At the start of most game interviews with developers, they will ask if I played their game. Most of the time, I say I have a passing knowledge of their game, but when Ananda Gupta asked me about whether I played XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the wildly successful reimagining of the turn-based strategy classic from 2012, I smiled. I finished it on Normal difficulty, I said, but none of the crazy Hardcore modes. “Well, I still respect you,” Gupta replied, my heart swelling. “That’s farther than a lot of people got on Normal.” After establishing turn-based strategy games as my jam with Gupta, he unloaded on me all the features, changes and improvements that would arrive with Enemy Within when it drops in November.
“We’ve added two major new ways to improve the capabilities of your soldiers,” Gupta said. “There are four classes in the original [Enemy Unknown], now there are five. The new class is the MEC Trooper. The MEC Trooper is a cybernetic soldier, you build a cybernetic lab, in your base, which you then can use to convert your other soldiers, your regular soldiers into MEC Troopers.” The MEC – which stands for Mechanized Exoskeletal Cybersuit – can be upgraded with new weapons like a flamethrower or a grenade launcher, and it follows its own ability progression. “The MEC starts with a mini-gun and gets even better.”
Other than the MEC, you can enhance your soldiers with what you learn from performing autopsies on alien corpses. “You can also build a genetics lab in your base that lets you genetically modify your soldiers using the results of your alien autopsy research to give your soldiers these otherworldly new powers,” Gupta said.
Both the MEC class and genetically altering your soldiers requires a new resource called MELD, which works differently than the rest of the resources in Enemy Unknown. MELD is hidden in canisters on each tactical map in the game, and the player has to explore to find it. When each match begins, a timer starts and the MELD canisters will explode after a certain number of turns.
“For players who have settled into a very conservative play style in which they maximize their soldiers’ safety and they only use the best cover,” Gupta said, “that will hinder you from recovering the most Meld.” You have to be a bit more reckless if you want to get the most resources. I wondered if that meant, especially on high difficulties, whether players would be shut out of the interacting with the new MECs or genetic modifications. After all, sometimes the only way to stay alive on Impossible was to move very, very cautiously.
Of course, Gupta thought of that too. “MELD is placed on the map in a semi random way, each map will have two canisters and those canisters can spawn on different places on the map,” he explained. “Each map has a bunch of slightly easier locations and a bunch of hard locations and we always make sure that one canister is in the easy location and one is in a hard location. That way, even players who maintain that conservative style won’t be completely shut out of MELD.
“We didn’t want to tell players, ‘Oh, well you have no choice but to change your play style.’ We just wanted to give you an extra reason to maybe reach a little,” Gupta said.
Speaking of maps, there are a lot of new locations for missions to occur in Enemy Within. Even the old maps will feel new because MELD canisters will be hidden in random locationson them. “One of the things that our fans really wanted was a whole host of new maps and that’s what we’ve done. I think we’ve increased the map count, when it’s all said and done, by about fifty percent,” he said. “The MELD canisters show up not just on the new maps but also on the core maps from Enemy Unknown. So players who play Enemy Within will still, even when they see a map that they’d seen before like gas station or fast food or whatever, they will still have to engage with the problem of MELD and whether to go grab it.”
New equipment available for your soldiers also adds more decision making to how you kit out your squad. “Players always got accustomed to ‘My sniper always has a scope, my assault always has a nano-fiber vest, my support always has a med kit.’ We’re hoping that players will be tempted to branch out a little now that we’ve added a bunch of new items,” Gupta said. “We hope players will have fun figuring out lots of new builds and experimenting with some new play styles with those new items.”
With all this new firepower, it stands to reason there would be some extra bad meanies to fight. “I told you about the MECtoid, right?” Gupta asked. “No, I haven’t told you about the MECtoid. Okay, so we’re adding some new enemies, one of which is the MECtoid. You remember the Sectoid from the early game, right? He will show up later in the game now as a MECtoid, he’s a Sectoid in a power battle suit very similar to your own MECs. He’s much more dangerous and tough and I expect players will have a lot of fun figuring out how best to fight him.” There’s more enemies which will be unveiled as we get closer to release, and I’m sure Gupta will be just as gleeful in discussing how it will kill my poor band of soldiers.
One thing that bothered a lot of players was that XCOM recruits from Spain, or Greece or Russia all somehow spoke English with an American accent (or the equivalent in your localized region). Ananda and the team at Firaxis had a brilliant way to make XCOM project feel like the global organization it was supposed to be. “What we decided to do was reorganize the voice data so that all the localized languages are available no matter what language you installed it,” Gupta said. “Assuming you install in English, you have French, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian and Polish as available languages for your soldiers. They can all speak different languages; you can have your whole squad speak Spanish if you want. It’s up to you, and that we feel will really make XCOM feel like the international game that it’s always been intended to feel like.”
It was also a slick way to avoid recording and localizing actors speaking different languages in specific accents. “They’ll just speak French because we have them speaking French already [in the French localized version of XCOM Enemy Unknown],” he said. “It was just an engineering problem, admittedly it was a pretty big engineering problem, but it was one we were able to solve.”
Multiplayer was a bit frustrating in Enemy Unknown, but Gupta made a few changes there too. There’s more than double the amount of maps, for one thing, but now you can actually alter your squad offline without having the pressure of someone waiting for you to begin playing. “Multiplayers can edit, save, tinker with, optimize many different squad configurations while offline, and then when they go to the lobby, you have all these loadouts, these configurations in sort of a menu and you can just pick the one you want and go right in [to the match],” Gupta said. “This is something that multiplayer fans really wanted because they were really getting tired of editing their squads while in the lobby and their opponents waiting for them.”
Even though that seems like a huge info briefing on what’s to come when Enemy Within launches on November 12th, Gupta promises there will be more information leaked in the coming months. Like any decent commander, I will be gathering all this intel so I have a fighting chance when the alien invasion happens on my PC all over again.