Xcom: Enemy Within

Xcom: Enemy Within - Exalt Hands-On

Following the Gamescom reveal of MECs and genetically modified soldiers, we went to find out more about the other new edition to Xcom: Enemy Within, the shadowy organisation called Exalt.

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Occasionally I still think back to the exploits of my soldiers in what was my first play through of Xcom: Enemy Unknown. The attachment I developed to my troopers was due in no small part to the inclusion of permadeath, and the ability to name my operatives. However, the real connection came down to the fact that over time, and in the wake of surviving perilous missions on the frontline of humanity's battle against the encroaching alien threat, I was able to grow and develop my soldiers via specialisations and skill trees, moulding them into a fighting force that served my individual approach to battlefield tactics.

It's here that Xcom: Enemy Within looks to have made the most significant changes, bringing in robotic MEC units and genetically modified soldiers. Players will have more options in combat, and new enemies to tackle. All of these tactical changes were detailed at Gamescom (you can read our preview here), but that's not what we were called to 2K's offices to see. We were there to find out more about the new layer of strategy being added to the Xcom mix.

The major ingredient is Exalt, an organisation more shadowy than Xcom, working to hinder the player's battle against the alien invasion. They're not in cahoots with the little grey men, but at the same time they're definitely not allies. Their goal is to intercept alien technology before Xcom - you - can get ahold of it.

Xcom: Enemy Within
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Exalt do this by setting up cells in various countries around the world. The higher the difficulty setting, the more frequency these human adversaries will find chinks in your armour, sniffing out weakness, exploiting situations for their benefit. They join the game in the month of May (although when in the month comes down to the difficulty selected by the player).

Cells can be located via scans made on the world map in the Situation Room. Once they appear players must then select a soldier and send them behind enemy lines to extract data regarding this threat. When away on one of these assignments, should an enemy craft crash land and require dealing with, of course the agent sent to deal with Exalt won't be available for selection.

Once the duration of the mission has run its course (the example we were shown lasted six days), it's up to the player to tackle an extraction mission, pulling their soldier out of harms way along with the information they've secured. These missions come in two different forms. The first is Data Recovery, a variant of king of the hill, whereby players must first protect an encoder that hides the presence of a data transmitter, repelling waves of Exalt troops. Your opponent needs to control the area surrounding the encoder for three turns, and you should you fail to stop them, the attention of both forces turns to the transmitter.

Xcom: Enemy Within
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It takes another three turns of control within the boundary wrapped around the transmitter for the Exalt forces to take the battle, but if you can hold them back and withstand the waves of attacking troops (wiping them out in the process), the data is secured and the match is won.

Players can make their lives much easier during these battles by taking advantage of one of the powers granted to the operative (who joins the extraction squad in battle, but only with a pistol), whereby they can destroy enemy transmitters and reduce their offensive capabilities. Disabling them stops Exalt troops from using their primary weapons for a limited time, although they can still use grenades (as I found out to my cost).

The second mode that will challenge players is Extraction, and these are simpler affairs. In these missions players just have to disable two of the aforementioned enemy transmitters and then make their way to the extraction zone, all while waves of Exalt troops appear from all sides of the maps hellbent on stopping your team from escaping. While the threat of permadeath continues to loom over your squad, they're expendable to a point, but if your operative should fall, the mission is failed.

What is most significant, from a gameplay perspective at least, is the fact that these Exalt soldiers are human, and in many ways mirror the skills of your own soldiers. Lead Designer Anada Gupta described it as giving players "a taste of their own medicine", just after a rocket attack dealt massive damage to three of my troops that I had clustered too closely together. I lost that first mission badly (in my defence, I had - perhaps unwisely - picked a very hard mission to start off with), but luckily there was enough time to go back and try again. Actually, I had time to tackle three more missions. One of them crashed to desktop mid-game, although I was well on top, but the other two went by the book and were successfully completed (although I did lose more troops than I'd have liked, but then again, they weren't mine, and I'm sure I'd have taken more care of them had I spent time developing their abilities over the course of a campaign).

Xcom: Enemy WithinXcom: Enemy Within

This tactical mirror held up to the player presents a very different challenge to that of the alien menace. Exalt soldiers fight as a unit, and make decisions akin to those that are made by players, and their arsenal of weapons presents a different range of challenges for players to overcome. We've not had a chance to see how these missions "feel" when presented in amongst the traditional alien-centric skirmishes, but we suspect that they'll provide a nice change of pace for those taking on a campaign. While Exalt might not be able to take advantage of genetic-engineering to the same extent as Xcom, their troops will still improve over the course of the campaign. It's also worth noting that in the missions we played, there were lots of them. What they lack in individual strength they make up for in numbers. They arrive in squads of three, from all corner of the maps, and so players will have to be mindful of being outflanked during the latter stages of missions.

"The Exalt uses squad tactics in a way that the aliens don't," Gupta explained to us after our hands-on time with the expansion. "We're all very proud of the AI undermining Exalt, how they balance their objective with killing you. Sometimes you see Exalt soldiers pass up good shots in order to get into the objective areas. They use explosives cleverly. They use defensive smoke. Their snipers seek out height advantage. They use medi-kits to heal other Exalt units. Their heavies like to use holo-targeting early in the turn. I think that kind of ability combo-ing is something that is new to Exalt behavior and I think players will enjoy grappling with it. But in terms of the way that Exalt behaves on the strategy layer, they definitely are opportunistic, especially on a higher difficulty level, where they will pinpoint places that... when they're deciding where to place the cells they will definitely try to choose places that are of maximum inconvenience."

Another major inclusion will be the injection of many new maps. Firaxis underestimated the amount of missions that players would tackle in a campaign (they thought 25-30, but actually it's more like 30-35), and maps were being reused more regularly than they would have liked, and so the studio are addressing this with a number of new environments for players to battle through. This time around they're going for quantity over quality, although I don't mean this in a negative way - they'll simply be reusing assets to create new locations, rather than focussing their efforts on creating more differentiated environments. I honestly don't think this will be a problem; the vast majority of players will likely be pleased to have more unique maps, even if the cost is a bit of recycling.

As far as Exalt goes, the eventual endgame is fighting off their advances, before tracking them down and eliminating their base, though we'll have to see how this'll play out in the campaign, and where it'll figure in the timeline. Along the way they'll be a thorn in our sides, running Propaganda and Sabotage missions against us. They're a sinister bunch, and fighting against them provides a nice change of pace to what we're used to. Throw in the inclusion of little tweaks like the "Make Items Available" button (all items carried by troops not in your currently selected squad are made available - which should save plenty of time when equipping your soldiers before battle), and languages specific to troops on the ground (before soldiers would talk in the language of the game, here they'll talk in their mother tongue), and you've got an appetising expansion. And, of course, there's the new MECs and genetically modified super-soldiers which I haven't really touched on here. All in all, Xcom fans have got plenty to look forward to when Enemy Within launches next month.

Xcom: Enemy Within

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