With enough resources and the right technology, human beings become less necessary in war zones. Drones perform air strikes. Machines defuse bombs. Remote-piloted tanks level villages in a matter of minutes. In XCOM 2's next DLC, though, I witnessed a much more literal robotification of armed forces.
The DLC, titled Shen's Last Gift, lets you bring sentient robots into battle. In fact, just saying that doesn't do tell the full story. At a certain point during a recent playthrough, my robots were bringing humans into battle. That is, of the members on my six-person squad, only one of the soldiers bled when shot.
The hulking robots, which developer Firaxis calls Sparks, don't completely change the sci-fi game's turn-based tactical combat--they're essentially hero units, with more health, maneuverability, and firepower than the normal human soldier. They're also taller and more noticeable targets for enemy Advent forces.
But they do add wrinkles to the existing formula. They're unable to take cover, for instance--whereas human soldiers can duck behind low walls or crouch behind semi-trailers, Sparks don't actually attach to cover, but merely stand behind it. This necessitates much more careful attention to sightlines than was the case in XCOM 2 battles of the past.
Sparks can, however, create opportunities for cover. That is, by standing in the open, or in the gaps between destroyed vehicles, Sparks become veritable options for your human soldiers to take cover behind. They offer the full defensive bonus, and because of their high health and armor, can take a beating before shutting down and exposing their human allies.
The Sparks are also surprisingly nimble, their massive metal frames notwithstanding. They each come equipped with jet thrusters in their heels, removing the need for ladders, poles, or vines while ascending cliffsides or building facades--with a single leap, they can reach elevated positions with little more than a trail of fumes in their wake.
Lastly, the most subtle and maybe underrated factor is Sparks' lack of human emotions--from the six hours I played, I never once saw a Spark panic, and enemy Sectoids seemed incapable of exerting their signature mind control over the robots. This was a godsend for protecting my rookie soldiers, who were more prone to panic and confusion in the haze of firefights.
Sparks become terrors on the battlefield, crashing through concrete walls and raining down rockets on clusters of alien enemies.
Despite their mechanical minds, Sparks rank up just like humans do, along two paths called War Machine and Future Combat, respectively focused on firepower and physical strength. My first Spark, Cav. "Gladius" Spark-001 (which I subsequently named Arnold), became a terror on the battlefield, crashing through concrete walls and raining down rockets on clusters of Advent aliens.
The added versatility and spectacle of Sparks overshadows the process of actually unlocking the robots, but this facet of the DLC is fantastic as well. Early in your campaign, your engineer Shen will alert you to a mission in an abandoned factory, where you'll bring your human squad--with Shen as a playable member for the first time--to investigate a strange radio signal emanating from the ruins.
The mission took me about 80 minutes to complete, which, to XCOM 2 veterans, will sound astronomically long. It's a story-heavy affair, and much more scripted than most skirmishes, but it's an exceptional mission nonetheless. It jumps from defensive scenarios to assault sequences with ease. There's also an abundance of enemies--as the mission came to a close and I escaped in my dropship, I had eliminated 52 robots, garnering more than enough experience to improve each of my soldiers several times over. I could also build a plethora of Sparks at my base's proving ground facility. My plan for machine domination was slowly put into action.
Perhaps the greatest part about Shen's Last Gift is that it fills out a sixth character class role. It always depends on the situation, of course, but now you can bring a veritable dream team into battle, with six possible character types to supplement each other. I had enough robots to bring a full Spark squad into battle, but I gradually opted to round out my roster, allowing my Grenadier to clear the way for my Ranger, who flanked enemy soldiers while my Sharpshooter kept them pinned down, after my Psi Operative disoriented Advent standing in my Specialist's way. And of course there was my Spark Arnold, leaping over buildings and laying waste to the ground below, while its human allies proved that they were, after all, still useful to have around.