XCOM: Enemy Within Lead Designer Talks MELD

Cybernetics Lab

Lead Designer Ananda Gupta discusses the new resource, MELD, with The Escapist.

When I heard there was another XCOM in the works I was more than a little excited. I maintain that XCOM is the greatest videogame ever made, and the 2012 XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a faithful enough interpretation of the original to garner my Game of the Year nomination for last year. I have to assume that they’ve made Enemy Within, which is slated for a November 12th launch in N.A. – the 15th elsewhere – in an effort to get this year’s nomination as well. Based on my experience with the demo, I have to say, it’s definitely in the running.

I had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Ananda Gupta, XCOM: Enemy Within‘s Lead Designer, about the latest tool in Earth’s fight against marauding aliens, MELD. First things first, of course, what exactly is MELD? “Meld is a suspension of nanomachines whose purpose is to fuse organic and inorganic materials,” said Gupta. “It’s a tool used by the Ethereals to create monsters like the Floater, and to boost the already-fearsome Mutons.” MELD is actively being used by the aliens in their ongoing human experiments. With that setup, it’s easy to understand why MELD starts showing up from the get go in Enemy Within. “Meld will be in the game from the first map,” confirmed Gupta, “if you recover Meld on your first mission, it’ll be one of the very first research projects you have access to.” MELD Recombination research should become available around the same time as Weapon Fragments or Alien Materials, which you get pretty much immediately.
With an idea of what MELD is, I was particularly curious to know just how it interacted with soldiers to allow for genetic modification. “Dr. Vahlen’s team discovers that MELD can be used to insert sequences of alien DNA into humans, giving them some of the abilities of that alien,” responded Gupta, “For example, the muscle fiber density of the Thin Man can be copied to give soldiers the ability to leap huge heights. Dissecting a Chryssalid allows you to learn the secrets of bioelectric skin.” So, in short, as you perform alien autopsies, you get access to their individual DNA, which opens up avenues for genmodding your troops with various abilities. From my understanding, these modifications are similar to skill trees, so you can choose one of two modifications for several body parts, like legs, eyes, etc. You won’t be able to create a genmod soldier with every modification, but you’ll get to customize your soldiers as you need for a given mission.

One thing that really worried me about MELD is the timer on collecting the resource. If you played Enemy Unknown, you’ll be familiar with the concept from the bomb disarm missions, where you had a specific number of turns to disable a number of bombs scattered around the map. MELD will be similar, in that you have to collect it before the timer expires, else it goes away. The burning question here is, “Why?” It could just as easily have been implemented like Alloy or Elerium, with passive collection. “Meld containers on timers were introduced, in part, as a way to reward players for taking a bolder approach to tactical missions,” said Gupta, mentioning that move/Overwatch strategies had taken some of the dynamism out of missions. “We wanted to give players a reward for breaking out of this safest strategy, and access to this resource which is helpful, but not required, turned out to be a very effective way to do that.” The narrative explanation isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it’s better than a random timer without justification, at least. “The idea is that the aliens view Meld as a valuable resource, and so the canisters have self-destruct timers that can prevent unauthorized elements (read: XCOM) from getting their hands on it,” Gupta explained.

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With all that out of the way, we were also curious about the impact of the new enemies on expected player tactics. The Mechtoid you may have heard about. It’s just a Sectoid in power armor. I use the term “just” loosely here, since it’s seriously a force to be reckoned with. The Seeker is the most recently announced new enemy, which sticks to the shadows, and tries to pick off lone squaddies. With the Seeker stalking the shadows and targeting stragglers, keeping a Sniper with Squad Sight all alone in the back might not be the best approach anymore. I suppose that means my Sniper will no longer get 50% or more of all kills, but it should spice up the gameplay a bit, at least. “The Seeker appears early in the campaign; its role is to provide a more assassin-style, hit and run alien with a scary main ability (Strangle),” said Gupta, “The Seeker’s tactical impact takes the form of player paranoia – since Seekers can use stealth, and prefer to attack isolated targets while the rest of the squad is occupied with other enemies, they can really throw a wrench into the player’s tactical routine.” Now humans just adopted MELD for their own purposes, remember? The aliens have been using it for a while and have already adapted mech armor for their foot soldiers. “Mechtoids introduce an interesting combination with Sectoids, since the Mind Merge ability grants a Mechtoid a Psi Shield,” Gupta explained, “Killing a Mechtoid with an intact Psi Shield is pretty difficult, and Mechtoids can dish out a lot of damage.” Having played the demo at PAX this year, I can attest to this fact. It is supremely difficult to take out a shielded Mechtoid, as they have a ton of health already, and the shield is sizeable. Taking out the Sectoid performing the Mind Merge, however, can be a devastating blow to the recipient. Like the Sectoid on Sectoid Merge, taking out the alien performing the Mind Merge will deal a good chunk of damage to the receiver. Just be careful not to put yourself in harm’s way in the process. Mechtoids hit hard.
It’s hard to look at MEC Troopers and not think of the SHIV units from Enemy Unknown. They’re both mechanical in nature, act like a tank for your party, and can even, in some circumstances, offer mobile cover for your troops. It turns out, however, that MEC Troopers are not meant to be a more heavily utilized replacement for SHIVs. “SHIVs certainly have a role to play, and are great if you find yourself in a situation where you’re suddenly forced to put a lot of rookies out in the field,” Gupta explained, “Many of the new Foundry projects in [Enemy Within] that benefit MECs also benefit SHIVs.” He describes MEC Troopers as an “all-in approach,” since they’re so costly to create. If you want to max out a whole squad of MEC troopers, you’re going to be in it for the long haul. “while it is possible to get multiple high-level MEC Troopers, it’s very expensive and time consuming,” he said, “If you want to broadly distribute the benefits of Meld around your squad, then Genemods are the way to go.” This suggests that you’re most likely going to want to focus on one or two MEC Troopers for your squad, and go with genetic modification for the rest of your soldiers. If you find yourself low on MELD and high on Rookies for your next mission, SHIVs might still be the way to go.

Finally, we discussed multiplayer. I wasn’t personally that fond of the Enemy Unknown multiplayer component, but it was a fun enough diversion for a battle or two. “All our Meld-related gameplay elements are available in multiplayer. Since multiplayer is essentially a tactical sandbox, you’re free to combine Genemod soldiers with Mechtoids on a team if you would like,” Gupta mentioned, “We have a whole collection of MEC suit templates to use in multiplayer, and MEC Troopers of varying rank and skill sets to wear them.”

Keep an eye out for our review of XCOM: Enemy Within around its November 12 launch!

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