Wednesday, February 1, 2017

X-COM: Enemy Within Multiplayer: Case Study of an Opponent's Squad

I recently purchased X-Com 2 for PS4 and have been spending a lot of time with the single player campaign (would definitely love to try out X-Com 2 multiplayer, although it sucks that I'll have to get a Playstation Plus account first...I really hope X-Com 2 will come out for mobile eventually). I still am playing X-Com Enemy Within multiplayer on my phone whenever I get a chance. Even with all of its annoying bugs and balance issues, X-Com: Enemy Within's multiplayer mode is still great fun. Though there aren't many people who play consistently, I've had some really good strategic battles against some quality opponents. I'll detail one of these opponents in this post.

As of 2/1/2017, I'm in first place of the X-Com Enemy Within Android multiplayer matches,
but probably only because I've been playing this game too much.
It doesn't even keep a record of losses so I don't even know what my win % is.
The second place guy's build is what I will be analyzing in this post

The Build

Here's #2 ranked player's build (more or less) which he (or she) doesn't seem to deviate from. And why should he, since it is a solid build and is balanced enough to handle almost any squad you can throw at it?

Seeker - 2200 points
Dead eye arch angel plasma rifle sniper with watcher gene mod and scope - 6400 points
Smoke jumper with laser rifle + alien grenade - 1600 points
Sectoid commander - 2700 points
Assault Commando with titan armor, alloy cannon, bastion gene mod, and combat stims - 7100 points

Let's take a look at why this build is so potent:
  • He uses his seeker to scout out the enemy and snipe away at any exposed units with his arch-angel sniper. The plasma rifle can do up to 18 critical damage, which can one-shot most units and soften up higher hp units for his follow-up attack. In some situations he'll strangle one of your units to take it out of the match for at least one turn or if you leave a vulnerable unit too far away from the rest of your group.
  • His follow up attack usually involves the rest of his crew, although not necessarily in this order: The Sectoid Commander (SC), the Smoke Jumper (SJ), and his Assault Commando (usually stimmed). This is where it gets devastating.
  • The Sectoid Commander is a versatile unit because of his psionic attacks and alien grenade. He can choose to mind control one of your weaker-willed units, panic a unit to take it out for one turn, or mindfray a unit to reduce its mobility, will, and aim on the next turn, He can also choose to throw the alien grenade at your units, and when combined with the smoke jumper's alien grenade, that can be at least 10 damage--more if your units happen to be too close together.
  • The Smoke Jumper's primary use in this build is for his alien grenade and for doing decent damage with the laser rifle, The opponent isn't concerned about protecting this unit, and usually this unit dashes as fast as he can across the map so he'll be in a position to lob the grenade. The grenades are great because they usually destroy cover, leaving any exposed units wide open for the archangel sniper to pick off. The SJ's smoke grenade can be used to cover his SC after he's mind-controlled one of your units.
  • And the most dangerous unit of the bunch, the combat-stimmed Assault Commando. It wasn't until after I faced this opponent that I learned that the Assault Commando variant is generally much better to have than the Assault Psi Warrior. Why? Because the commando has the resilience ability, which means you can't do any critical damage to this unit. So even a plasma sniper rifle won't be able to do more than 10 damage to the commando. To make it worse, if this unit uses combat stims, then he only takes half-damage for two turns, making it nearly impossible to kill this unit before he lays waste to your strongest units. With the alloy cannon, run-and-gun, and rapid-fire (double shot), he can do major damage (think 18 critical damage times 2 for up to 36 damage on a single unit.. enough to kill anything in the game except maybe another Commando with stims). And if your strongest unit is somehow still standing after this onslaught, he can finish you off with his sniper or with one of his alien grenades. Using psionics against this unit is also a risky option, because the bastion gene mod gives this unit the neural feedback ability. The Commando already has 75 Will, so your chances to mind control are decreased unless you have an ethereal or unit with a mind shield, but the neural feedback will do 7 damage to your psionic units and put all of your psi-powers on cooldown if they try any kind of psionics against the commando (except the ethereal's rift, which is an area effect ability)

Strategy for Countering the Build

When I first ran up against this opponent, he regularly wiped out my squads and exposed many weaknesses in some of the squads I listed in my previous X-Com strategy posts (links below). The nice thing about X-Com though is that there's generally a counter for everything if you know what you're up against. Here are some strategies I've used against this particular build. I haven't always been successful but I think following these general ideas gave me a fighting chance.
  • You need to keep your units out of his sniper's line of sight when possible. This means knowing the maps well and guessing where you can position your units so he can't snipe you. Watch out for destructible walls and cover--he can use his grenades to expose you if you're not careful. Try to throw out your sniper's battle scanner, which can reveal his cloaked seeker and also scouts the area ahead of your squad. Don't worry too much about the seeker, though, its main purpose is to scout/spot for the sniper and annoy you. I prefer to give the lurker gene mods, which include mimetic skin for my sniper, so that my sniper usually can get in the first shot once I have visibility on his sniper. The mimetic skin is important even if it means giving your sniper less armor and a laser sniper rifle instead of the plasma sniper rifle. The laser sniper rifle is much cheaper and can still do a decent amount of damage, especially with the headshot ability, against his airborne sniper (usually a 78% chance). Just don't rely on mimetic skin forever as he can use his grenades to reveal your unit, and the opposing commander of this squad is usually good at knowing where your sniper and cloaked units are.
  • When you see the Assault Commando, and he's not stimmed yet, if you can do any damage without compromising your squad, do it. If he is stimmed, though, you should strongly consider running away until the combat stims wear off. This is easier said than done because the opposing commander will use clever positioning to try to surround you into a corner where he can either pick you off with his sniper, grenade your position, or rush in with his assault without any regards for its safety since it's unlikely you'll be able to kill it in one turn. If you have a ton of firepower, like a mechtoid squad, MECs, berserkers (although who's still using those things these days?), or your own alloy cannon Commandos, you can focus all of your attacks on this unit to try and kill it in one turn but it's still very risky. If you have an ethereal, a psionic soldier with a mind shield, or even a sectoid commander, you could go for the risky mind control play. Just watch out for the neural feedback mentioned above and make sure your unit won't be easy to kill in retaliation during the next turn, as he can just lob grenades or snipe your already-weakened unit
  • Use very hard-to-kill units like commando MECs supported by Drones to repair it or Assault Commando. Mechtoids with psionic shields given by a sectoid commanders greater mind merge tend to be able to survive the commando's initial assault because the psionic shield not only adds 5 more hit points but it halves incoming damage until the shield is gone (just keep your SC as far away from his Commando as possible and watch out for mind control on your mechtoids). Any other high hp units will probably be a waste of money because he can kill them so easily with his sniper or his Commando. Spreading out your points will make your squad less susceptible to being irreparably weakened from losing a single unit. If you don't think you'll be able to kill his commando in one turn, taking out his SC and the SJ should be your next priority as you try to keep out of his Commando's range (which is huge because of run-and-gun). If you can kill his support units, especially before they do major damage with their grenades or with mind control, you'll be in a better position.
  • Use high density smoke grenades from XCOM medics or elite exalt medics. If you hide behind high cover with +40 defnese from a smoke grenade, it will make it that much harder for his sniper to hit you. Using smoke grenades on your MECs gives them a better chance of surviving sniper fire or Commando rapid-fire. Be aware though that the assault can still flank your other units that use cover or he can use grenades to completely bypass the dense smoke.
  • Use Heavy Floaters who, because they're airborne, are more difficult for his assault to take down. Heavy Floaters can also launch farther ahead so you can grenade his units before he sees your main squad. Two alien grenades can take out either his Smoke Jumper or Sectoid Commander. MEC grenades are good too, although they only do 4 damage so you can't easily kill his Sectoid Commander like with alien grenades. However, softening up the SC and destroying its cover is usually enough for you to take him out with one of your other units.

Counter Builds 

I always try to vary my builds to keep opponents guessing, although by now most of the people I play against regularly on Android can probably guess what my squad will generally look like and what my strategies usually are. Here are a few of the more recent ones I've used to counter the squad above:

2 commando demolisher MECs, 
one exalt elite medic
support medic with chitin plating  and light plasma rifle
one deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifle + mimetic skin + scope

The MECs have good mobility so you can counter the opponent's rush by rushing them back, and launching grenades from out of sight to soften up their units. If you can grenade his assault commando before he can activate the combat stims, even better. Throw a dense smoke grenade to cover your MECs after the attack and then snipe one of his units if you can or set your sniper on overwatch. If the assault commando has been weakened with grenades, you can go in and finish him off with the MECs kinetic strike melee attack, which even if the commando has combat stims activated, will do 6 damage each. The melee attack can also kill his SJ or SC in one shot. The sniper is for doing long range damage and for scouting using the battle scanner. The drone is for healing and the exalt elite medic is for his 2 dense smoke grenades.

two assault commandos with alloy cannons + titan armor + (chitin plating or combat stims)+ bastion gene mods

elite exalt medic
smoke jumper with light plasma rifle
deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifle + mimetic skin + scope

This is a variant of the first build except instead of MECs, you have two assault commandos with chitin plating or combat stims. It's basically a variant of the opponent's build, except I put less money into my sniper and remove SC to leave enough points for an extra Assault Commando. It's fighting fire with more fire.

assault commando with alloy cannon + titan armor + chitin plating + bastion gene mods

commando demolisher MEC
elite exalt medic
smoke jumper with light plasma rifle
deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifle + mimetic skin + scope

This is a combination of the first two counter builds I described. Instead of two MECs or two assault commandos, I take one of each.

3 heavy floaters

1 floater
2 deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifles + mimetic skin + scopes

This build relies on good sniper positioning and getting your floaters to launch to safe positions on the first turn. Then on the next turn hopefully you can overwhelm the opponent with grenades/flanking shots and get off a shot from each of your snipers

5 heavy floaters

deadeye sniper + plasma sniper rifle + mimetic skin

Same as the 4 floater, 2 sniper build except you're focusing more money on the heavy floaters, you get more grenades and although you only have one sniper, he deals more damage with the plasma sniper rifle. Lack of the scope though means 10% less accuracy that you'll have to live with.

4 mechtoids

sectoid commander
deadeye sniper + laser sniper rifle + mimetic skin + scope

This build is the often derided by players (myself included) for being cheap. It's definitely not an elegant build as you basically try to rush and overpower your opponent, relying on the mechtoids' high mobility, their psionic shields when paired with a Sectoid Commander, and also their ability to fire twice in one turn if they don't move. Some players go with 5 mechtoids + SC, but I usually favor removing one mechtoid and adding a sniper for long range attacks. This mechtoid/sniper rush has enough firepower to take out a combat stimmed Assault Commando in one turn if you're lucky


Despite having thought about this X-Com strategy way too much, there's still no guaranty I can beat this build. Sometimes it just comes down to lucky shots, the map and which side of the map you start on, but the most you can do is put your self in the best position possible and hope the dice will roll your way.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Save $13 and Take Your Own Passport Pictures

We needed to get passport photos for my wife and feeling lazy, I decided to let Walgreens or CVS take and print the pictures for us. We stopped by a CVS but they informed us that their camera had been stolen. Okay, that's weird. Went to another CVS and the situation wasn't much better. Their "professional set up" was just a white pull-down screen and a camera that looked like it came straight outta 1999. After taking the picture, the employee seemed to be having trouble using CVS's own photo kiosk to crop the picture correctly and to top it all off the final photo came out blurry. She asked if we want to try again but by that point I already decided that it wasn't worth $13 and that I'd be better off doing it myself.

If you pay CVS or Walgreens to take your passport photo, make no mistake: you're paying for convenience but not necessarily for quality. As long as you carefully follow the guidelines on the website and have a little patience and time, you'll be able to make your own passport photos of similar quality (if not better) than CVS or Walgreens.

All you need is
  • A white background. You can use a white wall, a bed sheet, or a poster that's white on the backside.
  • A computer made after the turn of the century
  • A camera made after 1999
  • A USB drive and about $1 to print the photo if you don't have your own printer

First find a well-lit area. Again, you can roughly follow the guidelines from the government website

Don't let this picture from the guide scare you. CSV and Walgreens they don't have the "three points of illumination" setup, either. If you have a well-lit room and use a flash, your photo will be just fine. Just watch out for shadows on the white background.

Use the following poorly-drawn illustration as a rough guide to compose your shot. Basically as long as you have the subject's upper body in the shot and follow their guidelines (have a neutral expression.. the rest is common sense stuff like don't wear sunglasses or a headset when taking your picture)

Then take your computer and use an image editor like Photoshop the open-source GIMP to crop your photo to 2x2 inches.
This is where it might get a little tricky. After you've got a 2x2" picture in your image editing software, make a blank image that's exactly 4x6 inches (the standard photo size they print at most photo kiosks). Copy and paste your 2x2" passport image onto the 4x6" (you can fit 6 2x2" pictures onto one 4x6" photo as shown below). Download the full-sized sample photo that you can use as a template here.

Copy to a USB drive, take it to Target or FedEx/Kinko's (or other photo printing place) and print as many as you need. I think Target charges only 35 cents for each photo.

Congratulations, you saved about $12. Go by yourself something nice.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Commuting vs Driving in San Francisco

Ah, the eternal question... whether take public transit or drive yourself to work. Each situation is different and depending on where you live or your financial situation, you may not even have the option to choose (or the alternatives are so undesirable that it makes the choice easy). I've lived in Houston, where it seems like there's a car for every single person and the thought of not having your own car is unfathomable. I've lived in Singapore, where owning a car is a completely unnecessary luxury that can cost a small fortune. Now I live in the Bay Area, which is somewhere between. If you live in the city, giving up your car is actually something many people consider due to the scarcity and cost of parking, close proximity to everything you'll need in the city, and other options like ride-sharing for when you do need a car. If you live further out like we do, then having a car just makes your life so much more convenient, even when public transport is readily available.

We live next to a BART/Muni station, yet I mostly end up driving to work since it takes twice as long to ride the bus each way. So instead of a one hour commute (30 minutes each way by car), it becomes a two hour overall commute whenever I decide to take the bus. When I first arrived in SF, I tried taking public transport as often as I could, but the inconvenience caused me to stop using it until I was driving to work every single day. Working an extra hour each day seemed way more cost-effective than spending an extra hour on the bus.

My employer offers some small incentives for commuting, but it's definitely nowhere near enough to offset the costs and hassle of taking public transit. Not to mention all the weirdos you'll encounter on BART/Muni. Gas is expensive here in the Bay Area, but if it takes me a gallon of gas to get to work in my low gas mileage car and the cost of a gallon of gas is cheaper than a roundtrip on Muni, it makes me question whether taking public transit is even worth it.

On the other hand, driving through traffic can be stressful, and some Bay Area drivers aggravate me to no end. Sitting down and calmly reading a book on the bus on the way to work suddenly becomes quite a tantalizing option. I discovered that driving through San Francisco every day puts a strain on my car (and mental sanity) that can be very costly. There's definitely a noticeable toll on my car after driving it so frequently over the past three years. The mileage on my car is almost comparable to the kind of driving I did living in Houston even though I live relatively close to the office. Driving up and down San Francisco's hilly landscape is killing my brakes and tires. I'm also spending a lot of money refilling my gas tank every week (even while using Costco for cheaper gas).

Last, but not least, I need to consider the environmental impact of my daily commute. While inconvenient for me, taking my car off the road and occasionally taking the bus to work is one small way of helping the environment, reducing traffic, and freeing up a parking space in our office garage in the Presidio.

If you can't tell, I'm still not sure what to do but for now I'll try doing a combination of commuting and driving. By commuting via public transport a couple of days a week, I can ease the strain on my vehicle while being a little more friendly to the environment. It might not seem to be saving me money with the high cost of BART/Muni tickets, but in the long run, my car will last longer and have less problems over the course of its life. The real solution is probably to save up for a Tesla, wait for self-driving cars or--more realistically--just move closer to work, so I can bike or walk. Now if only the housing prices would come down...

Twice as fast getting to work
Listening to public radio in the morning gives me my daily news (although technically I could still do this on the bus)
Convenient (?  see below)

Parking is the worst here. Worrying about having your car towed, paying for parking, lack of parking.. it all sucks and actually makes having a car less convient depending on where you're going.
Bad for the environment
Bad drivers/accident risk
Pedestrians and bikers
Gasoline costs and having to refill my tank every week
Wear and tear on car, maintenance can hit you hard--sometimes in waves or all at once
Insurance, Registration, other miscellaneous costs of owning a car

Public Transit:
You can enjoy the journey to work. Read a book, check work email, smell the roses, or more likely, watch youtube videos and surf the net
Good for the environment--give yourself a pat on the back.

Public transport is surprisingly expensive (it adds up), and its a hassle to keep up with all the passes, discounts, etc you need to take advantage of to avoid paying full price.
Need to wake up earlier to get to work on time
Having to leave work based on when the bus/shuttle arrives, which isn't always ideal
Weirdos on public transit

And the other unexplored alternative:
Car pool:
Get to know your coworkers better!

Have to synchronize your schedule with other peoples
Not always in the mood for small talk and awkward silence

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Soylent 2.0 Review

In my previous post about Soylent, I mentioned all the reasons I was cancelling my Soylent subscription, yet I praised the idea, the vision, and the implementation. To summarize, I didn't cancel due to things people might expect, like the taste or texture. On the contrary, I rather enjoy the taste of Soylent 1.5. I cancelled because the meals still felt expensive and the expiration (once opened or prepared) made it a little inconvenient and slightly inefficient for my usage. I also wasn't drinking enough Soylent to make it worth a subscription and saw that I'd quickly have more Soylent than what I'd know to do with (maybe stockpile it in case of an emergency situation?). Soylent 2.0 is here and it addresses most of the concerns I had with Soylent 1.5. The price has even come down for both the powder and the bottled versions. The bottled version costs $29 for 12 bottles. I can live with that for the amount and frequency I drink Soylent. The powdered version used to cost $70 for 7 bags or 28 meals, but now is an pretty good deal at only $54 for 7 bags. I'm not sure if it's because they need to clear inventory of the old product or if they really have found a way to cut costs. Either way, now is a good time to stockpile if you know you'll be drinking a lot of Soylent in the next year.

My shipment of Soylent 2.0 arrived in early September. It arrived in a bulky, slightly heavy box that made me wonder how in the world they would ship 144 bottles (the largest number you can order a subscription for). I could see how transporting it around and storing large amounts of Soylent could be seen as wasteful. The bottles Soylent comes in are cool, but also a concern for producing waste (although it is recyclable).

Although the idea of preparing powdered Soylent was never an issue for me (I'm a smoothie person and like to think I know my way around a blender), I must admit that just having a 400 calorie bottle of Soylent ready to go at any moment is sooooo convenient. Small gripe: I wish they would have slightly upped it to 500 calories to make it a complete meal. However, you can easily supplement your Soylent with a banana or a granola bar and you're good.

I'm not living solely on Soylent, as some extreme reviewers have been doing. That's just crazy and my wife would kill me for trying that. Most of the time, I drink Soylent when I use my lunch break to go to the gym and play basketball. When I get back, I need to get straight back to work right away and I can just drink soylent at my desk. It's great, and I'm sure my superiors love it, especially now since it's pretty busy at work this time of year. Employers should be buying this stuff by the truckload and giving it to their employees who work through lunch.

To me, the taste of Soylent 2.0 is very different from 1.5, which is not necessarily good or bad. Whereas I felt like 1.5 had a nuttier taste, 2.0 tastes more like actual soy milk. Not as sweet as sweetened soy milk yet not bland as unsweetened soy milk. The consistency and texture really is like milk/soy milk/almond milk and with hardly any grittiness that came from mixing your own Soylent from the powder, It has also been described as tasting like Cheerios milk.. you know, the milk that's left over after you eat a bowl of Cheerios? For me, I prefer the taste of 1.5 but I can see how 2.0's flavor should appeal to more peoples' taste buds. If you didn't like the previous versions of Soylent, but still want to give Soylent a try, then you should order some 2.0. I'm even thinking of starting up a new subscription once I get through all of my current bottles and bags of Soylent.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

XCom - Enemy Within Multiplayer Strategy(Android)

Better late to the game than never. Since I can't wait for XCom 2 to come out (and since it's PC-only and I haven't had a decent gaming computer in over 10 years), I'm starting to play multiplayer XCom again. I last played XCom Enemy Unknown (EU) on iOS and it was one of the funnest and most addictive games I've ever played. Enemy Within, the expansion, is even better. As you will probably discover as you read through this post, I've spent way too much time thinking about XCom strategy. Way too much time for a game that nobody seems to play anymore (at least on android). See my thoughts on original EU multiplayer strategy here.

In the original, ranked multiplayer matches were limited to 10k. While it forced you to be judicious with your points, people soon realized that the most cost effective units at that low price point was smoke jumper + light plasma rifle soldiers. So it turned out that you'd see the same boring squads over and over again. In EW, the limit has been bumped to 20k, and the prices of some units have been adjusted, which opens up all kinds of new strategies and possibilities. You have more points to spend on different types of units, gene mods, and now MECs. Mutons and muton elites are now viable units and all-alien squads can be competitive enough to hang with human soldiers (IMHO). The Exalt soldiers, however, are predefined with what kind of guns and abilities they come with, without any customization. With the exception of exalt elite medics, the rest of the exalt units are extremely disappointing. Exalt elite medics, on the other hand, cost only 1500 points and are a pretty good deal for 2 dense cloud smoke grenades 3 heals, and the regen pheremones gene mod (which heals the medic and nearby units for +1 health each turn (and supposedly can make your units immune to explosive damage?? Although I've never seen or tried that yet)). 

One thing I've learned is that you need to be a LOT more careful with your units in 20k matches. There are definitely a lot more points that can be spent on explosives, snipers, stealth, psi units... things that can quickly take out that expensive unit you just poured 7000 points into. You need to be prepared for anything and everything, which means scouting is even more crucial than before. If you're packing all of your points into a few super units, then leaving 400 for a drone isn't a bad idea. Other good scouts are stealth units like seekers or soldiers with mimetic skin or ghost armor. If you can't get one of those units, you could scout with a chrysalid or a high hit-point unit like a psi-shielded mechtoid or a berserker. Just know that you're risking losing that unit to whatever your opponent will throw at it (which could be anything and everything).

One of the toughest squads I've seen in multiplayer is made up of heavy floaters backed by squadsight snipers with a seeker as the scout (Another potent variation of this is heavy floaters + dual squadsight archangel snipers). On a wide open map like Boulevard, Trainyard, or the Grand Cemetery, this team is deadly. The seeker will quickly find your squad and the sniper will try to take out a few of your units. The heavy floaters can launch in behind you or flank from the side, then easily overwhelm your units with multiple grenades/flanked shots. Even if you mind control one or two floaters, they still have a good shot of taking out your psi units before you can do anything with them. To counter, you need to break line of sight with the sniper and eliminate the seeker/spotters ASAP. This is where it would help to have a soldier with bioelectric skin or a hunter/deadeye sniper with battle scanners to detect cloaked units. You also need high accuracy units to take down multiple flying units and you should spread out your team so multiple units won't get caught together in a single grenade blast. 5 damage from a single alien grenade isn't too bad, but multiple grenades hitting two or three of your units clumped together quickly multiplies the damage and can quickly be the end of your team. Another strategy would be to have multiple mind control units and control at least two or three of the floaters in one turn so that he won't have enough firepower to retaliate and kill all of your psi units.

Another thing to watch out for are lurkers (soldiers with the mimetic skin gene mod). The only way to counter is to have some sort of detection (snipers with scanners, the hypersenses/bioelectric skin genemod, trying to find where they are by look for places your unit can't move into), You also need a way to break their cloaked status. Once you locate them, use your abilities that can destroy cover or that do area effect damage to reveal them. Otherwise, you need to try to surround them so they can't escape and wait for them to make the first strike. Hopefully your units are numerous and strong enough and you've positioned them in such a way that you can survive their initial attack and retaliate swiftly and decisively. An annoying, yet surprisingly effective squad I've tried consists of three squadsight snipers with mimetic skin. I spread them out to different parts of the map and try to catch the enemy in the middle. When the enemy tries to find the sniper, hide the sniper that's being targeted and position the others to get good shots. I wouldn't use this tactic too often though, since if the opponent can anticipate what you're doing, this can be easily countered by getting units with stealth detection and area effect attacks to root out your snipers (and it also makes you feel cheap for using this camping strategy).

Another recently popular squad is the sectoid commander (SC) + greater mind merge with 5 mechtoids. For the unprepared, this squad will easily overwhelm even the toughest units since with the psi shield, your attacks only do half damage until the shield goes down. The secret to beating this team is to find the sectoid commander and kill him first (removing all the shields and doing 3 damage to each mechtoid). Easier said than done, but you should be able to locate the SC by following the purple trails caused by the mind merge. Hopefully you have a way of quickly getting to the SC, either by launching with multiple floaters to the SC location or sneaking over there with a cloaked unit. Even a normal run-and-gun assault should be able to kill off the SC once you determine its location. The enemy of course will try to counter this by hiding his SC in a hard-to-get-to location and leaving some mechtoids to block the path and defend the SC.

I've been experimenting with using muton elites on my squad, which I never used before because of their high cost and susceptibility to psi attacks. However, the price was reduced in EW and they're suddenly one of my favorite units. They come with heavy plasmas, an alien grenade, 14 health, and have 80 accuracy and built-in 20 defense.. that's a pretty darn impressive offensive/defensive package for only 2900 points. Paired with a regular muton who can do a blood call gives them +10 aim, +10 will, and +4 movement for an even more deadly attack. Just watch out for mind control and other psi units. For this reason, muton elites pair well with an ethereal.

Speaking of ethereals, watch out for ethereals! Might be worth it to equip your humans with a mind shield and/or the bastion/neural feedback mod. The mind shield is for upping your unit's will and the neural feedback damages the psi unit and puts all of his psi powers on cooldown. Ethereals are so dangerous that even the thought of your opponent using ethereals at all should scare you into preparing for them. Rift is devastating to your low will units (even one-shotting flying cyberdisks and other low willed units with seemingly a lot of health) and an ethereal can mindfray/mind control most units without any problems. Their ability to reflect shots and +40 defense makes it hard to take them down, but with mind shields, neural feedback, snipers, explosives, and overwhelming numbers, you should be able to prevail. Be careful out there soldiers.

Extra notes for multiplayer:

Support classes are still extremely cost-effective units in 20k matches.. Medics and smoke jumpers remain my top choices, but with the higher points available to spend, you could mix things up with different gene mods, armor, or items. With plasma rifles (vs the weaker light plasma rifles typically used in 10k matches), they suddenly become accurately powerful offensive units who can also back up other units with smoke grenades. Psi guardians are also fun to use too for their telekinetic field, which can turn the tide of a match if used at the right moment. In one game I played, it was powerful enough to deter two close range alloy cannon blasts from an assault class (I got lucky though.. that won't happen very often).

Assaults - stimmed assault units with close-combat weapons and sometimes in ghost armor were deadly in Enemy Unknown, but with Enemy Within, stims lose some of their effectiveness since squads will have more units that can do huge amounts of damage. Even if they only do half damage due to the stim effect, they can take out a unit with only 12-15 health pretty quickly. For this strategy to work, I think you'd at least need some titan armor (stimmed units in EU were effective even with just skeleton suits or chitin plating).

Snipers - expect to see more plasma rifle snipers (are you prepared to take 18 crit damage out of no where when you're just minding your own business?) with the higher points limit how could you not have at least one on your team? I've learned the value of agents (the deadly double tap and their crazy high accuracy) as well so don't be surprised if your opponent is taking two or even three snipers along. Even with laser sniper rifles, they're still a major threat.

Heavies - rocket launchers can be game changers. you can destroy enemy cover and punish opponents who leave their units too close together, but they are still expensive enough that I don't see them too often in multiplayer. I once got demolished though, by a team of heavies with heavy lasers. They blasted away all my cover and took out half my team before I knew what hit me.

MECs - With an ifrit-class mec, you can now use proximity mines in multiplayer! What fun! The best value though, is probably the demolisher-class, which gives you two grenades. Don't underestimate their kinetic strike, which can do 12 damage in one hit. So if you're thinking of getting a berserker, for about a 1000 more you can go for a MEC soldier that can launch grenades and is not limited to melee attacks. I once took out an ethereal in one turn after rushing him down with two MECs. He popped like a balloon.

Cyberdiscs - Another team that gives me a hard time is 3 Cyberdiscs + 3 drones + sectoid commander. While you're trying to take out the cyberdiscs, the drones keep healing them. If you go for the drones first the cyberdiscs will lay waste to your team with their grenades or flanking your units with their high movement stats. The SC is there for psi attacks + an extra grenade. The only way I was able to counter was to focus fire on cyberdiscs one at a time and kill it before the drones have a change to repair them. This means you need high accuracy, high damage units to take them out: plasma rifle snipers. Having an agent to weaken the cyberdisc with double tap or a squad sight sniper to safely attack from long range is your best bet, then finishing them off with high accuracy units like support soldiers. As mentioned above, Ethereals can also take out cyberdiscs with one shot by using rift.

Berserkers - Berserkers are still useful even though they're not as versatile as MECs. They're slightly cheaper and have higher will. The bull rush is useful but not always reliable (at least in my experience) but I've seen it used with great effectiveness by other players. One such squad that constantly gave me trouble was 4 heavy floaters + 2 berserkers. The berserkers would rush across the map and then the heavy floaters would launch in near to your starting point. While you're dealing with the floaters, the berserkers come in and clean up your squad. To counter this you need flying units. Archangel snipers, heavy floaters, or cyberdiscs could take on the floaters without worrying about being melee attacked by the berserkers. Having a berserker or MEC of your own to deal with the berserkers helps as well. If you have soldiers with skeleton suits, you can try grappling to a location where the berserkers can't climb to. However, any grounded units will still be in trouble from heavy floater grenades. I've always wanted to try out the MECs with flamethrowers. Especially against stealthed units (won't work against titan armor, but still would be fun and satisfying to set enemy units on fire).

Lastly (again), watch out for bugs, and I don't mean Chryssalids (they're still too expensive and easily countered to be effective, although you may be able to catch someone off guard). Bugs? Oh yeah, multiplayer is full of them. I've had units transport to unseen areas of the map where they're stuck forever. I've lost multiplayer matches where I was about to win but something happened to the state of the game where neither player could move and I had to forfeit. I've had games where I was about to win and the computer ended the match and said I lost when I still had more units than the opponent. Also, if the opponent quits the game early, you also don't get a win. Crappy, right? Don't get too mad if you're unable to make your turn or your unit gets stuck somewhere off the map. It's just a game. Speaking of annoying things in multiplayer, I wish they kept better stats for multiplayer matches. On Android, they currently only list your wins (no losses). It would have been nice if they kept your win/loss stats for each map, stats about which units you use the most or other trivial info like number of one-shot kills, flanked shots, missed shots, made shots, number of mind controls, number of units killed with explosives, etc. I think that would have been interesting stuff to know.

Another bug to watch out for.. I've noticed some multiplayer games in android get stuck in a state where neither player can make a move and that it has to do with players that have lost all their health but are still slowly bleeding to death. The easiest way to avoid getting stuck is to throw a grenade or use an area effect attack on the downed soldier. Not the nicest thing to do, but this is war.

Now that I've revealed all of my secrets, I'm sure my opponents will be able to track down this page and come up with strategies to make these all obsolete, forcing me to come up with new ones. I'm looking forward to it, and it's the reason XCom Multiplayer continues to be so compelling to play.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Soylent: Why I Like It but why I Cancelled my Subscription (with Soylent 2.0 update)

Let's get it out of the way, out of our system, and over with right now.

Soylent Green is people.

There we said it. Now we can move on.

For the uninitiated, Soylent is a staple food created by Robert Rhinehart and his team of scientists to be a cheap, easy to prepare, convenient, nutritionally complete meal. Theoretically, you could live off of the stuff but in practice, few people save for the extremely hardcore are actually trying to live completely off of 100% Soylent. Even its creator says Soylent makes up about 80% of his daily calories while he eats out the rest of the time. So for those of you who think Soylent is on a mission to eliminate normal food: chill out.

I tried out Soylent for a month as an experiment and I must say I was pleased with the results. Mainly that I didn't die as a result of drinking Soylent. I didn't lose weight or get sick at all. Despite all the whining from some journalists who tried it and didn't like the taste, I thought Soylent was quite enjoyable and even almost addictive... I couldn't wait for my next drink. When mixed well, the texture is smooth and almost milky with hints of oats/flour in the taste. "Liquid bread," I've heard it called. It was very convenient on gym days when I forgo lunch to play basketball and work out. When I get back to my desk, I just gulp down the Soylent and get right back to work. It also makes going out to lunch with coworkers in the SF Marina district more palatable since I can save money on lunch four days in the week and "splurge" on an outside meal every once in a while ($12 mediocore pho at Saiwalks, anyone?). On our roadtrip to Disneyland, I brought along a pitcher of Soylent, which I drank instead of having to rely on crappy highway fast food for my sustenance. 

As much as I like the idea of Soylent, though, I decided to cancel my subscription. The cost per meal is roughly $3, but at $70 a month for the smallest order you can make, it's still too expensive for me. I have no problems eating on <$1 for breakfast and lunch with cereal, oatmeal, and  bananas. Also, Soylent 1.5 (once opened) spoils too easily. The powder itself goes bad after a week of opening the container and once you add water, it's only good for 48 hours. This makes it somewhat less convenient for picking which meals to replace with Soylent since you have a time limit with each batch. There were times when my wife (who wasn't a fan of the taste and texture) wanted to eat out, meaning I would have to eat out too, while my already-prepared Soylent was about to spoil. Soylent 2.0 aims to solve the issue, with a shelf life of one year in liquid form that doesn't need to be refrigerated.. While I cancelled my powder subscription, I pre-ordered the bottled version of Soylent 2.0 and will give it a try (check back with me in October when Soylent 2.0 starts to ship).

Speaking of Soylent, I don't understand the vitriol and contempt directed at Soylent and its creator. Many internet articles are trying to paint Rob Rhinehart as a loon, a cult leader, a con man, an engineer-turned-mad-scientist who likes to play god. I mean just look at the titles of some of these articles that came out in the wake of Soylent 2.0's announcement:

This is unbiased "journalism" at its best. Oh wait, it's just news on the internet. Why should we expect internet news to be held to any kind of standard, or to have anything as ridiculous as unbiased reporting or journalistic integrity? Soylent tends to draw out strong reactions from people, with very few opinions landing in the middle. These food "journalists" are revolted to their very core about the idea of Soylent, and maybe with good reason: they'd be out of the job if people stopped eating food. Again though, Soylent isn't meant to eliminate normal food in our lives, but it brings up many interesting questions about nutrition and food. I believe it's short-sighted and maybe even selfish to believe that we can continue feeding the world with the current system we have in place and never have to change our eating habits at all. If we want to tackle tough questions like sustainability, removing animal cruelty from our "civilization," world hunger, or even space travel (what do you think we're going to eat out there, beef?), we need more people to step up and offer solutions. People are always coming up with interesting ideas out there for sustainable food. For example, what if we could make burgers out of stem cells or use insects as a main food source? Instead of immediately dismissing these new ideas as crazy talk, what if we tried to see it for what it is, what its benefits and weaknesses are, and how it can be improved? If we think about food and nutrition in a logical, rational manner, maybe we'd see that our current practices are unsustainable and that we need radical thinking to get out of the hole we've dug for ourselves (like our over-dependence on meat). Or you can go back to eating what you normally eat every day, not thinking about where it came from, whether it's sustainable, and not caring about the consequences of your diet or if future generations will be able to live the same way you do.

As for me, I will continue to keep an eye on Soylent and other new food "technology" being developed. I'm all for cheap, nutritious, healthy food, and if the price of Soylent keeps going down, maybe one day Soylent or something inspired by Soylent can take a shot at alleviating the hunger problem in our world. We can dream, can't we? Go big or go home.

And now, my PROS and CONS summary of Soylent (1.5):

PRO: You save a lot of time by not having to prepare meals or go out and buy food
CON: All that time you saved and every waking moment of your life is spent thinking about Soylent, reading about Soylent, and blogging about Soylent

PRO: More time to work, exercise, goof off, or socialize during lunch
CON: Feel like a creeper for watching other people eat their lunch while you sip on Soylent

PRO: The taste and texture of Soylent 1.5 is great. I have no problems eating it without any extra flavoring, and the neutral taste means you won't get sick of it. Think of it like rice.. you don't ever get tired of it, despite it not having any taste on its own. I find blending a banana with a single serving of soylent tastes pretty good too
CON: My wife hates the taste and texture of Soylent

PRO: No changes to bowel movements or flatulence (no more than usual, I would say)
CON: I can't tell if I'm just used to the smell of my own fart now

PRO: Long shelf life if unopened
CON: Must eat within one week of opening the powder bag, and within 48 hours after mixing with water

PRO: Become the envy of all your geek friends
CON: Become shunned by all of your normal friends

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Great Asian Hope

Rarely, if ever, do we get the fairy tale, movie-like ending we want in real life. That was the case with Mayweather-Pacquiao. All the elements of a great sports film were there: the perfect villain: pompous, arrogant, and undefeated. An abusive, money-loving a-hole with pathetic sycophants (Bieber) who you wanted to see kicked off of his high perch (think Joffrey in Game of Thrones). 

Then you had the underdog, the kid from a humble background. Naive, but likeable. Goofy, but serious when it counted. If this were a movie, the final fight would've been explosive, back-and-forth, dramatic, with a surprising come-from-behind rally. The result in real life was somewhat more disappointing and the exact opposite. If you want dramatic boxing about an Asian boxer taking the world by storm, stick to the anime Hajime no Ippo

Mayweather even shed the villain routine and was actually gracious at the end when he knew the outcome was decided, leaving us with nowhere to direct our anger and disappointment. The entire fight brought about a slow realization that for whatever reason (Pacquiao thought he was winning, his injury during training, his age, or Mayweather's skill, or a combination of all of the above), Pacquiao wasn't going to pull out a miracle victory. Pacquiao is still one of the best and no one can take away what he's done over his career, but the stupid thing is that this is what people will remember of him: that he got knocked out by Marquez (in a match that he was winning until he got careless) and that Mayweather beat him in the most boring fight in the world... and that he probably won't get a rematch with either of them. 

Ever since I was a kid, I've rooted for Asian athletes in American sports. There aren't many. Remember Michael Chang? My parents loved him. Maybe there's something racist about Asians rooting for Asian athletes, but can you really blame us? Asian athletes are few and far between but it feels like when one does come along, there are lots of people who are happy to see them fail. The narrative I've taken away from my childhood is that Asians can't play sports. And there are people out there who are all to happy to reinforce this belief and tear down Asian athletes at the first chance they get. Take Yao Ming for example, who will unfortunately probably be best remembered for being blocked (fouled) by Nate Robinson. They'll remember Shaq's ching-chong comments. They won't remember the stretch of 25 games in 2006 after the All-Star break when he averaged 25.7 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. They won't remember any of his impressive playoff performances or that he had the potential to become an all-time great, had he not had so many foot injuries.

Remember Linsanity? Remember the detractors? The racial jokes? At the end of Linsanity, when they played the Miami Heat and Lebron James, he got outplayed by Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers all I can remember is a youtube video of a guy laughing and saying "See I told you he would get exposed for what he is." I was rooting for him to do well in Houston, hoping he would show up in the playoffs, but he disappeared in the Houston/OKC series, and many blame him for the loss against the Trailblazers the next year. While he's showing flashes of the Linsanity from time to time, he's disappeared in big games and he's never quite lived up to the high expectations we all had for him. He's still young though. Maybe he'll turn it around and become an All-Star. Maybe he'll still give us the storybook ending we desire.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe the enmity for Asian athletes is as widespread as I make it seem. Jeremy Lin, Yao Ming, and Pacquiao are loved by adoring fans (as evidenced by the clearly pro-Pacquiao crowd at the fight against Mayweather and the booing of Mayweather afterwards). I don't believe that this is the last we'll see of Asian athletes in American sports, but only the beginning. 

One more thing I have to say: if you were rooting for Mayweather, who has been convicted of multiple counts of domestic abuse, what does that make you? What is wrong with you? Why would a decent human being root for a person like that? Maybe we shouldn't be looking to sports for role models, because the best athletes aren't necessarily the best human beings.