XCOM: Enemy Within turns your agents into undercover spies

In August, 2K announced XCOM: Enemy Within, a "Firaxis-style" expansion loaded with new weapons, items, maps and ways for players to ramp up the tactical aspects of last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In a recent hands-on demo, the company revealed more additions to the game's strategy, including more resources and new mission types — along with a perilous new enemy.

It's difficult to describe Enemy Within's new tools and tricks without first introducing the narrative addition: EXALT, an underground paramilitary organization with "misguided sympathies" for the alien invaders, as lead designer Anada Gupta described it to Polygon.

EXALT members are intent on acquiring the same alien technology and artifacts that are critical to XCOM's efforts, but want this technology to help them assume what they feel is their rightful place as rulers of the world. The arrival of the alien menace was seen as an opportunity for them to rise up — and since they have already been waiting for years, maybe decades, to make a move, they don't mind if a couple million people have to die to make their dream a reality.

Gupta said he takes "special pride" in the EXALT storyline, pitting humanity against humanity in an agonizing tug-of-war for resources, control and survival.

"They want that alien technology, those genetic modifications," Gupta said. "And we — XCOM — are fighting for the same resources. XCOM and EXALT are in direct opposition."

Something I immediately noticed about the EXALT forces was their dress code: starched white suits and orange ties, black slacks and sleek shoes. These guys weren't exactly dressed for combat with grenades and face-melting laser beams. Why make them so dapper?

"These guys were sitting in their offices at the bank, at the PR agency, or whatever, and then the call comes..."

"We went through a number of design iterations for the EXALT; we tried cobra-style with weird night vision goggles and webbing, urban camp stuff, all of that," Gupta explained. "We said, 'Okay we can ship this...' but it didn't really communicate what we wanted to about EXALT.

"We wanted to communicate two things with how they looked," he said. "One, that these guys fighting for EXALT, they're not soldiers — you are fighting the believers themselves. And two, it's a covert ops system. These guys were sitting in their offices at the bank, at the PR agency, or whatever, and then the call comes ... and they stand up, go to the closet, push the button, put on the bandanas, and go.

"EXALT have day jobs; they fight as part of a secret society. They are like the Illuminati. These are people that you could have been standing next to on the street and you didn't know they were a part of this power-mad group bent on ruling the world."

Pitting humans against their own kind also fits within the "enemy within" narrative. Gupta said that it would make sense that not everyone would react to an alien invasion the same way. XCOM took their route; EXALT is taking their own.

"Some might see it as an opportunity rather than a threat, and we wanted to capture that," he said. "You [XCOM] are the good guys, but not everyone else on earth is the good guys. We wanted to have this shadow war going on at the same time as the alien invasion. It's very cloak-and-dagger with EXALT."

So while taking out the aliens, XCOM commanders must also find a way to disrupt EXALT's activities. And it's not just for a one-off mission; players will be facing down suit-and-tie-clad EXALT soldiers on more than half of the game's maps.

EXALT will place cells around the world, pockets of espionage nestled deep in the heart of the Council's countries, biding their time to burst out and take over. These cells will chip away at XCOM operations unless found and destroyed, spreading propaganda to increase panic in different regions or hacking into XCOM's research databases and credit reserves.

As players complete missions, they will gather more intel on EXALT and clues as to where the group's headquarters are located. To defeat them permanently, players must find and destroy their core HQ, but the search comes with its own risks.

"Clues can be like, 'The exalt base is not in Europe," or, 'The exalt base is not in an English-speaking country,'" Gupta explained. "It's a little bit Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

"We want you to think before you hit the button."

Once players obtain three clues, they can start guessing in which country the EXALT core might be. But if you choose the wrong country, the accused will withdraw from the Council, leaving you down an ally. And they will want nothing to do with you afterwards.

"We want you to think before you hit the button," Gupta said. "EXALT is being dealt with at the same time as the alien invasion. We want players to feel the need to get rid of EXALT right now."

The aliens are still the main threat to the XCOM universe, but the addition of EXALT poking around your turf when you're trying to take down alien hordes adds another layer of strategy: who do you go after first?

There are two new Covert Operations mission types players can use against EXALT: Covert Extraction and Covert Data Recovery. In the Covert Operations systems, players can go directly after EXALT cells by pinpointing them on a world map displaying Council countries. Exposed cells appear as glowing yellow circles, and if those are dealt with right away, they can disappear (after doing a hefty amount of damage to that country) and crop up again in another country. Hidden cells can be flushed out using the Intel Scan tool, which costs money but it's worth nipping EXALT issues in the bud before they get out of hand.

When launching a Covert Operation, players pick one lone soldier to send out to take care of business. They get no armor and can only carry one item and a pistol. An additional item slot can be unlocked later in Enemy Within, however, which significantly ups your operative's chance of surviving the mission. The soldier goes off undercover to disrupt the cell and will need a decent chunk of in-game time to accomplish it. When he or she is done, the game will prompt you to do one of two things: ignore them, losing the operative forever, or send an extraction squad.

In a demo I played, I chose to rescue the poor sucker and send a squad to help him in a Covert Data Recovery mission. These Covert Operations missions will cover a whole range of new maps — a 50 percent increase in maps from Enemy Unknown. Some of the Unknown maps have been repurposed and tweaked with Enemy Within's goodies, but some are brand new. All maps that use Enemy Within's systems will absolutely include meld, the new alien resource that allows XCOM (and EXALT) to utilize alien technology.

"The addition of meld forces players to be more aggressive when moving across maps," Gupta explained. "You have to go gather that resource."

Xcom_ew_exalt_covertops_screen4

All maps have an encoder that, when hacked, will point the way to a transmitter. EXALT wants these transmitters, but XCOM can't let them get that far. If EXALT members are in the projected radius of an encoder for three turns, they will hack it and determine the transmitter's location. As these turns go by, players will have a tough decision to make: hang back and try to take EXALT out or preemptively try to find and protect the transmitters.

That Covert Ops agent you sent out in the beginning is not required to make it out of the mission alive in order for XCOM to succeed. The agent can be used to hack transponders, which will jam EXALT's standard weapons and communications for one turn. There are a handful of transponders on each map, so players can send their agent from transponder to transponder waiting for the right moment to jam the works.

Once an XCOM solider enters the encoder radius, EXALT will keep hacking it until all of its agents are booted out of the radius. But they'll do anything to get back at that encoder and will likely take a few tactical risks — such as coming out of cover — which players will be able to exploit.

One thing is for certain, though: players will never encounter both aliens and EXALT on any map at the same time. However, Gupta noted that a "three-sided fight" is technically possible, where players can build squads mixed of EXALT, XCOM and aliens in multiplayer mode.

In Covert Extraction missions, players will enter a "king of the hill" showdown on maps with a set of transponders that need to be hacked. There will be four on each map, but two will be marked as the ones XCOM agents must hit. EXALT can attack and capture one and it won't be a big deal, but if they manage to capture the second, it's game over. Players will want to push back and grab both, and a trusty Covert Ops agent will be on site to hack them and muck up EXALT's efforts. You don't have to kill all EXALT enemies, but you do have to keep your agent alive and get him off the map once he's hacked the two designated transponders.

Enemy Within also features a handful of new items and solider upgrades. A Ghost Grenade will give a temporary stealth boost to all friendly units in blast radius, making them invisible for one turn. Attacks done in this stealth mode will receive a substantial bonus in critical chance, but Seekers and units with Mimetic Skin will still be able to see you. Gas Grenades radiate the same toxis gas as the Thin Men aliens, and can poison EXALT troops that aren't immune for up to three turns, dealing one point of damage each turn and adding on an aim penalty.

Xcom_ew_exalt_covertops_screen7

There are also more goodies for g-mods, including nine new armor decos and new stat boosts. Adaptive Bone Marrow will allow a g-mod to heal themselves between turns if damage is taken, and the Depth Perception boost will make a g-mod solider 50 percent more powerful when attacking from higher ground.

There are also a number of easter egg items from the The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, including the ability to put fedoras on your soldiers. But some other additions, like the steepening of the leveling curve, are less about fun and more about giving players time to develop their soldiers.

"We steepened the XP curve so your soldiers will rank up more slowly," Gupta explained. "We decided it wasn't as important to ramp up really quickly, and endgame soldiers are already incredibly powerful. We wanted the death of a more highly ranked soldier matter more."

"We needed a strategy gameplay layer or feature that allowed the player to control the tempo."

When XCOM: Enemy Within drops on Nov. 12, Gupta hopes players will realize the addition of EXALT is not to give them more busy work, but to give them a game element completely within their control.

"The EXALT stuff really is the closest to my heart," Gupta said. "I knew I wanted to do Covert Ops missions, and we needed a strategy gameplay layer or feature that allowed the player to control the tempo.

"Fighting EXALT is a fencing match," he added. "You have the choice whether to expose them, what to do about them, where and how often to go after them. You control the ebb and flow of the campaign against EXALT much more than you do against the aliens. It was something players were looking for; they wanted something where they could take the initiative rather than simply waiting for the aliens to do things and deciding what to do about those things."

XCOM: Enemy Unknown already has a scaled-down port on iPad, with select features removed due to the tablet's technical limitations. Gupta said bringing the content from Enemy Within to the iPad version will ultimately be determined by 2K and their mobile strategy moving forward. But will 2K also continue to support XCOM: Enemy Unknown with more large expansions like Enemy Within?

"At this point, we're agile enough that we can make that decision depending on what the players want," Gupta said. "Nothing is planned yet, but if Enemy Within's attachment is high, we know the phone will ring and it'll be 2K and it'll be, 'So, how about XCOM content!'"

When asked about a possible special edition of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its add-ons on next-generation consoles, Gupta said that is also entirely up to 2K. But a next-gen port of Enemy Unknown would require building the game all over again with the latest Unreal Engine — work that isn't in the cards right now.

"2K has an overall strategy to manage the transition of the console generations and we will support that strategy," he said. "Part of it is the fact that Enemy Unknown was built on current-gen using current-gen Unreal [Engine 3], so we're actually a couple steps behind. Not only would it be a console jump for us, but an Unreal jump [to Unreal Engine 4]. Epic hasn't set a timeline for when they're releasing Unreal 4 for real, and I personally am not crazy about being a beta tester for Unreal 4. So we'll see what happens with that."

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