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XCOM: Enemy Unknown's free Second Wave DLC adds 16 game-altering options today

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown developer Firaxis Games released the strategy title's first add-on, the Slingshot Content Pack, last month. For its next piece of content, Second Wave, the studio wanted to do something different — something "for the fans," according to lead producer Garth DeAngelis.

Lead designer Jake Solomon called the Slingshot DLC new content, but explained Second Wave as an addition to Enemy Unknown that "requires a little more engineering work" and more development time. Speaking in a phone interview conducted last week, the two development heads characterized Second Wave, which will be released for free today, Jan. 8, as an update that will encourage Enemy Unknown players to sink ever more hours into the game.

"We really want to allow people to get more replayability out of XCOM," said Solomon, who also noted that a core philosophy of Firaxis Games as a company is giving players "value for their dollar."

To that end, Second Wave introduces 16 game-altering options to Enemy Unknown that allow players to further customize their play experience beyond Iron Man mode and the existing difficulty settings (the last four options are unlocked only when the game is completed on Impossible difficulty):

  • Damage Roulette: Weapons have a wider range of damage.
  • New Economy: Randomized council member funding.
  • Not Created Equally: Rookies will have random starting stats.
  • Hidden Potential: As a soldier is promoted, stats increase randomly.
  • Red Fog: Combat wounds will degrade the soldier's mission stats.
  • Absolutely Critical: A flanking shot guarantees a critical hit.
  • The Greater Good: Psionics can only be learned from interrogating a psionic alien.
  • Marathon: The game takes considerably longer to complete.
  • Results Driven: A country offers less funding as its panic level increases.
  • High Stakes: Random rewards for stopping alien abductions.
  • Diminishing Returns: Increased cost of satellite construction.
  • More Than Human: The psionic gift is extremely rare.
  • War Weariness: Funding goes down over time.
  • E-115: Elerium degrades over time.
  • Total Loss: Lose all soldier gear upon death.
  • Alternate Sources: The power source cost to build facilities increases dramatically.

Second Wave will encourage players to sink ever more hours into the game

"There's kind of a tough jump between Normal difficulty and Classic difficulty, and there is the Iron Man mode above that," Solomon pointed out. The Second Wave options "take what we view to be the essence of XCOM and push it further," he explained. Some of them hew closer to the original X-COM: UFO Defense experience; some of them simply change things up; and some of them make Enemy Unknown more unpredictable or challenging. At least one, Marathon, is a specific response to a request from fans for longer games.

According to DeAngelis, the toggle-able tweaks came out of "Mutator Fridays," a regular event during Enemy Unknown's development in which members of the Firaxis team came up with modifications to the game experience. When the question of whether to include the options in the final game came up, DeAngelis knew that the developers didn't have time to implement them before launch.

I also wondered about why they wanted to add the options at all. I interviewed Solomon when 2K Games first unveiled Enemy Unknown last February, and it was clear that he and the team at Firaxis had a unified vision for updating the celebrated, classic XCOM experience for modern audiences. Might these changes take away from that, and threaten to upset the game's delicate balance?

As it happens, DeAngelis pointed that out when the team brought up the possibility of implementing the tweaks, according to Solomon. He said DeAngelis raised a point along the lines of "we ... worked so hard on balance, and now we're throwing it out the window."

DeAngelis affirmed Solomon's recollection, saying there was a feeling that the options "could risk toppling the tower that [the team had] built." And Solomon noted that the modifications could be balanced individually, but acknowledged that "there's no way to balance the mixing and matching of these elements."


However, DeAngelis said, "Regardless of production concerns of time constraints, I saw the value of [the options]," even if they weren't included in the game at launch. That way, he explained, "Players [could] play through the game as was originally designed." It's also "less risky" to add the content after launch, according to DeAngelis, both because that won't ruin the original balance and because the game has been so successful.

"We're happy to give that stuff to the players," Solomon added. "It's kind of nice to ... have that interaction with fans."

Many of the modifications have the potential to make Enemy Unknown frustratingly difficult, but Solomon figures that once the XCOM community begins to mess around with various combinations of them, someone will come up with the answer to the question, "What's the ultimate XCOM experience with the Second Wave options?"

I made the comparison to sliders in simulation sports titles, which allow players to tweak a game's artificial intelligence and gameplay tendencies to their liking. Solomon, who characterized himself as an avid fan of EA Sports' NCAA Football series, said he hadn't previously considered the analogy, but it made sense to him — the idea of developer-provided options to alter the play experience, and of fans coming up with their own optimal settings.

XCOM sliders, as if it were a simulation sports game

That's the kind of feature, said DeAngelis, that "gives you a sense of ownership [of] the game."

It all comes back to offering choice and value for players, said Solomon. "If people pay their hard-earned money for a game," he reasoned, "they should be able to play however they want."

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