad with the Skyranger to secure the downed UFO, while another squad would be deployed via UH-60JA Blackhawks to assist Japanese security forces repel the landing at Nagai Stadium. The recovery mission would be led again by the dour Ishikawa. Ishikawa's authoritarian style was perfectly suited to the Japanese chain of command, whose society inculcated respect for authority figures from a young age, and whose relationships are characterised by sempai (senior) and kohai (junior) dialectics. In the context of the strike force it was extremely jarring, however. Most elite units in the world displayed the same characteristics of egalitarian bottom-up planning as seen in the American Delta Force and the British and Australian SAS. The rationale behind this was that as the armed force's elite they could be trusted with the responsibility of planning the minutiae of each mission. Objectives would be given to them from their superiors, and the operators themselves would then work out the details of the mission. They eschewed uniforms, standards of appearance, and traditional trapping of rank in return for maintaining elite standards of soldiering and the willingness to put themselves in harm's way at a moment's notice. This was the kind of environment Colonel Bradford wanted to foster in his international strike force, and Ishikawa's traditional style of command definitely clashed with this philosophy. Nonetheless Bradford still had political considerations to juggle, and for now the directive from General Iwata and Prime Minister Abe of Japan was that squads must be led by Japanese soldiers. He still had two widely respected squad leaders in Takeda and Hara. Takeda was very cautious and conservative, but commanded unanimous respect through his excellent marksmanship, which was the best in the unit. Hara was loud and aggressive in both conduct and demeanour, but also possessed a sense of humour and a willingness to embrace the vagaries of his position. Rather than shrinking from the titters and grins brought about by his poor English he embraced it, becoming more bombastic and taking every opportunity to add newly acquired pieces of vocabulary to his tirades. His squad's planning sessions were open to input and alteration. This was in sharp contrast to Ishikawa's, who came to meetings thoroughly prepared but was unwilling to bend on any detail. 

Russian Zhukova calls in the all clear after putting down the outsider pilot.

Nonetheless Ishikawa was the only man who had commanded a UFO assault to date, which made him the sole expert on the strike force. Bradford tasked him with securing the UFO, and an assault force was hastily thrown together. The Skyranger dropped the team close to the crash site, but immediately came under fire from sectoids entrenched behind heavy cover. Singapore gunner Sheng was badly wounded by plasma fire, and Dutchman Heuvel was also hit while trying to advance under heavy fire. Heuvel's collapse almost triggered a rout -  Kurnakov, Zhukova and Della momentarily panicked and began falling back. Ishikawa, the veteran Oliveira and Falcon all kept their heads, however, and staved off a possible collapse by maintaining suppressing fire on the advancing sectoids. Ishikawa's accuracy with his marksman's rifle took a deadly toll, and Falcon's cover fire allowed Oliveira to run to the fallen Heuvel and administer first aid. The remainder of the squad rallied, returned fire, and killed the remaining sectoids. With the surrounding area clear X-Com then assaulted the UFO itself. This was Ishikawa's second UFO assault, and he implemented tactics gleaned from the lessons learnt in the first encounter. He surrounded the UFO and posted operators on every exit point before breaching the craft. Ishikawa knew that a single operator did not have the stopping power to put down an outsider, and therefore he posted them in pairs at the exits. Once preparations were completed, Ishikawa breached the craft with Falcon. As expected the outsider ignored suppression fire and immediately made a beeline for the nearest exit. This time, however, it ran into the combined fire of Russians Kurnokov and Zhukova, who riddled the outsider with gunfire and put it down.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Long War, Part VI - France

Victory in the Air

On 10 March 2016 satellite XS-1 picked up another UFO travelling at low speed over Osaka. This was the third UFO sighted in the same location in the space of two weeks. This particular UFO was the more common scout ship variant sighted frequently all around the world, and after intense discussions with the heads of the JASDF General Iwata decided to risk an air interception. Flight Officer "Q-Tip" Murphy and Flight Officer "Monk" Kanamin were scrambled to engage the enemy craft. Both were piloting extensively modified F-35s representing the cutting edge of aeronautical design, and they were soon in range of the enemy bogey. After several fruitless attempts to contact the UFO Kanamin was given permission to fire, and he launched two missiles, both of which merely ignored the target and crashed into the ground. Undeterred, he piloted his fighter closer to the slow moving UFO and fired at it with his 20mm Vulcan cannon. The UFO was apparently taken by surprise, and it took off in a fast but erratic course north across the Japanese countryside. Kanamin had apparently scored a critical hit, because the UFO eventually descended to the ground in the fields north of Kyoto and came to a halt.

Central erupts as X-Com F-35s score a kill for the very first time.

Operation Stone Heat, Osaka, Japan (Mission 4)

Jubilation erupted in Central as the first air victory over the aliens was celebrated by X-Com personnel. A recon flight over the crashed UFO indicated that it was still largely intact, and Bradford wasted no time in organising a recovery squad. With both Takeda and Hara resting from their exertions in Egypt and Osaka respectively, it fell to Ishikawa to lead the team departing for Kyoto. The dour Ishikawa was not well-liked, and his squad was composed of neophytes going into combat for the very first time. The only soldier with combat experience in the squad was China's Chong, who had recovered enough from his Egyptian sortie to go back out in the field. There was no love lost between Ishikawa and Chong, but Chong's sense of duty plus his ambition to become an X-Com squad leader overrode his disdain for Ishikawa. As for Ishikawa he projected the aura of man who cared nothing for what other people thought of him. He was focused, impersonal and expected everyone to be the same.

The UFO crash-landed in a deserted field north-west of Kyoto, and the Skyranger touched down a short distance away. This was the team's first UFO assault, and Ishikawa ensured that the area around the UFO was first cleared of aliens before attempting to breach the vessel. This mission also marked the appearance of floating mechanical drones which flew through the air without any apparent means of support, apparently propelled by the same mechanism which drove the UFOs. The drones appeared harmless, until one of them shot Australian PFC Phillips with a bolt of energy which nearly killed her. After that incident the squad took no further chances, and shot down every drone they saw. France's PFC Roche proved adept at shooting down the flying targets, accounting for two of them. The rest of the squad fared less poorly - the drones were small and fast, and it required a steady hand and a keen eye to maintain a bead on them. The most notable event of the UFO assault was an encounter with an hitherto un-encountered alien which the troops dubbed as the outsider. The troops struggled to describe this fast, dangerous and resilient foe. Even footage from personal cameras mounted on the soldier's helmets revealed scant details - an alien being, humanoid in appearance, clad in some kind of metallic-looking armour but radiating light and energy from within. Upon death, the light disappeared, and the armour collapsed in a heap of parts. Careful inspection of the parts revealed nothing beneath them - no corpse or body or any form of remains. Gunfire was partially effective in ripping apart the armour which gave this alien its shape and cohesion, but it appeared that the outsider regenerated damage rapidly. Only sustained damage over a short period of time sufficed to disrupt whatever being animated that suit of armour - if left to its own devices the armour would visibly regenerate and repair damage done to it.

The remains of an outsider's armour.

"Malakhov, Kohler and I stormed into the UFO and saw this thing," Chong later stated. "We riddled it with bullets - there was no blood, but we could see our bullets leaving holes in its armour. The thing sprinted out of the UFO and ran into the woods. It was fast, faster than a human, and it didn't seem to be scared of being shot. Malakhov ran after it to finish it off while Kohler and I made sure the UFO was clear. The next thing we hear is Malakhov calling for back-up, and so we run outside. We saw the outsider, and our bullet holes were gone. It was suppressing Malakhov and just walking up to him, as easy you like, no fear, while shooting at him. We blasted the thing to pieces with our guns, tearing off bits of its armour and puncturing it full of holes. At some point our damage must have overloaded its ability to regenerate, because suddenly the light died out and the armour collapsed into a heap."

One final incident of note involved Irish rookie PFC MacMahon. He reported experiencing something similar to what Oliveira and Gerard experienced in Osaka. "I'm afraid of spiders," the red-bearded Irishman admitted. "And at one point in the fight I saw a bloody massive spider, bigger than my hand, on the log I was taking cover behind. It scared the beejesus out of me. I stopped shooting and scrambled away, but moments later when I looked back, the thing was gone. At first I thought it had just scuttled away, but I saw the same damned spider later when we were closer to the UFO. I thought, this thing can't be real, and closed my eyes - when I opened them again the spider was gone."

X-Com's first UFO capture.

The downed UFO was a gold mine for the research team, and great efforts were expended in recovering and returning the alien craft safely to Tanegashima.  This windfall was soon to be followed by grim news on the world stage, however. France had been flip flopping in its support of the X-Com project, at first blocking it in the Security Council before voting for it in the General Assembly. She had been part of the big 16 - the 16 countries which provided the highest levels of funding and logistical support to the X-Com project. On 11 March 2016, however, France withdrew its support of the X-Com project, ceased all funding, and formally requested for the return of their personnel and equipment.

Unrest in France
The withdrawal of France drew tremendous criticism from both home and abroad. Media outlets were outspokenly contemptuous of President Francoise Hollande, who was already suffering from low approval ratings. He had been given the nickname "Monsieur Flanby" when he assumed power in 2012, and France's recent antics baffled and outraged members of his party. Media representatives found their access to Elysee Palace severely restricted however, and the President and the Prime Minister became very reclusive and insular, refusing to appear in front of the media and communicating only through statements issued through intermediaries. The President's withdrawal from public life became so acute that France's leading newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur published a giant headline which read, "Where In France is Monsieur Flanby?"
French members of the X-Com unit were ordered to return to France immediately after the French withdrawal. The French contingent was quite small, consisting of less than 100 soldiers and support personnel, and they were shipped back to France in three flights on the 16th, the 18th and the 20th of March. Roche, the only member of the French team to pass selections into the strike force, was supposed to take the final flight on the 20th. Prior to her departure she tried to get in contact with the members of her contingent who had departed earlier, but was unable to raise any of them. Mystified by this development she contacted the NATO Bretigny-sur-Orge Air Base in France to confirm their arrival, and was told that the flights had been rerouted to Grenoble. Her attempts to contact Grenoble Air Base were in vain, and further attempts to obtain contact details were met with confusion. "As far as I am aware," one operator told her. "Grenoble Air Base was closed down years ago."
Becoming alarmed she shared her concerns with her commanding officer Major Jacques Davout, and he wasted no time in contacting his superiors in France. Upon concluding his phone call he told Roche that they had been ordered to return to France immediately. "The directive comes all the way from the President," Davout told Roche. "They'll explain when we get there. Some kind of big operation against the aliens." This did not assuage Roche. A single child from a single parent she contacted her mother, and quizzed her on the conditions at home. Her mother told her that all was well, although "conspiracy theories" abounded. Stories of giant alien space craft touching down in the countryside and squads of tall, gaunt thin men guarding the Elysee Palace made the rounds on tabloids and across pub tables. "It's all rubbish," her mother assured her. "People are just nervous, that's all."

France withdraws from the X-Com project.
Operation Lost Chantry. Coverntry, UK (Mission 5)

In the meantime, X-Com forces were deployed to halt abduction attempts by the visitors in the UK. SCO19 (England's equivalent to SWAT) and British SAS commandos responded to six reports during the month of March, and on 20 March 2016 made a formal request for X-Com intervention. Like in Egypt, human armed forces were more than a match for the aliens on the ground, and X-Com's intervention was more a courtesy and compliance with the UN resolution than any real need.

The remains of PFC Scholz where she was gunned down by sectoids. LCPL MacMahon crouches behind a nearby car for cover. Moments later he would also be shot trying to assist Scholz, but would survive.

The Skyranger touched down in Coventry near a petrol station occupied by sectoids, and Takeda moved his squad in to secure the petrol station. Takeda divided his team into two groups - the first group, led by himself, would clear the trucks and vehicles in the parking lot, while the second would assault the station. A vicious firefight ensued in the station which claimed the life of PFC Scholz. Dashing across a garage she was gunned down by a sectoid lurking in overwatch. Medic MacMahon, who deployed on the last mission, was almost killed trying to get to Scholz. He was bodily restrained by Chong who shouted at him, "She's gone." Chong then had an episode similar to that experienced by Oliveira, Gerard and MacMahon - he did not elaborate in debriefing, but recalled that he felt a very deep compulsion to run and hide suddenly take hold of him. Instead of running he charged the sectoids, and became engaged in vicious short range exchange over a car. The sectoids died, and the station was clear.

LCPL Chong engages a sectoid at almost point blank range.

On route back to Tanegashima the Skyranger stopped in Germany to deliver the body of PFC Scholz back to German authorities. She was the second casualty under Takeda's command, and he took her death hard. From hereon in Takeda's deployments would be characterised by extreme caution and an unwillingness to take risks. Chong, as per usual, wasted no time in blaming Takeda for her death, and continued to lobby for non-Japanese squad leaders. Takeda, for his part, was quiet and circumspect. "I should not have divided my squad," he stated later. "If we were all together perhaps she would not have felt compelled to take such risks."

LCPL Abbate at the aftermath of Operation Lost Chant, in which PFC Scholz lost her life.

The Skyranger made one more stop before returning to Tanegashima. On its return flight the aircraft made a clandestine stop in the Ardennes with the quiet approval of the German government, and Roche was inserted just a few clicks from the French border. As a soldier she was obligated to return to France as per her superiors' orders, but rather than return with the rest of the French contingent she would take a different route home. Her commanding officer, Jacques Davout, would cover for her, and ensure that for all intents and purposes she would be listed as "returned" for bureaucratic purposes. Between her, Davout and Colonel Bradford, they concocted a scheme by which X-Com could gather information without going through official channels. She was given a powerful radio transmitter which could transmit signals to a bay tower in Germany. The signal would then be relayed to Central via fibre optic cables which stretched across the European and Asian continent. While the rest of her countrymen were boarding transport planes from Tanegashima, she was determined to walk across the border, make her way to the air base at Grenoble, and ascertain what exactly was going on.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Long War, Part V - Opening Moves

The Unfriendly Skies

The biggest concern for X-Com was the alien's undisputed mastery of the skies. Many analysts wondered why the aliens didn't just bomb the planet into submission. Earth had no answer for the mysterious mechanics which powered UFO flight, which allowed the visitors to travel at tremendous speeds with unrivalled manoeuvrability in both air and outer space. The only chance humans had of shooting down a UFO was when it deigned to leave orbit and travel in the atmosphere. Infrared (heatseeking) and radar guided systems seemed to fail utterly for reasons unknown. The most successful guidance system was image recognition, in which onboard computers memorized the image of the UFO and tracked it visually. The visitors could still outrun or outmanoeuvre the weapon, however, and even possessed some kind of countermeasure which fired plasma bolts at the incoming missile, destroying it before it could hit the target. In the rare cases of reported hits, it appeared that the alien spacecraft were also robust enough to shake off a direct hit by a missile. It was a mystery to researchers as to how the visitors could cope with the tremendous G-forces generated by their manoeuvres. The turns, dives and ascents performed by the UFOs would immediately render a human unconscious through "redout" or "greyout" effects. This was especially puzzling given the apparent frailty of the visitors. Preliminary analysis of the sectoid cadavers indicated that they were physically weaker than humans and possessed a cardiovascular system which made them vulnerable to G-force effects. Dr. Shen surmised that the aliens had some kind of dampening field operating within their craft which shielded the occupants from gravity effects - if this was true it might also explain the secret of their propulsion system, which did not appear to conform to Newtonian laws. UFOs displayed no wings, no rotors, or jet exhausts - the laws of inertia and conservation of momentum did not appear to apply to them.

The F-35 Lightning II, Earth's most advanced multi-role fighter craft at the onset of the alien invasion.

Despite the aliens' formidable advantage X-Com was determined to re-establish satellite coverage over the world, starting with the skies over their base of operations. X-Com launched its first satellite, designated XS-1, on 28 February 2016 from Tanegashima. It incorporated stealth technology to minimize its radar profile, and had a propulsion system which allowed it to change its position in orbit. More automated spacecraft than satellite, it was designed to scan then displace in order to stop the aliens from locating its position and destroying it. To engage the alien craft X-Com fielded a specialised squadron of fighters composed primarily of heavily modified F-35 "Lightning" jets. These planes represented the pinnacle of human aeronautic design to date, and they were tasked with the daunting task of bringing down the UFOs. One of the most impressive pieces of equipment at X-Com's disposal was the Skyranger SR-1 VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) air assault aircraft. It combined the speed of the Cessna Citation X (the world's fastest civilian business aircraft) and the almost unlimited landing capabilities of traditional air assault helicopters with the range of long haul cargo aircraft like the Boeing C-17 Globemaster. Developed by Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries and still in the prototype stage, it allowed X-Com to deploy virtually anywhere in the world within 12 hours at the latest.

Operation Purple Empire, Asyut, Egypt (Mission 2)

The first operational flight of the Skyranger took it to Asyut, Egypt, where local security forces were engaged in an ongoing battle with aliens in the streets. X-Com were given clearance by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who boasted to UN Secretary-General Ban that the situation was well in hand. Egyptian TV showed several soldiers brandishing a dead sectoid aloft with glee while firing their weapons in the air. Other footage showed dead aliens being dragged bodily on the streets by furious civilians chanting "Allahu akbar (God is great)!" Nonetheless X-Com force commander Iwata still requested permission to conduct mop-up operations to acquire alien artefacts and bodies for research, and el-Sisi was only happy to comply on the proviso that Egypt be placed on the priority list for satellite coverage.

X-Com operatives boarding the SR-1 Skyranger, the longest ranged air assault VTOL aircraft in the world.

The strike force was once again led by Takeda (now promoted to Master Sergeant) with Garcia as his 2IC (second in command), and they led a strong squad filled with X-Com's best soldiers. Kurnokov, Zhukova and Shearer were the best marksmen on the team, and Bradford wanted them blooded as soon as possible. The team arrived in Asyat on 7 March 2016 to find the city in uproar, with jubilant crowds chanting in the streets. Egyptian security forces had driven the aliens to a perimeter around an ancient Egyptian necropolis but had halted under orders from President el-Sisi. Much to the disgust of locals X-Com were given authority to take over operations, and Takeda immediately led his squad into the maze of tombs before the overzealous Egyptians changed their mind. Garcia once again advocated an attempt at communicating with the aliens, and was given permission by Takeda. Advancing cautiously from tomb to tomb, keenly aware of how she had been fired upon in Osaka during the first contact event, Garcia addressed the sectoids and waved a white flag from behind the safety of a large tomb. A hail of plasma fire was her response, and Germany's Scholz laconically quipped, "It appears that they don't want to negotiate." Singapore's Sheng replied, "Maybe a white flag means fuck you in alien."

Once engaged Kurnokov wasted no time in demonstrating his deadly prowess with his firearm. His very first shot killed a sectoid outright, and he dropped another shortly afterwards. Zhukova was cool, calm and efficient, working her way through the tombstones into a position where she could hurl her AP grenades at the sectoids firing from heavy cover. Takeda on the extreme left flank dropped one sectoid after another with measured fire from his DMR (designated marksman's rifle) while in the middle China's Chong and Singapore's Sheng kept up a fusillade of fire which kept the visitors' heads down. The visitors were soon overwhelmed, and the battle was over. As per Osaka, X-Com forensic teams immediately began bagging the cadavers and collecting whatever fragments they could find.

MSGT Takeda at the conclusion of the firefight which took the life of Australian SAS soldier Dylan Shearer.

The team suffered one casualty, however. Australian Dylan Shearer was hit by sectoid fire early in the battle and panicked. While cowering behind some light cover another sectoid fired at him, and despite being hunkered down behind a tombstone the plasma bolt penetrated the obstruction and instantly killed him. Shearer was an outstanding marksman, second only to the legendary Takeda and Kurnokov's equal. He was also the first casualty of the X-Com project.

Battle of Japan

Shearer's next of kin were dutifully notified, and his body sent back  to his family in Melbourne, Australia. His death was a sobering reminder to the rest of the squad of the stakes involved. Up to this point X-Com had had an air of unreality surrounding it. Having seen the aliens firsthand, however, and losing one of their own solidified the idea that X-Com was a legitimate task force with a real purpose and a real enemy.  Global UFO activity was reaching unprecedented levels, especially over the nations of Australia, Egypt and France, and these countries made repeated requests to be given satellite coverage. Security forces in all over the world were learning that the sectoids were weak and vulnerable to terrestrial weapons, however, and the general public's apprehension was giving way to belligerency. There was fierce debate on many forums as to the best way to deal with the visitors, and the scenes of alien bodies being dragged through the streets affected people in different ways. Some were jubilant; some were upset at the "inhumane" treatment of sentient beings; others feared reprisal. "If they're anything like us," said Ukraine's Ermakova. "They're going to want revenge."

The first UFO ever tracked by X-Com's satellite XS-1. This contact destroyed a squadron of JASDF fighters sent to intercept it.

On 8 March 2016, barely 24 hours after the deployment in Egypt, satellite XS-1 picked up a large contact moving through Japanese air space. It was the largest contact ever tracked, and several Japanese Air Self Defence Forces (JASDF) F-15s were scrambled in pursuit. General Iwata and Colonel Bradford watched grimly from Central as jet after jet was shot down by the contact. The mood in Central darkened as JASDF Patriot batteries launched their surface to air missiles (SAM) ineffectively at the UFO. The aliens appeared to have the ability to manipulate their radar signature - radar waves propagated at UFOs were either absorbed or came back subtly modified which wrought havoc on missile guidance systems. This led to the even deeper mystery as to how ground based or satellite based radar could pick up UFOs at all. "If their ships are capable of absorbing radar waves and not registering on our arrays," queried Dr. Shen. "Why don't they just stay in stealth all the time?" Hypotheses ranged from power requirements which limited the use of such countermeasures to small bursts, to more malevolent theories from the troops themselves. "They're toying with us," Squad Leader Hara said grimly. "Like a cat playing with a mouse. They don't see us as dangerous, so they are just playing with us for their own amusement."

With the failure of Japan's air force General Iwata was forced to decide whether to scramble the specialised F-35s at X-Com's disposal. He decided against it, judging the risk to the craft and pilot to be too great. To their astonishment the UFO descended to a location west of Osaka, Japan - the exact same place where X-Com had made first contact only one week prior. Iwata ordered the Skyranger scrambled immediately, and a squad led by Hara was ordered to try and assault the UFO on the ground. The UFO did not stay long enough for this to happen - it took off again prior to the arrival of the Skyranger. As with last week, however, reports on the ground indicated that the aliens were out in force on the ground, apparently searching for something.

Operation Swift Hymn, Osaka, Japan (Mission 3)

Hara's eight man squad contained five soldiers who were present at first contact (Hara, Masango, Gerard, Piao and Oliveira). Gerard and Oliveira were still wary because of the strange visions which afflicted them in their first mission, but the remainder were quietly confident of their ability to handle the aliens on the ground. The aliens sequestered themselves in a large office supply warehouse and Hara wasted no time assaulting the building. Unlike Takeda and Garcia, Hara felt that negotiations were a waste of time. "If they wanted to talk to us they have the means to easily do so," Hara stated. "Which means they don't." The X-Com team was able to overwhelm the aliens with textbook infantry tactics - Hara, Oliveira and rookies Heuvel and Abbate established a base of fire to pin down the sectoids while Gerard and Masango enveloped around the left flank. Piao and Ukrainian Ermakova did the same on the right flank, and caught in a murderous crossfire the sectoids were routed and killed. The mystery of why they had come to this location again remained unsolved, however. All X-Com were able to find huddling in the store room of the building were seven civilians - four terrified office workers, the building's custodian, and a mother and her daughter who fled to the building when the aliens arrived.

Dutchman Heuvel deploys into combat for the first time.

Despite a thorough search of the area X-Com researchers were unable to determine what brought the aliens to this part of Japan for the second time. While speaking to the civilians, however, Hara was interested to learn that the mother and child had also been at the sight of the first contact. Chiharu Kimura and her daughter Nanami cowered in their vehicle when sectoids landed near the Chugoku Highway a week ago. The sectoids were moving methodically down the highway searching the vehicles, and the Kimuras were only saved by the intervention of X-Com operators. Hara thought it a great coincidence and thought nothing of it. He would not realise until much later that he had found what the aliens were looking for.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Long War, Part IV - First Contact

X-Com Selections

X-Com selections were completed by the end of February 2016, and Colonel Bradford's strike team was finally beginning to take shape. Out of the 6,000 soldiers from the UN brigade Bradford selected a cadre of about 40 troops to make up the X-Com strike force. The selections were a gruelling battery of tests which gauged marksmanship, conditioning, mental toughness and tactical awareness. They were also non-gender specific and disregarded the soldier's qualifications and previous experience. As far as Bradford was concerned, as long as the soldier passed selections it didn't matter who they were, where they came from or what they did prior to joining the unit. Selection turned out quite a few surprises, weeding out soldiers with impressive resumes on paper and including some unlikely candidates. What was most astonishing was the number of women who were able to meet the minimum criteria. Contrary to representation by popular media most special force soldiers are not muscle bound strongmen, but tough, wiry and rugged individuals characterised more by their endurance, tenacity and willpower, and several female soldiers from units around the world seized this opportunity to prove that they had these qualities.

Female commandoes from Pakistan arrive at X-Com headquarters. X-Com, being under the auspices of the UN, allowed both men and women to serve in combat operations.

Every soldier that passed selection was awarded the default X-Com rank of Private First Class (PFC). Bradford organised the strike force into four squads, and selected capable JSDF soldiers to lead them. Assigning Japanese soldiers as squad leaders was a political necessity but fortunately for Bradford he had outstanding candidates. Everyone respected PFC Takeda because of his outstanding marksmanship and calmly capable manner. PFC Hara was a traditional drill sergeant in manner and speech, but unfortunately his English was somewhat limited, which meant that his tirades meant to discipline often ended up being unintentionally comical. PFC Ishikawa spoke excellent English, but was dour, grim and rarely smiled. He was more or less accepted even if his squad mates found it difficult to warm to him.

The only problem for Bradford was PFC Sato, the fourth designated squad leader. Sato was the son of a prominent Japanese politician who yielded concessions to Prime Minister Abe on the proviso that his son receive a command position. Sato was the smallest man in the strike force, not particularly fit, and his marksmanship barely enough to qualify. To his credit it must be noted that Sato never lobbied for the position, but was railroaded into it by filial duty. Nonetheless his appointment strongly reeked of nepotism, and the Chinese members of the squad (PFC Chong and PFC Piao) wasted no opportunity expressing this opinion to anyone and everyone.

Female members of the Palestinian Presidential Guard about to take part in X-Com selections.

Selections revealed some outstanding soldiers. After Takeda the best marksmen in the unit were Russia's Kurnakov and Zhukova, Ukraine's Ermakova and Australia's Shearer. A nasty and vicious rivalry erupted between Zhukova and Ermakova, based partly on the civil war now raging with renewed viciousness in the Ukraine. Both women exchanged harsh words which escalated into violence, and had to be pulled apart. Kurnakov and Shearer, on the other hand, forged an friendly rivalry on the shooting range and in the izakayas (Japanese bars) around Tanegashima. The best athlete in the strike force was Dutchman PFC Van den Heuvel, followed closely by PFC Phillips of Australia and PFC Sandoval of Venezuela. Overall Bradford was pleased with the quality of soldiers in his force, although he still harbored doubts about whether they would be able put aside national differences and work together in unison.

Operation Final Shield, Osaka, Japan (Mission 1)

X-Com's first deployment was in Osaka, Japan. On 2 March 2016 terrified residents called 119 (Japan's emergency contact number) and reported what appeared to be a UFO landing in the rice fields just off the Chugoku Highway west of Osaka. Eager to justify the existence of X-Com, Prime Minister Abe immediately ordered the strike force into the area. The UH-60JA Blackhawks arrived at around 6 am JST, but were informed by Central that the UFO had already departed. Continuing calls to 119 suggested, however, that there were still unknown non-human beings moving around in the area. Deploying his international squad for the first time as squad leader, Takeda went into the area to secure the location for the research team. Upon arriving at the freeway the team made first contact with the aliens - a historic event under normal circumstances, but marred by the fact the aliens tried to kill them on sight.

The very first X-Com deployment in Osaka, Japan.

"They were not interested in talking," recalled Takeda. "Garcia wanted to negotiate, and she went forward with a white flag and no weapons. Suddenly she was being shot at by their beam weapons. She was lucky not to have been killed." According to Takeda, the squad came under fire by alien plasma weapons - beam weapons which fired green pulses of energy which cut through kevlar and armour plating like "a hot knife through butter." "Lucky for us they weren't very good shots," said Takeda. "We fired back, and our bullets and grenades worked just fine. This was a relief for us because we didn't know if our weapons would be effective against the visitors. We knew nothing about them - it was terrifying going up against an enemy unknown."

The firefight was over quickly, and the squad was able to get a closer view of their adversaries for the first time. They were underwhelmed by what they saw - short, gray humanoid creatures, shorter than an average person, but with overdeveloped craniums and almost vestigial limbs. "They looked just like the typical aliens you saw in drawings and movies," stated China's PFC Piao. "Makes you think that all those people that said they'd been abducted by aliens might have been telling the truth all this time." The squad also drew tremendous confidence from the results of the first contact. "In the air they had us beaten," Piao added. "But if they bled and died like humans on the ground then we had a chance."

PFC Piao and PFC Chong during X-Com selections. Both soldiers were members of China's People's Liberation Army Special Operations Forces, and passed selections with flying colours.

The operation was characterised by a curious incident which afflicted both PFC Oliveira and PFC Gerard. Both operatives panicked and cowered under fire, and this lapse was explained by their combat inexperience. During debriefing however they insisted that during the battle they had abruptly seen visions in their heads which terrified them and rendered them incapable of acting. Oliveira said, "I felt like a 10 year old again, and my step-father was coming up the stairs with his belt in his hand. It was a really strong memory, and it just overwhelmed my mind for a few seconds."

Operation Final Shield. PFC Garcia (pictured) signals the all-clear to Central.

Despite this curious incident the squad suffered no KIAs, although PFC Sato was badly burned by plasma fire during the engagement. Plasma fire cut through almost anything, but it also instantly cauterized any wound, which meant the operator could continue fighting as long as the wound was not fatal. Sato also corroborated Oliveira and Gerard's story about experiencing a compulsion to run and hide, although in his case he ignored it. "It happened twice during the fight - I just remembered the death of my mother, and the memory made me almost fall to my knees and cry. It felt just like how it had felt when I first heard the news, but I just shut it out of my mind as best as I could. After a few moments the feeling disappeared." While Sato was able to shake off the strange vision he admitted that the distraction almost proved fatal. "Just after the feeling subsided I was shot by one of the aliens."

Piao had a more scathing version of events. "Sato pushed too far forward and was shot because he was reckless and stupid," Piao remarked, not mincing her words. "I don't believe that nonsense about visions. He's just making excuses."

Despite the apparent friction between squad members the strike force performed efficiently and competently in their first operation as a team. The research and logistics team were able to bag up the alien bodies and collect whatever alien artefacts they could find. Alien weapons appeared to self-destruct after the death of the wielder, collapsing into a heap of disparate fragments which were later carefully collected by the forensics team and brought back to Central. Bradford was extremely pleased by his squad's performance, but he was under no illusions about the enormity of the struggle ahead. This was an important victory to be sure, but the war had only just begun.

X-Com researchers do a preliminary autopsy on the cadavers of the invaders.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Long War, Part III - Japan

Establishing a Base of Operations

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan was the first to volunteer his country as a possible base of operations for the new task force. Japan had a modern and well-equipped military and she was a long standing ally of the US. The US was reluctant to take on more global responsibility, given that her volunteer armies had been heavily committed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. She was also confident in going it alone when it came to dealing with the extra-terrestrial threat - she had world's most advanced military, and she was still the world's pre-eminent superpower despite the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia. Nonetheless she was not opposed to lending assistance to an international effort, and with Japan at the head of such an endeavor she could be sure that she would retain considerable influence over the course of affairs.

Japan in the early 21st century was a country stagnating under two decades of recession and afflicted with a low birth rate and an ageing population. She was also being threatened by the rise of China as an economic and military superpower - China had recently overtaken Japan as the world's second largest economy, and the two nations' continued dispute over the Senkaku Islands continued to dominate headlines on both sides. Both nations have a long and fractious history and the issue of Japanese war guilt was also an ongoing impediment to better relations. Japan's tech and automobile companies, once at the forefront of innovation in the 80's and 90's, had been eclipsed by silicon valley giants like Apple, Google and Tesla. Prime Minister Abe had also inadvertently rekindled the pacifist movement in Japan after taking steps to circumvent Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. The US written Japanese Constitution, created by General Douglas McArthur and his staff at the end of the Second World War, specifically prohibits the use of military force in any respect except self-defence. In July 2014 the Abe cabinet passed a bill which allowed for a looser definition of the article, giving Japanese forces permission to participate in military actions in order to defend their allies abroad. This was met with tremendous opposition from both in and out of Japan - overseas the move was met with harsh criticism, particularly from China and North Korea. Domestically there were massive demonstrations the likes not seen in Japan for some time, and opposition members and academics geared up to challenge the legality of Abe's bill in the Supreme Court of Japan.

US, Australian and Japanese forces conduct joint exercises in Kyushu, Japan.

Abe saw the X-Com Initiative as a chance to illustrate the wisdom of a more flexible interpretation of Article 9, and to re-assert Japan's position as a major player on the world stage. Japan is the second largest funder of the UN, and over the years has lobbied intensely for a permanent seat on the Security Council. Despite her pacifist constitution the Japanese Self Defence Force (JSDF) was a well-equipped and capable military force, with long standing ties with the US and Australia. Japan has also contributed logistical support to the UN on numerous occasions, and was no stranger to multi-lateral operations. There were numerous US bases in Japan, particularly in the Ryukyu island chain in the south-west of Japan, which allowed for immediate commencement of operations between Japanese, American and Australian forces. More importantly however, she also had state of the art research and satellite launch facilities at Tanegashima off the coast of Kyushu, Japan. The first priority of the fledgling program was the re-establishment of satellite coverage of the skies, and great efforts were being made to create passive stealth satellites which had minimal radar profiles. The proposed plan was to launch satellites from two locations. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) would handle launches from Tanegashima, while Elon Musk's privately owned SpaceX would be contracted to handle launches from Vanderberg Air Force Base in the US. Incidentally, this was where the name X-Com was coined. In a multi-agency meeting between NASA, JAXA and SpaceX one of the proposals being considered was the name of the UN program. Musk, prior to founding SpaceX and Tesla, had made his fortune by co-founding PayPal. Before PayPal Musk had created one of the first online banking services called X.Com in December 1999. When asked what the agency should be called he replied, "Why don't we call it X-Com?" The name stuck, and the term X-Com would become a blanket term to encompass the satellite program, the air interception program headed by the US and Japan, the research and development program which would be run by JAXA in Tanegashima, and the military force which were originally tasked to provide security for the forensic and recovery teams.

Mustering the Troops

Japan received the go-ahead to commence X-Com operations at the end of February 2016, and soon personnel and equipment were being transported to Ryukyu Islands from various nations across the globe. Japanese Ground Self Defence Force (JGSDF) General Kiyofumi Iwata was appointed as force commander by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Force commanders are customarily high ranking officers picked from the nation that bear the heaviest burden of the mission, and given that Japan would be providing the bases and the majority of the supporting infrastructure it was only logical that a Japanese officer be given overall command. The bulk of the research team would come from Germany, who after Japan, was the third biggest funder of the UN. The team would be headed jointly by German astrobiologist Moira Vahlan and American engineer Raymond Shen, while the actual ground missions would be directed from command (later to be known as Central by X-Com operators) by Colonel David Bradford of the US Army.

JGSDF General Kiyofumi Iwata, appointed as force commander of the X-Com task force, here pictured with Australian Army Chief Lieutenant General Angus Campbell.

There were, however, serious delays in the build up of manpower and material. The UN does not have a standing reserve - instead, international coalitions are assembled on a per resolution basis. This meant that every multi-national task force had to be assembled from scratch, an incredibly inefficient and time-wasting exercise which had to be repeated every time the UN made a resolution. Fortunately for the X-Com project US, Japanese and Australian forces were already cooperating in Japan and could begin work immediately while the remainder of the international coalition arrived in dribs and drabs. The Russian contingent was the first to arrive on the scene, and wasted no time poking around the US facilities on Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, which was the site of X-Com's first military deployment. They soon found their movements heavily curtailed by grim-faced Marines, and the decision was made to relocate the X-Com task force to their own facilities on Tanegashima as soon as possible. 

Dr. Moira Vahlen and Chief Engineer Raymond Shen confer on the layout of the new X-Com base in Tanegashima.

The base at Tanegashima thus became the central hub for X-Com activities for both R&D and military purposes. Facilities were extremely roughshod at the outset, and often improvised. Troop quality was also uneven - special forces commandoes rubbed shoulders with regular infantry and support personnel who did not have specific combat training. All operators purportedly had to be able to speak English, and air assault experience was specified as mandatory. Despite this pre-requisite Bradford found soldiers arriving at the base who had never been in a helicopter, much less be able to fast-rope down one. As a UN force it also incorporated women in combat roles, something which some of the soldiers were not accustomed to. There was also friction between members of the coalition - the Ukrainian civil war had flared into life once more, and the Russians soon found themselves at odds with the Ukrainians and Belarusians serving on the task force. The Chinese were treated with total suspicion by the Japanese, and the disdain was mutual. Determined to make the best of the circumstances, however, Bradford immediately implemented a strict training regimen and instituted a new hierarchy within X-Com which disregarded ranks held by the soldiers in their respective countries. From now on rank in the new unit would be earned by their performance within the unit. Bradford also conducted selections to determine his squad compositions and to see which of his soldiers could be trusted to conduct operations in a cooperative and efficient manner. The primary goal of the new X-Com project was simple - barring any communications from the visitors, X-Com was to shoot down an enemy craft, and recover the remains for analysis. Bradford was determined that his dysfunctional team of international soldiers would be ready for that eventuality.