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It’s an age-old question in the videogame industry – How do you add content to a profitable game without messing with a winning formula? Firaxis developed a veritable hit with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, earning more than 13 Game of the Year awards in 2012. The spiritual successor to the turn-based tactical combat of 1994’s XCOM: UFO Defense somehow successfully paid fan service to devotees of the original while simultaneously gaining new fans on consoles and PCs alike. It was an incredible feat, and the obvious next step was to expand on the success with more XCOM turn-based goodness. But does that mean a sequel? DLC? How do you improve the game without ruining what made it great in the first place? I sat down with the Firaxis team in New York City last month and they were kind enough to let me line up my sights on some sectoids … Wait a second, these are humans my XCOM team are shooting at.

When Firaxis announced the standalone expansion Enemy Within earlier this year, Lead Designer Anada Gupta promised new classes for XCOM soldiers and a new resource called MELD. But that’s not the only acronym planned. Gupta is a Cold War history buff, and loves the cat-and-mouse gameplay of spies and counterspies, so he made damn sure those themes were going to be in the new expansion. Enter EXALT.

“I’m a Cold War nut,” Gupta told me. “I designed a Cold War board game, I love spies, espionage, cloak and dagger and stuff like that, I just love it. I knew when they said we need an expansion pack, well it’s going to have spies in it – because you’re asking me to do it it’s going to have spies in it.”

EXALT is a great addition to the humanity-versus-alien paradigm created in Enemy Unknown. The group is a secret human society – kind of like the Illuminati mixed with X-Philes – but they have completely a different and opposite goal than the XCOM program; EXALT wants to use the alien invasion to take over the world. On a strategic level, you as the commander can choose to deal with EXALT on your own time, in contrast to how alien contacts or abductions are all random.

“No matter how well you’re doing in Enemy Unknown you really don’t have initiative,” Gupta said. “You don’t control when UFOs appear, you don’t control when abductions occur, you don’t control when terror missions occur. But in the covert ops game [of contending with EXALT], you control when every covert ops mission happens – no covert ops mission happens without your wanting it to happen.”

In the situation room of XCOM base, I received word that an EXALT operation had stolen credits from the XCOM project. The surest way to piss me off is to take my money, and I was ready to take some action. The dastardly theft exposed the EXALT cell within a particular nation, and from there I had the option to send in a single XCOM soldier as a counterspy to ferret out the bad guys. You can also spend credits to scan for EXALT cells, and possibly identify other nations to send in agents, but Gupta said it’s not necessary.

Once your agent is sent off, you have to advance time in mission control just like any other event. When it comes up, you are then presented with an opportunity to perform random special extraction mission to get your guy out, and hopefully disrupt the EXALT operations in the process. These tactical missions have unique objectives, such as protecting a node from being hacked by their strike teams, or disrupting their communications.

The agent you sent in undercover is controllable on the tactical map, but they only have a pistol and limited armor. What they do have at their disposal is a special ability to hack EXALT comm relays randomly placed on one of the 12 new tactical maps in Enemy Within. Hacking the comm relays is extremely useful because it prevents EXALT units from attacking or hacking for one turn. It’s important to use these when you’re surrounded by the EXALT fancypants, because they are a challenge to defeat, even on normal difficulty.

That’s because EXALT employs forces using the same classes as your XCOM team such as support, sniper, and so on. There’s nothing worse than three EXALT heavies unloading three missiles on your poor team in the same turn, but that’s exactly what happened to me during one of the missions I played. Gupta is very proud of the new AI employed by EXALT. The enemy will delay attacking with a sniper, for example, until a heavy uses holo-targeting to increase the chance to hit.

“The AI is much smarter about the order in which its units take turns,” Gupta said. “They like to defer their medics actions so that they can see, they’ll assess the situation. Have the medic go first so he can drop smoke or have the medic go last so he can heal people.”

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I didn’t get to see any of this in the early missions I played, but Gupta tells me that, as the campaign progresses, EXALT will start using alien technology to power up its troops. You’ll start to see EXALT elites with genetic modifications similar to what you can do with MELD.

“The EXALT elite heavy, for example has a gene mod that mitigates incoming damage heavily,” said Gupta. “It’s called Iron Skin and he’s a pretty cool pick in multiplayer I think.” Speaking of multiplayer , all the EXALT units are available for use and they look pretty dang cool in their getups. Of course, other than the g-mods Gupta mentioned, there’s little difference between XCOM soldiers and EXALT. “Because the point pricing is comparable to XCOM soldiers from a similar kit I think people will use exalt for cosmetic reasons,” Gupta admitted.

The new classes of MECs or the genetically modified soldiers weren’t in my arsenal for these missions, but I did get to experiment with quite a few new items. The gas grenade is dastardly effective not only at poisoning groups of enemies, but it also lowers the accuracy of those affected. It’s essentially the gas attack of the thin man, but concentrated in grenade form. A different sort of grenade is the ghost grenade, which puts friendly units into a stealth mode, preventing them from being targeted until they attack themselves. Gupta said those were only some of the items which will make their debut in Enemy Within, and some of them are just stuff they didn’t get to complete for the first game.

“Once we gave the Thin Men the poison ability in Enemy Unknown, we said ‘We should totally do a gas grenade.’ But we didn’t really have time, the artists and the effects guys were already totally destroyed,” Gupta explained. “Then there were other things where there was stuff that we had the basic architecture for but didn’t have the time to get it nearly close to full, like the flame thrower. Proximity mines are another good example. Proximity mines are tier three tactical system for the MEC suit which originated as a grenade. We were doing a grenade with a proximity sensor and you can kind of throw it and now it’s going to be on the MEC suit in Enemy Within.”

On the strategic level, EXALT will be an annoyance to contend with alongside the alien invasion that’s “light on story, but heavy on theme.” That’s clear from the appearance of the EXALT agents, who appear as well-dressed foreign nationals. Gupta explained the members of EXALT are bankers or businessmen who are called in when needed. The speech from the opposing team is digitally distorted speech in languages other than English, which means they could be from anywhere.

In fact, that’s one of the things you must discover as the commander of XCOM; where the EXALT base is located. If you are successful in EXALT missions, you’ll get a clue as to which nation is harboring the base.

“In addition to dispersing the cell that was in the site of that covert op, EXALT intel gives a clue as to the location of the EXALT base,” Gupta said. “The clues take the forms of things like ‘the EXALT base is not in Europe’, ‘the exalt base is east of the Atlantic’, ‘the EXALT base is in a country you can play in Civilization V‘ – that was one of the last ones that I added,” he said with a smile.

Collect three clues, and you can start guessing where the base is, but you better have it right. If you are wrong, the nation immediately leaves the XCOM project. If you are right, you’ll get a chance to assault the EXALT base, and remove the silly handkerchief-wearing fools as a threat for the rest of the campaign.

As a big Enemy Unknown fan, I was very interested in whether the new features would feel like addons, or if the expansion would feel like a cheap money grab. While I didn’t get to play with the new toys of MELD, the new strategic elements of the EXALT threat were an interesting wrinkle to consider for the XCOM commander. On the tactical level, the EXALT squads I faced were worthy adversaries, testing the limits of my skills as a commander. The new objectives were also fun to grapple with, and concentrating on extracting an operative instead of just destroying all the enemies on a map was a fun departure. Yep, when it comes out on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 on November 15th, Enemy Within might just be the perfect way to expand the XCOM universe.

You know, without it being a shooter. (ZANG!)

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