The alien-infested world of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is growing.
Today, Firaxis Games announced XCOM: Enemy Within, and the expansion to the 2012 turn-based strategy strategy franchise reboot is headed to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC Nov. 12. It will offer new maps, new multiplayer content and a clever name that both builds on it predecessor and describes the new mechanic that lies quite literally at the heart of the expansion.
And it all began with one man.
As development was wrapping up on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM: Enemy Within's lead designer, Ananda Gupta, was planning ahead.
"It was clear that we wanted to expand the game at some point," Gupta told Polygon in a recent interview. "And it was clear that we wanted to do it in the style of a Firaxis expansion pack, and that kind of thing takes a bunch of thinking ahead. A lot of advanced planning.
"I think I started working on it in the middle of last year. And I was the only one."
While he was "working madly on Enemy Unknown," Gupta was establishing the foundation for Enemy Within.
"It was certainly me, tucked away in my office, writing documents that nobody was reading, which was good. It was good that they were not reading them," he laughed.
"How could we take that even further?"
Work on the upcoming expansion didn't begin in earnest until after Enemy Unknown's release in October 2012. From the beginning, the plan was to treat Enemy Within like a Firaxis expansion. Working in the mold of Sid Meier's Civilization 5: Brave New World and Sid Meier's Civilization 5: Gods & Kings, where the developer retained the core of the original product but built new scenarios on top of it, Gupta said that Firaxis wanted to "take the existing structure of the game — the alien invasion —and weave in a whole bunch of new stuff at every stage."
Gupta saw a way to retain but twist the XCOM mythology for the expansion. The progression in XCOM: Enemy Unknown involved players incorporating bits and pieces of alien technology into their arsenal. The expansion's story takes that progression to its logical conclusion.
"It was a natural question," he said, "How could we take that even further? And the answer was [that] we want to let players incorporate the alien technology into the very bodies of their soldiers. You know: enemy within."
Much of what differentiates XCOM: Enemy Within from its predecessor flows from this premise, beginning with the narrative
"You are asking your soldiers to make bigger sacrifices than they ever have," he said. "You're not asking them just to pick up guns that were based on alien technology and wear armor that's based on alien technology. No. Now, you are actually asking them to accept the alien genes into their bodies, so that they can better defend earth."
And what better way to augment the human body than with a mechanized suit of armor? XCOM: Enemy Unknown will introduce the MEC suit, an acronym for Mechanized Exoskeletal Cybersuit. The new Mech Trooper class of warrior dons the armor and can be equipped with heavy weapons like a flamethrower and a grenade launcher.
"We needed a way to make the older maps ... feel fresh again."
XCOM: Enemy Within will also introduce a new resource called "meld," which is what makes human-alien hybrids possible. In the narrative, meld is a substance that the aliens are using to experiment on humans. That means it appears on the game's map. That means players have to capture it in battle. Oh, and the canister holding the new resource has a self-destruct timer on it. That means that the expansion introduces a new tactical tradeoff to the battlefield. Do you fight hard and sacrifice, or do you play conservatively and possibly lose the meld?
Introducing a new resource was a challenge, Gupta admitted, but it also allowed Firaxis to design new maps (doubling those in the first game) around the resources and add a twist to the maps from XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
"Having all new maps in the expansion was just not going to fly," Gupta said. "But what we could do, in addition to adding lots of new maps ... we needed a way to make the older maps — the base game maps — feel fresh again. Adding meld to them, I think, serves that really well."
Whereas UFO crashes only happened in the wilderness in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM: Enemy Within will offer new maps where the aliens have crashed in the city and even in a farm. Gupta said that this is in part to fan observation and request.
Another new feature coming to the expansion is something that Gupta admitted that he "can't shut up" about. Item management in Enemy Unknown forced players to navigate through the team roster list to find out who was carrying a particular item. In Enemy Within, players will be able to clear the inventory of every player on the bench with a single button press. When players tap the "make item available" button, everybody on the bench puts their items in the locker.
On the multiplayer side, players will now be able to create squads in offline mode, a feature that was confined to the lobby in Enemy Within.
All these changes, whether they were born from player suggestion or retrieved from Enemy Unknown's cutting room floor, were the result of Firaxis' "organic" process of creating expansions, producer Garth DeAngelis told Polygon.
"It's really cool, how organic the process is for expansions at Firaxis," producer Garth DeAngelis said. "And I know talking to the Civ guys out on the other side of the building, they've had some similar stories."
After work was done XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the time came to seriously consider the ancient plans for XCOM: Enemy Within, Firaxis revisited Gupta's design documents and began to gauge player reaction. DeAngelis said that's when everything just came together.
"Ananda sort of did go in shelter for a little bit to come up with these awesome ideas, and as he said, he was doing some documentation as we were finishing up Enemy Unknown. But a lot of it was so much in sync with what fans were saying after playing Enemy Unknown for a few months. It was pretty cool, seeing his initial paper design document, seeing how much it resonated with the team.
"Everyone was like, 'Yes. Next? Of course we want more goodies to play with, with our soldiers.' All these things: It just made sense. And then, folks were playing Enemy Unknown for a few months, and these same sorts of ideas were popping up in forums and coming up.
"We were just sitting back, clapping silently in our office walls, like 'We cannot wait to talk about all this stuff with them. We want to give them this stuff as we're working on it — exactly what they're asking for.'"