XCOM 2 got upgraded with a brand new downloadable content (DLC) pack recently so I thought it timely to take a look at something you may not immediately associate with a game focused on human to alien combat - how it advanced the Zombie genre. Now, for those of you who have been living in complete isolation from the living, fearing and preparing for the doom that will follow the inevitable Zombie uprising, XCOM 2 is the sequel to the hit game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, winner of the prestigious VGX award for best PC game in 2012. In a nutshell, aliens invaded Earth and it was up to the player, taking command of a newly formed planetary defence outfit known as XCOM, to thwart this evil threat. XCOM 2 takes things to a disturbing new level by imaging a terrifying world where the player failed in their mission, the Earth now under merciless alien rule. Again taking command of XCOM (the scattered remnants of it, at least) in an extremely challenging resistance, the player must do nothing less than save the entire human race, liberating our home planet from these extraterrestrial aggressors.
Part of the alien force is Sectoids - the stereotypical shaven-monkey aliens of diminutive stature, a large head and large, oval-shaped, jet-black eyes. Sectoid Commanders (psionically enhanced Sectoids with "magic" powers) had the ability to mind control XCOM soldiers - essentially, to make them enemies that the computer, playing as the alien race, could control. This was a devastating power as it turned your own man against you; all the weaponry, all the armament, all the combat-training you had tirelessly given that soldier were not simply gone - a terror own its own right - but were freely given to the enemy, for them to use on the other members of your team. I lost many a great and honourable soldier to this friendly-fire made hostile. The only way mind-control could be broken once established, was to terminate the Sectoid Commander - not always an easy task, despite their small size.
In XCOM 2, this dreaded "possession" problem becomes a whole lot worse.
The mantra for the sequel to the award-winning first game is evolution; each enemy having evolved since the original invasion of Earth, Sectoids included. These, once diminutive aliens have grown to almost man height, the pigment of their skin has changed from solid grey to a more terrestrial pink, hardening in the process and the psionic abilities of the Commanders have been inherited by all Sectoids - mind-control no longer the horrific plaything of late-game units. However, this time it was not only the soldiers that could be mind-controlled but also, the dead. Any fallen XCOM operative, humanoid enemy soldier or civilian that had fallen in battle could be resurrected and remotely controlled by the despicable Sectoids. Reanimated dead people walking around, single-mindedly attacking living humans without remorse? Yup, that's a Zombie. And since the Zombie had been reanimated by psionic powers (aka magic), the term Psi-Zombie was invented.
© Purple - the colour of psionics | Ninja Blues
A Psi-Zombie is essentially a dead, fleshy human shell, with no emotion or self-motivation. The only reason this walking corpse is not a fallen sack of decaying meat is that it has, through some psychic power beyond normal understanding, been reanimated by a Sectoid - a nasty, overgrown insect-like alien. The mind of a Psi-Zombie and, therefore, its actions are controlled completely by the Sectoid that resurrected it - severing the 'mind-connection' by terminating the Sectoid will cause the Psi-Zombie to not simply return to a fetid pile of flesh-covered bones, but disintegrate entirely. Curiously the actions of a Psi-Zombie seem limited to moving in an awkward shuffle, falling through closed windows and swinging a single arm down in front of them like a club, causing harm to anyone who does not dodge the blow. However, where necessary, Psi-Zombies have been seen to climb both ladders and vertical pipes, showing agility almost to the level of a living being.
Still, a Psi-Zombie is very unlike the modern idea of a Zombie - it has no desire (I use the word in its lightest possible sense) to bite living people or to feed on warm flesh, no ability to spread a disease and turn other life into walking death, it does not require a bullet to the brain to kill and it was not created through some biological agent, be it accidental nuclear contamination or an escaped pathogen from a failed experiment. However, while a Psi-Zombie is not what we 21st century beings would associate with a Zombie - beside from the whole walking dead thing - it does have more in common with standard Zombie mythology than you may think. The keen brains of the Zombie genre reading this may have already gauged that the creation of the living dead through psionics harkens back to the old days when Zombies were 'birthed' through myth and magic, but the root goes deeper than this.
A "Voodoo Zombie" is the name I'm giving all Zombies raised by the apparent Voodoo magic of old, extremely prevalent in Louisiana and Haiti. They were the first Zombies - the mostly harmless, seemingly resurrected corpses that came before all the horror and biting. It was not really magic that created them, although it was made to seem that way by Bokors - the Voodoo priests who carried out these bizarre and very real rituals (oh yes, "Voodoo Zombies" do, or rather did, exist) certainly tried to keep the unknown fear in the Zombie creation process.
© "Voodoo Zombies" did exist | Classically Educated
To create a "Voodoo Zombie" a Bokor would first 'inject' someone still alive with a special "Zombie Powder" - a diabolical mixture of things that differed from region to region, almost always containing a strong drug or toxin to slow the heartbeat and give the appearance of death such as Tetrodotoxin. Quite how this 'injection' was done is not known but, you would guess, the party given the powder was never made aware of the action. Anyway, after the powder had done its work, the targeted individual would be pronounced dead by a local doctor - he or she is not actually dead, the Bokor just wants everyone, including the victim, to believe the victim is dead. Now, because we are back in the old times before morgues and refrigeration to keep dead bodies from rotting, burial took place almost immediately, especially in the hot, third-world countries that Voodoo was common. So, after the burial of the apparently dead individual, sometime late at night, the tricksy Bokor would sneak to the burial site and dig up the 'not quite dead' corpse. The drugs in the "Zombie Powder" would have, or should have, worn off by this point. It was then merely a matter of waiting for the 'corpse' to wake up - of course, some of the 'injected' individuals did not wake up, actually being dead, presumably from being dosed with too high a concentration of "Zombie Powder" but no one really cares if a person they believe dead, dies for real. Assuming that the unlucky soul does recover from the effects of the dreaded "Zombie Powder", they have just woken from a state very near death, in the middle of the night, in a place they probably do not recognise (or worse, recognise as a burial ground), have limited memory of recent events and find themselves standing in their own grave with a crazy-looking shaman they have never seen before leering over them. This cacophony of confusion is enough to break even the sanest of minds - that risen individual is going to believe, and do, exactly what that scary man says. That's what the initial Zombies were; not actual walking undead that feasted on human flesh but simple brainwashed slaves, often sold to wealthy landowners to work mindlessly and without rest on plantations until their bodies simply gave out from under them.
To me, the creation process of "Voodoo Zombies" exactly mimics that of Psi-Zombies. Firstly there's the application of "Zombie Powder" by the Bokor - the initiation of the mind-control tether by the Sectoid (alright, the target is fully dead in XCOM 2 whereas they are are fully alive at this point in Voodoo culture but the principle still stands). You've then got the random chance of the person infected with the "Zombie Powder" waking up after the toxin mimicking death has worn off, mirroring the crapshoot as to whether mind-control is successful (in the case of an unmoving corpse, unable to dodge and having no Will to attempt to refute the mental assault, failure is rare). What is absolutely the same though is the forced slavery of the victim. In both scenarios the unfortunate human or walking corpse is shackled into doing the bidding of others, the only difference being the manner of those shackles.
XCOM 2 is a game all about the terrible and catastrophic aftermath of the human race losing an alien invasion - on the surface, nothing to do with a Zombie apocalypse or an uncontrolled outbreak of the living dead. However, quite unexpectedly, it manages to advance the Zombie genre, pushing the decaying heathens into the future. This article explains just how it achieves this remarkable accolade while also explaining why the genre is not really advanced at all, the walking dead mythology brought back to its undying roots.