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

 

Playing an Extraction mission was the order of the day for me and my fellow journalists. After kitting out my squad (with help from a new feature, which enables you to unequip all items on unselected soldiers), I loaded into what Gupta described as a “new” map. I’ll admit to being a little disappointed — the tile-set will be very familiar to anyone who played the original title, and there were few tweaks in layout that really seemed significant. The only obvious change was two EXALT “com relays,” located near the center of the map. Extraction requires players to hack each relay with their lightly armored covert operative (who starts at the far end of the map), and then exfiltrate back to the Skyranger. Killing all the enemies in the area is strictly optional.

The covert operative is unarmored and armed only with a pistol, making him or her a very squishy target. EXALT agents appeared from all sides, sporting a slightly silly pinstriped style that looks like it would be more at home in Saints Row. According to Gupta, the team tried a couple design variations, including one he compared to “Cobra Commander,” before settling on EXALT’s current look. He explained that EXALT agents were members of the general population who slink away from work to fight XCOM, which helps explain their business wear. He also pointed out their sickly skin, a sure sign of genetic modification. Elite EXALT agents would have more, but during my hands-on time, I only dealt with the basic classes: familiar archetypes that include “Heavy” and “Medic.”

After coping with some initial rust, I was soon dispatching EXALT with alacrity, though my vulnerable agent and the enemy’s unpredictable attack vectors provided a welcome challenge. Hacking the EXALT com relays leaves the masked adversaries unable to attack for a turn, a fact I tried to use to my advantage, only for my agent to fall victim to that most deadly of XCOM enemies: the exploding piece of construction equipment. “That’s XCOM!” chuckled Gupta and company.

 

A second attempt went better, thanks to a particularly deadly sniper and a new “ghost grenade” which can be used to cloak allies caught temporarily out of cover. As the agent was sprinting towards the extraction point, I noticed that non-American soldiers now spoke using the correct accents — a welcome and immersive bit of fan service.

Rather than promise huge overhauls, XCOM: Enemy Within seems to have focused on a number of careful, incremental changes, which will make it varied and diverse, while keeping the core of the original game inact. In many ways, though, the complications created by EXALT will be multiplicative, not additive — XCOM is all about balancing various priorities, and the presence of human saboteurs should lead to some fascinating tactical and strategic choices.

Can these augmentations, when joined with bits of well-executed housekeeping (new voice acting, UI tweaks, new equipment), justify the price — $29.99 on PC and $39.99 on consoles? A single Extraction mission wasn’t enough to fully sell me, but there are many other toys in Enemy Within’s new toybox. Also, given Firaxis’ stunning achievement with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the company has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt.

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