Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
XCOM: Enemy Within is a clever title. It refers to the new dangerous cybernetic and genetic enhancements that augment yet corrupt your troops, and the invasive surgical operations you'll have to perform on your valuable soldiers to use the barely-tested shady technology.
However, it also refers to a brand new enemy faction, Exalt, a power-crazed secret society out to destroy XCOM from the shadows.
This new human threat strikes out against the Council through fear and manipulation, deploying cells throughout the world to spread panic and steal your funds. If left unchecked, they'll disrupt your research, raid your coffers and escalate panic ratings within your allied countries with vicious smear campaigns. They're a faceless, implacable and mysterious organisation who'll do anything to secure alien technology and see your fragile alliance crumble.
Will you stand for that, Commander? Of course you won't. There's only room for one faceless and implacable organisation on this planet. In between curtailing the extraterrestrial invasion, you'll hunt down Exalt cells, steal their intel and assault their base in a concerted effort to wipe out every last one of them. That said, these dapper operatives aren't going to make it easy for you, and fighting them is a completely new experience that will make XCOM: Enemy Within feel even more like a brand new game.
Exalt's cell-like structure leads them to infest key territories throughout the mid-game, which you can scan for by spending a few credits on intel scans from the Situation Room. Once you've located a cell, perhaps because they've been bold enough to steal some of your hard-earned cash, you're then free to launch a Covert Operation against them in an effort to discover their secret base.
These new missions come in two parts. First off, you'll need to dispatch one of your soldiers to conduct a reconnaissance mission, which puts them out of action for a few days. Armed only with a pistol, gadgets and the ability to hack terminals, you'll have to think very carefully about their skills and how they're specced, and whether or not you can spare them. Also, no, you can't deploy MEC Troopers. Don't even think about it, Commander.
Once their operation is complete, they'll call for extraction... which is when all hell breaks loose. Once you've armed and armoured your extraction team for maximum terrorist-hunting prejudice (yes, MECs are back on the table), you'll deploy into a new set of maps to secure a valuable intel terminal containing information about the shadowy foe.
It's an intruiging mix of desperate defence and assault, since Exalt squads will ruthlessly push to hack back your terminals, resulting in mission failure. However, you're also tasked with eradicating every last agent provocateur and reinforcement squad on the map, meaning that taking the offensive is also a viable alternative. You'll likely need to switch between the two at a moment's notice, because Exalt don't pull their punches.
Exalt troopers fight very differently to the Aliens, in that they'll use squad tactics and human weaponry against you. YOUR squad tactics and weaponry, specifically. They'll advance in fire teams, pushing the advantage with overwatch and sending snipers up to strategic roosts. If they can't get line of sight, their heavies will make some by blowing up walls with rockets and grenades. Medics throw smoke to cover their assault and patch up their fellows when they can. They'll flank, hang back, regroup and tactically probe your defences before rushing exposed positions. If this sounds familiar, that's because they'll use everything you've learned over the last year to punish you as ruthlessly as possible.
As an example, I was holding the line just fine until a Heavy trooper blew out the side wall of my stockade with his rocket launcher, killing my sniper in the process. Their riflemen charged into the capture zone, voiding my cover, while a medic lobbed smoke into the area to foil my overwatch. It was refreshing, if seriously dangerous, to see my own favourite tactics being fielded against me.
At least we'll have some cool new toys at our disposal, though. Gas Grenades choke key areas with toxic fog, denying Exalt territory and stopping them from pushing into capture zones. You can't hack terminals without Oxygen, as Exalt discovered to my intense satisfaction. More savvy commanders will also find some neat applications for Ghost Grenades, which confer temporary invisibility to all allied units within their range. There's nothing quite like an invisible shotgun-toting assault trooper hunkered down by a terminal to even the odds. Trust me. Your Covert Operative (remember them?) can also hack Exalt communication devices during the battle to temporarily disable their weapons, though this requires you to sally out of your defensible positions and cover them appropriately.
Once complete, Covert Ops missions reward you with a sizeable cash injection and an intel piece that helps you narrow down the location of the overall Exalt base, which changes every playthrough. "The intel pieces are clues in the form of things like, "the Exalt base is not in North America." "The Exalt base is not in an English speaking country,"" lead gameplay designer Ananda Gupta explained. "So in this way, you narrow down the list of countries that could potentially host Exalt. Once you have three clues we start letting you accuse countries. If you are wrong about an accusation, then that country will leave the Council immediately."
"If you're right, you can launch a raid against the Exalt headquarters and defeat them. Very conservative players will of course want to get all the clues they can, so that they will be guaranteed to be right. But they may not have that luxury. It's up to the situation and the player." As always, the fate of the world is entirely in your hands... and your finger is on the button.
Welcome back, Commander.
XCOM: Enemy Within releases on November 15th. Apparently some next-gen consoles are also launching that month, but frankly, many of us will be far too busy holding the line to notice.