Cloak & Laser — Hands-on With XCOM: Enemy Within

 

As the stakes in the video game business get higher and higher, the developers chosen to show off preview gameplay get more polished, and more unctuous. At an XCOM: Enemy Within preview event in San Francisco, designer Ananda Gupta was a welcome contrast, radiating wonky, warm enthusiasm for the gameplay on show and leading his colleagues in a chorus of “that’s XCOM!” every time one of the assembled journalists missed a seemingly unmissable shot.

Firaxis’ Enemy Within expansion offers a raft of new gameplay features, including Mech Troopers for the good guys, and new alien types for the bad. That said, the day’s demo was focused squarely on EXALT, a new faction in the XCOM fiction that will complicate humanity’s fight for survival.

Depicted as nefarious trans-humanists who want to take over the world with the help of unbridled genetic modification, EXALT is decidedly ambivalent about the alien invasion, and hopes to use it to further its own ends. Thriving on chaos, the group’s members adapt alien technology and chip away at XCOM’s defensive efforts.

According to Gupta, fans asked for more from the game’s strategy layer after the release of the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The designer and his team were happy to oblige, drawing on Gupta’s obsession with Cold War spy fiction to create a shadowy force that XCOM commanders will have to monitor closely if they hope to succeed. EXALT creates hidden cells that can sabotage XCOM earnings, increase panic by disseminating propaganda, or hack into research databases to impede progress.

 

At an early point in the game, players can spend accumulated currency to scan for EXALT cells. If one is revealed, they can then chose to send a single soldier on a Covert Ops mission, outfitting him or her in a smart civilian outfit, complete with messenger bag. As with most decisions in XCOM, this opens up a number of interesting tactical choices: What class is best able to act alone? Which soldiers are worth risking on such a dangerous mission?

After some time is passed, this operative must then be extracted. If the extraction is successful, players are rewarded with information that helps narrow down the location of the main EXALT base. This takes the form of a logic puzzle — think tidbits like “the EXALT base is in an English-speaking country.” Eventually, players can launch a full-out assault on the location they deduce. Guess wrong, though, and the consequences could be disastrous.

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